It’s been a terrible year for football. In the last 12 months, the sport has been treated to a dire World Cup lit up by occasional sparks from Germany and Brazil but ending in what was little better than a foul fest. The selection of two future World Cups has been thrown into controversy with allegations of bribery; and the global spectre of match fixing at all levels of the game—affecting, by a conservative estimate, more than 300 matches in 20 European countries, including fixtures in World Cup qualifying groups, the Champions and Europa Leagues—has prompted the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) to pledge $20 million (around Rs 90.2 crore) for a joint campaign with Interpol.
On the field, the three top European leagues have been marked by mediocrity and, in the case of Spain, a singular lack of suspense. The Champions League witnessed few of those much-touted “European nights”, save a couple of fireworks displays from Tottenham Hotspur and Schalke. Real Madrid provided some thrills and promised even more, but abandoned skill at the moment it was most necessary for the sort of anti-football not seen since, well, the World Cup final.
Top class: Barcelona’s exceptional midfield shapes most of their wins. Reuters
So the growing weight of expectation is on the Champions League final on 28 May, which has a great deal riding on it—much more, to be sure, than a large piece of silverware. No better venue, perhaps, than Wembley to act as an agent of redemption for the Beautiful Game, and no better teams to set things right than the two finalists. Barcelona are, well, Barcelona, and Manchester United, while lacking the “fantasy”—as one opposing coach put it—of some of their earlier avatars, are at least a team with an attacking philosophy and coached by a man steeped in the history and legacy of great European football. I would guess that they are currently the two most popular clubs across the globe, and quite a few “neutrals” would face the dilemma of one of my neighbours, who goes to college wearing a Man U sweatshirt and carrying a Barcelona bag.
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These two teams met in the final two seasons ago when, after sparkling in the first 15 minutes and spurning a couple of chances, Manchester United (overawed? under-prepared?) all but left the field to their opponents. They return in slightly different forms. Barcelona have gone from strength to strength, unarguably the world’s best club side; United are weaker without the incomparable Cristiano Ronaldo but, ironically, are in a sense stronger in that they don’t have to shape their game around that one star player.
The qualities largely even out. On the one hand, the class of Barcelona’s midfield, including their pass masters Xavier Hernandez Creus (Xavi) and Andrés Iniesta, and the razor-sharp-shooting David Villa; on the other United’s defensive nous and the lightning-quick strike force of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. On the one hand, the incessant, intoxicating “tiki-taka” passing that United coach Alex Ferguson likens to being on a carousel; on the other, the speedy wingplay and raking, laser-like cross-field passes. On the one hand, the youthful calm of Barcelona coach Josep Pep Guardiola; on the other, the raging, though not ageing, fire of Ferguson.
Potent: Lionel Messi, with 31 goals, is the second highest goalscorer in the Spanish La Liga this season. Getty Images
All square so far. Which leaves us with the sublime skills of Lionel Messi, with the potential to tilt the balance considerably. Messi’s skills have rightly been hailed as the finest of his generation and he has the two main assets of any attacking player—he is a great scorer of goals as well as a scorer of great goals. However, I would stop short of putting him on a higher pedestal—to wit, among the greatest of all time. Is he as good as Pele? Or Maradona? Or Zidane, Cruyff, Beckenbauer? Not yet, not by a mile. Messi has two gaping holes in his otherwise impressive CV that keep him from joining that pantheon: his ability to shape a game to his dictates, and his ability to perform at the highest level of all, the World Cup. Together, they point to a common flaw: his dependence on Barcelona and their system of football.
In the familiarity of the red-and-blue, with the similarly short-statured Villa to his left and Xavi and Iniesta behind, and the shaven-headed avuncular presence of Guardiola pitchside, he is in his element. In Argentina’s La Albiceleste, where the game plan—markedly more defensive—is framed almost equally around the lesser talents of Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, he struggles to live up to the reputation as the next Maradona. Aside: Now there’s a man who took a World Cup by the scruff of its neck, using hand, feet and most of all head and heart, and staked his claim to true greatness.
None of that will matter, though, come 28 May. For the two clubs involved, winning will mean more than the €50 million (around Rs 320 crore) in prize money. For Barcelona, a win will officially confirm their supremacy in Europe, a status snatched from them last year by Inter Milan. For United, it is an answer to those who would doubt the quality of this current side. For the neutral, either side is good enough— Barcelona because of their commitment to artistry, United because of their commitment to winning.
For football itself, O Jogo Bonito could once more be the name of the game.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.
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