“So what are you up to this week?” “Me? I’m watching the Champions League, how about you?” “Yeah, same.”
An ordinary conversation between two guys you might think, but when you realise that one of those guys is in London whereas the other in Buenos Aires it takes on greater significance.
The Champions League is the real meaning of international football. Wherever you are on the globe, if there is a Champions League tie being played it’ll come and find you. Forget about the World Cup, no I mean it, forget about it, in Argentina if I may be allowed to exaggerate, and I may, the big taboo used to be the Falklands, but is now the 2006 World Cup. We think we had it rough; they qualified top of the group of death over the Ivory Coast and Holland, scored one of the great team goals of World Cup history, survived an extra time scare in the following round and when it looked like the third star was to be sewn on to next year’s shirt they went out to the hosts on penalties. Talk about the World Cup just makes people’s heads sink and generally saps the will to live.
The Champions League is all in all a much more civilised affair, its two leg approach offers salvation to suspended players and narrow defeats and makes sure that each round’s duration is pushed to a heady fortnight. A fortnight of the best club football in the world.
Now considering that this writing is coming from a continent that would hold a strong claim to producing the majority of, or at least two of the three, all-time top players (a claim that I acknowledge is open to public (house) debate) it is no small statement to acknowledge that the Champions League is the world’s finest club competition. And although the South American equivalent, the Copa Libertadores, is doubtless a great competition it simply doesn’t have the variety, unpredictable nature or general spice of its European counterpart.
Take this statistic: Of the past fifteen Copa Libertadores only twice has the trophy been lifted by a side not from Argentina or Brazil. Compare that with the fact that seven different countries have produced Champions League winners over the same period (more pub quiz material) and you begin to see where the two competitions differ.
On top of this the Champions League’s return brings with it added weight since all the talk has been of this being the trophy upon which José’s career rests. It’s make or break time for our man and if he fails he’s on the way to Real or Barça, a claim perpetuated by most football journalists in spite of its dubious authenticity. Well quite frankly it’s balls. I can’t think of any other field where newspapers are so full of unfounded rumour presented as fact, expect perhaps in finance where company executives talk their books to a credulous public. And yet it’s not surprising if agents feed stories to a press that has to run them for fear of being left behind. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not surprised, it succeeds since interest in players increases, along with their value while newspapers sell. I just resent the moral highground that seems to accompany it, hypocritically whining that managers whine, cutting down those at the top and simultaneously mocking those at the bottom. Somewhere the fun has slipped out and left everyone bickering about who has what rights and responsibilities. The truth at Chelsea is that although the season is proving to be less of a breeze than last year – due to injuries and some Man U performances that should be applauded – there are no rifts or threats within the club ranks. There is no do or die ultimatum hanging over players or managers, and those who say ‘well, the rumours may just be rumours, but there’s no smoke without fire’ need to recognise the British press and players’ agents for what they are: nothing more than an elaborate smoke machine.
And so we welcome the return of the Champions League, of something concrete to talk about, and not least because it comes at a time when Chelsea are showing signs of a return to form.
In Argentina the excitement is translated into high quality nicknames: Drogba is “The Great Ivorian”; Yon Terrrrrrrrrry has a rolled r that lasts until he’s got rid of the ball; Petr Cech is a mystery, currently ‘Setch’; and admired above all others is Lamps, nicknamed Frankie and universally loved, mainly for his outside the box shots which give commentators a chance to get the volume up by the time it’s either been deflected in or wide. In fact when he was subbed off against Nottingham Forest they were so disappointed that his replacement was forever branded with an invisible question mark: “Frankie is replaced by… Woods?” “…and the ball is passed to Woods?” “Woods? plays it back to midfield.”
Earlier this week, when buying River Plate tickets online, I noticed something that highlights the different approach to football held out in Argentina. The official site opened with a photograph of three strategically arranged balloons (two round, one slightly longer) in Boca Juniors colours hanging on a wall. They were flaccid, limp and betrayed a yearning for what could no longer be achieved. Beneath the caption read: “the party’s over”.
What with an away victory over France to our home defeat to Spain and jokes about rival clubs’ impotence on official club sites we clearly have a lot to learn from Argentine football.
Oh and in case you were still wondering, the all-time greatest are, in order, Maradona, Pelé and Woods?