Column: Champions League gets thinking fan’s final
The dream Champions League final, in pure soccer terms, would
have been Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. But the world’s two best
players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both fluffed penalty
kicks in the semifinals, leaving us with the thinking fan’s final,
Which isn’t to say that Bayern Munich against Chelsea is a dull
second-best. European club soccer’s most coveted trophy and, in
some ways, its soul – not to mention UEFA boss Michel Platini’s
ambitions for the future – will all be in play when the sober
Bavarian and glitzy west London teams meet at the Allianz Arena in
A final with the Spanish giants might have produced a better
show and a bigger global television audience. But Bayern vs.
Chelsea could be more significant, philosophically.
Bayern touts itself as a model for the type of club Platini
wants to see and is pushing for: Financially sound and adroitly
managed, profitable for the past 19 years, living within its means,
not beholden to a rich sugar daddy, and certain to field some
homegrown stars on Saturday night.
Chelsea, on the other hand, is Roman Abramovich’s vanity
project. Because he can, the Russian billionaire has poured in the
region of 800 million pounds (1 billion euros; $1.2 billion) into
the club he saved from possible bankruptcy in July 2003.
He has spent tens of millions of pounds on hiring and then
firing managers who failed to meet his expectations, hundreds of
millions more on players (often buying at inflated prices), and
enabled Chelsea to post eye-watering financial losses. And, unlike
Bayern, all of Chelsea’s starters on Saturday will likely be
players bought in from other clubs.
So, in simplest terms, the final will be a contest of two
business models – one, Bayern’s, which purists like Platini believe
is both financially and morally right for soccer, against another
which many feel is dangerous for the long-term health of the
One shouldn’t be too simplistic. Abramovich isn’t Darth Vader
and Bayern isn’t a ragtag bunch of rebels succeeding on
Both clubs have spent fortunes to reach this pinnacle match.
Bayern’s attacking trio of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Mario
Gomez and its goalkeeper Manuel Neuer didn’t come cheap.
But proponents of the Bayern model argue, somewhat smugly, that
its wealth is generated sustainably, from huge commercial revenues,
its regularly packed stadium, and on-field success, and that
Chelsea wouldn’t be competing at the top in Europe if not for
Abramovich’s financial doping.
”Bayern never spends more money than it has,” Bayern coach
Jupp Heynckes said Friday. ”We don’t make debts.”
So a Bayern victory will feel like a cheer, too, for Platini’s
Financial Fair Play rules which aim to steer European clubs away
from the Abramovich model and wean them off huge losses to make
them more financially stable and sustainable.
A loss could also leave Chelsea in a financial hole, by
depriving it of Champions League soccer next season and the wealth
brought by participation in that competition.
But, on a human level, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and their
Chelsea teammates fully deserve to be in this final. What warriors.
At 34 for Drogba and 33 for Lampard, they’re proving wrong those
who said they were too old.
Chelsea’s semifinal defeat of Barcelona wasn’t pretty. By
defending doggedly in numbers and scoring three goals against the
run of play, Chelsea offended fans of Barcelona’s artful style and
of its master, Messi. But Barcelona isn’t somehow entitled to
places in finals simply because it plays the most visually pleasing
soccer. Chelsea had the better luck but also put away its chances.
Barcelona couldn’t make its superiority count.
Which gives thinking fans something else to ponder on Saturday
night: Is it more important to play beautifully or to win? Ideally,
of course, neutrals would like to see both. But not all teams can
do that. History remembers teams that are engraved on trophies, not
always who they beat to get there, how they did it, or that it cost
their owner $1 billion to buy the win.
Abramovich has chopped and changed his way through seven
managers in nine years. It would be deliciously ironic if the coach
who gets him what he wants – Chelsea’s first Champions League
trophy – is Roberto Di Matteo, the former assistant and now
”interim” coach in charge only because Abramovich ditched the
last guy, Andre Villas-Boas, in March.
The big regret Saturday is that six players who should play will
Bayern’s David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo, and
Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires are
suspended for one of the biggest matches of their careers.
So, too, is John Terry, Chelsea’s captain. Terry kneed Barcelona
forward Alexis Sanchez in the back in the semifinal and got sent
The other six, however, are banned only because they picked up
their third yellow cards of the competition in the semifinals.
That they and Terry, whose offense was far graver, should
essentially receive the same punishment – being kept from the final
– seems cruel and disproportionate.
So the final will not be a Spanish ‘clasico’ but it will still
have plenty for fans to get their heads around.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow
him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester