Heaven preserve us from the self-appointed meddlers trying to change football for their own profit.
In the past few weeks, we have witnessed wonderfully thrilling attacking spectacles between Manchester City and Liverpool. We have been reminded of the wonder of Luka Modric, inventing a pass out of his imagination to liberate Karim Benzema and turn defeat into victory for Real Madrid against Chelsea.
Another ageing maestro, Dani Parejo, last week orchestrated Villarreal’s elimination of the mighty Bayern Munich from the Champions League. Villarreal represent a town of 50,570 inhabitants in Spain’s autonomous Mediterranean province Castellón; Bayern has dominated the Bundesliga for 10 straight seasons.
We are almost exactly a year on from the wretched attempt to close the Champions League to upstarts like Villarreal. And barely half a year ago
Herbert Hainer, the former Adidas chief executive who now runs Bayern, said: “You must never sacrifice football on the altar of financial interest.”
Well said, Herr Hainer. The Bavarian club president was actually responding to the incessant attempts by Fifa president Gianni Infantino to increase the earning power of himself and his rapacious organisation through more and more games at the inevitable cost to player health.
Two famous former Bayern players, Oliver Kahn and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, sit on the executive board of the European Club Association which was reformed after its former leader, Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, tried to turn the Champions League into a closed shop for an invited elite.
Villarreal would not set foot in that entitled group. But representing the old guard, Juve have failed – again – to make headway in Europe this season. Real Madrid, the other leading Super League protagonist, are still in the Champions League, still repeatedly staring defeat in the face and coming up with magical victories. It almost seems as if, by the invention of Modric and the finishing of Benzema, they are destined to win a competition their president Florentino Perez wants to ruin.
That might last only one more round – the semi-final against Manchester City, who progressed by way of a solitary goal over two legs against the other Madrid, Atlético. And there we saw the dark arts of Diego Simeone – a dirty player turned dirtier coach.
Simeone allowed his players to run riot against City in the final quarter of a two-legged contest he attempted to squeeze into skulduggery because he feared the skills of opponents more than he trusted his own Spanish champions’ ability. The opposing manager, Pep Guardiola, has learned along the way to instil enough caution into his own team to meet defence with defence, without resorting to the bodily assaults that Simeone deems fair game.
However, now that is behind us, might we contemplate a final featuring yet another episode of City versus Liverpool. Pep against Klopp. Sophistry against gung-ho. That would be presumptuous because City have yet to overcome Real, and Liverpool must not fall into the trap of treating Villarreal like a small-time upstart.
There is, meanwhile, another administrator who clearly believes the game that has lasted since the European Cup began (thanks to Real Madrid) in 1960 needs reforming. Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who runs Paris Saint-Germain on behalf of the Qatar state fund, stepped into the breach when Agnelli resigned as leader of the European Club Association.
Eleven years on from taking over PSG, the Qataris have proved that money buys everything and nothing. Hiring and firing six head coaches, fielding the best in Neymar, Mbappe and Messi and before them Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paris can toy with the opposition in France. But the big prize in Europe remains, so far, beyond them.
No matter. Al-Khelaifi, 48, is a man of many roles. A former tennis champion, he keeps his hand in by chairing Qatar’s Tennis Federation. He is vice-chair of Asia’s tennis federation, chairman of the Qatar-owned BeIn Sport global media network, founder of a world panel tournament, adviser on the Qatar 2022 World Cup, and a defendant in a long-running Swiss criminal trial over broadcasting rights to the World Cup.
Anything else? Well, he bailed out the French league when its media partnership collapsed. “When times are bad,” Al-Khelaifi said at a conference in Vienna this month, “people ask for my help. But when times are good, I’m suddenly conflicted. I feel a responsibility to serve all the clubs.”
He might be the busiest servant in sports. He invites Harvard Business School to change his running of PSG. He leads 234 members of the European Club Association to rethink the Champions League.
No, not THAT aborted Super League idea. Al-Khelaifi actually opposed that. He is pushing for presentational change. “I can’t understand,” he said in Vienna, “that the Super Bowl feels bigger than the Champions League final. The US generally have this mindset of creativity and entertainment.” He means made-for-television dressing. In short, Americanisation.
Maybe the Super Bowl NEEDS the entertainers. This year’s half-time concert at the big game in California featured Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Eminem. I almost forget the LA Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals, because even American accounts reckoned that the rappers outshone the game.
Maybe that is what we have to look forward to when the States co-host the World Cup in 2026. Reactionaries like me would rather remember Di Stefano and Puskas, Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Zidane and Platini in their prime.
The game, not the razzmatazz.