Brian Phillips: Are even Barcelona unable to save football?
Football has been murdered, resurrected, strangled, saved, thrown in a ditch, pulled out of the ditch, bought, sold, given away, wrecked, and redeemed so many times that nothing’s really shocking anymore. But even by the standards of the modern game, the contrasts presented by the last ten days have been eye-opening.
First Barcelona danced to victory in the Champions League final at Wembley. The Spanish club turned in one of the most breathtaking second halves of football most of us had ever seen, downing a tough Manchester United side with a performance that was variously compared to dawn breaking over the Pacific, a flock of birds soaring over a mountain, and Phoebe Cates coming out of the swimming pool in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. But no sooner had the champagne corks finished whooshing across Catalonia than FIFA embarked on its latest round of corruption scandals. Investigations were launched. Accusations were hurled. Press conferences were scurried out of. In the end, Sepp Blatter managed to have himself re-elected in a process which, in terms of fairness and transparency, made season six of The Sopranos look like the New Testament.
Is it just me, or do these two events barely seem to have taken place in the same universe? It would be comforting to believe that Barcelona’s high style could somehow redeem football from the sleaze pouring out of FIFA. Instead, I think the last two weeks have shown just how far removed the boys’ club that runs the game has become from the game itself — I mean from the 22 people running around on a patch of grass, surrounded by cheering spectators.
Think about it. There’s a widespread sense that while football continues to mint cauldrons of money, fans are increasingly dissatisfied with the game. It’s not just the brown bags at FIFA; it’s soaring ticket prices, gaudy contracts, exploitative TV deals. Supporters are tasered if they stand up in stadiums, but tournament organisers are allowed to take long, hot baths in taxpayers’ money. Smaller clubs can’t afford the paint the goal lines are made of, but the Premier League wants to tack on a 39th game to leave no Visa card unscanned in Asia.
What all that stuff has in common, of course, is that none of it has anything to do with an actual football match. It’s as if the little society of businessmen and administrators at the top of the sport has come unstuck from even the idea of football and drifted off into an alternate world of construction deals, political backstabbing, and cost sheets. Money and politics are always going to be part of the game, but in the alternate world, they are the game. Blatter acknowledged as much when he skipped the Champions League final to spend more time manoeuvring in his corruption case.
For us as fans, it’s encouraging to remember that while the alternate world may drive us crazy, our problem isn’t with football itself or — Arsenal supporters excepted — with what the players do on the pitch. Xavi’s passing and Lionel Messi’s scoring at Wembley were a reminder that the game is bigger than the people who run the game, and that it’s worth watching even when we lose faith in the suits.
Maybe Barcelona are redeeming football after all.
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