The Year of 1 B.E.L.
by Brian Phillips · May 21, 2009
Why, yes, I did watch the UEFA Cup final last night, and what a smart little encounter it was. The game was so good, in fact, that for long stretches I forgot to think of it as a referendum on the entire concept of an alternative tournament to the Champions League, and, heretically, enjoyed it as merely a football match. It was slicked-down, buttoned-up, spit-shined, and ready to hop in all the puddles as it made its way across the street, secure in its oversized Paddington raincoat. At the restaurant, its mother kept dipping her napkin in her water glass to scrub off a smudge on its cheek, but it scowled and flinched away. It was eating a scone. It didn’t mind getting dirty.
I had a hard time not rooting for Shakhtar, mostly because I like the cool crossing and crisp free kicks of Darijo Srna and, as I don’t actively follow the Прем’єр-Ліга, or any league whose name looks like something that would be written on an ancient tablet in a Nicolas Cage family adventure, I don’t usually get to see them outside Croatian internationals. But I also wanted to root for Werder Bremen, because they beat so many strong teams to reach the final, including A.C. Milan. So I was a house divided against itself, but fortunately was able to prove that a building in that condition is capable of sitting on the couch.
It seemed clear from the beginning that Shakhtar were going to win, since the only thing capable of stopping their attacks, apart from some neat emergency goalkeeping by Tim Wiese, were Fernandinho’s insanely vehement crosses, a few of which looked like they were meant for the gravitational constraints of Jupiter. (Shakhtar were a Brazilian-heavy side, as you may have heard, but they weren’t that Brazilian, if you know what I mean.) And when Luiz Adriano scored a deeply weird first goal during which the entire Bremen team seemed to be performing some sort of Cirque d’Soleil routine in which they would spinningly fling themselves at the ball but without actually making contact with it, a two-or-three-to-nil Shakhtar victory seemed inevitable. So credit to Naldo, or, really, to Andriy Pyato, who sportingly dropped Naldo’s free kick, for making a match of it. Extra time was a bit much, but it was the last-ever UEFA Cup, kind of, so you couldn’t blame it for wanting to last as long as possible.
Next year begins the UEFA Europa League, which still sounds like a minor aunt from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but which will soon be bringing us…probably about the same level of interest and excitement as the UEFA Cup does now. I’m mildly curious about the rebranding effort (much less so about the format change, which will introduce a miserable-sounding 48-team group stage), but I still think essentially what I thought when all this was announced: that the only way to improve the UEFA Cup would be to make it quicker, more fun, and more colorful; making it bigger, slower, and more focused on legacies and history only exacerbates what’s unappealing about it in the first place. I’d love to see more matches like the one tonight, which was exemplified by the stray cat that mysteriously kept appearing in the stands and around the pitch. The whole thing was a fanciful spectacle, and you didn’t need to believe that a billion people were watching to enjoy it. But UEFA want you to believe that this tournament is about challenging history and shaking the pillars of the establishment, which is possibly the single thing that least took place last night.
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