The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
It’s a strange thing. Everybody complains that the integrity of the “so-called Champions League” is a wasting ozone being eaten away by the presence of so many non-champions, and everybody loves the idea that the fan-friendly, high-scoring, reasonably priced Bundesliga is secretly better than the not-particularly-any-of-those-things Premier League. So you might have expected some excitement over a Champions League match pitting the English league winners against the German league winners. It’s what the tournament is supposed to represent, after all, and it was a chance to work out all sorts of transitive business with greater-than symbols and non-algorithmic power rankings, as they say around the offices at Zurich.
But no one seemed to care about this one. Okay, I’m sure fans of the two teams were appropriately exercised for it, and matchday two in the group stage isn’t exactly the capitol of sex when it comes to getting everybody else’s attention. But that allowed, it seems pretty likely that if Man Utd had been playing Milan, the level of hype, online chatter, and neutral fan interest would have shot a long way past anything we saw today—even though Milan are non-champions and are thrashing around horribly in Serie A this year. In the buildup to this match, I didn’t see any commentary that pushed the champion-v.-champion theme as far as it went for Barcelona-Inter two weeks ago.
So what does that say? On the most obvious level, probably some pretty realistic stuff about where Wolfsburg—relatively surprising champions who had never played in the Champions League before this season—actually are in relation to Manchester United and how the top teams in the Bundesliga can realistically be expected to compete against the top teams from England. Affection for the Bundesliga aside, no one would seriously predict that a team whose leading scorer is Zvjezdan Misimović would march into Old Trafford and seize control by dint of their sheer Zvjezdan Misimović-ness. As competitive matchups go, this one seemed a tick above Chelsea-Nicosia, a tick below Bayern-Juventus, and not much more.
Somewhat more interestingly, then, I think the lack of interest in this game is a minor, local reflection of the fact that what we think is good in soccer and what we actually want to watch aren’t always the same thing. To leap to another example, almost everyone is opposed to the creation of a European superleague, me included, because of what it would do to old traditions and old meanings within the game. At the same time, I think it’s safe to say that confronted with the choice of Barcelona v. Arsenal or Stockport County v. Huddersfield Town, a huge subset of anti-superleague fans would choose the superleague game every time. Me irrevocably included.
What that means, I’m not really sure, except that it probably points to one reason football has such an overheated moral rhetoric compared to every other sport in the world. And it probably suggests one of the basic, weird features of the game’s evolution at this moment, which is that the administrators and owners who are conventionally depicted as bad guys (people who want football to be a business, people who only care about money) are in many cases pursuing their nefarious ends by trying to give fans what they would actually choose for themselves if it were available—only to be actively opposed by fans who have somewhat surprisingly (and maybe prudently) defined their own interest as something else.
Anyway, this is all light years too broad to be a real argument, since there are any number of constituencies and subgroups within words like “fans” and “we” and a lack of Twitter hum over a Champions League group match isn’t exactly definitive. Call it a hazy impression of what I think is a real paradox in contemporary football.
As for the match itself, it was good enough to deserve some exclamation points. It didn’t shatter any windows, but it had a sort of routine-drama tension that was still dramatic enough. Dzeko’s header was straight McGraw-Hill. Ryan Giggs is really coming along as a footballer. And Carrick’s winner was thrilling, even if he does carry himself more and more every week like an average-height guy who thinks he’s too tall and is ashamed of it.
by Brian Phillips · September 30, 2009