And so it has come down to this. Barcelona is our last, best hope.
If Barcelona cannot best Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final that begins Tuesday, European soccer will have become nothing more than a stomping ground for the English.
Last year witnessed the first-ever all-English final — Chelsea vs. Manchester United — in the more than half century of this competition. And this year could be déjà vu all over again, or however they say that in the English pubs.
A Chelsea victory would assure another all-English affair — either a rematch pitting The Blues against defending champs, Man U, or a London showdown with Arsenal. Already this marks the third consecutive year in which three English teams have reached the Final Four, with Arsenal having replaced Liverpool in the semis. Whither the rest of Europe? (Perhaps the word should be ‘wither’.)
The four top English teams have already made a mockery of league competition at home. For the fourth straight season, they will claim the top four spots in the Premier League, thus securing all the English entries to the 2009-10 Champions League competition. In this new millennium, only three other teams have broken that four-team stranglehold at the top of the Premiership — with Everton finishing fourth in 2005 and Newcastle third and fourth in 2002 and 2003.
Nobody appears the least bit confused about what accounts for this dominance by England’s Big Four. Big Money! According to Forbes magazine, Man U is the most valuable soccer franchise in the world — at $1.87 billion, more than a half billion dollars ahead of runner-up Real Madrid. Nine Premier League teams make the Forbes Top 25 with Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea ranked third, fifth and eighth respectively.
Of course, in terms of success on the field, franchise value and revenues are only worth what the teams will spend on payrolls. And with new American, Russian and Arab ownership in the Premiership, the pressure has increased to buy, indeed to hoard, the world’s top talent — providing the necessary depth to compete in the annual grind that is the domestic league, the domestic Cups and the Champions League.
Baseball is the only major American sport with such payroll disparities, yet the biggest payrolls no longer guarantee success. The top three Major League payrolls last year — the New York Yankees, the New York Mets and the Detroit Tigers — all missed out on the playoffs. And the World Series pitted the Philadelphia Phillies, with only the 13th highest payroll, against the perennial bottom-feeder Tampa Bay Rays, with the second-lowest payroll in the game. (Kind of like West Bromwich Albion qualifying for Champions.)
Perhaps depth is even more critical in soccer because of the toll the relentlessly brutal season takes on players. Or perhaps soccer management hasn’t yet devised the competitive strategies, like baseball’s “Money Ball,” that enable smaller-market, lower-payroll teams to compete with the big boys.
Whatever the explanation, you have to go back to the 2006 Champions League to find a team outside the Forbes top eight that reached the semi-finals and back to 2004, when Porto kicked AS Monaco, to find a team other than an English, Italian or Spanish powerhouse on top in Europe. Porto, which upset Man U on the way to that championship, almost did it again this year in the quarterfinals. The Portuguese league leader could have advanced with a low-scoring tie at home, where no English team had ever won in tournament play. But these days the English powers seem to command results whenever required — be it in Porto or in Torino — in places where they had always failed before.
Now only Barcelona stands in England’s way. Casting one’s lot with Barcelona is not exactly like supporting Mother Theresa’s neighborhood team. Barca is worth almost $1 billion, ranking number seven on the Forbes list; it has been atop Spain’s La Liga all season long and won the Champions League just three years ago.
Still, there’s a lot to like about Barcelona beyond the unrivalled brilliance of its Argentinean star Lionel Messi. The team is fan-owned, kind of like the Green Bay Packers, and its jerseys advertise a humanitarian cause, UNICEF, rather than an evil empire (Man U’s AIG), an Arab airline (Arsenal’s Fly Emirates) or an undistinguished beer (Chelsea’s Carlsberg). So in a season with no alternative to big money, the last hope left is that it’s not the pound alone that rules the pitch.
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