Anticipation can curse the would-be classic sporting event. Pundits work themselves into a purple lather, as they battle to put the appropriately outlandish preemptive historic stamp on the affair. (“Boss, should we go with ‘Fight of the Century,’ or just ‘…the Decade’?”) Fans, as they always do, fool themselves into thinking two perfect rivals will produce the perfect game, one with scads of brilliant scoring and awesome defense and a consciousness-searing last-second finish—the kind of thing that redefines the sport and leaves everyone in need of an immediate cold shower.
So what will it be when Manchester United and FC Barcelona, by any measure the two most iconic teams in the world’s most popular sport, collide in tomorrow’s Champions League final in Rome? Do we see the football equivalent of Thrilla in Manila? Or does reality intervene and produce a mere soccer match, enlivened by a few ludicrous Thespian turns by Cristiano Ronaldo and, if recent major matches provide the form book, some super-weirdness from the referee that turns the whole thing into a comedy? A global television audience of approximately 4.8 squadrillion, many drunk on official kegs of Heineken and most either staying up odd hours or skipping work, awaits.
Writing in the Financial Times, Simon Kuper makes the case that the Iconic Classic scenario is, at least, possible. Certainly, the two clubs make ideal foils for one another, in ways that eerily reflect the times. With their multinational squads, enormous payrolls and global brands, the two represent contrasting versions of soccer’s post-modern boom at its zenith. And, given all the nasty things the worldwide financial meltdown could mean for world sport, either team could embody the future or the end of an era. Or, he said hedgily, both.
Start, as the Guardian’s David Conn does, with the two organizations. Barcelona is owned collectively by over 163,000 fans, who run the team through some kind of messy democracy. Manchester United is owned by reclusive American tycoon Malcolm Glazer. Glazer pulled the neat financial trick of sticking the club itself with the near $1-billion bill for his highly leveraged buy-out a few years ago. Appropriately enough, Man United’s shirts will bear the logo of their beyond-bankrupt sponsor, AIG. Barca, on the other hand, are sponsored by…Unicef. And the club pays for the privilege.
That brings us to the issue of Barcelona, the team almost all neutral fans will pull for tomorrow because, if for no other reason, they’re just so damn nice. The quasi-official estimate that puts Barcelona’s fanbase at 44 million probably falls short of the true mark. The club that inspired Franklin Foer to write a whole chapter on “the charm of bourgeois nationalism” is just about every football fan’s second-favorite team. Kobe Bryant loves Barcelona. If your Mom knew Barcelona, she’d like Barcelona. FC Barcelona has become one of those recognized transnational markers of semi-sophisticated good taste, like Toblerone or Gael García Bernal. To say you love Barca is kind of like saying you like The Beatles—only lunatics, philistines or serious partisans (of either Real Madrid or the Rolling Stones) are going to disagree. I love Barcelona, but I almost made myself sick just by saying so.
Still, Barca does offer much to admire. Sweet uniforms. Sexy city. A stadium among the bona fide cathedrals of the game. A club that fought Franco’s fascist thugs in the streets, armed only with good wishes (or something like that). A peerless developmental program that nurtured half the starting line-up. A sleek little kid of a manager who practically grew up at the club. Endless mind-boggling passing combinations and elegant wondergoals. Barca is like the super-hot foreign exchange student who also turns out to be academically brilliant and fun at parties.
And then there is Manchester United—not a lovable phenomenon, particularly, but an awe-inspiring force of skill, money, organization and global marketing. United, too, runs an amazing talent factory and melds new players into a seamless culture of excellence. While the current squad doesn’t engage in Barcelona’s kind of High Art football—too hardboiled, too efficient, too British—it can grind opponents into fuchsia paste in outburts of utter ruthlessness and the occasional orchestral sweep down the field. In Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, United has a pair of goal-scorers both perfectly hate-able and perfectly lethal. For anyone who is not a fan, United provides an inkling of what British imperialism must have felt like if you were on the business end.
In other words, this ought to be one for the ages: a battle not just between teams, but between awe-inspiring talent technocracies, big-money brands and, oh, rival visions of 21st Century capitalism.
Then again, it could be a 0-0 draw.