Tomorrow, the European soccer season will culminate in the Champions League final between English clubs Manchester United and Chelsea. The match will go off at around 2:30 p.m. east coast time, meaning that it provides the sort of mid-week working hour distraction that is so necessary for most workpod-bound drones out there in the corporate world. But in order to get the maximum possible distraction out of the event, you have to know the basics of what's at stake and who's playing.
Thus, as part of the GRBG's continuing quest to provide primers on sports that most Americans neither embrace nor understand, we humbly present the following viewing guide for those whose soccer experience petered out at the level of participation trophies and halftime orange wedges.
What The Hell Is The Champions League, Exactly?
The premier club soccer tournament in the world.
Most Americans only encounter soccer every 4 years, in the form of the World Cup, which like this summer's forthcoming European Championships, pits national teams against each other. But national team games and tournaments make up only about 10% of professional soccer matches. The rest take place in club leagues, for whom the Champions League is the ultimate goal. In brief, Champions League : World Cup :: NBA Finals : World Basketball Championships.
Each European country has its own system of leagues. The winner of each country's league is determined through the delightfully old-school method of having every team play every other team once at home, and once on the road. Best record wins the league--no playoffs. And for a long time, that's where matters ended.
But there soon arose barstool debates regarding which country's league champion was the best. This led to the 1955 creation of the European Cup tournament, in which the 1954 winners of the various leagues played a straight knockout tournament to decide the best of the best. This went a long way towards deciding things, and so there the matter rested for nearly 40 years.
Until, that is, money and game theory intervened. As with U.S. college football bowl games, European Cup entrants got additional revenue from participating in the Cup. As TV brought more and more money into the European Cup, more and more money was at stake for the clubs. This meant, among other things, that if a club won its domestic league, it was assured of a big injection of cash the next year. This in turn allowed the club to spend more money on players that offseason--which of course made it that much more likely to win the domestic league again the next year, continuing the cycle.
Domestic league winners had traditionally tended to come from a group of 2-5 clubs in from each country. But the bonus of European money meant that there was a chance that one team could keep plowing its European Cup money back into the team and essentially develop a dynasty back home. Because all of the top clubs in each country were afraid they'd end up on the short end of that particular stick, they all agreed to create a hedge by expanding the European tournament to include multiple clubs from each country. That way everybody (well, all of the traditional domestic winners, at least) would get a piece of the pie. Thus was born the current Champions League model, in which the top few finishers from each big domestic league (and the winners of the smaller leagues) play a year-long series of round robins. The survivors then play a knockout tournament akin to the old European Cup. The final of that tournament is tomorrow.
Who The Hell Is Playing?
Two English clubs, one of whom (Manchester United) is a traditional power, having won six of the past ten English league titles, and two European championships over the years, and the other of whom (Chelsea) is a club with a long but not particularly distinguished history, who have surged to prominence over the past 5 years since being purchased by a shady Russian oligarch. By way of analogy, think of a World Series matching the New York Yankees against a Pittsburgh Pirate team that had recently been sold to, and was now lavishly funded by, Donald Trump. Let's go to the tale of the tape:
Manchester United: Tampa Bay Bucs owner Malcom Glazer, possibly the most owner most hated by fans of his own club (who are not so keen on either his U.S. passport or his highly leveraged purchase of the club). May or may not be able to identify a soccer ball by sight.
Chelsea: Russian robber baron Roman Abramovich, possibly the owner most hated by fans of all clubs other than his own (who are not so keen on either his Russian passport or his Steinbrenniarian payroll, which has priced nearly every other English team out of the high-end talent market). May or may not be mob-connected.
Advantage Chelsea -- Russian mobsters beat Gulf coast Floridians every time, especially because the final will be played in Moscow.
Man U: Sir Alex Ferguson, a legendarily feisty Scot known, among other things, for bouncing a soccer cleat off of David Beckham's elaborately coiffed skull during Beckham's tenure in Manchester. Widely reknowned as a motivator, and arguably the most successful manager in the world over the past two decades.
Chelsea: Avram Grant, a lumpy Israeli puppet installed by Abramovich following the departure of high-profile Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho. Widely panned by everyone, Chelsea fans included, though he has led his team to a pair of domestic runner-up finishes this year in the League and League Cup.
Advantage Man U -- Grant can't be as bad as his rep, but Ferguson has won everything there is to win in club football.
Man U: Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 31 goals in 38 games in the English league this year, despite not lining up as a true forward for much of the season. Ronaldo is supremely talented, but off-puttingly slick and a bit of a whiner on the field. The best analogy would be to Alex Rodriguez, except that Ronaldo has actually won a few things during his career.
Chelsea: While the English duo of midfielder Frank Lampard and defender John Terry are widely seen as the engines behind Chelsea, for our money Ivorian striker Didier Drogba is the key man for Chelsea tomorrow. Drogba is both stronger and faster than most strikers, and can provide the touch of unpredictability that an otherwise workmanlike Chelsea team can lack. However, despite his physical gifgts, Drogba is known for taking minutes, halves, games, and occasionally weeks off when the game fails to engage his attention. The clear analogy here is to Randy Moss, with the exception that Drogba has a better big-game rep.
Advantage Chelsea -- Ronaldo is the better player, but Drogba can be a force of nature when motivated. In a game that figures to be tightly played, he can break things open by himself.
Prediction: While Man U have the better side 1 through 11, we think that Drogba's individual brilliance and Abramovich's mob friends will combine to get Chelsea the win. Look for Drogba to draw an early penalty kick, and for Chelsea to hang on from there.