A club’s pursuit of the Champions League trophy is usually an unabashed romance. It represents the pinnacle of the European club game.
It is the prize that players covet more than any other, something that confers greatness even on those previously considered ordinary. It is the trophy that marks Real Madrid out as the biggest club in the world and Liverpool as the most storied club in this country.
It is the trophy — in its former incarnation as the European Cup, too — that has bestowed its own kind of immortality on teams such as Celtic, Nottingham Forest and Chelsea. Winning it completes a club. It sates ambition.
Manchester City’s pursuit of the Champions League has been anything but uncomplicated
Winning it this season would finally see them join football’s most exclusive membership club
It grants access to the most exclusive membership group. It allows entry to the pantheon of European football aristocracy, with all the greats: Bayern Munich, Ajax, AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, and so on.
But Manchester City’s pursuit of the Champions League — which resumes with the first leg of their mouth-watering semi-final against Madrid on Tuesday — is not uncomplicated. It is anything but. It is layered with resentments and jealousies and suspicions and ambivalence.
It has been marked by City fans booing the UEFA anthem before games and even turning their back while it is being played. It is tempting to think that that hostility and the mixed message it sends out has at least contributed to the club’s repeated surprise failings in the competition.
City fans, and the club hierarchy, have felt victimised by the European game over the years and in some ways, it is hard to blame them. The other members of the winners’ club have made it plain since City was bought by Abu Dhabi in 2008 that they do not want them to join. City and their supporters are caught between telling them where to shove their marquee competition and craving the acceptance winning it would bring.
City’s ambivalent relationship with the competition has been marked by their supporters’ disdain for Europe’s governing body
Because it would bring acceptance. Winning the Champions League in the Stade de France on May 28 — if they make it past Madrid and then either Liverpool or Villarreal — would be the ultimate victory over what City’s owners and supporters see as the old-money European club cabal that designed Financial Fair Play to try to hobble the challenge of new-money clubs such as City and Paris Saint-Germain and enshrine the privileged positions of the established aristocracy.
It would also be the biggest symbol so far of the legitimisation of Abu Dhabi’s lavish City project and the billion pounds that has been pumped into the club by Sheikh Mansour.
At a time when the practice of sportswashing has been advanced in the public consciousness by Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle United, City winning the Champions League with the beautiful, beguiling brand of football propagated by their genius of a coach, Pep Guardiola, would be the public-relations coup to end them all for the United Arab Emirates. So don’t let anyone tell you that the most powerful people at City don’t care about the Champions League.
But going all the way and lifting the trophy at the Stade de France would bring City acceptance
It would also be the biggest symbol so far of the legitimisation of Sheikh Mansour’s lavish City project
Don’t harbour any doubts about whether the Champions League is the trophy they crave the most. It is the last thing that is missing to make City’s resurrection as one of England’s leading clubs complete.
It was one of the reasons why Guardiola rested so many players for the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool that City lost 3-2 last Saturday. Guardiola was criticised by some for that selection but it was just a sign of where his priorities lay.
There is a lot riding on the Champions League for Guardiola, too. He plays down the personal importance to him of adding a third triumph to the two Champions League final victories he achieved with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 but his failure to win the trophy since he left the Nou Camp is a gap in his legacy that has lasted more than a decade.
It is used as a stick to beat him with. His detractors say that he owed those Barcelona triumphs to Lionel Messi and that he cannot repeat the feat without him. They say, too, that he freezes in the big Champions League games now, that he overthinks them. They point to tactical blunders in the defeat by Chelsea in the final last year and the disappointing surrender to Lyon in the quarter-finals in Lisbon the year before.
Pep Guardiola’s failure to win the competition since leaving Barcelona is a gap in his legacy
Guardiola is keenly aware of the criticism, to the point where he sought to make a joke of it before the recent tie with Atletico Madrid. ‘In the Champions League,’ said Guardiola, ‘always I overthink. I overthink a lot, absolutely. I love to overthink and create stupid tactics. Tonight I take inspiration and there will be incredible tactics tomorrow. We’ll play with 12.’
This week, though, is when things get serious. Real Madrid, the grandest aristocrats in the game, will arrive at the home of a team they like to characterise as vulgar arrivistes.
‘I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,’ Groucho Marx once said, but that is doubly inapplicable here: Europe’s old guard don’t want City in their number but City’s emergence as one of football’s great powers will not be complete until they lift the biggest trophy of all.
So don’t let anyone tell you that City don’t care about winning the Champions League
Saudi’s sportwashing is truly cynical
Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United is already playing out like the perfect blueprint for a sportswashing project.
It is no coincidence that the Saudis, like the Emiratis at Manchester City, chose a club down on their luck, gripped by a historic sense of injustice, desperate for success and eager for the promise of investment into a neglected region.
And now Newcastle are rising up the table, led by a fine manager and fuelled by good signings, the rewards are rolling in for the Saudis. They have cultivated swooning Sky reporters and supine local newspapers, who had to be brought round with smelling salts when some of the owners kicked a ball around the pitch after their victory on Wednesday.
The fans are so grateful to be out of the Mike Ashley era that most don’t care where the money comes from. So already, a regime that murders dissidents, massacres civilians in illegal wars, executes criminals and oppresses minorities, is being held up as a force for good.
If the cynicism of the sportswashing weren’t so sad, you could almost admire it.
Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle looks the perfect blueprint for a sportswashing project
Hamilton and Williams won’t alter Blues’ fate
I can’t be the only one getting thoroughly bored with the Chelsea ownership beauty pageant.
Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams are sports figures of immense cultural standing, but no amount of PR spin is going to change the fact that Chelsea will soon be owned by one combination or another of American billionaires who will soon grow nervous about that strange thing called relegation and, like Fenway Sports Group, Stan Kroenke and the Glazers before them, try to find a way around it.
Russia’s Wimbledon ban had to happen
The All England Club made the right decision when they banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing at Wimbledon this summer.
Yes, it is a shame that individuals should be punished for the actions of their countries, but Vladimir Putin sensed the potential in weaponising sport long ago and the sad reality is that the participation of, say, Daniil Medvedev at the tournament would have been used as a propaganda tool and a symbol of vindication for Russia’s horrific attacks on Ukraine.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the future when other countries act as aggressors in illegal wars and the All England Club are faced with a similar choice, but that argument is for another day.
The All England Club made the right decision when they banned Russian and Belarusian players