Football loves dominant sides.
Think of Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal of the 1920s, ravaging England with the WM formation; Real Madrid of the early days of the European Cup, with Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas wreaking havoc on unsuspecting continental champions; Liverpool getting comfy on their “fucking perch,” winning four European cups in the span of seven years in the late seventies and early eighties; AC Milan’s post-Berlusconi Dutch delight in the mid to late eighties and early nineties. Dominant sides measure the development of the game as winning ways switch from country to country, club to club.
The Manchester United of recent years are certainly worthy of inclusion among the clubs mentioned above, but as the Premier League trophies pile up, the FA Cup loses its sheen, and England’s footballing strength gets more and more concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few, so grows United’s sense of entitlement. There were several signs of this today when Manchester United defeated its City rivals to all but secure a record 18th league title, what should have been a moment of team solidarity. Certainly Ronaldo whingeing like a git after getting subbed off at the sixtieth minute didn’t exactly inspire, but when Tevez somehow found an ‘I’ in team after scoring United’s second goal, cupping his ears in delight at the director’s box with whom is at odds over his future at the club, it was hard to imagine the neutral giving a round of applause to the nearly-champions.
Compare these antics to Barcelona, United’s competition in the Champions League final and a team seemingly reborn under the youthful tutelage of Pep Guardiola. After a hard-fought two leg enterprise against Chelsea, a club that represents for many over-moneyed and overly-negative English football (and who also drew comparisons to Man United in last year’s CL semi final), Barcelona came out as moral (and actual) victors. Barcelona seem victors in the image department as well: sponsor-less for years, the Catalan club sport UNICEF on their shirts (compared to Man United, sponsored by a failed American investment conglomerate). All this means the Anyone But United crowd will likely be joined by a fair share of footballing neutrals on May 27th. To that end, it’s a shame United’s younger players didn’t show a little more respect to the notion of “team first” today.
Of course no one could argue that arrogance and individualism don’t play a large measure in winning sides; one need only think of Cruiff at Ajax or Giuseppe Meazza at Inter Milan (the latter famously showed up still drunk from carousing the night before, only to score three goals). The difference is that for many, United represent the worst effects of neoliberal commercialization in the Premier League, the pushing of product, the prawn sandwiches, United shirts on sale at Reebok next to the sweatshop shoes. Tevez using his considerable skills in an effort to raise his stock price, and Ronaldo disrespecting his manager and his teammates by throwing a tantrum after a brilliant performance (Ferguson shrugged it off to the media, and with four points to win in three games to secure the title, no wonder)—actions that reduce the game to what Eduardo Galeno called a “showcase of commercial exhibition”—don’t help Manchester United’s image problem.
United’s younger players would do well to help keep their self-interested gait off the pitch, and start acting in ways worthy of the champions they are now almost certain to become. Lord knows the ABU crowd don’t need any more help than Ronaldo has already given them.