The Summers We Won’t See Again

All was right with the world. There were 50,000 or so Real Madrid fans packed into the Santiago Bernabéu, all there to catch a glimpse of the latest gift bestowed upon them by Florentino Pérez, their club’s president. Out on the field, Eden Hazard was juggling a ball from one foot to another as the cameras flashed and the crowd cooed its approval.

The ritual of presenting a new signing to the public like this — a tradition not unique to, but certainly pioneered and popularized by, Real Madrid — is one of those familiar, unquestioned parts of soccer’s landscape that grows more curious the more you examine it.

What is the appeal of seeing someone stand on a field? What is that simple juggling exhibition meant to demonstrate? That the player is real? That the asset a club has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire because of his proven ability with a soccer ball can — yes, look, you can see for yourself — control one?

The answer, of course, is power. Those showcases — particularly those held at the Bernabéu or Barcelona’s Camp Nou — were designed to send a message. One is for the fans in attendance: a conspicuous display of the largess and wealth and general virility of the owner who acquired the player now performing tricks on demand out on the field.

And the other is broadcast to the world outside, a declaration of status. The sight of Hazard — like Kaká and Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo and all the others before them — on the field at the Bernabéu was intended to show to soccer as a whole that this place, this club, sat at the very summit of the sport’s global pyramid. Hazard had been the best player in the Premier League for some years. And now he was here, because everything else is, at root, nothing more than audition for a place on this stage, the inevitable destination for greatness.

Hazard’s presentation was only two summers ago, and yet, in hindsight, much about the scene — beyond the fact that 50,000 people gathering in the same place is a strange, uneasy and, in a substantial portion of the world, currently illegal concept — seems to belong to another life.

Hazard’s time at Real Madrid has been bitterly disappointing. This week, the club confirmed that he had sustained yet another muscle injury — he seems, and this is not an attempt to make light of his travails, to be injuring muscles he probably did not know he had — and faces another few weeks on the sidelines.

Since that day when the Bernabéu thrilled at the mere sight of him, he has played only 36 times, across two seasons. Hazard had dreamed of joining Real Madrid to work under his idol, Zinedine Zidane, but he has scarcely been able to play for him. He has scored only three goals in La Liga.

His story is, deep down, a sorrowful one. It feels somehow uncomfortable to describe his transfer as a failure, or his Real Madrid career as a letdown, when he has been so assailed by injury.

Soccer is a cutthroat sort of business, though, and so the conclusion and the impression are inevitable: At 30, it appears that Hazard has been betrayed by his body, which has been ravaged by more than a decade at the very pinnacle of the game. Real Madrid has had to get used to life without him; his presence, rather than his absence, is now the noteworthy event. The days when he was mentioned as a peer of Neymar and Kevin De Bruyne, in that cohort of players who seemed destined to inherit the mantle of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, are far gone. His time has passed.

Not quite a month after Hazard was wheeled out at the Bernabéu, Barcelona — as it always must — responded in kind, forcing Antoine Griezmann to prove that he, too, could juggle a ball, before going one better and asking him to pass it around with a few children.

Griezmann, like Hazard, was 28. Griezmann, like Hazard, had cost more than $130 million. Griezmann, like Hazard, saw his move to one of Spain’s Big Two as the culmination of his career. “My Dad always told me that sometimes a train only comes once,” he said after his presentation. This was not a train he could afford to miss.

And Griezmann’s star, like Hazard’s, has waned since that day. He has played — and scored — far more frequently. His injury record is infinitely better. He is closing in on 100 appearances for Barcelona and has managed 28 goals.

It is a respectable, but hardly spectacular, return for a player who was hired to solve Barcelona’s on-field problems but whose transfer stands now as a cipher for its off-field troubles: Griezmann was not just exorbitantly expensive; he was indicative of the club’s failure to think in the long term, to invest wisely, to place what it might need tomorrow ahead of what it wanted today.

The two Spanish giants were not the only clubs that were guilty of that sort of thinking at the time. Juventus had spent heavily in previous seasons on Gonzalo Higuaín and Cristiano Ronaldo, players whose moves were predicated on the idea of their delivering immediate success. For much the same reason, Manchester United had agreed to pay Alexis Sánchez an eye-watering sum of money to join from Arsenal.

All of those deals now seem to belong to another era. It is unthinkable, as soccer comes to terms with the long-term economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, that clubs would invest so heavily in players already at — or in some cases beyond — their peaks.

Even before last March, though, the sport was moving away from these grand, short-term statement signings. Most clubs had started to consider things like resale price before committing funds on transfers. Where clubs still decided to spend heavily, it was generally on players under the age of 24, those who might yet appreciate in value.

In that light, those two days in 2019 represent not only the passing of a moment — the final two deals from another age — but a warning from history. Both stand as proof of why it is wiser to invest in youth, of the rectitude of the approach that favors the future over the now. Proven talent comes not only at a financial cost but at considerable risk.

And so, now, Real Madrid has no choice but to hope that Hazard can recover his fitness and then his form. Barcelona must rebuild itself around Griezmann’s onerous contract or accept a sizable financial hit by selling him at a discount — if it can find a buyer. In the meantime, both clubs can only watch as soccer’s center of power shifts inexorably away from them, to Manchester and Munich, in particular, and to Paris and Liverpool and London, to the clubs where players used to hold their auditions, to the places where they thought about tomorrow, while they were glorying in today.

A Merger That Makes Sense

And just in the nick of time, along comes a faintly revolutionary idea — albeit one that has been whispered for some time — for the sort of change that might actually benefit soccer. As detailed in this newsletter last week, the sport has no dearth of ideas at this point. It is good ideas that have been sadly lacking.

Kudos, then, to the clubs of the Belgian Pro League, which on Tuesday unanimously backed an agreement in principle to merge with the league next door, the Dutch Eredivisie. Assuming the Dutch are as open-minded, the new competition — the BeNeLiga, or some such — would most likely start in 2025, when the current television deals for both existing competitions expire.

This seems, on the surface, an obvious win. Independently, neither league can possibly hope to command the sort of broadcast rights that Europe’s big five domestic championships do. Together, they are a more attractive proposition: a combined market of more than 28 million people, with a roster of clubs that would include Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord, AZ Alkmaar, Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Standard Liege, K.R.C. Genk and K.A.A. Gent, among others. The league would feature some of Europe’s brightest young talent.

The clubs themselves believe the unified league could earn an annual $476 million in television and marketing deals — not a patch on what Serie A or La Liga makes each year, but more than double what the leagues currently bring in on their own.

There are, of course, valid questions here, and potential victims, too. What happens to those clubs that are locked out of the combined league? How much of that newfound wealth will flow down to clubs outside the top flight? Will there be a promotion and relegation system to allow a way back to the respective national divisions, to maintain the integrity of those lower-tier competitions?

None of those questions, though, should prevent this idea’s being explored further. There are two ways to alter the dominance of the big five leagues — both in a financial and a sporting sense — and to make European soccer a more level playing field.

One is to reduce the power of the elite — a valid, but inherently utopian, idea. The other is to increase the power of those locked out by the status quo. They might be heresy to tradition, but cross-border leagues are the first, most immediately apparent, route to doing precisely that.

Mr. Zero

It has been 13 games since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as Chelsea’s manager. In those 13 games — a run that has included two meetings with Atlético Madrid and encounters with Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton, as well as the admittedly guaranteed three points that now come to anyone traveling to Anfield — Chelsea has conceded two goals.

One of those was a freakish, and hilarious, own goal from Antonio Rüdiger at Sheffield United, which makes Takumi Minamino the only opposition player to have scored against Tuchel’s Chelsea in almost two months.

This is not, of course, necessarily what Tuchel was hired to do. In time, he will be expected to turn Chelsea into a slick, adventurous attacking team, playing the sort of cutting-edge high-pressing style that is now de rigueur among Europe’s elite. But, for now, it is a more than useful trick.

Manchester City is running away with the Premier League, in part, because of the obduracy of its defense. It is too late for Chelsea to derail that particular juggernaut — though it has the air of the most likely challenger next season — but defensive improvement makes Tuchel’s team a clear and present threat in the Champions League.

Friday’s draw only served to strengthen that perception. Chelsea’s quarterfinal pairing with F.C. Porto will not, most likely, be festooned with goals, but it offers Tuchel and his team a smooth path to the semifinals. There, Chelsea would encounter either a Real Madrid that is a shadow of its former self, or a Liverpool team that has collapsed since Christmas. On the other side of the draw, Bayern Munich, Paris St.-Germain and Manchester City will be busy eliminating each other.

As recently as January, Chelsea looked like nothing more than makeweights in the Champions League. All of a sudden, though, Tuchel has turned the club into a credible contender to win it. That he has done so with precisely the same resources Lampard had reflects well on him, and poorly on his predecessor.

It also rather neatly encapsulates the value of a truly elite manager.

Correspondence

Let’s get this over with: It turns out that the crossover between “Readers of This Newsletter” and “People Who Like Ballet” is greater than I was expecting. “Ballet leaves you cold?” Charlie Henley asked, incredulously, echoing the sentiments of several others. “Have you seen ABT or the Royal Ballet perform ‘Romeo and Juliet’? All by itself, Prokofiev’s score covers the entire landscape of human emotions. The dancers put faces to those emotions, and their movement and bodies are wonders to behold.”

I can only apologize for my lack of sophistication. If it’s any consolation, I understand the skill involved. I appreciate that it is, clearly, something of great beauty. But there is, alas, no accounting for taste. And that’s before we even get on to my views on Shakespeare.

On much more comfortable ground, James Armstrong wonders if the Champions League might be improved by “eliminating the league part.”

“You play 96 games in the group phase to eliminate 16 teams,” James notes. “In the old European Cup, you played 32 games to eliminate 16 teams. When each pair of games is an elimination pair, excitement is raised.”

For a long time, I’ve found this argument unconvincing. The straight knockout format of the old European Cup has a pared-back, unadulterated simplicity, of course, but it also emphasized the random a little too much. The nostalgia it inspires is, I have always thought, a little deceptive. Do you really want Manchester United and Real Madrid meeting in the first round?

In the last couple of weeks, though, I’ve started to soften. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Observer last week, Andrea Agnelli and those who pull his strings seem to have fundamentally misunderstood what we, as fans, want from games: not endless showpiece encounters between famous clubs, but genuine jeopardy. That is what lifts a fixture from mundane to compelling, whoever is involved: when there is something riding on it. Look at the success of the Nations League for proof.

There are enough glamorous teams that the latter stages would still feel heavyweight even if a couple fell by the wayside early on; the idea of an Olympiacos or a Zenit St. Petersburg or a Benfica reaching the semifinals would enliven a tournament, rather than detract from it. Still, it will never happen, so to an extent the whole idea is moot anyway.

And in the regular correspondence slot that I may start calling “Good Idea, I Agree,” we have Steve Marron. “Why does the attacking team have to wait until the defenders are ready before they can take a free kick? The defending team conceded the free kick, usually to stop an immediate threat, so why give them all the time in the world to regroup, set up a wall, lie someone on the ground behind it, get a handle on the player they are supposed to mark?”

In theory, they don’t — the referee can give permission to the attacking team to take the free kick quickly — but most often, that is precisely how it works, and it probably should not.

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