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29 May 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 7:57am

The Champions League is like winning an exotic holiday and finding all your neighbours there

By Giles Smith

Incredible. Four English teams competing for the two big European trophies. An unprecedented takeover of the major competitions, a moment of historic national supremacy. “It’s wonderful for English football,” claimed Glenn Hoddle. “Let’s celebrate this season. 

Seriously, Glenn? Who’s celebrating? It couldn’t have worked out worse.

Certainly, if you’re a supporter of one of the four finalists (Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea) this was not the dream you signed up for. If European competition offered your team anything, back in the autumn, it was a chance to break out beyond the humdrum and the domestic, to pitch yourself against the continent’s very best, to breathe heady, exotic air and to undergo a voyage into, if not the unknown, then at least the less known.

Then what happens? Your team goes to all the trouble of scaling one of Europe’s twin peaks only to find one of the neighbours up there. Not someone new and interesting from Spain or Italy or France: the bloke from next door. Who still hasn’t returned your lawnmower. Talk about an anti-climax. A scrap with a Premier League club? You can get that at home – and do, at least twice a year. It’s like winning an exotic holiday and then discovering that the prize is actually a night in a tent in your own garden.

And if you’re not a supporter of one of the finalists, but are a fan of another team, then it’s even worse. On the grounds that fans want their own teams to do well and everybody else’s to do badly, this all-English sew-up has left you absolutely nobody to root for and has set you instead on the fringes of a world containing only bitterness and pain. I write as a Chelsea fan. And for a Chelsea fan, getting asked, “Who would you prefer to see lift the biggest trophy in club football: Liverpool or Tottenham?” is like being offered the choice between having half your teeth removed without anaesthetic and having the other half of your teeth removed without anaesthetic. No immediate good can come from either of these outcomes. That’s why thousands of people will have spent the peculiarly long build-up to this weekend’s final wondering, “Is there any way that BOTH these teams can lose?” But alas, football doesn’t work like that.

So that leaves people of no fixed club, who yet have an abstract attachment to football and perhaps, vaguely, “just like to see English clubs do well”. These are the so-called neutrals, a rare tribe, seldom found in great numbers anywhere and sometimes thought only to exist, in these divided days, in the imaginations of television pundits and newspaper sports editors. Not true. I meet people every now and again who identify as neutral. I find them to be sincere and certainly respect their opinions and their rights. Although whether such people are numerous enough or deserving enough to have the entire climax of the season organised for their benefit, I would question.

Anyway, for a supposedly welcome outcome, there has been an awful lot of complaining going on, and particularly about the travel involved. The choice of Baku in Azerbaijan as host city for the Europa League final was announced in 2017 and “Together to Baku” has been the Europa League’s slogan all season long, yet objections only really seemed to gather steam when two English clubs qualified for the final, and people (especially football columnists) realised that they were actually going to have to go there.

By electing to stage the match in a country so extremely to the east of Europe that it shares a border with Iran, Uefa has found itself accused of making a financially motivated decision. If true, it would only have this in common with every other hosting decision ever taken in the history of organised international sport. In any case, you could argue that it’s positive for Uefa to broaden its outlook, spread these coveted showpiece occasions around a bit, and give smaller countries that don’t normally get a look-in the opportunity to hand Uefa lots of money.

Meanwhile, all four clubs have been able to indulge in the time-honoured tradition of complaining bitterly about the stinginess of their ticket allocations – but then, in a whole new twist, Arsenal and Chelsea ended up returning half their tickets unsold. Upon learning that their supporters would be granted less than 10 per cent of the stadium’s capacity, Arsenal issued a protesting statement, pointing out how “thousands of fans who have supported the club for years will be unable to attend this match”. How true those words turned out to be.

There was even a call for the finals to be moved back to England and staged at Wembley, say, for everyone’s greater convenience. This would have avoided needlessly putting fans at the mercy of feckless hoteliers and Easyjet’s bogglingly opportunistic pricing system, which has seen the typical cost of a flight to Madrid rise by 400 per cent over the weekend of the Champions League final.

Yet in many ways, the more parochial the contest, the greater the reason to locate it somewhere extremely unlikely, just to create a sense of difference and shore up the faltering impression that this is more than just some local turf-war. Together to Vladivostok? As it is, Tottenham and Liverpool fans will always have Madrid. And Arsenal and Chelsea fans (those who made it) will always have Baku. It’s some consolation for the way in which this year’s competition has otherwise badly let them, and practically everyone else, down.

Still, when the opportunity was on the table to enjoy an adventure in Europe and share all the opportunities on offer, didn’t it feel odd to hear people arguing instead for withdrawing, staying at home, among their own kind, and drawing the curtains? I feel sure there must be a parallel for all this in the wider world beyond sport right now, but I’m struggling to put my finger on it. 

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This article appears in the 29 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy

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