When Manchester United and Barcelona meet in Rome for the Champions League final on May 27th, the whole world will be eagerly watching, what could be, the best final ever.
On one side, are the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney; on the other, are the devastating attacking power of Messi, Henry, and Eto'o.
Throughout the season, both teams have had moments of pure magic, where football was indeed the beautiful game—goals, passes, and even amazing comebacks.
Oddly enough, behind this potentially amazing football match and behind these two (by any historical standard) amazing teams, there is a confused European football structure that is uncertain about what it is and unclear about where it wants to go.
In order to get to Rome, Man Utd. and Barcelona had to eliminate Inter, FC Porto, and Arsenal, Lyon, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea, respectively. Each of these rounds had a story to tell about that uncertainty and unease.
With the exception of the Emirates Stadium win, Manchester United was never as dominant or as convincing as, in theory, it could have been.
Against Mourinho's Inter, United always seemed to have the passage to the next round under control—a dull, cold and tactical control—something that is expected from an Italian team, but not from an English side, much less Manchester United.
Inter was the symbol of what is wrong with Italian football. It's a team full of past-their-best football players. They're good enough to win the scudetto, but utterly unable to defeat any major Premier League team.
José Mourinho knew that, Alex Ferguson knew that, everyone knew that.
The fact that the Italian champion is simply not good enough to compete, much less beat the English champion is probably worrying for the fans that would like to see a more balanced and interesting European football.
In the next round, Porto was a shock for Old Trafford, playing superbly in Manchester and putting on a very good fight in Oporto. If hadn't it been for Ronaldo's incredible goal right in the early stages of the second match, a surprise could have been possible.
FC Porto, however, is not an example of what is right with Portuguese football, but rather an example of what is wrong.
That a team of comparatively fewer resources and from a small country was able to threaten Manchester United is obviously worth praising.
However, that was made on the basis of a very large South American contingent, particularly Argentineans, striving to show their skills in the biggest stage of European football.
With the exception of Sporting Lisbon, which boasts a successful youth policy, all the other clubs in the Portuguese Liga are full of South American players (mostly Brazilians) attempting to find a way into the European market.
This has been done without any sort of regard for the country's home-grown talent.
The fact that Portugal now has two Brazilian players playing for its national side (Pepe and Deco) and is about to have a third (Liedson) clearly shows where the future is heading if nothing is done.
In return, South American football competitions are becoming less and less interesting, composed by a mixture of players that are not even good enough to make it into the average European championships, such as the Portuguese, with youngsters (16-17 years old) waiting for their flight across the Atlantic and veterans, such as Ronaldo and Adriano, who are clearly past their best.
Finally, in the semifinals, Arsenal was the "victim." Arsenal's place in such a late stage of the competition was a proof of two things. First, the Spanish La Liga and the Premier League are the most powerful competitions in Europe. Second, that an above-average English team is better than an above-average Spanish side.
In a more balanced Europe, probably neither Arsenal nor Villarreal would have been in the quarterfinals (nor even in the Champions League altogether).
In this context though, they were, and so Arsenal passed, only to face another Premier League side. And there, Arsenal went as far as its Premier League quality allowed, ending up being destroyed by a much better and more experienced United side.
Regarding Barcelona, they started by defeating the perennial French champion Lyon, followed by Bayern Munich. What is intriguing about these two rounds is that in theory, countries from France and Germany should do much better.
After all, they are two of the three biggest economies in Europe. Their championships are organised, with large attendance numbers. And their national sides tend to do well in international competitions.
However, Lyon was sent away by Barcelona, and Bayern Munich outplayed. The question regarding France and Germany, thus, is whether they are right or wrong in having more limited budgets, more home-grown talent, but less capacity to attract the world's best players.
If we measure them by their clubs' success, then they are clearly wrong. If it's financial sustainability and better national sides that are the criteria, then they are probably right.
In any case, they seem to be some distance away from English and Spanish clubs, when comparing teams of the same level. Barcelona showed them that.
Finally, there's Chelsea.
This round had everything that is wrong with the Champions League and probably football in general. Two teams full of stars and talent played two matches in which there were very few glimpses of that talent and a whole lot of defensive physical play.
On top of that, the second match also showed why football probably needs to introduce new technology to support referees (in a world where even more conservative sports such as rugby and cricket have done so).
In the end, neither Barcelona nor Chelsea showed enough to be an European finalist. However, one had to go through, and in the end (literally...), Barcelona stamped its passport to Rome.
In short, Barcelona versus Manchester United has all the ingredients to be a great match.
However, these teams' journeys to Rome showed more of what is wrong with European football than what is beautiful about the game. Both teams will hopefully show that in a couple of weeks.
UEFA is probably delighted with such an event. It should probably be worried as well...
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