"Typical Germans," muttered Sir Alex Ferguson after his Manchester United side departed from the Champions League.
He was referring to the way in which Bayern Munich’s players had got in the face of the match officials to urge the expulsion of young Brazilian full-back Rafael. Their hounding of the referee was an unsavoury moment but one which is all too often seen in top level football.
The red card debate is one which could rage for some time. Some felt it was harsh to send the United player off for tugging back an opponent, his second yellow card offence. But, more interestingly, was there really any justification for the Scottish manager’s stereotyping of the visitors?
Less than half the Bayern team that night was German and, if memory serves, the man orchestrating the complaints was a Dutchman, Mark van Bommel. So, at the very least, the Premiership boss’s observation appear to have been geographically inaccurate.
Nonetheless, it poses wider questions about what we think and feel about European football. For example, only three of the Manchester United team that night were English. Even if you included the Scot Darren Fletcher and the Irishman Darron Gibson—although why should you?—the majority of the starting 11 was not from the British Isles.
In the same week, Bordeaux took on Lyon with an impressive seven French players in each starting lineup. But elsewhere Barcelona’s four Spaniards destroyed Arsenal’s one Englishman and CSKA Moscow’s seven Russians were eliminated by an Inter Milan side without a single Italian.
That fact has since been wafted in the face of anyone revelling in Serie A’s progress and savouring the Premiership’s failure. The Nerazzurri, the argument goes, are not really an Italian side. However, is that true? And, if it is, does it really matter?
Those who make the claims are, after all, disappointed supporters of English sides but, as we have seen, Arsenal and Manchester United are hardly great adverts for their domestic product and nor are Chelsea. In fact, in terms of ownership at least, Inter Milan are more patriotic than most.
Just the same, as a fan of Serie A it is hard to get behind Jose Mourinho’s men. A certain nostalgia sweeps over you for the days of the three foreigners rule when clubs had to show a certain judgment about which overseas players they hired. However, those days are gone and they are not coming back.
One of the great elements of European games used to be that clash of styles. There was a discernible Italian school, Spanish style, English approach and German attitude. Now it only seems to exist in the eyes of lazy pundits.
Instead, while sides may be conditioned by the league they play in, you could never attribute the nature of their displays to their country of birth. These are multi-national teams which usually only find themselves in a particular location due to the largess of some global billionaire. Their local links are minimal.
And yet, even as I make this argument some doubt niggles away at the back of my mind. Do Inter, despite themselves, betray some Italian qualities?
Could it be, perhaps, that footballers—like children—are influenced as much by their surroundings as they are by anything in their genes? It is the classic nature versus nurture argument.
Take Javier Zanetti as an example. A proud Argentinian, of course, with the international caps to prove it. However, he has been playing his football in Milan for the last 15 years. Surely, no matter how much he may resist, a little of the nation might have rubbed off on him.
These footballers may not have been born in Italy but most of them have lived there for some time. Their children may be raised in the country, they deal with the nation’s media and they play their games in front of thousands of Milanese, Romans or Torinese.
So maybe Sir Alex was right, after all. Deep down club sides may yet show some characteristics of the league they represent. It is certainly tempting to think so. Particularly when the alternative is watching the soulless clash of two nomadic bunches of millionaires who could be based absolutely anywhere.