Everyone expects the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United to be a great game. But in fact it could be the best football match ever.
The idea isn’t mine. I got it from the German football writer Christoph Biermann. He outlined his theory in Marseille in 1998, after Brazil beat Holland in the World Cup semifinal. Somebody was calling it a great match, when Biermann cut him off. “It was the best ever,” he corrected.
Biermann explained: football is always improving. Players keep getting fitter, quicker and smarter at defending. Therefore, when two great teams meet in an important match, attack a fair amount, and play at their best, it is almost by definition the best game ever.
Indeed, since Biermann said this, football has gone on improving. The number of sprints per game has jumped, for instance. If we saw that Holland-Brazil game today, it would resemble a beach game, almost like those prehistoric images of Pele rounding a defender then standing still until the defender trudges back.
The Biermann definition of “best match ever” may sound generous, but it leaves us strangely short of examples. Even Champions League finals rarely provide them. Usually at least one team in the final isn’t even the best in its own country: the last time both finalists also became domestic champions in the same season was 1999, when Manchester United famously beat Bayern Munich in the closing seconds.
Moreover, finals are often anti-climaxes: Juve and Milan’s goalless draw in 2003, for instance, or Monaco’s failure to show up against Porto in 2004. Milan-Barca in 1994 should have been the best game ever, but Barca weren’t there and lost 4-0. Arsenal’s manager Arsène Wenger summed up the ritual disappointment after one recent final. Thumping his hands grimly together in the stands for the winners, he muttered: “You see, you only need an ordinary team to win the Champions League.”
Sometimes league matches provide better football than European finals. Yet a league match can only be the “best game ever” if it’s the title decider. Otherwise there just isn’t enough drama.
Most “best games ever” are played at World Cups. Obvious contenders include Brazil-Italy and France- Germany at the World Cup of 1982, Argentina-England and France-Brazil in 1986, and England-Germany in 1990. All these meet one criterion of greatness: children who were allowed to stay up late to watch still remember them today. Yet even at World Cups, best games ever are scarce. The entire World Cup of 2002, for example, passed without two great teams meeting.
The Rome final on May 27 appears to tick every box. First, millions of people will care. Caring is a given at World Cups, but club football often pits one soulless multinational corporation against another for a pot of cash. This final won’t be like that. Market researchers at Sport+Markt say Barca is the most popular team in Europe, with 44m European supporters. United is probably the most popular team on earth. Each has a manager who incarnates his club. And each has a core of long-serving homegrown players who thrust the club culture down the throats of imported foreigners: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville at United, Xavi Hernández Creus, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes at Barca. So each team has that elusive mix of stars and collectivist ethic.
Quality is assured. Both teams will be champions of their country this season, and that’s just for starters. Barca are going for a treble of prizes, and United for a quintuple. Both teams will probably attack. Barcelona always do: this season is already its highest-scoring ever. United will want to play in Barcelona’s half because Barca’s only weakness is its defence, where it will be without three regulars, will feature a centre-back, Gerard Pique, who is a United reject, and a keeper, Valdes, who was helped into the job by a policy of affirmative action for Catalans.
I hate to jinx it, but this one could take the Biermann Award from the France-Italy World Cup final of 2006.