Manuel Neuer lifted the Champions League trophy high above his head and let out a celebratory scream. It was a sixth European crown for Bayern Munich, moving them above Barcelona and level with Liverpool in the all time winners’ standings. They made history as the first team to win every game on the way to glory. However, the biggest lesson from their victory over Paris Saint-Germain is that football is heading for a dark crossroads, a difficult decision that they must simply come to terms with soon.
Before the match, in the build up after the semi-finals, which saw Bayern and PSG demolish Lyon and RB Leipzig 3-0, the narrative was strange. Football is a sport beloved by millions for its ability to pit favourites against underdogs, with the latter more often than not garnering the support of the masses.
Bayern Munich, having conquered Europe before, were heavily backed in the betting markets but it was PSG, looking for their first victory in the competition, who should have been the team picked by the neutral for no other reason than seeing somebody new celebrating at the end of the night. But this year, it was completely different.
The understandable moral aversion to the Parisians’ Qatari owners, given the country’s reputation and human rights record, and the entire ‘new money vs old money’ debate that had been rife right throughout the latter stages of the competition, caused a stir. Manchester City, owned by the Abu Dhabi Group, and Leipzig, the German arm of sports drink Red Bull’s sporting empire, added fuel to the fire.
When it came down to it, the widely held belief that these projects, particularly in the cases of PSG and City, are nothing more than “sportswashing” (owning a sports team with the specific aim of improving a country’s poor global reputation) in action, tainted the spirit of the matches, including the final. Suddenly, Bayern, the embodiment of the footballing establishment and a serial winning machine, were viewed as a beacon of hope in the bitter war against a modern, ugly trend.
The narrative was even fuelled by social media posts lauding Bayern’s transfer business which, while impressive, doesn’t really tell the full story. The team that beat Lyon cost around £80million, far less than the front-line of Angel Di Maria, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe PSG put out on Sunday night, which appeared to back up the idea that it was they who were the idealistic team to cheer; the lesser of two evils. In a humanitarian sense, that is absolutely true, but from a sporting point of view, it seems distorted.
Bayern Munich have a monopoly on German football; they have won the Bundesliga every year since 2012. The main reason for such dominance is because they have a stranglehold on the German transfer market. In the main, if any player plying their trade elsewhere in the league is deemed good enough for Bayern, they head to the Allianz Arena. Borussia Dortmund, the Bavarians closest challengers and bitterest rivals, are not exempt from that; Robert Lewandowski, scorer of 55 goals across the season and 15 in the Champions League, shot to fame at Signal Iduna Park before crossing the divide on a free transfer.
In many ways, the Bundesliga is set up the way a football league should be. The ‘50+1’ rule ensures that every club must hold the majority of its own voting rights, and it is something that RB Leipzig are hated for break the spirit of, at the very least. In the main, obscene levels of investment are outlawed in favour of keeping the sport pure and in the hands of those who love it the most – the fans.
But the result of that, indirectly, is the near permanent placement of Bayern Munich as the best team in the country. No club has the financial capabilities to compete with them, nor are there lucrative television deals as seen in the Premier League, which will allow someone like Crystal Palace to hold out for a premium on Wilfried Zaha this summer, for example. That is why they have assembled a great squad on the cheap; it is no comparison to PSG’s approach, but nobody should be under any illusions of Bayern’s standing in the European game either.
Kingsley Coman scoring Bayern’s winner was hugely symbolic. Let go as a teenager by PSG, his departure led the way in their shift from giving an immensely talented academy its focus to signing the best players they can for as much money as they can. Coman has gone on to win 20 trophies by the age of 24 after joining Juventus and, subsequently, moving to Germany, and there is something profound in the fact he won the Champions League before his former club, who have been obsessively courting it for years after discarding him.
Alphonso Davies, the teenage Canadian who was converted from winger into one of the best left-backs in the world over the course of the last few months, deserves everything bit of acclaim he gets. Hansi Flick, who has a 92% win rate from 36 games as Bayern boss since originally taking over on an interim basis when the club were fourth in the league and floundering in November, has worked miracles. The fact Lewandowski has been denied a chance of winning the Ballon d’Or due to the coronavirus pandemic is nothing short of scandalous, given that nobody else is realistically in the conversation.
The sad reality of the fight against the likes of PSG, Manchester City, RB Leipzig and the entire notion of ‘new money’ in general, as noble as it may be, is that it leaves the old guard standing taller than ever. PSG have achieved similar levels of untouchable in Ligue 1 with their financial power, but Lyon won seven titles in a row at the turn of the century. Juventus have won Serie A every year since 2011, and Manchester United won 13 of the first 20 Premier League crowns. Barcelona and Real Madrid interchange winning La Liga, while the last 13 Champions League titles have been won by the two Spanish clubs, or whoever knocked out Barça.
Bayern Munich are among the old, dusty guardians of football’s elite who have long been disliked for their ability to continue winning. Repetition has long been an enemy of the game, but PSG have created an even bigger problem morally and in terms of integrity. Even the old guard aren’t immune to the new money, though; Manchester United have had ties with the Saudi Arabian state recently tangled up in a proposed takeover of Newcastle United, while Barcelona and Bayern have both taken sponsorship from Qatar.
Whichever way you look, football is in trouble. Even the purest of arguments against the rise of murky football dynasties indirectly nails colours to the mast of old school domination. There is no other alternative, either football continues with a merry-go-round of the existing powerhouses, or it allows more to take a seat at the top table by increasingly questionable means.
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