With the Champions League final fast approaching, there will be many neutral fans struggling to decide their allegiance for the match. I know that a lot of English fans will forsake the old fashioned notion of supporting the English team because Manchester United really aren’t very popular amongst the neutrals, and given Barcelona’s current status as the exponents of the beautiful side of the game, Man Utd fans are likely to be heavily outnumbered even in England.
However, despite myself and my ususal dislike of the Red Devils, I have to say that I’ve been overcome with a bit of national pride over the past few days, and I am tempted to support United. To make myself feel a little better about this, I’ve done a little bit of thinking and have come up with three reasons why English fans should support Manchester United against Barcelona in the Champions League Final.
I’ll start by acknowledging that I’m not a big fan of Manchester United. As an Evertonian, we’ve never really gotten on and in recent years, with Rooney’s traitorous move to Manchester, relations have become even more strained. However, while I usually detest to think of myself in allegiance with them, I’m also a very patriotic Englishman. Living in New Zealand I’m surrounded by Kiwis and am proud to be English.
What I’m also proud of though, is English football. We’re currently dominating the world of club football, and it’s great to see. Once again this season the semi-finals of the Champions League saw three English teams competing, and the fourth side were only knocked out in the round before when Liverpool met Chelsea and so one English team had to go out. As an Evertonian, the fifth best team in the Premier League, this makes me proud, given that the four teams above us are arguably four of Europe’s top five clubs.
This is something we can all be proud of too. The Premier League is probably the strongest league in the world, and seeing as the national side isn’t in the greatest of health at the moment (though Mr. Capello is helping matters), it’s good to see out club sides putting up a strong front. And let’s face it, there’s always a good rivalry amongst the European leagues. We invented the game, but that gives us no right to be the best and Serie A and La Liga are leagues that have a lot of quality.
However, looking back over the history of European competition, you’ll see that the amount of European Cups won by each of these three of the powerhouses of European football is exactly equal at present. English teams have won a total of 11 European Cups, as have Spanish teams and Italian teams. We’re currently level pegging in terms of European success at the top level. Which means that because tomorrow’s final is to be played between an English team and a Spanish team, there will soon be a new leader.
And deep down, all English fans (even Liverpool fans) would love England to take the lead in that little race. Especially when you factor into the equation the ban from European football that was placed on English teams after the Heysel disaster, which kept English clubs from European competition for five years (between 1985/86 and 1990/91) and had a lasting impact on English clubs’ success even after it was lifted – as it took nine years before an English club won a European cup again (which was United as part of their Treble) despite the fact that before the ban English clubs had been dominant, and Everton in particular had looked set to dominate European competition.
This means that the Italian and Spanish clubs held an advantage in those seasons, when the traditionally strong English teams could not challenge for the ultimate European domestic honour, and indeed, AC Milan won two tournaments for Italy during that time, while in the succeeding five years, Barcelona and Milan won another tournament each, while the weakened English sides struggled to pass the group stages.
So if Manchester United win the Champions League tomorrow, it will hand England an unlikely lead in this little competition, and establish English football as the strongest, historically speaking, in terms of the destination of the European Cup. So surely that is one really good reason for English fans to support their compatriots, to bring that small glory to the English nation, and establish ourselves as the leaders of European football.
Furthermore, we have to remember now that the European Cup is now branded as the Champions League. This was altogether a strange move, because although the competition received a big commercial boost as a result of its re-branding and in line with the commodification of football as a whole in the nineties, it’s name now inherently tells an untruth.
Because surely one would argue that the Champions League should be contested by the Champions of each of the European domestic leagues? Now, we can understand why this doesn’t happen, because the inequality of the European leagues would render this more often than not a competition that could be won by perhaps only four or five of the teams involved. And by letting in more sides from the strongest leagues in Europe the overall quality of the competition is improved, and it certainly makes it a great spectacle and a prestigious competition.
But still, many people still often have a grumble about this. If it is the Champions League they say, then what are the fourth placed English side doing in it? It’s a good point, and many people over the years has suggested that a more suitable induction process be adopted into the league. What we should remember though, is that were it not for the strange system whereby non-Champions can compete in the Champions League, Barcelona would not be competing at all.
Because last season, they finished as Runners Up to Real Madrid in the Spanish Primera Division, and so were it actually a League of Champions competition, Barcelona wouldn’t be involved. Manchester United, champions of England in the ’07/’08 season would be involved though, and so there is certainly an argument that runs that United, as Champions, would be more worthy winners of the Champions League than Barcelona, who qualified only as Runners Up.
Of course, this is an argument that is fundamentally flawed in that the rules of the competition clearly allow non-Champions to enter, but in the spirit of the name of the competition, you can certainly see the thinking behind Manchester United being somehow more worthy of becoming Euope’s Champions elect, and so it does hold a little bit of sway over me, and I certainly feel that a United victory would be slightly more justified.
Finally though, we return to the idea of the innate competitive spirit between the European leagues. I think it would be fair to say that at present, the two strongest Leagues in Europe (and indeed the world), are the English and Spanish Leagues. The Italian Serie A is to an extent still suffering from the match fixing scandal that rocked it a few years ago and is comparatively poorer than its English and Spanish cousins, and so overall, is a little behind the leading pack.
The German league was fantastically exciting this season, but overall that seems to be because of a drop in quality of its perennial powerhouse Bayern Munich which allowed the likes of Wolfsburg (who are the new champions) to compete, and so it too, probably falls a little short of the Premier League and La Liga.
In that sense then, and under the knowledge that Manchester United and Barcelona have just recently been freshly crowned as Champions of the Premier League and La Liga, the Champions League Final between them can be seen almost as a straight footrace to determine which league is, at present, the strongest. Of course, the presence of two more English sides in the semi-final makes a strong claim in favour of the Premier League’s all round strength, but ultimately in football, success is judged on trophies, so the winner in this case, will probably take the spoils.
Therefore, I once again appeal to the patriotism of English football fans. Despite your allegiances to your own club, you all fall as a whole, under the banner of English. It’s a banner that takes a lot of flak in Europe, as English fans and football struggle to shake off poor reputations that are arguably undeserved, and it would be great to really be able to hold our heads high as the pre-eminent league in European football. Of course, Manchester United wouldn’t be the unanimous choice of club to earn that honour for us, we’d all like to see our own clubs there, but they have earned the right, and I feel they should have the support of the nation that they represent as they walk out onto the pitch in Rome, because ultimately their glory, should they be successful, will reflect well on all of us as part of English football.
So there we have it. Be it because an Manchester United win could nudge English football ahead in the historical stakes or because it could prove our current dominance, or simply because they are the most worthy winners of a strangely named competition, or even just because Barcelona lucked out big time with the referee in the Semi-Final, I think there are plenty of reasons for English football fans to forget their prejudices against Manchester United and instead get behind them against Barcelona tomorrow.
Whatever happens though, it will hopefully be a stunning spectacle of the very peak of European football. Let’s hope its a fantastic game that isn’t ruined by some other factors, be it crowd trouble or refereeing controversy or poor player behaviour. At the end of the day, football should be the real winner as two truly awesome sides take to the pitch and we as neutrals are fortunate in that we get to watch it with pleasure, rather that with the nail-biting nerves that the fans of either side will be feeling.
So enjoy the match everyone, and here’s me saying something I very rarely even think: come on United, bring it home for the proud nation of England!