Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Champions League

The Champions League is, I think, my favourite football competition. There’s something distinctly nocturnal about it – and not just because it’s played in the evening. Forgive the A Level poetry, but for me it has all the buzz and unknowable tension of a night out in a strange city. It’s dark, your face reflecting the glow of hazy neon lights, and you’re not sure what to make of those around you; they maybe talk or act or move differently than you’re used to, but you know they’re all there for the same reason as you are – and they’re all excited.

No other competition comes close for the sheer thrill of Champions League football. There’s the ridiculously overblown but nonetheless iconic theme music – a bastardisation of Zadok the Priest with overtones of some imagined European community spirit, sung along to in pubs and bars across the continent at the beginning of every game and, eventually I’m sure, by the players themselves in lieu of a cohesive national anthem – and the image of the football covered in UEFA’s glamorous stars unfurled across the centre circles of fascinating stadia in exotic cities you’ve barely heard of.

Then there’s the football, of course. The inimitable spectacle of two-legged contests against foreign or domestic opposition with the horror or glory of away goals or penalties potentially deciding matters is a uniquely CL experience. Anyone who watched the second leg of Liverpool v Chelsea in last season’s quarter finals will be lucky to see a more exciting, closely fought or genuinely action-packed game of football ever again. A 4-4 game is one thing – a 4-4 result at the highest level when it matters so much is truly breathtaking.

The atmosphere in any pub, but particularly a partisan-yet-jovial one, is nothing like it is for a league game or an FA Cup tie – the nail-biting tension and (occasional) subsequent party atmosphere is heightened by the evening setting and the presence of random evening revellers. The banter is more lucid, more paranoid – and more wide-ranging. European club history is truly fascinating; and in every boozer there’s a fan of every club. Everyone’s seen at least one inexplicable Anderlecht fan sat biting his nails in the corner of a beer-sodden chain pub at 9.45 on a Tuesday night or a horde of drunken Fenerbahce fans staggering towards an unsuspecting suburban curry house.

Then there’s the free geography lesson: I suspect that some of the most geographically knowledgeable people you know are football fans. Were I not an avid student of recent Champions League and UEFA Cup campaigns, I couldn’t possibly tell you the name of three towns in Ukraine, or the biggest cities by population in Serbia. I love the amazingly exotic and obscure names and unfeasibly tiny clubs the European competitions throw up – every time a team like FK Ventspils, Unirea Urziceni, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk or Rubin Kazan appears on a fixture list for an English club there is a definite buzz, at least for me.

As a result, in three weeks time I’ll be in at the Bulgarian Army Stadium in Sofia watching CSKA Sofia take on OFC Sliven 2000 in the Bulgarian A Professional Football Group league. How could that not be exciting?! Were I not a football fan and, crucially, a bit of a nerd for former-Soviet football, I would probably not have suggested the trip to what I’m sure will be a beautiful and historic city (but don’t tell the girlfriend, eh?).

However, as much as I love the Champions League, I can’t help but feel that this season’s competition is going to take a little while to get going.

The action kicked off last night, as I watched Chelsea labour to a soggy and scrappy win over Porto, and as I type Liverpool are taking on Hungary’s Debreceni as part of a frankly underwhelming first round of games (at the moment I feel fairly happy to be avoiding Standard Liege v Arsenal – it’ll probably turn out to be a classic now) – at least for the English sides. The Premier League’s recent domination of the competition (and resulting high UEFA ranking) seems to have inadvertently thrown up some rather dull group stage opponents, and one would imagine that none of the big four, nor Rangers, should have much trouble getting to the last 16 stage.

Sure, Manchester United have a gruelling away trip to Moscow and Chelsea may find Atletico Madrid something of a stumbling block – and one should never discount Arsenal losing their bottle in Europe – but the really exciting groups are those with no UK interest.

Tonight Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan take on Barcelona in a game which is sadly hidden behind the red button on Sky Sports, hence limiting its UK audience dramatically – especially disappointing when it’s a great chance for pub football pundits to actually see the non-Premier League-based players they spend so much time pontificating upon. And last night’s 5-2 away win for Real Madrid over FC Zurich or Wolfsburg’s flying start against CSKA Moscow were almost certainly more of an interesting contest than the two 1-0 wins by English sides who barely got out of first gear.

It’d be nice to see more of the big European sides on television this year. As much as it’s been enjoyable to see English sides doing so well in the Champions League over the last few seasons, I’m getting a bit tired watching teams like Chelsea battling to reach a potential final against Man Utd by beating Arsenal and Liverpool, or whatever. Hopefully they’ll all be there in the last eight again – but not all in the last four, please.

I’m going to end this post by pasting in the trilingual lyrics to the Champions League anthem that I can hear from the TV in my living room, because I’ve only just read them properly (thanks, Wikipedia). They really are mind-boggling. Next time, you can sing along with me (and, presumably, Michel Platini).

Ce sont les meilleures equipes (Those are the best teams)
Sie sind die allerbesten Mannschaften (Those are the best teams)
The main event!


Die Meister (The champions)
Die Besten (The best)
Les Grandes Équipes (The biggest teams)
The Champions!!!!

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