Words: Max Freeman-Mills
Images: Offside Sports Photography
The goals-only highlights clips that we subsist on nowadays can’t do the 2006 final any justice, even if I’m still grateful—serf-like—to UEFA for putting them up. Barcelona and Arsenal did not serve up a one-minute-forty-five-seconds cut of Champions League final. It swung to and fro, threatening a drubbing for the Londoners then, suddenly, looking like they might run away with it instead.
Gunners fans endured a classically terrifying opening period, punctuated by frantic chances on both sides. Henry shot into Victor Valdés’s legs, a Valdés two years into his decade of dominance for the Catalonians. Jens Lehmann fielded a few pot shots from the boys in stripes. Ronaldinho looked scary and fun, surprisingly enough.
Then, 18 minutes in, Lehmann darted out of his box to trip Samuel Eto’o. The foul, and its consequent red card, might have been forgivable. Except when Lehmann misses with his legs, Eto’o jinking the ball away, the keeper clearly follows through with his hands to be sure he brings him down. Calculated actions, in the certain knowledge of a sending off. Bananas.
Giuly’s tap-in was chalked off to award the red, and Manuel Almunia stepped onto the pitch looking pants-shat terrified, for Robert Pirès. Then, on 37 minutes, Arsenal took the lead. Don’t get me wrong, Barcelona fans would have been foaming at the mouth, a goal chalked off and now they’re down. But for Arsenal it, was dreamland; Sol Campbell in the twilight of his Gunners career banging in a header.
For the next 40 minutes, the game resumed its harrowing style, Barcelona peppering Almunia with easy enough shots, Arsenal looking bafflingly threatening on the break. Ronaldinho started shooting increasingly wildly, and Eto’o just wasn’t getting chances. Barcelona were getting rattled as the clock ticked on.
Then it all turned. Henrik Larsson took a pass from Iniesta, one-touching it round the corner putting in the sprinting Eto’o. Samuel steadied himself and popped it in at the near post, spotting that Almunia’s nerves had left a gap. The goal went in and Barcelona were flying, a man up with fifteen minutes to win, which they did. After Belletti’s shot knocked off Almunia’s hopelessly spread legs went, the keeper’s confidence gone, it was all done. Wenger’s face was genuinely upsetting, even as a neutral.
Eto’o’s goal was a turning point in the purest sense — Barcelona getting the boost of all boosts. But what if Eto’o’s smooth first touch isn’t silky, but shonky? What if his shot bangs against the post and out, or better yet, Almunia gets a leg out, de Gea style, and gets it away?
ARSÈNE WENGER IS AT AN ALMIGHTY CROSSROADS
Champions League glory. If not a full-on bête noire for Arsène Wenger, Europe’s top competition wasn’t exactly a happy hunting ground for the French innovator. All that changes when Eto’o misses from the angle.
Arsenal summon the lingering Invincibles spirit to get them through. Almunia takes heart from parrying Samuel’s effort and goes through a Dragonball Z-style evolution that can happen with the wind at your back and confidence pumping you to full tumescence, and when Barcelona’s late attacks come through Belletti overlapping on the right flank, his positioning is all it needs to be.
The Champions League is in the bag, and Wenger gets a nice champagne-soaking gaffer prank, the sort we all love to see, in his post-match presser. The mood is jubilant; London’s loving it (partly). The first London team to win the Champions League, bringing it home. Wenger is overcome with emotion. A point of divergence rears its head.
i) Reflecting on his time in charge of Arsenal, Arsène has a realisation. He looks ahead to the impending opening of the Emirates, considers the austerity he’s been told is coming and asks himself if it sounds like much fun. “Non,” he concludes, and announces his resignation on the spot, at the highest peak of football. Adulation follows, and an uncertain future.
ii) The above dilemma does occur to Wenger, but he veers in the opposite direction. He’s brought unprecedented success to Arsenal; he could achieve godhood with a well-managed decade of work. He stays on, but with an additional silver bullet to fire at dickhead fans on Twitter: “I littéralement won you a Champions League, you imbéciles”. He is the first and last manager of the modern era to manage into his 90s, guiding the Gunners to endless mid-table finishes in the European Super League.
ARSENAL RETAIN THEIR ALLURE
But Wenger isn’t Arsenal, as closely associated as they are. Regardless of Arsène’s decision on his own future, the situation at the club is looking pretty positive, as it often does at reigning European champions. When Henry announces ahead of the final that he’d be a Gunner for life, this time he bloody well means it, the Champions League cementing him in place. His injury-plagued 06/07 would be a blip in the radar, not the end of a glittering stay in London, his already legendary status climbing to unprecedented heights.
His peak extended at Arsenal, the team built around him with young stars like Fàbregas maturing, Arsenal’s loosening grip on the Premier League tightens once more. Titles follow, even with the Emirates stadium’s building process hitting transfer fees. After all, Arsenal know as well as anyone that keeping your assets is as valuable as signing new ones. When Barcelona come calling, siren songs to tempt Cesc back to Catalonia, he seeks advice from Thierry and, pointedly in English, politely tells them to do one. That intangible “come hither” allure is back for the Gooners. Hallelujah.
AND ARSENAL FANS DON’T HAVE QUITE THE SAME SEISMIC SHIFT IN PERSONALITY THAT SEES THEM GO FROM RELATIVELY NORMAL TO ARSENALFANTV, WHICH, IN TURN, TURNED ALL OTHER FANBASES INTO DEMENTED YOUTUBE CHANNELS
It was a few years later, in 2012, that Arsenal Fan TV was established. Its roots go deeper, though, right back to the sorts of near-misses that Wenger is so fond of. From “I nearly signed Messi” to the last-gasp failures (Obafemi Martins, anyone?), a vocal minority at the Emirates had their brains poisoned by imposter syndrome and Brighton Seafront’s-worth of chips on their shoulders.
But with the Champions League in the bag, and everything going nicely, Robbie, DT, Claude, and the lot fade from YouTube like Marty McFly in his picture frame. They just cease to be (as YouTubers, I’m not saying they’re dead). Arsenal’s fanbase have dodged a bullet—they don’t turn into viral-sensation gobshites and obsessive-compulsive self-sabotaging weirdos. Moreover, fans around the world are saved from the many scourges of meme-rants and swarming trolls and YouTube channels of presenters standing outside stadiums directly after huge losses, looking to weaponise emotion and temporary insanity for ad revenue. There’s no NET SPEND, and there’s no YERRA FOOL, MOY-SEH. For most, it’s a nirvana they never realised they were already in.
BARCELONA’S CONFIDENCE FALTERS
The loss to Arsenal is equally massive for their opponents, though. Hot prospects like Valdés and Iniesta haven’t got the job done, Rijkaard is crushed by their failure. The club has one of those Spanish football crises everyone loves: journos are briefed from all sides, leaks grow, and some spicy opinions make themselves heard, loudly and in public.
The club’s crisis punctures the reputation of La Masia. Just because Hansen was wrong in one case, does that mean kids can really be trusted? Look, there’s no suggesting that Messi won’t make it, he’s just too good to ignore. But a philosophical change takes hold. The academy is in ruins: Busquets and Pedro disappear, Pep Guardiola isn’t given his B-team education, the backbone of the club brittle and calcified. Barcelona runs on, of course, a juggernaut, simply with a less loveable reputation, the supreme philosophy that colours everything—the Barcelona way—is gone.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN BECOME... ACTUALLY LIKEABLE
When Wenger, in one split reality, packs it all in with the Champions League in the bag, there’s one club in particular that pricks up its ears. Wenger spends a few years on the beach, budgie smugglers on show, playing volleyball and reading Kant, loving life, but he’s got that itch. We all know he needs the game. In 2011, PSG are taken over by Qatar Sports Investments, and the money flows. Who do they go to?
They look at Carlo Ancelotti, but when they hear that a Frenchman, and a living legend, a maestro who has the one trophy they crave so fucking badly, could be interested, they have to get their man. Arsène signs up, and PSG become an entirely different beast. Gone are the prima donna antics, the big egos signed up purely for PlayStation clout. In comes unity, deference, and a devotion to attractive passing play. PSG are the new Arsenal, but with bottomless cash and timid opponents. They’re a force to be reckoned with, but, more to the point, they’re confusingly hard to hate, like Pep’s City at their best (which... we’ll get to in a second). The shady investments are one thing; the beautiful one-touch goals quite another.
PEP GUARDIOLA’S MAN CITY TEAM SIMPLY DO NOT EXIST
The Barcelona brain trust’s failure of faith ripples through football history. The abandonment, or at least sidelining, of La Masia, has one chief impact, and one major victim: Pep Guardiola. In 2007, Pep took charge of Barcelona B for a couple of years before revolutionising a lot of the things we took for granted in modern football and embarking on the most successful few years any coach has ever had with the first team.
Except, nope. Now the bigwigs aren’t sure about someone with literally no managerial experience taking creative liberties even with their B team, so it’s off to find a jobsworth they go. A Yes Man. A By-The-Numbers Guy. Pep might lose confidence or he might find another job, but what he won’t do is have the ultimate squad, and the best player in history, to foster his football philosophy and authenticate it as epoch-making.
For Barca, it’s time for the pragmatists—Louis van Gaal, Ancelotti, the tried and the trusted. They continually cast envious looks at Wenger’s European titans in Paris, but can’t tempt him from his native land. Success doesn’t elude the the Catalans totally, but they’re no longer the Dream Team. They don’t collect trophies like Pogs. They don’t destroy Man United in the Champions League final. They simply tread water in minor success before they’re fading from collective memory before they’ve even cleared up the ticker tape. They become just any other team without Pep at the helm.
This particular Butterfly Effect is also nice and depressing for Mancunians of the blue persuasion. Their successes under Messrs Mancini and Pellegrini don’t evaporate, but the focal point of their newly-moneyed existence, a single-minded pursuit of Pep, is gone. The erratic spending patterns continue, the hail-mary transfers only become more frequent, and the team veers in and out of success and, eventually, crisis. The greatest team the Prem’s ever seen aren’t assembled, and Raheem Sterling doesn’t go on to become the greatest goal-scoring English winger in decades. Leroy Sané joins Real Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne joins Bayern.
Aside from City, the ripples widen. Sweeper keepers, high presses, false nines, inverted fullbacks, wing backs in back threes. These innovations are left to kooks and boffins, rather than aired in the Champions League, and football’s all the poorer for it. The lack of tactical innovation leaves football stultifying, or, more hopefully, changing in other ways that are near-impossible to predict.
Maybe it’s better this way.
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