Thursday, December 20, 2012

Man United v Real Madrid steeped in history

The “storied” clubs in European football history spring to mind with the merest effort. There are only a few clubs whose dominance has spanned the decades of memory: a few clubs each from England, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.

So when two of these clubs with rich histories face each other, it's only natural that these encounters become keenly anticipated. Column inches and bandwidth are consumed voraciously. This week, an unexceptional matchup in a mediocre competition earned more press than warranted only because the protagonists had a history; in this case, Chelsea and Leeds meeting in a Cup tie retrieved foggy but extremely pleasant memories of the early 1970s, Don Revie and The Damned United. The juxtaposition of nor'n White and southern Blue achieved more notoriety than either team – or the game itself – deserved because of the rose-coloured cellophane taped to the lenses of commentators' binoculars.

Today's Champions League draw has gifted us with another opportunity for nostalgia and romance: in the next round of the Champions League, Real Madrid and Manchester United will compete for a place in the Champions League quarter finals. The tie has all a writer could hope for: reputation, individual and collective histories and opportunities for speculation on managerial unemployment.

However, despite their comparative starry reputations, most objective discussion surrounding this pair of old romantics suggest that they have underperformed during 2012-13. United features a pyramid resting unsteadily on backfield foundations constructed apparently from papier-mâché, while Real Madrid appear finally to have submitted to the second law of Thermodynamics and fallen victim to all-consuming entropy developing from within.

Despite both clubs being far inferior iterations than those to which their supporters may be accustomed, enough quality remains – usually forward of the centre – for them to maintain their birthright usual position at the pointy end of their respective table. However, perhaps more in commentary as to the lack of parity across the footballing class divides, neither squad passes the “eye test”; United lack the resoluteness of Nemanja Vidic's pomp, while Los Merengues lack their devastating fluency of 2011-12.

But in truth, the sheer volume of verbiage is almost entirely justified (well, unless you happen to read Mike Calvin's columns on Life's a Pitch). These two teams are replete with history and what is history but a collection of stories? Aside from being written by the winners, history is malleable, almost completely subjective and born of advent. It's also much more powerful when repeated orally; stories and deeds are magnified, sometimes losing precision but gaining narrative. That we have limited access to (and, thankfully, analysis of) matches past is why rivalries like that of Chelsea-Leeds maintains much of its currency after forty-one-plus years. Stories are what make football – and sport, in general – powerful, not the statistical impact of Robin van Persie on his new club.

This makes rose-coloured glasses a thoroughly acceptable, if not necessarily accurate, method of evaluating the past and predicting the future. It's almost certainly a far more fun and optimistic way of watching our football.

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