This great game's outstanding performers showed us what's still to love in soccer.
Lots of words have been spilled and spelled over soccer's various and numerous ills: ticket prices; Joey Barton; diving; racism; the non-celebration of goals; match fixing. These issues are important. And it's therefore important that they're discussed. But part of what makes them important is that people love this game. And it's therefore important that we also articulate why we love this game. Real Madrid 1-1 Manchester United was a lovable game. It exemplified what I love about the game.
Mainly, I love its diversity. I love the multiplicity of types it absorbes, talents it nurtures, how many ways there are of being good at it.
In broad strokes, there's the contrast between the floating, fragile brilliance of a Mesut Ozil or, later, a Luka Modric or the thrusting muscular forcefulness of Wayne Rooney, Sami Khedira. There's the philistine and all-but-intolerable, though this time barely-glimpsed, ugliness of Pepe and the adroit deftness of the rapier-like Robin van Persie. This is a sport where a bruiser and a ballerina can compete on equal terms in a single symphony.
But if that expresses the breadth of the parade, it says nothing of its depth. Soccer is not all equal; it is a competition between equivalents and of opposites: players who compete against each other by outdoing one another at the same job and others whose very jobs are opposites.
Manchester United's David De Gea and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo - this game's standout performers - fit both categories. They were both superb but in entirely different ways. Partly, of course, this is a positional thing: they are trying to do different things, to oppose one another and one's success is measured in part by the other's failure.
Both did their jobs admirably tonight. They opposed each other brilliantly. But what really makes the game special, for me, is that they opposed each other so differently.
Most sports -- think of the Olympics -- consist in the studied application of a received wisdom. Talk of technique dominates alongside related stories of the consequent and necessary commitment. Repetitions, etc.. Ronaldo is this type of footballer. Think of the Olympics again: long jumpers try to ‘hang in the air'. They practice this. Ronaldo, it seems, does too*. Amongst many other things. His is a sort of unique, studied, brilliance. Muscular, sure, but bureaucratic too. For all the talk of his apparent fancy-dannery, Ronaldo is an intelligent professional above all other things; he identifies opponents' weaknesses and ruthlessly exploits them. His goal was a composite of his business-like ability to measure gains. And, of course, his almost unprecedented levels of individual freakery - he curled a header.
*People in London went nuts about a guy called Greg Rutherford who won a gold medal in the long jump - 8m31cm. Think how much further Ronaldo would be able to go if he'd spent the last four years practicing only that.
De Gea may not have directly foiled Ronaldo. But he conceptually confounded him with his phenomenal peculiarity.Technically, he does almost nothing right. He pokes crosses more than he punches them, for example. But he does things that no other goalkeeper can do. First, he made an invisible save from Fábio Coentrão: the sort of magnificent stop that you only notice in replay because, in real-time, you assumed that the unstoppable shot must have just missed of its own, seemingly inexorable, volition. These aren't unique to de Gea of course, but he makes way more than his fair share. He made a great hold, later, from Khedira too, but that was orthodox -- it made me happy only because it showed he can do what people complain he can't, even when it's very very hard. His best moment for me, because it sums up best why I loved this game and love this game, was the spidery, booted save he made, again from Coentrão after the full-back arrived, unmarked at the far post. He saved it and cleared it. He kept goal and defended, did his job and someone else's.
And that, finally, is what I mean about variety. The game's elite personalities with their rarefied talents create, from a limited number of positions and scenarios, an almost infinite variety of solutions of, as Ronaldo and de Gea showed tonight, completely distinct styles.