The Champions League final is, of course, a big deal. It’s the culmination of the European football season. It’s the biggest fixture that the club game has. And as an added bonus, this year’s finalists, Liverpool and Real Madrid, who play Saturday, are exciting and interesting in hopefully complementary ways.
But! This is a World Cup year, and since the World Cup is perhaps humanity’s greatest shared festival, it’s only natural that it casts a shadow on all that comes before. Maybe you’re not a soccer obsessive. Maybe the Champions League is, for you, an amuse bouche: a delicately balanced, delicious mouthful, perfectly judged to get you in the mood for a month-long orgy of gluttonous football face-stuffing.
Hungry? Lovely. This is the piece for you.
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo
We begin with the only place to begin: The biggest seven since the seas. Cristiano Ronaldo is 33 years old now, which is usually around the time that footballers start to think about hanging up their boots, dropping down a couple of divisions, and maybe getting that persistent ache in their knee looked at.
Ronaldo has accepted the passage of time in some respects: He’s a less dynamic presence on the pitch, and any time he does try to make a run from deep, it almost feels like a nostalgia piece. Still, he scores goals. Loads of goals. Fifteen in the Champions League this season, which is five more than anybody else, however young they might be. He stands around the top of the pitch, and he flaps his arms and shouts at people, and then he gets the ball and scores.
When it comes to Portugal, Ronaldo doesn’t score quite as heavily: He averages just over a goal every two games, rather than three in every four. Perhaps that’s to be expected, as international teams rarely have the same strength as club sides. But last summer, as Portugal won Euro 2016, we saw a new and slightly unexpected side to Ronaldo, one that gives a little shade and depth to the caricature of CR7-as-ego-driven-monster.
Presumably he’d have liked to win Portugal’s first major trophy himself, on the pitch, with a glorious hat-trick and some inglorious celebrations. After his early injury in the Euro 2016 final, though, he had to recast himself, and he turned into a weird blend of auxiliary manager and motivational speaker. Whether actual manager Paulo Bento appreciated Ronaldo appearing in the technical area, clapping and shouting, we may never know. But Portugal’s players definitely did. Here’s Eder, who actually won the thing:
[Ronaldo] told me I would score the winning goal for the team. He gave me this strength, this energy and it was vital.
See? Even when he doesn’t score, he scores. And so we must conclude that Cristiano Ronaldo is basically Portugal’s dad. A weird dad, firmly in the grip of a midlife crisis — that ‘look at me’ celebration is nothing less than a leather jacket and a sports car in footballing form. But a dad nonetheless. He only flaps his arms at his kids because he loves them so very much.
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah
There have been moments this season when Mohamed Salah has looked like a footballer constrained only by the limits of his own imagination. Not all his 44 goals have been brilliant, but he’s made the brilliant ones look inevitable. That, perhaps, is the difference between somebody having a good season and somebody having a great one.
One of the big questions ahead of the Champions League final is whether Madrid, not an instinctively defensive side, will be able to keep Salah quiet. But it’s only natural to start wondering how Salah’s excellence might translate to the World Cup. His excellence almost requires you to get carried away, to slip into a reverie ...
... taking Egypt on his shoulders ... bearing them through to the latter stages … after all, he can score against anyone … scoring goals is a pretty good way to win football matches … perhaps they could go all the way … hmmm … yes ... that would be fun ... wait, what was that ... yes! yes! I’m awake, sorry. Er, could you repeat that?
Of course what tends to actually happen is the singular genius gets double- or triple-marked out of every game. You can’t afford to do that against Liverpool; you might be able to get away with it against Egypt.
Isco! Marcelo! And some other fun people!
Looking beyond the headliners, there’s plenty to enjoy. Perhaps the pick of the attacking players is Real Madrid’s Isco, a delightful playmaker whose job, in Russia, will be to stitch Spain’s exceptional midfield to their slightly underwhelming attack. In Kyiv, he’ll basically be doing the same, except he’ll have Ronaldo to aim for. All the whelm.
In addition to Salah, the other members of Liverpool’s Terrifying Trident — it’ll catch on, you wait — will also be present in Russia. Sadio Mane is the main attacking threat for Senegal, while Roberto Firmino, if he plays for Brazil, will have to do lots of selfless running to make Neymar look good. But then he does that in red for Mane and Salah, so it should be fine.
Also turning out for Brazil will be Marcelo, who will start at left-back for Real Madrid and will spend most of his time on the edge of the opposition penalty area. He’s a mysterious player: When you watch him, he doesn’t seem to defend at all, yet Madrid consistently win the Champions League and Brazil are in with a decent shout of the World Cup. You’d think that would be hard to do without a left-back.
He’s a magician, is what we’re saying. A straight-up sorcerer, capable of being in two places at once, and also being invisible in one of them. And if he gets taken to pieces by Salah on Saturday, well, we were never here.
[cloud of coloured smoke]
Let’s get trivial
Ahem. Excuse us. Let’s talk about the record books. Interesting fact: Only three players have lifted both the European Cup/Champions League and the World Cup as captains, Franz Beckenbauer (Bayern Munich and Germany), Didier Deschamps (Marseille and France) and Iker Casillas (Real Madrid and Spain). Of those three, only Beckenbauer has done so in the same year, 1974.
This year, we have one candidate to emulate Beckenbauer. And we nearly had two. Madrid captain Sergio Ramos will most likely wear the armband for Spain, who are among the stronger squads traveling to Russia. But the chance to emulate Beckenbauer was sadly denied to Jordan Henderson this week, when England, with no respect for the pub quizzes of the future, appointed Harry Kane as captain. Boo, Gareth Southgate. Boo.
Still, the fact that Henderson even appears in the same sentence as “emulate Beckenbauer” is evidence of just how far Liverpool’s captain has come in the last few seasons. Why, it only seems like yesterday that Brendan Rodgers was trying, and failing, to swap him for Clint Dempsey.
Those we might be seeing in Kyiv that we won’t be seeing in Russia
Karim Benzema, because nobody in the France set-up seems to like him. Gareth Bale, because Wales made a complete mess of their qualifying campaign. Virgil Van Dijk, because the Netherlands ditto. Loris Karius, because the queue for the position of German No. 1 is very long indeed. And Emre Can, because the queue for the position of German midfielder is, well, you get the idea.
A note of warning
The World Cup is, as we all know, the best. But the World Cup’s actual games are, if we’re being honest, sometimes rather less than inspiring. They can be defensive, they can be awkward, they can even be a little bit dull.
International football suffers in relation to the club game in a number of ways, the most obvious being that everybody involved has already had a full season. This is meant to be their time off. Everybody’s a bit knackered. Also, if you don’t have any decent central defenders, you can’t just go out and buy Southampton’s. You’re stuck with what your nation’s talent pool can give you.
But perhaps more importantly, the structure of the game works against fluent football. The squads are piecemeal and patchy, and the coaches just don’t have the time that building a system needs. When you watch Liverpool pour forward, you’re not just seeing a group of wonderful attacking players given freedom to express themselves. You’re seeing the culmination of a season’s training, experimentation, and work.
National teams don’t have that luxury. They have a couple of weeks here and there throughout the season, and then a few friendlies in the lead up to the tournament. And that’s it. There’s a decent chance that Saturday’s final will be an absolute cracker. There’s an even better chance that some of this summer’s group games are going to be absolute shockers. C’est la vie.