Sunday, 20 May 2007

Cold Porridge

Many Australians holidaying in the northern hemisphere contrast the respective culinary experiences of United Kingdom and mainland Europe. Compare Spain and England for example. A dining experience in Madrid, Barcelona or say the Basque country is a delight – an adventure, a collision of exciting flavours, a flamboyant feast worth every measly $A. Conversely, eating in England is by and large a grudge purchase – a necessity, expensive, and definitely subtitled not to be enjoyed.

We’re in the middle of the cup finals season in Europe. And over the past four days, we’ve had the opportunity to sample fare of two distinctly different flavours. The UEFA Cup final last Wednesday featured the Spanish adversaries Sevilla and Espanyol, while Saturday’s English FA Cup final featured leading clubs Chelsea and Manchester United.

The UEFA Cup is a damaged brand these days, largely inflicted by UEFA itself. It’s true to say that ever since it was born out of the curious Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in the 1960’s, it’s been by definition the poor cousin of the European Cup, now Champions League. The competition for those not quite good enough for the other comp. And yet it’s produced its fair share of brilliant football memories over the past 40+ years. But in most recent times, it’s become another plaything of the top clubs, the so-called G14, which wraps UEFA around its bloc-style little finger. And now it’s set up so that any of the big boys prematurely knocked out of the Champions League can get a “lucky loser” go in the UEFA Cup.

Yet, despite its lower status, it still throws out memorable finals. Liverpool edging Alaves 5-4, no, not on penalties, but after extra time a few years back a special case in point. And last Wednesday, at Hampden Park Glasgow, was another open, brilliant end-to-end affair. Sevilla, last years winners, and aspirants for this years Liga title as well as the Copa del Rey, were deserved favourites against their countrymen Espanyol from Barcelona, the club forever in the shadow of their city rivals, and with barely a highlight interrupting their long existence. But Espanyol and Sevilla put on a dazzling display, which finished 2-2 after extra time and saw the dogged Catalonians again playing bride after penalties has decided the matter in Sevilla's favour.

Contrast this with the English final, with the much awaited new Wembley on display for a global audience to take in for the first time. And the opponents couldn’t have boasted a higher pedigree. Chelsea and Man United, at each others throats all season in the league and Champions League, now fighting for the last piece of domestic silverware.

And what a sad bore-fest in turned out to be. Or, in my case, snore-fest as I struggled desperately to keep awake. With the opponents having clocked up an aggregate of over 120 competitive fixtures this season, this unfortunately played out as one of the worst of them. The all-star cast, primed for a chefs-hat feast, served up cold porridge. Defensive formations, scared to make a mistake, no way through crowded defences. On a night where many Australians are staying up late to watch the “spectacle”, this was a terrible advertisement for the world game.

The cup final has served up many substantial dishes in the past and over my lifetime it’s been a delight to savour such tasty morsels as 1973 Leeds-Sunderland, 1979 Man Utd-Arsenal, 1987 Coventry-Spurs, 1990 Palace-Man Utd and 2006 Liverpool-West Ham. In the greater European scheme of things, the FA cup has lost its lustre in recent years, with the inevitable domination by the same clubs that dominate the EPL. But there's still the chance of a great game to justify the great occasion. But not this year.

The English like to occasionally bang on in Gordon Ramsey style about their league being Europe’s premier. By such bland measures as Euros invested across their top clubs, they have an argument to mount. But much too often its top ingredients still end up with a result that’s no better than lukewarm mush. How to change the recipe?


Stephen Hughes said...

Love your work Murty! Look forward to more posts!

Too right about the FACF being a bore, as it so often has been in the past - the match seldom lives up to the hype (you can only name 5 great games in 35 years), unless your team is involved of course. But I think you have to be careful about looking through the ocker lens - it's not the talent on show that is a problem, it's the motivation.
Let's face it, Les Murray and co have had it in for English football talent for years - you know the stuff: 'the typical long ball English game', 'English players lack ball control and technique' etc etc. - ie. Not like our beloved Hungarians of 1953! All cliches of course and not supported by the host of great English ball players ... Alan Hudson, Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne to name a few.
The point is that it's not the players or even the managers who are to blame, as SBS would like us to think, it's the system which fails the game in 2 key respects:
(1) The FA Cup used to matter because of its tradition and because it used to reward the winner with qualification to a Euro comp that nattered - the old Cup Winners Cup.
(2) The lopsided nature of player recruitment ie. money buys the best ensures repetition and predictable outcomes. Look at the NFL and even our own AFL for how to do it - a controlled draft process that rewards lower performing clubs with better players and guaranteed revenues.
If the FACF carried qualification to the Champions League and you had a more even competition generally, I think we would have experienced a different level of intensity on offer at Wembley and even if you didn't get a sparkling game you would get excitement, tension and passion - the true ingredients of a Wembley final.

Murtoa Road said...

Fair points Stephen. One only has to look at the various lower league league play-off finals to find the tension and passion that was missing on Saturday.

Regrettably, the power of the G14 and the inability to place any reasonable boundaries on the football marketplace means that drafts and salary caps won't be features that will see the light of day.

I enjoyed your list of some of the great English artisans of the past - Hoddle, Waddle et al. Interesting that all of them and their kind - you can add Le Tissier, Bowles, Worthington and others - universally failed to gain regular England caps, usually down to "laziness", "work rate" and so on - where else but in England would that have been the case?