UEFA Champions League: A Real mess for Liverpool

REAL MADRID attract major trophies just as Liverpool seem to court drama and controversy. There’s no denying the French police handled the event abysmally, clumsily responding to an incident that was partly their own making and treating Liverpool’s fans with disdain and strong-arm aggression. In the circumstances, it’s no surprise that these events overshadowed the triumph of the Spanish champions.

Likewise, if the problem was also caused by fake tickets, and there were allegedly ticket touts roaming around London St. Pancras, then greater control has to be exerted. I spoke to Liverpool fans at the station who were going to Paris without a ticket just to be there. Who can blame them?

Denis, Denis…

If UEFA had any teeth, they would not consider the Stade de France for future finals, even though Paris is the spiritual home of the European Cup. Saint-Denis is not an ideal place to welcome 75,000 people, if only because the crime rate is far higher than the national average in France. Perhaps that’s why the local police were quick to introduce a chemical response.

The truth will emerge in the weeks ahead, but it was obvious that, given the easy accessibility of Paris, there was always going to be a mass movement of Liverpool fans for this game. Some people believe we are still in the 1980s, that all British football fans are violent. Unfortunately, the anarchy at the European Championship final undid a lot of the fine work over the previous two decades and once more, continental Europe perceived the English as feral hooligans. How much of that sentiment drove the behaviour of the French authorities?

There have been attempts to simply blame Liverpool fans for the debacle, but at St. Pancras the lengthy queues included the very old and very young, expectant, hopeful supporters waiting to board their train. Given the huge numbers, it was inevitable that some would be unruly, no matter which club they followed. I was in Stockholm in 2017 for the Europa Final and I witnessed some bad behaviour from Manchester United fans and in Paris a few years ago, Chelsea fans were filmed abusing locals. Big crowds have a higher percentage of those willing to step over the line.

Criticism of Liverpool fans invariably gets interpreted as criticism of Liverpool the city. Football is so vital to the city for its escapism and source of local pride, but the rest of the country doesn’t really understand so this intensity is often used as a stick to beat Liverpool on the head.

Skysportsism

Did Liverpool really think the quadruple was on? Did they truly target four trophies? It would seem unlikely anyone was seriously contemplating winning the lot, mostly because to win everything, you have to beat teams who are similarly focused on those prizes, namely, Manchester City and Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp is too professional to do anything but adopt the age-old cliché: “We take each game as it comes”. The pursuit of four cups made for a good “skysportsism” and helped the bookies cash-in on the run-in to the end of the campaign, and that was it.

Liverpool had a great season, but their margin of success was as narrow as any margin of defeat. Their two cup victories were achieved on penalties, that most unsatisfactory method of success. Two 0-0 draws against Chelsea that could so easily have gone the other way. They lost the league by one point and the Champions League by a single goal. Liverpool played with a flamboyance that has, arguably, exhausted them, but City still topped the table. Real Madrid, a team nobody really considered as potential champions, managed by a coach that was supposed to be past his best, controlled Liverpool like no other opponent in 2021-22. For all their pressure and possession, it never looked as though Klopp’s men would ever equalise.

Twin peaks?

Klopp was understandably distraught, the peak of his trademark cap pulled down to shield his eyes, but predicted Liverpool would be back, joking that fans should book their hotels for Istanbul in 2023. But was this season the peak of this Liverpool, indeed both teams? For Real this is more understandable as they have a host of key players at the veteran stage of their careers. For Liverpool, they have pushed Manchester City for four years, closing the gap between the two clubs, but with City already reinforcing their squad, the task will arguably get even harder. Between them, they have won over 70% of their league games over five years. They have scored over 900 league goals in that time.

Liverpool’s dynamic forward line of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané has arguably played its last game for the club. This trio have scored 58% of Liverpool’s Premier League goals over five years, although the ratio dropped significantly in 2021-22.

Salah has said he’s staying at Anfield for next season, but his contract expires in June 2023. In other words, unless he signs a new deal, Salah will be running-off his contract and Liverpool will not get a handsome fee. Firmino is also looking to leave and Mané seems bound for Bayern Munich. All three players are either 30 or a fortnight off that landmark. Admittedly, Liverpool have options in Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz, but can they cope with losing Salah?

Real have been putting off their rebuilding, although there have been changes in recent years. But surely, this time, the team has achieved all that it can? Real have won five Champions Leagues since 2014 with teams that were not exactly trendsetters or great innovators. Some of their five victories, such as 2022 and 2016, were not especially convincing and generally, sceptics consider Real have come through the competition because of their wealth and size. It’s hard to be critical, because five is five after all, and Champions League winners come in different shapes and sizes and not always representative of the current hierarchy. It is, in its final stages, a knockout tournament.

You only need look at their path to glory and the opponents they have beaten: PSG, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. If a team beats rivals of these quality, they are deserved winners. Ultimately, the reason there has been a collective shrug of the shoulder is because it feels like the same old song. Real Madrid, champions of Europe. It has happened 14 times.

Those pesky half-and-half scarves

IN THOSE sepia-tinted days, the memento of a football match was the programme, hence they were called just that, “Souvenir Programme”, a reminder of an afternoon or evening shouting yourself hoarse for 90 minutes of exhilaration or disappointment. Programmes are, sadly, dying out and it is hard to see a future beyond five years for a commodity that was once a staple of any matchday.

There were other items of memorabilia that accompanied the fan experience: rossettes, rattles and scarves. The wool version of the scarf was later replaced or complemented by a “silk” version, although there wasn’t an ounce of silk in them and you didn’t want to get too close to anyone with a cigarette in their hand for fear of third degree burns. Football violence dissuaded many fans from carrying their colours, but in the Premier League age, the sign of allegiance is the football shirt, that highly flammable, static-inducing garment that beer bellies and bingo wings are squeezed into at every opportunity.

Football in major cities has become a tourist attraction and crowds at places like Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and the Tottenham stadium are full of day-trippers and visitors to London. They empty the club stores of merchandise, hungrily snapping-up evidence of their trip. At the same time, they take photos on their phones, even record the action from high up in the stands. Quite often, they will have a scarf around their neck, a poorly-constructed strip of synthetic fabric with the fixture emblazoned across it: Chelsea v Lille or Arsenal v Villareal, for example. 

Regulars and old-school supporters despise these scarves, considering they are unnecessary and a sign of a lack of fanatical, even myopic, devotion to the cause. They also reflect the contemporary need to demonstrate where the owner of the scarf has been. Doubtless, the item will be seen on social media before the game has even kicked off.

But what is so offensive about these scarves? I would agree they are unnecessary and pretty tasteless, but then wandering around in your best football shirt is also an acquired habit. Likewise, blind devotion in this age of so many alternatives is also a little limiting. So why not show appreciation for both teams? Why not reveal a flag of friendship?

These scarves have been “invented” to cash in on experience-hungry fans from younger generations. It is doubtful any club would issue official scarves of this nature (maybe they do???), but somewhere, in an industrial unit in a grubby corner of a home counties town, somebody is knocking-out these scarves. It is no different to the many hawkers who peddled metal badges and other such throwaway items that exploited fans eager to fill their homes with memorabilia. We’ve all been there, especially when we were young – I had a leather key ring that buttoned-up to conceal a fold-out strip of tiny shots of the Chelsea team of 1971-72 that I kept for some 30 years. I bought it at the UEFA Cup final at Tottenham in 1972. I was recently in Madrid and the craze has arrived in the Spanish capital, although “Atlético v Menchester United” is sure to be a collectable item in the years ahead.

At the end of the day, these items are hardly scarce or even valuable as there have been produced in bulk. And do we really need to wear football shirts to show our passion for the game? Most of us just don’t look good in a shirt designed for a superbly fit and agile 23 year-old. Just compare it to a fashion item – would a 70 year-old buy a tailored shirt designed for a hipster wearing turned-up jeans that give you instant membership of a church choir? Admittedly, the football shirt can be classed as an item of clothing that spans the generations, but does it… really?

Half-and-half scarves are for a specific audience and while I wouldn’t be seen with one draped around my neck, the audience that would buy them, in some ways, represents the future. The old guard are fading fast, their arthritic hips and knees forcing them into the main stand in their living rooms. Ultimately, who needs a football shirt or scarf or that item of mass produced objet d’art to show their preference anyway?