The UEFA Champions League final has come to stand for a good deal more than just a climactic game. It represents a yearly check on the health of the soccer body, a temperature reading, a diagnosis. How goes our sport? Healthy? Feverish? Sick? Strong? Weak?
From that perspective, the news is good. We have a game that features two teams, Manchester United and Barcelona, that like to play a skillful game -- arguably the two best exponents that we have of "the beautiful game."
If there is a problem to be discerned, it has to do not with the teams and their styles of soccer, but with the occasion itself, that fact that this is a final.
For some time, soccer has not been producing great finals. Indeed, even a good one is becoming a rarity. There are two clear and cogent reasons for that.
Firstly: Finals, being finals, come at the end of a wearing series of games. Either -- as in the Champions League -- at the end of a grueling season of something like 60 games. Or, as with the World Cup, at the climax of a short but intensely played tournament. It is a commonplace these days to regard the quarterfinals of a tournament as its best games, those played before injuries, suspensions and fatigue take over.
Secondly: In one word -- Caution. Some might go further and call it Fear. Nerves is the kinder word. It is the responsibility of the great occasion, the awful realization that it is now all or nothing. Either the laurels of victory or the ashes of defeat. Listen to Hamlet in his famous soliloquy . . .
Thus caution does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
Yes, I've tinkered slightly with that. Hamlet was talking of conscience -- I have changed it to caution. The numbing effects of both are identical. In soccer terms, it is the recourse to tactical thinking rather than "the name of action."
Is there any reason to believe that either coach, Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola, will on Wednesday play mind games to the detriment of full-blooded soccer?
Of course there is. Under "normal" conditions, both Ferguson and Guardiola are surely coaches who prefer to emphasize offense, and who invariably do. But under the conditions imposed by a final they are almost bound to show some caution.
Pregame plans, like the Ten Commandments, are likely to be more about don'ts than do's. Don't allow them to score first; don't allow them to establish their rhythm, don't concede dangerous free kicks. And for this game, the counterbalancing admonitions, don't give Lionel Messi, or Cristiano Ronaldo, any room to operate.
The last time these two teams, both so powerful offensively, met was a year ago. They played two games in the Champions League in 2008, and produced only one goal, scored by Man U's Paul Scholes. Ferguson had his team playing very cautiously in Barcelona (and "cautiously," I must add, is a far cry from the deplorable depths of negativity displayed last month by Guus Hiddink's Chelsea).
So Ferguson can be cautious. Guardiola is, in effect, rejecting caution, saying that his team knows only one way to play, the way they always play, which is to press forward and maintain possession with intricate passing.
It is difficult not to be carried away by the tide of excitement surrounding this game -- I'm reading headlines that say it will be "a classic," that it "shapes up as a thrilling, high-scoring match," even that it "might turn out to be the greatest game ever."
One hopes that all of those predictions come true. But one has read all of them before, and has too often seen the rosy forecasts whither to rather ordinary reality. When it comes to finals, soccer rarely plays them according to the script.
And of course the refereeing of Massimo Busacca will be important. And so on, and so on. The pluses and the minuses mount up. There is, really, just as much reason to fear that this game will be a tedious bore-draw decided on penalty kicks, as there is to expect a classic.
But given that equality of possibilities, I shall look on the positive side, and plump for a classic. I shall trust that neither coach will allow caution to mar the spectacle. A classic final is way overdue -- and this is, after all, the final we all wanted. Both teams are loaded with outstanding attacking talent, and we have the intriguing game-within-a-game contest between Ronaldo and Messi, superb players vying for that "world's best" title.
This is a wonderful opportunity for soccer to show the world just how superb a sport it can be. A glittering occasion that needs, in Messi's words, to be "an open final that will please the fans." And that demands, in Hamlet's words, "the name of action."