By Paul Gardner
You can be pretty sure that the sort of game churned out yesterday by Manchester United and Chelsea is not what NBC is looking for.
Rather odd, that. Because the game highlighted all the most prominent features of the sport of soccer as currently played at the top level. Money, for start -- two of the world’s richest teams on display. With a money-inspired sub-text: how much money will Chelsea have to pay to lure Wayne Rooney away from ManU? And because of that, the money-inspired sub-sub-text: given the tug-of-war between the two clubs, would Rooney even play in this game?
After money, we have: the coaches. Much of the hype during the build up to the game concerned the two coaches, both new to their clubs -- David Moyes at ManU, Jose Mourinho returning to Chelsea after a five-season absence. OK, the hype can be blamed partly on the media, determined to sensationalize the battle between the morose-looking Moyes and the melodramatic Mourinho.
Consider the opponents: David Moyes -- a boring man who has, for 11 years, been coaching an occasionally less-than boring Everton that failed to win anything during that period. And Jose Mourinho who has won plenty, but not lately, fresh from a contentious flop of a season with Real Madrid, a childish showoff who likes to play equally childish mind-games with referees and opposing coaches. You might find it hard to envisage how this game could be turned into, could be soldas, a Moyes vs Mourinho epic. You would be right.
We didn’t get an epic. We got a thundering bore. From these two much-respected and certainly much-hyped coaches, we got a thoroughly tedious, unadventurous 0-0 tie. NBC commentator Arlo White described it as “intriguing,” which was a pretty astute verbal way of avoiding the unacceptable (for the television mind, that is) truth that NBC was transmitting boredom. Two hours of it.
Considering the mountain of talent -- world-class attacking players -- that festoons the rosters of both teams, what was the trouble here? Briefly: the coaches. Not because of all the hype that surrounded them -- that is merely an irritation, though a highly visible one. No -- at last we have to look at what happened on the field, which was not much -- an overall torpidity for which we can certainly blame the coaches.
Well, yes, mostly, but also no, slightly. We can blame the money and the modern game again. With so much money at stake, it is no doubt unreasonable to expect coaches to do anything other than protect their jobs, and to play it cautiously. This is particularly true at the top clubs, and Moyes and Mourinho laid it on with a trowel.
Mourinho sent out a formation without a center forward, arguably without a full-time forward at all. With ManU as the home team, Moyes evidently felt obliged to do some attacking, but it was rarely sustained and, let’s face it, rather easily dealt with by Chelsea’s defensive formation.
Yawn, yawn, and yawn again. Then, when the merciful final whistle sounds, the modern game strikes again. The moment arrives when the coaches come on TV and tell us how great, or at least how interesting, it all was. And so the modern game, a brainless, cumbersome creature that traps everyone involved with it, forces the coaches to stand up before a microphone and try to provide vaguely relevant answers to largely irrelevant questions.
Poor coaches -- except that they have been going through this charade for quite a while now, and have become experts at supplying answers that go way beyond “vaguely relevant” and soar off into the solidly fantasist. Replaying an 4-0 loss into a game that “we dominated,” hammering the referee, claiming non-existent penalties, lamenting the red cards that weren’t given to the opposition, and whatever.
So no sympathy to the coaches, they join in too wholeheartedly with the boring intricacies of the modern game, with their negative tactics and their silly-clever attempts to justify them.
The players, too have bought into this corrosive nonsense. So have the TV commentators -- I have again to say, it’s as though there’s no choice here. The modern game gives us anemic action that needs a blizzard of words to cover its inadequacy -- hence the euphemisms, the “lack of clear-cut chances,” and the supposedly positive “there was a lot of respect between the two clubs.”
To say nothing of “We both wanted to win, and both did not want to lose,” -- that comes from Mourinho. Of course that sounds sturdy and it contains a tangled truth, but it is still an empty utterance. Do we need to be told that neither team wanted to lose? But we might be seeking to know why the coaches and the players should choose to cheat the fans and the viewers out of a game worthy of the occasion, and one worthy of the many skillful players who could -- we knowthis -- have given us something so much better. Of course we didn’t get anything like an explanation. Mourinho had the final self-satisfied platitude -- “tactically it was a good match.”
We might also be wondering what on earth is wrong with this sport when two of its strongest -- dare I say best? -- teams can produce, in a season that is barely one week old, such a frightened, timid mouse of game?
If it wasn’t aware before, NBC should now know the nature of the game it is embracing. It suffers from self-inflation. Maybe that is true of all major league sports. But soccer seems uniquely vulnerable to distortion by money. The effects are felt, deeply, on the field, right there where the ball rolls. Where we can see -- as we did yesterday -- the truth of the matter. That soccer scares itself by being overhyped, overpriced, and overcoached. And when it is scared, soccer is all too likely to be underperformed.