Baku and the Game of Greed
How last season's Europa League final summed up modern football
Chelsea's 4-1 win over Arsenal in the 2019 Europa League final was, at first glance, a fairly ordinary football match. However, the final offered a powerful indication of the current state of international club football: a simmering cocktail of economic determinism, uniform internationalisation, orderly conditions in a shallow setting, star dust, elegant movements, a keen focus on the coach and the concentration of power and big politics.
For a quarter of a century, London has been one of the engines behind football's transformation from regional sport to global showbusiness. England is the place where football became primetime television entertainment, and where an avalanche of money flowed from the wallets of fans into the pockets of players.
Since then, other European countries have followed in the footsteps of the Premier League, but even today none can eclipse its financial power. Having long ago abandoned any ambition of being distinctly English or British, the league’s power derives from its accumulation of players, coaches and executives from around the world, establishing one of the sport's strongest brands.
Therefore, it was no coincidence that Chelsea and Arsenal met in the Europa League final in Baku. Both clubs regard themselves as too big for Uefa's second-tier tournament. They are Champions League teams. However, the two London teams had to settle for the Europa League this time around due to the stiff national competition from Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United.
Consequently the two teams rolled through the group stage effortlessly and then smoothly proceeded through the knockout rounds: Chelsea came out with an overall score of 20-6, and Arsenal with 17-7. While the latter struggled against Rennes in the round of 16, Chelsea faced a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Chelsea and Arsenal succeeded in reaching the final, not because they were hungry for victory, but because they were too big to fail. In several matches, the two managers, Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery, offered youngsters the chance to prove themselves. After the painful semi-final defeat, Frankfurt looked like a team that had suffered a loss in a World Cup final, whereas for Chelsea, the narrow victory was just a bump in the road on their way to yet another title.
Both London clubs have been shaped by the 1995 Bosman ruling, which states that EU citizens must not be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality, and furthermore that no footballer can be forcibly confined to a club after their contract expires. In Azerbaijan, the starting line-up included four Spaniards, four Frenchmen and two Brazilian-born Italians, rendering the young Ainsley Maitland-Niles the only English starter.
This set-up did not come as a surprise. On Boxing Day 1999 Chelsea became the first European team to start a league game with 11 foreigners. Similarly, Arsenal made history on Valentine's Day 2005 when their match day squad did not feature a single British player. The two civil-religious holidays, one honouring the hard-working servant and the other devoted to lovers, made symbolic milestones by football’s globalists.
Since then, Chelsea and Arsenal have each contributed to tearing down the old barriers. From 1996, the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger pioneered the transformation of English football culture, replacing ketchup, pints and lukewarm hot tubs with scientific training methods, specialised recruitment and a demand for a fluid, short passing game.
Chelsea have similarly been shaped by outside influences. From the bench, Ruud Gullit and later Gianluca Vialli and, to a lesser extent, Claudio Ranieri, introduced new, vibrant ideas, with an even more notable internationalism than Arsenal, particularly due to the club owner Roman Abramovich's lack of patience. During Wenger’s 22-year reign at Arsenal, the Russian managed to replace 15 managers at Chelsea, including José Mourinho and Guus Hiddink twice.
At Arsenal, the US businessman Stan Kroenke and the Uzbek-Russian Alisher Usmanov spent a decade fighting for control of the club before Usmanov surrendered. It was this internal power struggle, along with the expensive construction of a new stadium and the sale of top players, that brought the end of Arsenal’s golden decade of 1997-2006.
For the past 15 years, Chelsea and Arsenal have nevertheless been among Europe's 10 biggest clubs, when considering revenue as well as on-field performance. Arsenal have never won the Champions League and were last crowned champions in 2004. Since then Chelsea have won five Premier Leagues, two Europa Leagues and the Champions League in 2012.
Yet, they are both global superclubs, designed to capture market shares worldwide. Both teams have remained at the top of the Premier League and thus at the top of the world. Like other clubs that were big before the globalisation of the sport, Chelsea and Arsenal have continued to flourish and excite.
Accordingly, the 2019 Europa League unfolded in a predictable manner. The Italian referee, Gianluca Rocchi, handed out merely two bookings and tackles were relatively few, averaging one every three minutes. Chelsea committed 14 fouls and Arsenal 11. When in doubt about a decision, the referee Rocchi was assisted by four video referees in the VAR room. The occasion was a strenuous demonstration of the offensive, proactive style that has characterised European football for the past 10 years. In all, 30 attempted shots yielded five goals. Possession was divided equally between the two teams, both of whom wanted control and whose passes reached a teammate nine out of 10 times. The entire match was neat and predictable, right up until it was not.
In just 23 minutes, Arsenal collapsed, conceding four goals. As things turned awry for Arsenal, they lost their footing entirely, and when Chelsea’s star Eden Hazard picked up his game, victory was sealed. With two goals, an assist and a handful of effective dribbles, the Belgian marked himself out as the man of the match.
In his last match for Chelsea, Hazard displayed the qualities that had distinguished him as one of the best players in the Premier League during his seven seasons in west London. Hazard embodied the Beckham doctrine: stand out, make yourself noticeable in specific matches and increase your market value by showing recognisable characteristics. Nine days after the final, Hazard was sold to Real Madrid for £88 million, a price that, depending on the Belgian’s performance, could reach £130 million.
A few days later, when presented to 50,000 fans at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, Hazard spoke of both his hopes and his veneration of Madrid's returning head coach, Zinedine Zidane: ”My dream ever since I was a child has been to play for Real Madrid. I'm going to try to become the best player in the world, but first I wanted to be in the best team in the world. Everyone knows that Zidane was my idol when I was a kid.”
It was no coincidence that, in the midst of laying bare his ambitions, Hazard focused on his future boss. No other top club in Europe has had a more unstable and unresolved coaching situation than Chelsea. Year after year Abramovich has been searching for the right fit without any clear idea of what he wanted other than someone who could deliver a game of compelling football. This unspoken requirement has created an environment of fear, which possibly explains why the club's coaches always perform better and act more daringly during their first months in the club.
Maurizio Sarri’s stay at Chelsea began with a series of 12 league matches without defeat. Only months later, he had lost control of the dressing room and in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City in February 2019, the team's goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, openly defied the Italian's instructions. In front of 81,000 spectators at Wembley and millions of TV viewers, the Spaniard disregarded his coach's attempt to substitute him for Willy Caballero minutes before the penalty shoot-out. Sarri believed that the experienced Caballero, a penalty specialist, would be a better choice than Kepa, who moreover appeared to be partially injured. But despite the Neapolitan’s sideline antics of fury and his barrage of insults at Kepa, the young player stayed on the pitch and his team lost.
The Spanish goalkeeper has since described the incident as a misunderstanding. Kepa got off with a fine of one week’s wages. If there was ever any doubt, it became clear at this moment that even the most ambitious coach is deeply dependent on his players. He cannot cross the touchline. He cannot save the penalty himself. Sarri led Chelsea for the rest of the season, but the Italian knew that dismissal was inevitable.
The Europa League final was his last match and the farewell was unexpectedly joyous. In the Baku Olympic Stadium, underneath a sky illuminated by fireworks, Sarri took part in the celebration as his players lifted the trophy. During this vision of brotherhood, in a final moment of tranquillity, he looked down at his gold medal and smiled like a young boy. After a 30-year career, he had won his first major title.
The aftermath was familiar. The club and coach parted ways on good terms. Sarri thanked Chelsea, who thanked Sarri, who secured a new contract at another major European address, at Juventus – casting the coach as both the vulnerable and impervious protagonist.
But why Baku? Because Azerbaijan's autocratic president Ilham Aliyev wished to whitewash his oppressive regime with palatable football and because Uefa was willing to oblige him, ignoring disconcerting reports from Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders. A familiar narrative; like many despots before him and like many sports federations before Uefa.
Azerbaijan's gas, ore and oil are of interest to European football executives. In the process of the 2011 construction of the Baku Olympic Stadium, both Aliyev, the Fifa president Sepp Blatter and the Uefa President Michel Platini were instrumental.
Since then, the state-of-the-art stadium, equipped with over a hundred lounges, including some of the most luxurious for very, very important people, has hosted the opening ceremony at the European Games in 2015, Qarabağ's home matches in the 2017 Champions League, World Cup and Euro qualifiers as well as the Europa League final. At Euro 2020, four matches will be held in Baku.
As the dictator and football bigwigs joined each other in a champagne toast, the flagrant social, political and environmental issues faded into the background. Chelsea and Arsenal were only awarded 12,000 tickets or just under a sixth of stadium capacity for the final, yet they still did not manage to sell all their tickets.
The distance between London and Baku is 4,000 kilometres, and a direct flight was only available on the actual day of the match. Although they paid up to a thousand pounds, supporters had multiple layovers, mostly in Frankfurt and Istanbul. Alternatively, fans could opt for a cheaper 45-hour transit route that took them through Dublin and Riga. Several Chelsea supporters flew to Tbilisi where they rented minibuses to travel the last 10 hours on the road. Few chose the 60-hour journey by car from London. These inconveniences, however, were foreseen by Uefa, who in the introductory remarks regarding Baku's candidacy noted the travel time as a point of criticism. Despite the concerns, the Azerbaijani city was selected ahead of Istanbul and Sevilla.
At best, the atmosphere at the Baku stadium was tepid. The distance from the stands to the pitch, across the surrounding running track, stifled most crowd noise, and even the visiting Brits’ chants could not fill up the large stadium. The grandstands provided a literal set dressing for Aliyev’s display of political theatrics, as the close proximity to international stars such as David Luiz, N'Golo Kanté, Eden Hazard, Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang served to legitimise him on a global stage.
While the Brazilian, the Frenchman, the Belgian, the German and the Gabonese took part in this Azeri promotional campaign, one player was notably missing: Arsenal’s Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The failed diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, caused by the conflict in the border enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, have long made it difficult for citizens of one country to obtain visas to the other. Mkhitaryan had been assured a visa while several of Arsenal's British-Armenian fans were denied one. The footballer, however, chose to stay in London for fear of his own safety.
Back in March 1993, the UEFA executives met in Lisbon to discuss a possible structural change following the emergence of several new European countries, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The UEFA family now consisted of 47 countries. The atmosphere was equal parts hopeful and anxious, as they debated in which direction football was heading.
UEFA President Lennart Johansson wanted to merge the Champions League, a small, new eight-team tournament, with the UEFA Cup to form one major tournament involving 128 clubs which were to knock out their way to four four-team groups followed by semi-finals and finals.
Securing the two finalists 14 matches, the new format promised to generate a lot more money in gate revenue, sponsorship deals, TV sales and performance bonuses. The strongest member countries would have more than one team – in fact, up to four – and teams from the same nation could not play each other in the group stage. A few weeks later in Geneva, Johansson's vision for the future was voted down in an UEFA Executive Committee meeting. Amongst others, vice president Antonio Matarrese did not want to water down European top football.
The increased interest of the TV stations and the politicians' demands for safer stadiums would undoubtedly create a breeding ground for new, stronger commercial development. But beyond the economic aspect of international growth, the globalist Johansson's idea sparked fundamental feelings about the sense of belonging and the role of the national associations.
That same year, the EC became the EU, but Europe’s footballing map still consisted of clearly demarcated nation states. The football clubs' squads were homogenous and made up of domestic players with a few foreign exceptions. Hence, the Matarrese faction claimed, the concept of the nation state necessarily had to remain the starting point.
A quarter of a century after Johansson anticipated the course of events, the spirit of expansionism prevails. In 2019, the FIFA World Federation established a new, bloated Club World Cup that will take place for the first time in the summer of 2021. The tournament will consist of 24 teams, one third from Europe. Both UEFA and the biggest European clubs decried the decision. However, it remains to be seen which clubs can resist the allure of FIFA’s offer of €30 million for participation alone.
The transformation of football has taken place on two levels: power has shifted, and so has our gaze. Since Johansson gave his speech, national federations have lost their dominance, as power has moved from the federations to the clubs. Now, a few top clubs set the agenda globally and the Champions League has become synonymous with the highest level of football.
The biggest clubs were no longer dependent exclusively on the domestic talent pool and could instead pick players from all corners of Europe. And so they did, while inadvertently undermining their own position. The talented player emerged as a commodity who, along with his adviser or agent, became aware of his cash value. Like a dribbling stock of shares.
Concurrent with the shift of power from the national federations to the clubs and further on to the players and their agents, we have developed new ways of keeping up with the sport. 30 years ago, football was first and foremost a stadium sport. The crowd was crucial to a club’s economy. Only a few matches were televised, which is why the conversation was often based on first-hand testimonials, provided by a journalist or a supporter in the stands.
However, with the increasing impact of television, a new perspective emerged. Football was no longer something that was described to us. It was something we watched ourselves. The ordinary viewer became an expert in his own right. In recent years, television has faced competition from two unlikely fronts: On one hand, from the memes and GIFs shared on social media platforms, disseminating venom and amusement. And, on the other hand, from intellectuals and writers who seized the opportunity to apply words to the visual moments.
While the pursuit at times appeared contrived, even awkward, it was understandable. In his New Yorker essay ‘How We Watch Soccer Now’ from June 2018, Leo Robson writes, ”poetic flights […] constitute a more or less natural response to the way we watch soccer today. Feats that last a split second, once they are endlessly replayed in slow motion from a dozen camera angles, acquire an aestheticized, even mythic quality.”
And this is where Europe's club football finds itself at the beginning of a new decade. Within a general atmosphere that is as manifest as polyphonic. Always strict business, always wondrous creative power. Always staged escapism, always ferocious immediacy which, displayed in Ultra HD, adopts the appearance (but not the quality) of art. The tempo and noise level have changed, but the ambiguity has remained.
Both the birth of the game in nineteenth-century England and its rebirth following the Hillsborough tragedy uphold the same two basic principles: firstly, the struggle for freedom of expression using one’s body and secondly, hierarchic tyranny. Without the first principle, football is merely pomp and pageantry; without the last, the acts of winning or losing become meaningless.
In Critique de la raison dialectique (1960), French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes a group of people who are waiting at a bus stop. They stand close together without looking at each other. No one is interested in the thoughts of the others. Maybe they are thinking of their children or their breakfast? Or the bus that is supposed to drive them to work? They form a group, but they are not united.
In the case that the bus fails to arrive or arrives late a common interest around which they can unite emerges among the group members. Because who knows when the next bus will arrive? And what happens if the bus that arrives is almost full and only has room for just a few of the people waiting? This would disrupt the conveyor belt of life, the seriality in the words of Sartre. The disruption does not necessarily generate joy or consensus, but rather freedom to choose.
Football is not a mirror of the world, but a part of the world. It evolves and is continuously shaped by people. The coach, the player, the capital, the dictator and even a new paragraph in the rulebook affect the core of the game profoundly. While the amateur sport essentially limits itself to the pursuit of the game, the professional sport maintains open channels, allowing the beautiful, the ambiguous and the really ugly to stream in.
Football is an ocean of coercion and a splash of freedom. We – the fans, the players, the coaches, the referees, the leaders, the media, the sponsors, the activists and the despots – are standing side by side at the same bus stop, day after day. For the most part, the bus arrives on time and the bus stop remains a space of indifferent certainty.
But on a rare occasion, the compulsion of recognition is disrupted. Perhaps the bus company has launched a new double-decker and reserved the upper deck for the richest? Perhaps the bus driver is drunk? Perhaps one of the people waiting is particularly overbearing? Then, it is time for us to make a decision and take action.
YouTube holds a number of video compilations documenting the former Real Madrid centre-back Pepe's worst crimes. The most popular video lasts three and a half minutes and has more than three million views. Another one, titled Pepe – Pure Evil, has a million and a half. This is hardly because football fans love violence and more likely because they are bored. Because they are tired of waiting for the bus, even though the bus is more beautiful than ever and has room for anyone who can afford it.
In three decades, football has freed itself from the shackles of the past. Increasing revenue, dismantling borders, reducing violence, securing entertainment, prioritising the individual, raising the level of athleticism, improving strategic thinking, and embracing globalisation. And at the same time, the revolution has ended in inertia.
During the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup in France, we were reminded of what has been lost. This was evident in certain moments and acts of defiance and protest, such as the American captain Megan Rapinoe’s refusal to sing The Star-Spangled Banner in protest at President Donald Trump, as well as the decision of Ada Hegerberg, who won the Ballon d'Or Féminin in 2018, to stay home in response to what she perceived as the Norwegian Football Federation's lack of respect for the women's team.
And then there was Marta. Following Brazil's defeat to the French hosts in the round of 16 the 33-year-old changed the premise of a regular interview as she launched into a monologue directed at the young women in her home country.
"Women's football depends on you to survive. Think about it, value it more," the Brazilian told the cameras in Le Havre in her moving and motivational post-game interview. ”It's about wanting more, it's about training more, it's about looking after yourself more.”
Marta has been named World Player of the Year six times. She knows the game better than anyone and she understands the power of a well-constructed statement, yet there was something spontaneous about her outburst. The point is that it is possible to disagree with Rapinoe's feminism, Hegerberg's boycott and Marta's idealism, whereas it is not possible to disagree with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two most prominent figures in men’s football in the last decade.
This is due to the fact that the appearance of these two star players is limited to their athletic performance; they present themselves as nothing more than their goal count. At a time when football is discussed and engaged with through millions of megaphones in multinational media, the men at the centre seem strangely silent.
By contract, they are required to show up for press conferences and interviews. But they have no opinions. When communicating on the pitch, they cover their mouths in secrecy and when they finally speak, they rely on a repetitive variety of clichés, guided by their clubs’ PR department, their own vanity and the press's frequently insignificant questions.
Football originated at British boarding schools as a precious leisure activity for the amateur but was quickly hijacked by blue-collar workers who demanded wages for their performances. For the bourgeoisie, it was vital that the game retained its purity. For the workers, football was more than a pastime or entertainment; it was a haven, an alternative to destitution, as they gathered on the pitch or watched from the stands. It was the pretty boys who equipped football with the necessary rules and the bad boys who gave it its soul.
This embedded conflict reoccurred a hundred years later, as football, especially British football, found itself in a dark and benighted state. After the 1985 fire at Valley Parade in Bradford, which killed 56 people, the Sunday Times described football as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums watched by increasingly slum people, who deter decent folk from showing up.”
Four years later, in the week following the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed, The Economist ran a cover story that named football "the game that died”. But the game was not dead, it was merely on life support and ultimately revived by an electric shock supplied by frustrated politicians, devoted supporters and international capital. Just a few years after Hillsborough, sensibilities ranged from a nostalgic longing for a bygone time to a joyous endorsement of the end of barbarity.
In his bestseller Fever Pitch (1992), Nick Hornby could simultaneously bemoan and rejoice these rapid changes. That same year, the VHS release of Soccer's Hard Men sparked a scandal in the UK. The video featured 75 minutes of dirty tricks from the pitch, naturally revolving around the time’s greatest alpha male, Wimbledon's Vinnie Jones. ”Is this really sports?” The Sun asked. It was, a sport of the past.
The aggressor has since been marginalised. But occasionally he rears his ugly head. In a match against Getafe in 2009, the horror unfolded as Pepe, the notorious super villain, lost his temper. After pushing his opponent, Javier Casquero, to the ground, the beastly defender proceeded to trample him. The Portuguese’s act of violence triggered a 10-game suspension.
Nowadays, football’s tendency to rid itself from the worst evils while engaging in new adversities demand that the spectator acquires a split personality: profound admiration for Manchester City's build-up play followed by irreconcilable criticism of the club's Emirati owners. One is no more real than the other.
Football seems to fascinate more and more people around the globe. Never has the game been more popular and more problematic. Never have this many people participated in the conversation and gathered at the stadium. Never has there been more money in the game, and never have the biggest stars been worshipped more intensely. Concurrently, the insidious, global theatre is the greatest manifestation of community in world history. Never united in consensus, but on a good day, it is an engaged and vigilant community. This is still the foundation of football.
Translation from the Danish by Amalie Quezada-Boye