The Truest Test
A Case for the Champions League
The Golden Team of 1950's Hungary. The total football of 1970's Netherlands. The creative brilliance of 1982 Brazil. These teams produced some of the best soccer the world has ever seen. And yet, the World Cup belongs to none of them.
The World Cup is the grandest and yet cruelest spectacle in global soccer. The hand of Luis Suarez, the head of Zinedine Zidane, and the foot of Andres Escobar have crushed the dreams of nations and wholly undone teams’ legacies. Just as Pele’s passing or Maradona’s dribbling may win the most coveted trophy in the world, so does an errant penalty snatch it out of the hands of Roberto Baggio. The World Cup reveals success and failure, luck and misfortune, euphoria and catastrophe. And it makes for a thrilling month of sporting entertainment.
What it is does not reveal, however, is the best in soccer.
Clubs competing in the Champions League of course have several advantages over their international counterparts: the time to build chemistry between players, the luxury to buy players at will regardless of nationality, and the leeway to experiment without the immense expectations of a whole country riding on results. Such flexibility enables innovation and quality that national sides do not have the ability to put forth.
The tactical innovations of the sport’s foremost pioneers have not come internationally, with the pressure of nations on their shoulders, but in fact have been displayed first — and best — in European club competition. Though Holland utilized Total Football, Ajax invented it. Though Italy employed catenaccio, Inter Milan epitomized it. Though Spain won through tiki-taka, Barcelona perfected it.
In Brazil, the rosters of a Spain or Germany may — arguably — carry more collective talent than any Champions League team. However, the systems employed by Guardiola, Mourinho, Ancelotti, and Simeone respectively will go unmatched this summer. This is not a knock against Vincente Del Bosque, Luiz Felipe Scolari, or any one of the other worthy coaches who will guide their teams through the treacherous tournament; rather, it is a concession that their esteemed counterparts at the club level have a far greater ability to build cohesion and organization among their squads.
Whether in its prior form, the European Cup, or its current state as the Champions League, European competition has rewarded true quality and revealed the best in global soccer. Michels’ Ajax, Sacchi’s AC Milan, and Guardiola’s Barcelona — the best clubs in the history of the world — each won the tournament on multiple occasions. Moreover, the finals of the Champions League — from Manchester United’s 1999 thriller over Munich to Liverpool’s 2005 comeback against Milan to Bayern’s 2013 masterclass versus Dortmund — have proved to be games in which the best soccer in the world is put on display. World Cup finals of recent memory have failed to meet this standard, ranging from cagey exercises in reluctance (especially 1994) to demonstrations of soccer at its dirtiest and lowest denominator (I’m looking at you Nigel De Jong).
As the summer approaches, every soccer fan will eagerly await the close of down-to-the-wire leagues in England and Spain, the final of the Champions League, and, most of all, the World Cup. The World Cup will produce passion, panache, and drama that the Champions League will never emulate. From an entertainment standpoint, the World Cup is the jewel in the crown of FIFA and global soccer. If this fan could choose only one tournament to represent all that the beautiful game is and stands for, it would certainly be the World Cup. Nevertheless, if one is looking for the pinnacle of the best on the field product, the most authentic measure of the best team in the sport, one must look not to the Maracana on July 13, but to the Champions League final at Estadio da Luz on May 24.