Your next football champions are probably already decided

Tonight Bayern Munich just won their tenth Bundesliga title in a row. In France, meanwhile, PSG have just won their eighth title in the past ten years. (All data correct as of 23/4/22.)

In Spain, the nation’s most successful club Real Madrid require a mere point from their final five games to secure the La Liga title. In fairness, city rivals Atletico are the current champions, and Barcelona have also won in recent years, though thanks to their financial misdealings they look quite a bit off the pace for the next year or two at least.

Robert Lewandowski listens to the predictable acclaim.

In Italy’s Serie A, there is at least some end of season interest. Internazionale won it last season, preventing Juventus from winning a tenth title in a row. We have to go back to 2001 to find a team which isn’t Juve or one of the two Milan teams as Scudetto winner, Fabio Capello’s Roma with ‘Batigol’ Batistuta up front. As I write this, it’s between the two Milan teams again, with Juve probably out of it. There’s a slight chance that Napoli could sneak through for the first time since Maradona played for them in the 1980s, but it’s unlikely.

In England, Manchester City lie slightly ahead of Liverpool FC currently. No one else can catch them, which is reasonable, as on current form these are probably the two best club teams on the planet. City won three of the last four titles, with the other going to Liverpool.

Prior to that was the absolutely unlikely scenario of Leicester City, who were 5,000/1 longshots with the bookies at the start of the season, picking up their sole title. England has moved on somewhat from the previous two decades which saw a Manchester United/Chelsea duopoly displacing a previous United/Arsenal duopoly. Nevertheless, Leicester notwithstanding, it’s already pretty obvious which two or three teams next year’s winner will come from.

So that’s the ‘big five’ leagues. Let’s look a bit further afield.

In Austria, Red Bull Salzburg are miles in front. Should they win, it will be their ninth title in a row. It will also be their thirteenth title in sixteen years. This, in a league previously dominated by two Vienna teams.

In Portugal, where the same three teams have pretty much always won the league, sure enough Porto are nine points clear of Sporting Lisbon, who are in turn five points clear of city rivals Benfica. Sporting won it last year, the first time in about two decades. It’s recently been passed back and forth between Benfica and Porto. The last time one of these three didn’t win it was Boavista in 2001. Before that, we have to go back to Lisbon’s third team, Belenenses, in 1946.

Portugal’s tripartite dominance is reminiscent of Holland, where Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV tend to share the honours. Ajax are currently miles in front and highly likely to pick up their third title in a row this season, not including one season abandoned to Covid.

Scotland’s duopoly, the Old Firm continue to dominate of course. Celtic FC are leading this year from city rivals Rangers, who prevented Celtic from doing a ten in a row last year. The last time one of those two didn’t win was 1984, when Aberdeen won under a young manager called Alex Ferguson.

In Greece, Olympiacos look safe for a third title in a row. They relinquished the previous two, but prior to that, they won seven in a row.

We need to look to the smaller nations for signs of change. In Norway, where Rosenborg have dominated for decades, latterly both Molde and Bodo/Glimt have come through. As a summer league, they’ve only just kicked off for the season, so it remains to be seen if Rosenborg can continue to be sidelined.

In Poland, there’s looking like a potential shock with a the title now down to a probable three horse race between Rakow, Lech Poznan, and Pogon Szczecin. Legia Warsaw, winners of seven of the last nine titles, are weirdly mid-table this time.

Not all smaller nations are competitive however. In Bulgaria, Ludogorets look odds on to win their eleventh title in a row this season. Former dominant team, CSKA Sofia habitually come second now. What happened in Bulgaria? A pharmaceuticals multi-millionaire bought Ludogorets is what happened. The same thing that has happened everywhere else.

We’re really not in a position anymore to deny the impact of cold hard cash on soccer success. It clearly correlates far too closely. And by too closely, I mean to the extent that so many titles are becoming foregone conclusions, or at best a race between two or three clubs only, even from the start of the season.

Football’s Financial Fair Play system to level playing fields somewhat has proven a total joke, all over Europe, in other words. We have soccer clubs now owned by sovereign funds of various nations of dubious standing in order to ‘sportswash’ their national images. In turn, they manage to distort and dominate entire leagues. In smaller nations, this process is achieved by individual millionaires investing funds in a club in order to purchase success.

FFP hasn’t worked in other words. It only works where it doesn’t apply, such as Ireland, where no sugar daddies have funded any teams. As a result, Ireland remains genuinely an open race for the title. Perhaps Poland might continue to be also.

Would that more fans in more countries got to experience that excitement rather than simply resigning themselves to dreaming of European qualification, or some other replacement dream. Why did we let billionaires and sovereign funds buy our sporting dreams from us?

Are we living in an Alternative History?

It’s a compelling idea. So many outlier events, both the scary Black Swan-type that N.N. Taleb writes about as well as the simply unlikely, seem to be regular occurences all of a sudden.

Whether it’s Donald Trump’s election as US President, the Brexit referendum, a global Coronavirus pandemic, or even just Leicester City somehow winning the English Premier League football title a few years ago, the world seems to have taken a turn into the unpredictable, the unstable, and the frankly bizarre.

And if we are in a uchronic timeline, is there any way back? We probably aren’t going to be able to reverse time, but perhaps we can leverage the idea of alt-history to understand and manipulate our own reality going forward.

This is something I suggest in my latest article for the always excellent Sci-Phi Journal.

As Never Before

I was watching football yesterday, and chatting with friends remotely during the match, as so many of us do in these pandemic lockdown socially atomised days. It occurred to me that the narrative arc of a particular player, struggling for form, hitting the post, his anguish and despair, then eventually relief and the breakthrough of scoring, would make an interesting visual focus.

I was, in short, reminded of the 2006 documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, in which some seventeen cameras were directed solely upon the mercurial Real Madrid player during a match against Villareal. It’s an intriguing piece of cinema. On the one hand, it’s hypnotic, with its somnolent score by Scottish band Mogwai. On another, it’s the juxtaposition of Zidane’s concentration, and isolation, against that of the various groups of fans around the world, who appear in the half-time segment of the movie.

Zidane-movie.jpg

Of course, this was too good an experimental film idea to be original. There is nothing new and good under the sun. The original version of this idea was, astonishingly, made in 1970 and released the following year. Entitled Fussball Wie Noch Nie, or Football as Never Before in English, it was directed by the relatively obscure German new wave director, Hellmuth Costard, who is probably best known, or most notorious, nowadays for his early short in which an ejaculating penis recites the German morality law relating to movies.

Hellmuth Costard
Hellmuth Costard

Costard’s version follows George Best of Manchester United in his 1970 pomp, playing against Coventry City. Like the Zidane movie which emulates it, it isolates and focuses upon the individual genius in a team sport, generating a flowing image which is simultaneously utterly alienating, because so distanced from how we ordinarily spectate upon sport, and also so utterly familiar, because it is how we live life, as individuals performing our role as part of a greater, more complex whole, of which we only witness our corner.

Football As Never Before (1971) directed by Hellmuth Costard
Football As Never Before (1971)

This both is and is not the George Best we are familiar with, in other words. It is not, obviously, the Miss World dating George, the Carnaby Street fashion George, the drunk George on Wogan’s sofa, the alcoholic George, the wifebeating George. These Georges are real and true and fragments of a larger life, but are not the focus of why Best is an international icon.

This is football George, the subject of the witticism: Maradona good, Pele better, George Best. Allegedly the most talented player ever, or asserted so in some quarters at least. This is George doing what the world loved him for, playing soccer. But it is not how we are used to seeing him play. This is tightly focused on him alone. We see how much he shambles about, turning this way and that, occasionally perplexed, strolling, then breaking into a brief run, then stopping. The game, in other words, is elsewhere, or rather, it mostly takes place beyond our focus. He is only intermittently part of it. Here is a five minute clip, complete with a soundtrack, Football, by Manchester band Arficeden, to give you a sense of Costard’s vision.

It is perhaps too much to extrapolate out from this unusual and now obscure documentary to derive wider conclusions. Yet this is refreshing and familiar. Gone are the implicit negative narratives which always seem to hover in the background like a dropdown menu about George, the drinking, the womanising, the sad squandering of talent and ultimately life. We know they are there, but they are not here.

Instead we are treated to George doing what he did best, if you’ll pardon the pun. George the footballer. George on the pitch. But it’s not what we thought it was. It’s George on the pitch almost from his own point of view, how it feels to BE George on the pitch. And it’s a confusing wander back and forth, seemingly aimless, speeding up and slowing down, mostly a bystander in his own narrative.

In some ways, this is the real experience of George as footballer. But it’s not the one we’re familiar with, and perhaps not one we’re comfortable with either. As I said, it’s too much to extrapolate from this, but it seems a metaphor for life is in there, waiting for us to see it.

At the very least, Costard’s documentary, his way of presenting football as never before, is a reminder that narrative frame underpins all the stories we tell ourselves about reality. And in this era of fake news, alternative facts and ideological echo chambers, it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time.