By Wednesday night, the humiliation was complete. In the space of 24 hours, the two teams that had for so long regarded themselves as the pinnacle of modern soccer — the greatest clubs in the world, the inevitable destinations of the game’s best and brightest, the rightful possessors of its biggest trophies — had been humbled, one after the other.
First, Real Madrid had not only lost at home, it had lost at home to a team making its first appearance in the group stages of the Champions League, a team from the poorest country in Europe, a team from a place that does not, in many ways, actually exist. Carlo Ancelotti’s team now sits second in its group, three points behind Sheriff Tiraspol.
They might have laughed at that in Barcelona, welcoming the chance to take a little respite from their own troubles by delighting in the demise of their rival. The schadenfreude would not have lasted long.
The next night, Ronald Koeman’s team fell behind within three minutes against Benfica — the sort of team that Barcelona, in the days of its pomp and glory, would have swatted aside without appearing to break sweat — and went on to lose, 3-0. Barcelona’s record in the Champions League, a competition the club traditionally hopes to win, now reads played two, lost two, scored none, conceded six.
This is as low as Real Madrid and Barcelona, the twin, repelling poles of the clásico, have been in a generation. Between them, they have won 7 of the last 13 editions of the Champions League. Now, there is a growing possibility that at least one of them will not even survive to the knockout stages of the tournament in the spring.
Koeman’s job hangs by a thread. La Liga has, in effect, placed Barcelona in financial handcuffs. Real Madrid’s debts are colossal, too, a thunderstorm rolling in from the horizon. Both clubs have lost touch already with the teams they once regarded as subordinates — the Premier League’s elite, Bayern Munich, Paris St.-Germain — disappearing into the distance. Their auras have been shattered and their ambitions winnowed. Their era, by almost every available metric, should be over.
Yet Real Madrid is currently top of La Liga. And Barcelona, diminished and dispirited, buffeted by crisis at every turn, has a game in hand. If it wins it, it will be only two points behind its old rival. The team that has twice been embarrassed in Europe has not lost a domestic game this season.
The early weeks of a campaign are the time for the willing suspension of disbelief. The conditions, after all, are right. The sample size is still small. The vagaries of the schedule wield an outsize influence. Injury and fatigue have not yet started to have an impact on resources. It is in the opening bars of autumn that the game’s chorus line gets its chance to shine.
There are, at first glance, plenty of those stories around Europe at the moment. Last Monday, before thoughts turned to the week’s Champions League engagements, Brighton had the opportunity to go top of England’s top flight for the first time in the club’s history. It missed out, but a 95th-minute equalizer from its striker, Neal Maupay, meant that Graham Potter’s team has taken 13 points from its opening six games, as many as Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United.
An unheralded Lens, improbably, lies second in the nascent table in France. Real Sociedad is second in Spain, and has not lost a game since the opening day of the season. Mainz and Freiburg are (for now) in contention for European spots in the Bundesliga; so is F.C. Köln, usually little more than a synonym for chaos.
In Scotland, both Edinburgh teams, Hibernian and newly-promoted Hearts, are keeping pace with a stuttering Rangers at the top of the table. Celtic is struggling so badly that it is below even Dundee United. In the Netherlands, Willem II, from the provincial city of Tilburg, beat PSV Eindhoven last weekend to move into second place.
In the Women’s Super League, both Tottenham and Aston Villa have started encouragingly. In Spain, Real Sociedad’s women have matched Atlético Madrid and Barcelona point for point so far.
None of these dreams will last, of course. As the season wears on, the decisive factor is — more often than not — the depth of a team’s resources rather than the heights of its ability. In the year that Leicester City won the Premier League, the great exception that proves the rule, it was notable how little Claudio Ranieri, the coach, needed to change his lineup.
Most weeks, almost uniformly, the core of his team was available. A story that, in hindsight, looks like destiny might have had a very different ending had Jamie Vardy pulled a hamstring, or N’Golo Kanté been the unfortunate victim of a mistimed tackle.
Most teams, of course, have to endure those injuries, and when they do so, their ambitions suddenly shrink. It is the elite, the teams made fat by years of Champions League revenues and lavish commercial sponsorships, that can afford to carry squads capable of absorbing those blows without any noticeable dip in performance. As winter sets in, cold economic reality bites.
That moment seems to come earlier every season. All of the uplifting stories of unexpected, early success warrant a second look. Willem II, for example, might be second in the Eredivisie, but it is probably significant that the team at the summit, Ajax, has scored 30 goals and conceded one in its first seven games. Willem II is second, but it is second by quite a long way.
The same is true in France, where P.S.G. already has a healthy lead over Lens — nine points after eight games, and that after two months in which Lionel Messi has barely featured domestically — and in Germany, where Bayern has scored almost three times as many goals as third-place Wolfsburg. Barcelona’s women’s team, the reigning European champion, has scored 26 goals in four games. It has conceded none.
The top four spots in the Premier League, too, have been occupied almost since the start of the campaign by the four teams expected to finish there in May. Juventus started the Serie A season abysmally, failing to win any of its first four games; Napoli, by contrast, has clicked almost immediately.
And yet the most compelling parallel has not been last season, when Juventus limped to fourth, but a few campaigns prior, when the club started almost as poorly, and then won 26 out of 28 games to collect yet another title convincingly.
Most troubling of all, of course, is Spain, where Real Madrid and Barcelona have diminished at startling, alarming speed, and yet remain out of the reach of all but two — Atlético Madrid and, at a pinch, Sevilla — of their supposed peers.
There is a reason for that. Even with its finances ravaged, Barcelona can afford to maintain a squad that few others could countenance, the upshot of decades of unequal distribution of the country’s television revenue. This is the ultimate vindication of a risible, self-interested approach: between them, Barcelona and Real Madrid have stifled La Liga of competitive integrity so effectively that their floor is still above almost everyone else’s ceiling.
The same is true of P.S.G. and the Premier League’s Big Four and Bayern Munich, and it is true of Ajax in the Netherlands and Club Brugge in Belgium and countless other teams in countless other leagues. Only in the rarest circumstances would any of the unexpected contenders, currently sitting in positions of unaccustomed prominence, actually be able to turn their early heat into genuine light. But that is not the point.
Whether Real Sociedad, in the end, wins the league this season is secondary to the idea that Real Sociedad — and by extension every other team outside the established elite — can believe that, in certain circumstances, it could win the league.
That hope, naïve and unrequited as it might be, is crucial, particularly in an era of such yawning financial disparity. It is vital that teams believe in possibility, in the chance that the elite might stumble, that they might be able to profit, that the stars might align. That it is no longer possible, not really, to sustain that delusion suggests something important has been lost, and it may not come back.
Courage and Cowardice
Sinead Farrelly came forward twice, at least. In 2015, she reported the inappropriate behavior — and that, given the scale and the nature of the allegations, is putting it lightly — of her coach, Paul Riley, to her team, the Portland Thorns. Earlier this year, an email chain made public by Alex Morgan on Thursday made clear, she made the same complaint direct to the National Women’s Soccer League’s leadership.
And twice, nobody seemed particularly interested in hearing what Farrelly had to say.
That this week she then came forward again, along with a former teammate, Mana Shim, demonstrated her conviction, her perseverance, her fury. That she did so publicly underlines her courage.
That she had no other choice but to do so, though, reflects appallingly on the cowardice of the authorities whose job it is to the protect the players who stock their teams, who grace their league, who generate their product.
Riley left the Thorns after that initial investigation, but had another job in the N.W.S.L. a few months later. Thanks to Morgan, we know that Lisa Baird, the league’s commissioner, effectively dismissed Farrelly’s second complaint, made in April, without indicating she would be investigating further.
Only when the league’s hand was forced, when Farrelly and Shim had held it to account by telling their stories to The Athletic, was any action taken. Within hours, Riley was fired from his post coaching the North Carolina Courage. It was the second such dismissal in the N.W.S.L. in a matter of days, and the third for misconduct in a matter of weeks.
There are two stories here. One is, although rooted in darkness, inherently uplifting: that the bravery of these women might make the N.W.S.L. a safer place for their colleagues and successors.
The other has a very different moral: that the league itself, so conscious of its own fragility — perhaps overly — chose to sweep all those red flags under the carpet rather than look after its players’ well-being.
“They say we should keep quiet because there might not be a league,” Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg wrote after the allegations surfaced Thursday. “We should take low pay, otherwise there’s no league. Don’t talk about the crappy hotels, the bus fires, the unsafe fields, the substandard medical care.”
The players of the N.W.S.L. — as all professional athletes do — make considerable sacrifices to play the sport they love. Doubtless, they make more than most, in order to help the women’s game to grow, and to thrive. But these sacrifices, let alone what Farrelly and Shim endured, are too high a price to pay. Talking about these issues is not what places the league in jeopardy. The danger lies in permitting them to exist in the first place.
Sorry, Not Sorry
Bruno Fernandes’s penalty was, it goes without saying, really quite a bad one. Impressively bad, almost, particularly for a player who has always seemed so unruffled by the stress and the strain of taking a penalty.
For once, though, it appeared to get to him. Perhaps it was the circumstance — a chance to avert a chastening home defeat to Aston Villa — or perhaps it was the context: The presence of Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United these days means Fernandes has no room for error. As soon as he missed one penalty, he would have known he would not get the next one.
Whatever the reason, though, and however bad the penalty, there was absolutely no reason for him to feel compelled to issue a lengthy apology to his fans and teammates a few hours later, just as there had been no reason whatsoever for Jesse Lingard to plead for clemency in public after his error condemned United to defeat against Young Boys of Bern a couple of weeks ago.
Players do not have to apologize for making mistakes. They do not even have to apologize for playing badly. That is not the covenant between fan and athlete. All we can rightfully expect is that they try, that they commit, that they do their best. We have no right to demand that they succeed. It is the point of sport that sometimes, effort goes unrewarded.
The question that arises from the fact that both Lingard and Fernandes felt compelled to do so is not — as it was represented, in some quarters — whether players have become too reliant on agencies to run their social media accounts. It is, instead, why those advisers might suggest a pre-emptive apology is necessary.
The answer to that, of course, is the same as the explanation for why players engage agencies to handle Twitter and Instagram in the first place: Fernandes and Lingard, and the people curating their online presences, will have known that their missteps would be a vector for untold, untrammeled abuse. They apologized to try to staunch the flow. The problem there is not the apology itself, it is the abuse that necessitates it. That is the issue soccer has to address: not that players are apologizing, but that they feel the need to do so.
Eagle-eyed as ever, there were several of you — not least Thomas Alpert and Brendan Greer — who wondered whether the mention of modern soccer’s “iniquities” was a typo; perhaps, those of little faith asked, I meant “inequities,” instead?
It’s healthy for us all to admit to mistakes, sometimes. Was it a typo? No. I meant to type iniquities. Did I realize iniquities and inequities were different words? Also no. Still, now that I have been educated, I can say with some confidence that they both probably apply to 21st century soccer.
Alex McMillan noted another lapse: “You did seem to get sidetracked in answering the question about whether any country, other than the U.K., fields multiple national teams.” Fortunately, Alex is a little more focused. As well as the People’s Republic of China, two of the country’s Special Administrative Regions — Hong Kong and Macau — field teams, as does the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan, but competing under the name Chinese Taipei.
“Practically speaking,” Alex wrote, “in this case you have one country with four identities in and of itself.”
Aaron Stern and Darren Wood, meanwhile, queried the decision to focus last week’s column on Marcos Alonso. “The admissions about Alonso’s conduct made it difficult to return to the piece about his technical ability and role at Chelsea with the same amount of interest,” Darren wrote.
“What I found odd, unsettling, was the way your piece made concessions to conduct that some might judge as sufficient to exclude Alonso from analysis, then returned to its prior analysis of his sporting ability. Is the premise that players’ conduct and character might not exclude them from the efforts and attentions of both writer and reader, if their athletic skill merits it? How egregious must their conduct and character become before we exclude them from any type of analysis?”
This is not a question that has a simple answer, and it would be an insult to your intelligence to present one. All I can do, I think, is to walk you through my thought process, while making no claim that my thought process is objectively correct, or that there is such a thing, in these instances, as objectively correct.
The logic of last week’s column was that Alonso is an interesting case study as a player: not just a curiously exact specialist, but a player whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed quite dramatically, depending on the identity and the attitude of his coach. Given that Chelsea’s meeting with Manchester City was the most significant game of last weekend, it felt a fitting time to explore the nuances of his situation.
It would, I agree, be irresponsible not to mention the broader context, both in light of his conviction in 2011 and his more recent decision not to take the knee. Doing that while maintaining a coherent thread is a difficult balancing act — and it is entirely possible that I did not pull it off — but I would hope, at least, that it made clear the piece was not attempting to cast Alonso as a straightforward, sympathetic hero.
The broader issue, of course, is whether Alonso should be considered worthy of coverage at all. That is a judgment call — and as such, you are free to disagree with it — but my conclusion was that, as long as a distinct line is drawn between the individual and the athlete, objective coverage is both possible and reasonable. Singling Alonso out for praise on some sort of moral level would be one thing; assessing him as a player is another. That may not be the right answer — there may not be a right answer — but I hope it, at least, answers the question.