Football loves romance, but football also — tacitly — enjoys failure. The beauty of the game is that the two are often inextricably linked.
Leicester City, the most unlikely Premiership champions anyone will ever root for and Atletico de Madrid, Champions League finalists, are stories of romance, of teams battling long odds, close-knit bunches of hard-working, sweaty men led by coaches who are quite different but similar in their monk-like devotion to the cause.
And much of the romance and improbable success of both teams has roots in the dark side of success and romance, failure.
Leicester City won the championship by not even playing. They won it on an error by Tottenham Hotspur, a misplaced pass that was pounced upon and then dispatched by a player, Eden Hazard, who had been having a legit crapshow of a season but found it in his heart and legs, in that one moment, to create a golazo. It was a moment that dripped symbolism. Jamie Vardy, the Leicester forward, was having a party at his home. By all accounts, the place went up for grabs.
His was a team that did what it had to do, that did what it could. The defense that built clean sheet upon clean sheet was anchored by a pair of failures, journeymen who built their presence not on capering about and ball skills, but strength. It was players who, in their limited skill sets, knew what they had to do and were drilled on those things. Then they did them. When you only have one thing to do, it’s a lot easier. “Stand there, and if the ball comes near you, kick it away.” “Okay, coach.”
Success becomes manageable when you build it upon anticipation of an opponent failure. A top women’s tennis player, Caroline Wozniacki, just gets the ball back. It’s a game that is, in large part, based on making her opponent hit one more shot, on the statistical probability that the more shots someone hits, the more likely they are to screw something up. For a while she was the darling of the game, the slight, ruffled antithesis of the ebony slabs of muscle that is Serena Williams. In many ways it was football, and teams that reap success from destruction.
The two best footballing teams in the game and the two best teams in the world, Barça and Bayern, will be watching the Champions League finals at home. In the Premiership, footballing teams such as Arsenal and the Manchesters, monied pretty boys, are watching the class nerd celebrate and wondering what happened. The romance of Leicester has roots in the failure of the top teams to do what they were supposed to do (even if you figure that Arsenal is, by now, supposed to finish fourth). Chelsea imploded. City played below standard. United wrestled with a new coach and a way of playing, Arsenal Arsenaled. Even the other part of that Premiership romantic tale, an overachieving Tottenham Hotspur, fell prey to the wonder of the stultifying Lesters. Just do what you do, and wait for everyone around you to fail.
It isn’t as simple as that, obviously, because a big part of that romance is that both teams did what they had to do, when they had to do it. Your opponent can screw up but if you don’t capitalize on it, romance in unrequited. Look at the equalizing goal against United, scored of course by the captain, Wes Morgan. His team had to have that goal, United marked incorrectly and Morgan headed home. A header. That most smash-mouth of plays for a smash-mouth team, scored by a CB who outworked his marker. It was a goal as symbolic as the Iniestazo.
Another aspect of that romance was so few teams playing Leicester City like the prospective champions. The standard belief was that they were playing over their heads, these 5000-1 underdogs who everyone picked for relegation, that they would bottle it, find their natural level. Best games and tactical wrinkles were reserved for royalty. “Leicester City? They’ll bottle it.” And week after week, teams kept letting them do what they do until suddenly, it mattered and everybody wondered what the hell happened. It’s like the horror movie that could end easily, if the family just moved out of the haunted house. And yet, there they stay, and there the movie goes. Everybody expected Leicester City to bottle it, until they didn’t. Failure that bred success of the most dazzling kind.
In another league, Atletico built its success in the same way as Leicester, in essence, that kind of “one job, now don’t mess it up,” but at a higher level. People often mistake the Simeone style for parking the bus, but it isn’t. It’s rooted in not letting you do what you want to do, creating and then capitalizing upon failure, an edifice erected on a foundation of human weakness.
At its core, the presence of Atleti in the Champions League is based in a pair of bad passes, each ruthlessly converted into goals. One from Barça, and one from Bayern. Two crucial away goals that decided the tie because then Atleti could do what it does, which is to create failure. The game of football is, in essence, about creating failure. The Messi runs that everyone loves are designed to make a defender fail at his job. The intricate passing structures are created to find a weak link, a failure than can be exploited. The Iniestazo, the Babymaker that built the wonder that is modern-day Barça, has roots in failure even as it is also the ultimate football romance — an improbable shot hit by an unlikely perpetrator at a magic moment leading to a glorious result. Messi and Eto’o running around, and history picked … Iniesta?
Of course it did, because how romantic would that goal have been had Messi or Eto’o scored it? It’s a glorious thing founded in a legacy of failure. Belletti missed a great breakaway chance. Essien’s poor clearance effort went directly to Messi. What if Ballack had been tracking runners instead of ball watching? Look at the chagrin as he sank to his knees with the reality that Iniesta was his man. Failure. Romance needs that goal to be the nexus of a delightful Barça attack rather than a string of Chelsea failures, just as romance needs Leicester City and Atleti to be what they are. Atleti is fond of saying that nobody likes them, that they aren’t pretty, etc. Leicester City didn’t produce many highlight-reel goals to be replayed again and again.
But both teams are beautiful to their supporters and to football’s sense of romance, for the game needs romance, needs its current heroes to be indomitable forces rather than accountants of failure. Either or, but not reality, which is that they are both.
Attacking teams such as Barça and Bayern have attacks based in intricacy — runs, passes, links in a circuit that are closed at the opponent goal. Thirty-seven things have to happen and if any one of them goes keflooey, the system has to reset. Atleti and its coach understand that. Like the Mike Tyson quote that everybody has a plan until the get punched in the face, Atleti understands the value of disruption. If thirty-six of thirty-seven things go right, Atleti has won. Barça played better football against them in being eliminated. So did Bayern. It isn’t even that it’s more difficult to create than destroy, as many scoff. It’s that the law of averages is a law for a reason. You’re probably going to screw up. Most of us have far more failures than successes in our lives. Atleti’s way of playing is life, writ on a football pitch. “They’ll screw up.”
There is talk of injustice. The Bayern Munich president said that he felt “cheated” that his club wasn’t in the Champions League final. Obituaries were written for its coach, Pep Guardiola, for whom making the semi-finals year after year, a feat that 99 percent of coaches would kill to have accomplished, is considered abject failure because of the romance attached to him. Failed romance is just as compelling as requited love, after all. Build it up, watch it grow then curse it when it all falls apart. Bayern crashed on the rocks of Atleti, just as Barça did. They came at Atleti with fire and determination, just as Barça did. Their attackers hit shots directly at the Atleti keeper, just as Barça did, just as team after team after team did. And team after team said “We almost had them.” Leicester City won 1-0 and opponents said, “Almost. We just needed one goal.”
Romance loves an underdog, but romance also loves beauty. It hardly ever gets both. Romantics wanted Barça and Bayern in the final of the game’s biggest European stage because it’s football and those teams play football, beautifully. But would that have been romantic, or inevitable? Instead, romance will get Atleti, faced off against one of a pair of flawed, monied underachievers. It’s a party at which neither of the guests is particularly deserving of an invitation. Romance likes the right kind of ugly, a footballing Cyrano. Now that’s some romance right there. It’s easy to forget that in the play, Cyrano doesn’t waltz off with Roxanne. Christian successfully woos her, then goes off to war and is killed. Roxanne mourns him and later, once everything is revealed and she understands that Cyrano is really The One, he dies as well. But when a pair of Cyranos duel, who wins?
Romance won’t care. Atleti has won by just getting to the party. Winning would be icing on the cake. Leicester City would have been celebrated and adored even had they finished second. So will Atleti. Romance is malleable and fluid as it crafts and re-crafts its narratives. And no matter what happens, romance will win.