There is no draft in top-flight soccer, so there are two ways you can build a powerhouse.
The first way is brick by brick, my son. You identify talent young (and therefore cheap) and develop it yourself. That is the old, out-of-fashion way of doing things.
The second way is via drunken shopping spree. You have a few petrodollar pops, then you stagger into the first store you come across and get two of everything. That is the new, cool way of getting to the top. Or was.
The new way took it in the teeth in Sunday’s Champions League final. Owing to other forces at play in world soccer, the new way is going out of fashion in a big hurry.
Here’s the short précis of Bayern Munich’s 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain – (hands cupped around mouth and said in the style of a Ricola commercial) Boooooring.
Both teams pressed like they were trying to force their opponents up into the bleachers. None of the stars shone. Most of the battles were of the oh-you-think-you-can-run-by-me-without-getting-your-heel-pulped? variety.
I admit to taking a perverse pleasure in watching Neymar pout uselessly for 90 minutes, whether it’s in PSG blue or Brazilian yellow. But it doesn’t make for a solid entertainment product.
You went into this thing expecting a hockey score, but the one goal came on the only clean give-and-go of the game. Which is a bit too much like hockey.
On the home front, Canada’s Alphonso Davies was not a standout for Bayern, but nor did he stand out for the wrong reasons.
There was a moment near the end of the game when Davies found himself handling a bouncing ball in front of his own net with a nearby PSG forward on an attack vector. Davies nodded the ball into his goaltender’s hands with a small move of his head.
There wasn’t much to it, but it could have gone badly wrong about 12 different ways. And if it had, those replays would have led the sports-highlight shows in every country on Earth for the next 48 hours.
Davies’s nothing, little defensive move showed you just how comfortable the 19-year-old Canadian has become playing alongside the best in the world. He has no fear.
At 3 p.m. ET, he became the first of our countrymen to compete in this game. A couple of hours later, he became the first to win it. Davies’s future is blinding.
But he is still one of a collective. Bayern’s culture is built on German efficiency. No one player matters more than any other. Displays of petulance are not tolerated. All rucks at midfield end when some German giant wanders in and starts knocking around shrimpy, hot-blooded Latin types.
Although the club is one of the richest in world sport, money did not build Bayern. Its core is constructed from a combination of academy graduates, value buys and players who came on free transfers.
By far, the most expensive Bayern player is Philippe Coutinho. He cost $250-million. Fortunately for Bayern, it didn’t pay it. Barcelona did. When the Spaniards tired of Coutinho, they farmed him out to Germany. He plays for Bayern, but Barcelona still pays a significant chunk of his wages.
Most of the rest of Bayern’s players have been together forever, and it shows. They don’t rattle. They don’t complain. And they back each other up.
On the other hand, there is PSG.
PSG is the Dirty Dozen of world soccer – mercenaries, many of whom didn’t really want to join this outfit. They just couldn’t say no to the offer.
Primary among them is Neymar. He joined PSG at a cost of $345-million in order to prove he could lead his own team. He’s spent the years since trying to leave, then being grudgingly convinced to stay.
Neymar was an intermittent force in Sunday’s game, but by the end you could tell he’d checked out. At the whistle, he was – the usual for this guy – in floods of tears looking around dramatically for someone to console him. As though he were the only one who’d lost. Which I suppose, to his way of thinking, he is.
PSG’s other headliner, Kylian Mbappé, was a non-factor in the game. At the end, he could be seen pushing away teammates who’d come over to embrace him.
Everyone else on PSG is in the same situation more or less – lured by enormous money to a team whose only rationale is winning this tournament. And it had just lost it. This quarter’s employee self-assessment interviews are going to be brutal.
Although based in Paris, PSG is not particularly popular there. The club is only 50 years old, making it an arriviste in this milieu. PSG is the soccer equivalent of the Arizona Coyotes, if the Coyotes were allowed to spend 10 times as much on players as everyone else.
PSG is essentially owned by the state of Qatar. This team is that country’s effort to purchase sporting credibility ahead of playing host to the World Cup in two years’ time.
Five years ago, PSG was the future of soccer. You hope some multikabillionaire buys your team and begins pumping scary amounts of cash into it. So much cash that your bad name, crap league and mediocre prospects don’t matter. You can buy relevance.
Two things have changed. The first is Financial Fair Play, FIFA’s effort to prevent just this sort of intercontinental carpetbagging. Now you can only spend what you earn. And what you actually earn. Not what you pretend to earn.
The second thing is COVID-19. While most markets continue to run hot, the soccer transfer market is in the midst of collapsing. Teams will not be cashing in in the same way. Rationality in the system is bad for irrational spenders such as PSG.
But it’s good for Bayern and other old-money clubs.
A lot of things have changed in the last little while. In soccer, at least, it appears that some things are changing back.