The Battle of Moscow

This year’s European Champions League Cup Final, played in Moscow on Wednesday night between Manchester United and Chelsea, was a genuine drama extending through full time into extra time and on to the agonising penalty shoot-out. Along the way, there was some excellent football, mostly from Chelsea, but that was the team that ended up losing – to the chagrin of most Israelis, who were rooting for the London club’s Israeli manager, Avram Grant.

Grant, however, was not the only focus of personal interest: the mercurial Chelsea star, Didier Drogba, whose rags-to-riches story from humble Ivory Coast origins to the pinnacle of world soccer would strain even the most imaginative novelist, almost winning the game with a flash of brilliance, but being sent off minutes from the end for striking a United player; United’s veteran star, Ryan Giggs, in what is surely his last European outing at this level, breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of appearances for the club; and many more as well.

From a wider perspective, the first-ever all-English final of Europe’s most prestigious club football competition, confirmed that it is the English Premier League, rather than the Italian or Spanish leagues, that contains the highest concentration of the best clubs and players. That so small a proportion of these players is English-born is generally seen as a triumph of globalisation, which allows the top clubs to attract the best talent – whether it comes from the Ivory Coast, Argentina, Portugal or anywhere else on earth.

But to obtain these players costs clubs huge amounts of money. Chelsea is an extreme example whose owner, Russian-Jewish ‘oligarch’ Roman Abramovich, has spent an estimated half-billion US dollars to build the current team. But even those top teams like Arsenal, which make great efforts to nurture talented youngsters in-house, need big bucks to import top stars in addition. As a result, the select group of top European teams are all major businesses, which must generate massive revenues – primarily from franchising their brand names – to pay their huge expenses and still provide profits for the businessmen who own them.

Money is thus the heart of the matter. The entertainment is important, but it is only the means to a greater end, namely generating profits for all involved – including the stars and the coaches, but first and foremost for the owners. Whether that state of affairs is positive, even desirable, or rather sad and perhaps morally disgusting, is matter of opinion. But that it is so is a matter of fact.

It is therefore worth noting, in a rare foray by this column into the world of sport, that there was far more to the extraordinary duel between Manchester United and Chelsea throughout this past season, which climaxed in Moscow on Wednesday night, than mere football – or even than the current domination of European football by English clubs.

Chelsea were indeed unfortunate to lose on the night. But that Abramovich’s Chelsea lost the English league to United, indeed that most objective observers believe that United is the better team and is likely to remain so – has nothing to do with fortune, or with football. The current English dominance of Europe stems from the superiority of Anglo-Saxon market-oriented capitalism over the Continental European tradition of closely-held family firms. And in the specific context of the United-Chelsea rivalry, United’s triumph represents the victory of American capitalism over the bastard version developing in Russia.

After all, United also have owners – although only a few percent of the millions for whom the name Roman Abramovich trips lightly off the tongue could name them as well. They are also Jews – but that’s secondary. They are first and foremost Americans. So what? So they run the business in the interests of the business and everyone plays within that culture.

At United, there are egos as big as those at Chelsea, but the business is not an ego-trip for anyone, not primarily and not secondarily. Once a clear distinction is made between business and personal, it becomes possible to plan and execute a long-term business strategy which doesn’t reflect and depend on personal whims and preferences. The business can be run along rational lines, using modern concepts such as transparency, areas of responsibility, accountability, and so on. The alternative model is a hive of Byzantine intrigue, focused on one node of absolute power which tends to be used capriciously and which deliberately creates and fosters uncertainty. True, there are also American companies which fit the latter description, but they are the exceptions and they tend not to last. Current Russian-style capitalism, on public display at Chelsea but much more commonplace in Moscow, is also unlikely to last. It will either mature into the American model or collapse as its flaws become unsustainable.

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