Football: Taking stock at the World Cup break


In the end, the reverie could not quite hold. Union Berlin, the unassuming, unheralded team from the forest, had first moved atop of the Bundesliga in early September. It had the air, back then, of the sort of fleeting feel-good story that the early days of the season can bring: not a fluke, of course, but a confluence of circumstance that was unlikely to last.

Nobody expected Union to remain there for long, least of all anyone connected to Union itself. The highest echelon of German soccer has, in recent years, grown used to the sudden advent of supercharged underdogs in its ranks, from Hoffenheim, the passion play of a local billionaire, to RB Leipzig, the artificial creation of an energy-drink conglomerate.

While Union’s trajectory had been similar, its methods – and its ethos – are starkly different. It has been trundling along in Germany’s lower tiers ever since reunification, only occasionally needing its fans to rebuild its crumbling stadium or donate their blood to stave off bankruptcy, the sort of team in which ambitions extend no further than staying around.

Simply reaching the Bundesliga for the first time in its history, three years ago, was accomplishment enough, ample reward for a decade of prudence and patience. The fantasy stretched no further than dislodging Hertha as the German capital’s most successful club, and perhaps making a foray into European competition. Union checked both of those boxes in only its second campaign.

The sight of its name at the very summit of German soccer was not part of the plan. Union, even in the minds of its fans, was an interloper. Reality would intrude soon enough. The longer it stayed there, though, the more comfortable it felt, the more it seemed to get its feet under the table.

Borussia Dortmund came to the woods one day and was stung by a big surprise. A winner in the 97th minute saw off Borussia Monchengladbach. Union was proving far more difficult to shift than anticipated. All of a sudden, the prospect of seeing Urs Fischer’s team make it to the World Cup as the Bundesliga leader, as an improbable title contender, seemed to crystallize.

Then, last weekend, reality bit, cold and fast. Union had been holding Bayer Leverkusen – struggling against relegation and already on its second manager of the season – at halftime, its usual virtues of industry and organization holding firm. Forty-five minutes later, though, it had all fallen apart, beaten 5-0, as dazed and groggy as if it had just awoke from a lucid dream. And with that, the old order reasserted itself.

By Wednesday, Bayern Munich was 4 points clear at the top. The ring rust of its own early season long since shaken off and its foot now firmly on the accelerator, Bayern could look ahead and see yet another title – what is that? 11? 14? It scarcely matters any more – seemingly clasped greedily to its chest.

The painstaking rise, and the sudden fall, of Union feels a little like a parable for what has happened across Europe as the continent’s leagues have squeezed in as many games as possible before being placed on unwelcome hiatus for the World Cup.

The compressed, contracted calendar was supposed to add a layer of chaos to proceedings, to make domestic tournaments that have come to resemble a procession just a little more wild, a little more untamed, than they might ordinarily be. If anything, though, the opposite has happened. Bayern will go into the break on top in Germany. Paris St.-Germain will do so in France. In Spain, Barcelona has carved out just a little daylight from its rival, the noted plucky underdog Real Madrid.

Look a little beneath the surface, though, and there are signs of churn and change. It is not just that – with one round of fixtures to play – Arsenal leads the Premier League, Manchester City biting at its heels, or that Napoli, the best team to watch in Europe, has established a healthy lead in Serie A.

It is that, across the continent, all but a handful of giants have spent at least a portion of the last few months stumbling. It is in England where the pattern is most clear, where Chelsea has fired Thomas Tuchel; Tottenham has been enveloped by existential angst; Manchester United has ricocheted from crisis to hope and back again; and Liverpool has, at times, actually forgotten how to play soccer. Newcastle United currently sits third in the Premier League. More instructive is that Brighton is sixth.

The pattern is true elsewhere, too. Juventus, already eliminated from the Champions League, is left in Napoli’s dust domestically, its only solace that Inter Milan is in the same place. Atlético Madrid is out of Europe altogether, and scrabbling to qualify for the Champions League next season; Dortmund and Ajax and Sporting Lisbon, among others, all find themselves in the same boat.

It is no surprise that every single one of those teams has already played something in the region of 20 games, crammed into barely three months, across both domestic and European competition. The Occam’s razor explanation for their travails is that they have found the pace too hot, the demands too exacting, to maintain their usual standards.

That a few teams have remained unfazed by the exigencies of this strange season is not a surprise, particularly. Some, such as Bayern, PSG and Manchester City, are inured by wealth to all but the most urgent crises. Others, including Arsenal and Napoli, have caught a wave and managed to ride it.

The question now, of course, is how lasting any of this proves to be. What awaits us on the other side of the break may be a continuation or a cessation of the chaos. It is, at this juncture, difficult to tell.

Perhaps the old order will reassert itself, once the specter of the World Cup has fled. Perhaps the fatigue, mental and physical, accrued in Qatar will contort the rest of the season in yet more curious ways. It may prove to be the moment that reality intrudes. Or it might just be a pause in an ongoing reverie.


Careful What You Wish For

It is not an entirely comfortable thing, eulogizing the achievements of what is, at heart, a profit-driven investment vehicle designed to enhance the already absurd wealth of billionaires.

Fenway Sports Group’s motivations at Liverpool – as is the case for so many owners of so many clubs – have never been pure. They have been present at Anfield, ever since they bought the team from the brink of administration in 2010, not for the love of the game or even the thrill of the competition, but because of the return it would one day generate.

That day, it would appear, has come. Inspired (most likely) by the frenzy of interest in acquiring Chelsea earlier this year, FSG. has decided that now is the time to cash out. As reported earlier this week, it is preparing and disseminating a prospectus to potential investors.

There is no reason to believe a sale is imminent. There is certainly no reason to believe the owners are in a rush. If someone wants to hand them $3 billion or so, though, they appear to be happy to talk.

There would, among Liverpool’s fans, be some – perhaps even plenty – who would not mourn their passing. FSG has always made clear that it expects its assets to be self-sustaining; it has never pretended that it was prepared to spend sufficiently lavishly to match the three clubs who, in Jurgen Klopp’s words, cannot fail. There are some fans – perhaps even plenty – who see FSG as an obstacle to, rather than a source of, Liverpool’s success.

That reading ignores, of course, not only the fact that it is under FSG’s tenure that Liverpool has been transformed from a drifting giant into arguably soccer’s most cutting-edge club, but also that it has won almost every trophy there is to win under the group’s leadership, and done so while its physical infrastructure, from the stadium to the training ground, has been updated and improved. The FSG era at Liverpool has a legacy that can be weighed not just in gold, but concrete.

And wishing for the end of that era overlooks the thorny issue of what comes next. Liverpool would fetch a premium price, one that rules out all but a handful of suitors. Many of them would come with compromises far more challenging than accusations of parsimony. Money in that volume, after all, is rarely pure.

That is not to say that FSG has been a perfect owner. It has not. It has made mistakes, egregious ones, and had to apologize for them more than once. But it is hard to avoid the sense that, whomever the owners sell to and whenever they sell, they may well look far better in retrospect than some felt they did in real time.



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