Iker Casillas, the maverick goalkeeper who's spent an eternity at Real Madrid, expressed his sadness in April 2010 that Barca were out of the Champions League, preferring a Spanish side to be in the Final. It surprised me a bit 'cause I thought, hey just wait a minute... aren't Barcelona the fiercest rivals of Real Madrid? This is like Roosevelt condoling the demise of Adolf Hitler, wishing that the German could have had the opportunity to proceed and replicate the exploits of Ghaznavi in the sub-continent.
I realised the reason for my astonishment was linked directly with my allegiance to the English Premier League: I was surprised 'cause I can never imagine Shay Given opining to the Press that he would've preferred to see Manchester United doing the business in Bernabeu instead of Bayern Munich.
I can also see that Wolfsburg and Schalke players and officials are buzzing that after years a German team would be featuring in the footballing event of the year. I also reminisced that in the last five years, on both occasions that AC Milan managed to make the Final, their little cousins at Inter did not mourn it.
I thought maybe it's the other way round in England 'cause of the inherent injustice that the Irish, Scots and Welsh have been subjected to during the course of history. My reasoning turned out to be bollocks, 'cause I was reminded of the Basque in Spain and Turins in Italy. Naples isn't exactly ecstatic rejoicing in its state of equitable status, now is it?
When Mancs applauded Milan's triumph over Liverpool in 2006, the result was forgotten in the air: the Champions League trophy went to Italy, not England. When the Scousers hailed Barca's domination of Manchester United in the 2009 Final, it was Spain that proudly declared to the world that La Liga and not EPL is the best league in world football.
It is interesting to note how the hatred that fans have for other clubs has completely taken over the sense of national pride. Blogs have millions of comments from English fans blaming the impotence of EPL in Europe and Platini's scathing attitude towards the phenomenal magic that English Football has over the whole world: but aren't you fans the greatest reason why England is weak in the politics of European Football?
If we research the statistics, Spain has entered 55 competitions to date reaching 21 Finals in total, winning 12 and losing 9. Their success ratio is 22%. During this period, only 4 Spanish clubs made it to the Final, with only Barcelona and Real Madrid emerging triumphant; hence in history, there are only 2 Spanish Clubs which have won Europe's top prize.
Italy entered Europe a total of 54 times and made it to 25 Finals, winning 11 and losing 14. Their success ratio stands at 20%. As many as 6 Italian teams have reached the Final, with only AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan being crowned champions.
For the short-sighted this would be surprising but England's success ratio in Europe is the highest at 23%. Entering the competition 48 times, the English made it to 17 Finals, winning 11 and losing 6. England also boasts the record of having the maximum number of teams making it to the Final: as many as 7 clubs have made that distinction. No other league in the world has had more clubs winning the European Glory either. Four different clubs, Liverpool, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa have all conquered Europe at various intervals.
Why is it then that we feel that England has under-achieved in Europe and that the Spanish, Italians and even the Germans have a more glorious history. Few are aware of the fact that England is actually the sole reason why the premier European competition came into being. Gabriel Hanot, an influential sports journalist hailing from France got pissed off that Wolverhampton Wanderers, affectionately known as Wolves and also the only European club that Pele ever wanted to play for, kicked every leading European club's backside in a series of friendly games. Hanot pulled strings and hence what we now know as UEFA Champions League was instituted in 1955, then known as European Champion Clubs' Cup.
Retrospecting the dominance of England in Europe, for most of the first decade since the competition's inception, England did not take it seriously, incensing Hanot and his ilk further by not even participating. Sir Matt Busby's Manchester United were the first team to make it to a Final in 1968 and they massacred a Eusebio-led Benfica, thereby managing a Final win the very first time an English team had gone all the way. Leeds United lost their final in 1974, but what followed in the years to come was unreal: from 1976 to 1981, only English clubs conquered Europe. These were times when English clubs used to play 42-game League seasons and had more domestic cup competitions than any other league in the world. In spite of their hectic seasons, England made a loud and clear statement, particularly when even a small club like Forest was murdering the Goliaths of Europe.
It could very well be merely a conspiracy theory, yet the whole of Europe wasted no time in standing united when it came to placing a ban on English clubs on pretext of the Heysel Disaster in Brussels, thereby barring them from participating in Europe. It's just the coincidental nature of the ban colliding with the English dominance that's a bit difficult to digest. It's also amusing that as soon as the English league was reformed into EPL and big money came in the form of broadcasting domination of the world, that ban was lifted. However, all this speculation does not vindicate the English fans of their core responsibility of flying the English flag high.
The mutual hatred of English clubs reached an all-time low on the second last Sunday of the 2009/2010 season, when Liverpool fans were seen celebrating Frank Lampard's goal against their own team: could you conjure up a similar precedent in European football as retarded and sickening as this one. After a dubiously ridiculous back-pass by Steven Gerrard that looked more like an assist to Drogba, Stevie G definitely assured his eternal legendary status in Liverpool folklore: for losing the last home game of the season, so as to ensure that Man United don't surpass their tally of 18 league titles. While this aspect is not being discussed with the frivolity that it ought to be; however the league itself cannot stoop any lower. The home crowd at Anfield ignored that they have endured one of their worst seasons in recent history - trophyless and ending effectively 7th in the league; yet their supporters were elated at the sight of the Blues scoring against their own team. Is it a wonder then that England was out of Champions League this season at the Q/F stage itself? Fulham, the less-privileged poor cousins of Chelsea were the only club striving in Europe having made it to the Europa League final on the basis of sheer grit and positivity; however losing to the sheer grit and positivity of a Diego Forlan-inspired Atletico Madrid, who by the way must be mocking their rich cousins in Madrid for spending 250 million and winning F-All.
Positivity - the key word required to achieve what's impossible. The same trait that motivated the unbeaten Arsenal squad in 2003/2004. The same attribute that propelled United to achieve the Treble in 1998/1999. The same quality that enabled Nottingham Forest to win back-to-back European Cups in the late 70s. How do you think Bill Shankly would've felt to see the Scousers celebrating their own defeat? Can one imagine the scornful superlatives that Brian Clough would've reserved had Stevie G, the back-passer would've been his captain? The Damned United, a motion picture that highlighted Clough's stint with Leeds United, shows the Leeds team purposely injuring players of Clough's Derby a few days before they're due to clash with Juventus in a European semi-final. Football very proudly and vociferously propagates "Kick Racism Out Of Football" as it slogan, but when will football start kicking out pettiness? Is it really a man's game anymore?
Just a few years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson's Man United squad gave a Guard of Honor to Jose's Chelsea, who had been crowned champions prior to their Old Trafford visit. It must have taken them to swallow a lot of pride, yet they honored the champs like men. Strangely, it became a great motivator for the Red Devils, as ironically the next season, Jose's troops gave a Guard of Honor to Man United, who had been crowned champions prior to their visit of Stamford Bridge. Two seasons later, when United won the league for the third consecutive year, Rafa Benitez refused to even congratulate Alex Ferguson. The same Rafa Benitez whose fans and players have been involved in one of the most shameful displays one can remember in recent history. Isn't it time again that non-British managers are given the boot for spoiling the integrity of the league? Would Shankly or Dalglish have allowed what happened during the Liverpool-Chelsea game at Anfield when The Kop applauded Frank Lampard's goal against their own boys, just so that it would prevent United winning a record-breaking 19th title?
What really teeters on insanity is the way this domestic rivalry has crept its vicious ways into the great cause of the Three Lions. What can one say when you hear that 'United is better than England.' Whereas the Catalans and the Madridistas unite when Spain competes at the Euro or the World Cup; there are pockets in England that are indifferent to the national team's fate, sometimes for reasons as preposterous as their club captain not skippering the Three Lions.
From Geoff Hurst to Ashley Cole: read any English stalwart's biography and there is a common factor: cliques within the national team's squad. There are separate Man United and Liverpool dining tables for cryin' out loud; yet astonished spectators all over the world still question why Stevie, Lamps, Wazza & Co. couldn't do the business in Nelson Mandela's backyard. The same faithful of Old Trafford who graciously gave a standing ovation to the Brazilian wizard, Ronaldo in spite of scoring a hat-trick and effectively knocking United out of the Champions League in the 2002/2003 season, would not reserve the same adulation for Norman Hunter of Leeds or Roger Hunt of Liverpool, both members of the World Cup winning England squad of 1966.
The English Press is not far behind in choosing favorites either. Gazza realised way back in the 80's that in order to win over the opinion makers in London, taking the mickey out of Bryan Robson and Remi Moses on the pitch wasn't enough: he secured a transfer to Spurs. Rags in North of England would rip you apart, even insinuate you of shagging various species, just because you wear the colors of Arsenal or Chelsea.
So long as fans are unable to free themselves from the Club vs Country debate, feel free not to expect miracles from the national team on the International Pitch.