Home Sport The Brighter the Light, the Darker the Shadow

The Brighter the Light, the Darker the Shadow

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MANCHESTER, England — It is remarkable, really, what you can fit into that time when there is time for one last chance. A corner whipped in, a header flashed toward goal, a finger outstretched to divert its flight just enough so that when the ball lands, it is on metal rather than nylon.

The last chance, it seemed, had come and gone. As it turned out, that was just the first of the last chances. The second fell to one of the world’s finest players, almost surprised to be all alone in an ocean of space, unable to react in time. And then the third: the most ruthless striker in the game running clean through, the championship within reach. There was time, still, but space was suddenly at a premium.

And then the whistle blew. A game drawn, gratification delayed. Manchester City Women and Chelsea Women had fought each other to a standstill, 90 minutes and a little more of high drama and impeccable quality delivered by a collection of superstars and punctuated by four goals, shared evenly. It was the perfect title decider in all but one sense: It did not decide anything.

Instead, the draw meant that the race to crown this season’s Women’s Super League champion would go to the wire. Both City and Chelsea had two games left; Chelsea led the table by only two points. If Emma Hayes’s team — simultaneously managing its quest to reach the Champions League final — slipped, Manchester City would be there to pounce.

Both have played once since, and both won. Which means that everything is at stake on Sunday afternoon, the final day of the season. Chelsea will be home against Reading, and should, in all probability, claim its fifth title in seven years. But while City is on the road, it has the (theoretically) marginally easier engagement, at West Ham.

Chelsea’s women, like its men’s team, have advanced to the Champions League final.Credit…John Walton/Press Association, via Associated Press

For the W.S.L., it is the perfect denouement to the season. Not simply because great tension always generates great sport, regardless of the circumstance, but because these two teams have done more than any others in recent years — Arsenal apart — to drive the standard of the league skyward.

Between them, Chelsea and City have drawn some of the world’s best players to England. Chelsea paid a world-record fee to sign the Danish forward Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg, not long after it had reportedly made Sam Kerr, the Australian striker, the best-paid female soccer player on the planet.

City, meanwhile, has tempted Rose Lavelle, Abby Dahlkemper and Sam Mewis, three members of the United States’ World Cup-winning squad, to Manchester. They count a group of England internationals among their teammates, including the striker Ellen White and — brought home from Lyon, for so long the leading light of the women’s game — the defenders Alex Greenwood and Lucy Bronze.

It is no surprise, then, that the W.S.L. is now seen by many as the finest, strongest women’s league in the world. And while it is a little harder than normal to gauge interest levels in the midst of the pandemic — there are, after all, no attendance figures to report — viewership is growing. Last year, a weekly highlights show on the BBC, despite a late-night slot, attracted an average of half a million viewers.

Sam Mewis is one of three top Americans at Manchester City, which will need a win and a Chelsea defeat on Sunday, the final day of the season, to claim the title.Credit…Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

In theory, that pattern will hold. In March, the cable network Sky agreed to pay more than $10 million a year for the domestic broadcast rights to W.S.L. games, with some remaining on the free-to-air BBC. The league signed deals last year to showcase its games in Italy, Germany and the United States. According to a survey by RunRepeat, a data analysis firm, that increased exposure should meet a willing audience.

But that progress also presents a pressing challenge. It is to their immense credit, of course, that Manchester City and Chelsea have invested so much in their squads, but it has — with rare exceptions — left them severely overmatched against the rest of the league.

Between them, the clubs account for all but one national title since 2014. This year, Arsenal and Manchester United, each with a cadre of high-class recruits, have just about been able to keep pace, but the rest of the W.S.L. has been cut adrift, and the gap that has opened between the leaders and the pack is stark.

In January, Manchester City beat Aston Villa, 7-0, one week and then Brighton, 7-1, the next. Bristol City, battling relegation, has conceded eight goals in a loss to Manchester City and nine in a defeat at Chelsea. The day before that particular humbling, back in September, Arsenal scored nine against West Ham.

Bristol City sits last in the Women’s Super League, having won only twice all season.Credit…Andrew Boyers/Action Images, via Reuters

It is the same across much of Europe. Later this month, Chelsea will face Barcelona in the Champions League final. Barcelona’s domestic record this season is simple: 25 played, 25 won. It has scored 127 goals and surrendered only 5. In one 17-day stretch in April, it won consecutive games by scores of 7-1, 9-0 and 6-1.

Juventus has won all 19 of its games in Italy, scoring six against Florentia and nine against Bari. In France, Lyon has lost once all year — to Paris St.-Germain, the team that is on the cusp of denying Lyon a 15th title in a row. Even that is relatively unusual: Until that defeat, Lyon had not lost a domestic game since 2017.

None of that is to blame the clubs who have invested in their women’s teams. It is strange, in fact, that more teams cut off from success by the economic disparity in the men’s game have not poured more resources into their women’s sides, where glory comes much cheaper. Chelsea’s Harder, the most expensive player in the world, cost somewhere in the region of $300,000, which is not quite what Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang earns in a week.

The commitment from Chelsea and City and the rest has, without question, been not only a completely valid business decision, but a driving force behind the sustained growth of the women’s game, capitalizing on the boom generated by the success, in particular, of the 2019 World Cup. The task for the leagues, though, is to ensure that their competitions have breadth, as well as height.

In Continental Europe, the answer is simple. Spain’s top flight, for example, is not yet fully professional; the expectation is that, as more teams go full time, they will be better placed to start to reel in Barcelona. In England, the hope is that the imminent television deal will not only swell coffers across the board, but also encourage those clubs that have been wary of investing that they will see a return on their money.

Lieke Martens and Barcelona are unbeaten in the league for two years running.Credit…Joan Monfort/Associated Press

As dangerous as it can be to compare the dynamics of the women’s game with the men’s, though, the evidence suggests it is not always quite that straightforward. One of the dangers of the model employed to grow the W.S.L. — using the renown of brands from the men’s game to kick-start the women’s — is that, ultimately, the thinking remains the same. What worked, or was perceived to work, for the men is applied unthinkingly to the women. That is, after all, how it is done.

The risk is that it is not only the successes that are copied, but the mistakes, too. The greatest challenge facing the men’s game is the lack of competitive balance both between and within leagues: the presence of an entrenched and unreachable elite slowly eroding first the hope and then the interest of everyone else.

There is no reason for the women’s game to be forced into that same pitfall, for the W.S.L. to split into the same miniature divisions that fracture the Premier League. Whether the mechanism to prevent it is financial (a tweak to the distribution of revenue) or sporting (some sort of draft model) is not clear, but it is worth discussing.

That meeting between Chelsea and Manchester City, the game with all those last chances, was as compelling as any there will be in any league, anywhere in the world, this season. Its drama was exquisite, its cast stellar, its execution flawless. It was the sort of game that should be spread around the many, rather than monopolized by the few.

The Country That Cried Wolf

There are many, within soccer, who resent England’s tendency to, at the slightest opportunity, wheel out that rusty old cliché about being the sport’s home. It is bad enough that it does so when bidding to host a tournament far in the future — witness the slogan for Britain and Ireland’s 2030 World Cup campaign — but it is barely tolerable when the effort is dressed up as not just a chance to return the game to its roots, but an act of charitable salvation, too.

It happens, essentially, for every major tournament. It happened before the World Cups in South Africa and Brazil: Neither could afford it, so play it in England. It happened before the World Cup in Russia: Putin is bad, play it in England. And it has been happening for 11 years about the World Cup in Qatar.

None of the lawmakers, observers or, yes, fans who offer the suggestion seem to appreciate not only the degree to which they are offering an almost offensively easy solution for enormously intricate geopolitical issues — “To solve the human rights problem in Qatar, I would simply play the World Cup in England” — but also how presumptuous it sounds. Mostly, though, they do not seem to get quite how annoying it must be for everyone else.

It is somehow fitting, then, that the first time there is a case to be made for their reflex argument, nobody wants to hear it.

It’s not coming home.Credit…Matthew Childs/Action Images, via Reuters

As previously noted in this newsletter: It would make sense, in the midst of a pandemic, to host this summer’s European Championship entirely in England. And it would make possibly even more sense to play this year’s Champions League final — currently scheduled for Istanbul, on May 29, but contested by two Premier League teams — in England (or maybe Wales). Turkey has just entered a new lockdown, after all. Its coronavirus rates are troubling. Encouraging around 10,000 English fans to travel across Europe for a game of soccer, in the current circumstances, is ridiculous.

As things stand, though at least one English club has offered to step in, and though at least one of the finalists has asked UEFA to contemplate moving the game, it is unlikely anything will be changed. It is too late, too complex, too sensitive: Istanbul was, after all, supposed to hold the final in 2020. Forcing the city to wait another year would be unpalatable.

But it is hard not to wonder if perhaps the entreaties of the English would be given more than a cursory hearing if the same demand had not been made quite so often over the last two decades. It creates the impression less that this is a coolheaded response to a unique set of circumstances, and more that it is fairly typical opportunism. It is a shame. For once, there is good reason to play something in England. It’s just that nobody has any reason to listen.

Real Friends Ask Questions

Eden Hazard suffering against Chelsea. It was his smiles afterward that rankled some.Credit…Toby Melville/Reuters

The music was funereal. Josep Pedrerol, the host, sat in a television studio, cast in silhouette. When he spoke, his tone was somber, his cadence grave. A non-Spanish speaker might have assumed that he was pronouncing on some national sorrow, some unthinkable loss, or that he had just learned a close friend had recently eaten a beloved pet.

He was, instead, telling his viewers that Real Madrid had been eliminated from the Champions League, and that they might like to blame Eden Hazard — overweight, apparently, and unforgivably caught smiling with some of his former Chelsea teammates. Hazard, Pedrerol said, had “laughed in the face of the Madrid fans.” After this brazen transgression, Hazard “could not play another second for Madrid.”

It would be easy to laugh off the show that Pedrerol fronts — El Chiringuito, a gaudy staple of Spain’s late-night television schedule, the place that Florentino Pérez bafflingly chose to pitch his European Super League to the public at large — as a bombastic and overblown outrage factory. It is, in fact, not much of an outlier.

This sort of thing does not happen only in Spain, of course; let those who are in glass houses cast the first accusation of underperformance and all that. But there has long been a strand of coverage of Real Madrid in general, and the Real Madrid of Pérez in particular, that adopts this sort of tone: utterly jubilant in victory, a toddler’s temper tantrum in defeat, with the blame always, reliably, directed away from the man who runs the club.

Pedrerol knows his audience, of course. He is doubtless sincere in his views. There is an appeal, too, for fans to see their own disappointment reflected back to them. On Wednesday night, Pedrerol was manifesting what many of them were probably feeling. But if these outlets have Real Madrid’s best interests at heart, it is difficult to see how, exactly, they are helping.

Is demanding Hazard be sold at the first opportunity the best way to encourage him to give his best to Real Madrid? Is treating every defeat as some sort of crime against nature likely to foster the sort of environment that allows a team to be built smartly and sensibly?

And, most of all, is refusing to suggest that Pérez might in some way be accountable — given that he is more than happy to take the glory when times are good — really going to address Real Madrid’s issues at their roots? It feels unfair to describe the journalists who work at these outlets as little more than Madrid’s “friendly” news media, but there are times when it goes beyond that. They give the impression of being mere clients. Real friends, after all, ask questions.

Correspondence

A rare image of Donny van de Beek, right, playing for Manchester United.Credit…Pool photo by Laurence Griffiths

Last week’s column on Dutch soccer has opened the floodgates. Well, the trickle-gates. Well, just this email from Jos Timmers:

“Last year, Donny van de Beek went to Manchester United for an enormous amount, but he hardly ever plays. Now his participation with the Dutch national team in the European Championship is in danger. He is just one of the many talented players who are lured into a megacontract by the clubs with the deepest pockets and then languish on the reserve bench or, worse still, in the stands. I cannot understand how they are capable to cope with this situation.”

The conundrum van de Beek — and the many others like him — faces, I think, is that it is hard to turn down the opportunity (sporting and financial) to play for one of the game’s modern giants. Players believe in their abilities. They have the confidence to assume that they will play, no matter how high the standard around them.

But I also think this is an area where soccer could, perhaps, take administrative action to make the game a little less unequal. ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti has suggested reducing the number of players any team can register in its squad to 19 or 20, rather than the current 25, with players under age 21 exempted. This would, he argues correctly, spread talent around more evenly: to make Manchester United less likely, in other words, to stockpile players of the talent of Donny van de Beek.

I wonder if you could go farther, though. What if every player’s contract had a clause in it saying that they would be available for sale at a set price (or even for free) if they failed to play a specified percentage of games over the course of the season? At the end of the campaign, they would be allowed to move on (if they chose to do so), rather than being consigned to another year as a squad filler by a team with no real use for them.

Hansi Flick, right, will hand Julian Nagelsmann a Bundesliga-winning team, and the expectation that he keep it on top.Credit…Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sabine Brettreich asks how Julian Nagelsmann will fare at Bayern Munich, where he will take over from Hansi Flick this summer. I could be cheap and say I would guess that Nagelsmann will win the league, but that is perhaps to downplay how interesting the appointment is.

Nagelsmann’s career has been unusual: no playing background to speak of, but a lot of coaching experience for someone so young. Bayern has always seemed his natural destination, but it is also a test: Will a playing squad of that quality afford him the respect that he deserves? My instinct is that it will work, but that is not, I think, guaranteed.