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    How Villarreal’s Eye for Value Cracked the Champions League Code

    A Spanish team’s run to a semifinal against Liverpool offers a template for how European teams can turn the impatience of the continent’s richest clubs against them.A great way to understand how it is that Villarreal — a soccer team from a town of only 50,000 souls, playing in a stadium that can hold a little less than half of them — finds itself in the semifinals of the Champions League is to consider the cleaning products aisle of Spain’s leading supermarket.The supermarket, Mercadona, and the soccer club are corporate cousins. Fernando Roig, Villarreal’s president and benefactor, has a minority stake in Mercadona, Spain’s largest retail chain, but it is his brother, Juan, the majority shareholder, who is credited with turning the latter into a staple case study for business schools around the world.Central to that approach is the idea that the customers are ultimately in charge. They are the ones, after all, who determine what their stores should stock. To ensure the company is meeting their needs, Mercadona, every so often, invites a selection of its most reliable customers to take part in a testing laboratory.These are held at 10 stores around Spain, and each is devoted to a particular strand of the business: pet care, for example, or snacks or personal hygiene. Customers are asked not only to offer feedback on various products — the packaging, the pricing, the taste, the smell — but to advise Mercadona’s staff on how they use them.That was how Mercadona discovered that while a lot of people were buying white wine vinegar as a condiment, they were also using it as a stain remover. “So they created a cleaning product made with vinegar,” Miguel Blanco, a business economics professor at King Juan Carlos University, once told a business journal from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Mercadona, like Villarreal, understands that the appeal of a product depends on how it is used.Villarreal does not, at first glance, follow the blueprint laid down by the handful of teams from outside the exclusive cabal of fabulously wealthy clubs who have gate-crashed the Champions League semifinals in recent years.Francis Coquelin and Villarreal, who will face Liverpool twice over the next week, are 180 minutes from the Champions League final.David Ramos/Getty ImagesMonaco in 2017 and Ajax in 2019 felt a little like glimpses into soccer’s near future. It was in Monaco’s run past Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund that Kylian Mbappé, Bernardo Silva and Fabinho first pierced the sport’s broader consciousness. Ajax’s defeats of Real Madrid and Juventus on its way to the semifinals two years later helped turn Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt into stars.RB Leipzig, which made the final four in that strange, ghostly pandemic tournament in 2020, seemed like a team from the cutting edge, too. It featured the likes of Dayot Upamecano and Christopher Nkunku, and was guided by Julian Nagelsmann, the standard-bearer for coaching’s first post-Pep Guardiola generation.Villarreal, on the other hand, does not feel like a vision of what is to come. The core of Unai Emery’s team is homegrown, with the rise of Gerard Moreno, Yeremi Pino, Alfonso Pedraza and, in particular, Pau Torres testament to the outstanding work of the club’s widely admired academy.Apart from Pino, 19, though, none are especially young, not in soccer terms. Even Torres, the club’s locally sourced jewel, is 25, meaning he is unlikely to inspire the sort of feeding frenzy among the transfer market’s apex predators that de Ligt generated in 2019.Instead, around that cadre of graduates, Villarreal gives the impression of being something of a Premier League vintage store, its team stocked with faces vaguely familiar to cursory followers of English soccer. There is Vicente Iborra, a 34-year-old midfielder who struggled to make an impact at Leicester City, and Pervis Estupiñán, the young Ecuadorean left back who noodled around the great Watford loan factory for a while.Like many of his players, Manager Unai Emery has a stint in England on his résumé.Lukas Barth/ReutersÉtienne Capoue, 33, spent six years at Vicarage Road, establishing himself as a rare constant on a Watford team defined by permanent change. Alberto Moreno was released on a free transfer by Liverpool. Francis Coquelin first emerged at Arsenal. Dani Parejo had a short spell at Queens Park Rangers. Arnaut Danjuma had flickered and sputtered at Bournemouth.And then there is the Tottenham contingent: Juan Foyth, a defender who had lost his way; Serge Aurier, ditto; and Giovani Lo Celso, an extravagantly gifted midfielder who found himself out in the cold upon Antonio Conte’s arrival as manager at Spurs late last year.Even Emery, of course, returned to Spain after being given the somewhat daunting task of replacing Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. His team at Villarreal, the one that eliminated Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals, the one that blocks Liverpool’s path to a third Champions League final in five years, has been constructed on the Premier League’s waifs and strays.Those familiar with Villarreal’s strategy say that is not a deliberate policy. Miguel Ángel Tena, the club’s sporting director, and Fernando Roig Negueroles, its chief executive — and the son of the president — have not set out to sift through those cast aside by the Premier League’s wanton, wasteful consumerism.Villarreal’s finances pale in comparison to its Champions League rivals.Biel Alino/EPA, via ShutterstockThere has, instead, been a degree of opportunism. When, halfway through last season, Emery needed a physically imposing, technically adroit central midfielder, he remembered being impressed by Capoue while he was in England. Capoue, who has admitted that he does not watch soccer, did not even know where Villarreal was when the offer came; he was just touched by Emery’s faith in him.Danjuma was another signing recommended by the manager: Villarreal’s analysts had never watched him when Emery suggested, in the aftermath of Villarreal’s winning the Europa League last season, that the team should pay $20 million or so for a player who had just been relegated with Bournemouth. The club, though, paid the fee. Villarreal now believes Danjuma, its breakout star, could one day fetch $100 million.Others have benefited from the club’s eidetic memory. Villarreal has long nurtured connections in South America in general and in Argentina in particular: When it last reached a Champions League semifinal, in 2006, it was with a team stocked with Boca Juniors alumni. Its scouting network picked out Foyth and Lo Celso long ago.Villarreal could not compete with the money on offer from England — or Paris St.-Germain, in Lo Celso’s case — when they first came to Europe, but the club knows well enough that soccer can always bring a second chance, particularly given how quickly English clubs, in particular, discard players.It is that insight that has allowed Emery not only to deliver the first major honor in Villarreal’s history — last year’s Europa League — but to sweep the team to within 180 minutes of the biggest game of them all: the knowledge that a product can have an alternative purpose, a more significant role, than the one stated on the packaging.Villarreal scooped up Arnaut Danjuma when Bournemouth was relegated from the Premier League.Alessandro Di Marco/EPA, via ShutterstockGiovani Lo Celso is one of three former Tottenham players on Emery’s team.Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesAnd it is that approach that, while it may not make Villarreal as compelling or as exciting as Monaco or Ajax, perhaps it makes its story a little more imitable, a little more inspiring in an age dominated both by the superclubs and increasingly by the financial might of the Premier League.Monaco’s success was built, in large part, on the unparalleled eye for talent of its chief scout, Luis Campos. Ajax’s was a tribute to the club’s unmatched gift for nurturing and fostering promise. But both contained trace elements of lightning strikes, too: difficult — if not impossible — to repeat or replicate.Villarreal, though, offers a template that might be followed, a vision for how clubs without the finances of the Premier League or the weight of the giants of continental Europe might be able to thrive. It demonstrates that it is possible to grow strong on the scraps from the feast, to thrive in soccer’s increasingly Anglocentric ecosystem, by remembering that the appeal of a product depends on its use. More

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    Manchester City Fights Off Atlético Madrid in Champions League

    City, a team shaped by style, showed it was also skilled in the dark arts as it eliminated Atlético Madrid and moved a step closer to its first Champions League title.MADRID — Many things happened at the Wanda Metropolitano in the final 10 or 20 minutes, the ones that seemed to stretch on and on, long past the final whistle, until they almost constituted another self-contained bonus game, a separate third installment of a scheduled two-part drama.There was some hair-pulling. There was quite a lot of time-wasting. There was a full-scale brawl, dozens and dozens of players and team staff members all streaming down to a corner of the field to make their opinions known. There was a flurry of yellow cards, and a bright, angry red. There was Diego Simeone, conducting his orchestra, urging the stadium to bay and to howl and to snarl until the last breath.What there was not, the only thing missing, was much actual soccer. There were flashes, of course, Atlético Madrid charging forward, desperately hunting the goal that would break Manchester City’s resistance and take the game into extra time, extend their stay in the Champions League for another 30 minutes or, just maybe, another few weeks. For the most part, though, those endless last few minutes were a study in the art of not playing soccer.Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesA foul by Felipe on Phil Foden sparked a sideline brawl.Manu Fernandez/Associated PressFelipe got a red card. Foden, and City, got a place in the semifinals.Oscar Del Pozo/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThat is, of course, very much part of Atlético Madrid’s identity. Simeone has spent a decade crafting a team in his own image, one that plays, just as he did, with a “knife between its teeth.”Atlético should, by rights, be a heroic underdog among Europe’s elite, a countercultural alternative to the hegemony of pressing and possession. It does not, after all, have the resources of its overweening neighbor, Real Madrid, let alone the state-backed clout of Manchester City or Paris St.-Germain, and yet it refuses to wilt, to succumb to financial inevitability.It is a potent testament to Simeone’s work, then, and to the great effectiveness of his inculcation, that his team can so easily and so frequently play the role of the Champions League’s obvious villain: a side of cynics, provocateurs and cutthroats, designed and built to draw the beauty and the soul from the game, happy to subvert any norm available in pursuit of victory, and in defiance of convention, its opponents and the game’s sense of moral rectitude.And yet, in all the fire and fury, it was not only Atlético that realized that a place in the semifinals hung not on talent and technique but on grit and grizzle, on a willingness to do whatever it takes.There is no team more associated with beauty than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. He has come, over the years, to stand as an embodiment of soccer’s higher values, its ultimate arbiter of taste, its aesthete in chief. Guardiola means sophistication and style, and he has imbued all of that into the team he has built.Those were not the virtues, though, that allowed his team to escape Madrid unscathed, its place in a Champions League semifinal with Real Madrid secured, its chase for a domestic and European treble intact. City did not beat Atlético by overcoming its dark arts. It beat Atlético by borrowing them.Even City’s Pep Guardiola didn’t shy from the fight on Wednesday.Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesSome of them, at least. Just like its host, Guardiola’s team, for once, did not seem especially interested in playing soccer, either. It played, instead, for time. Every throw-in seemed to take an age, and every free kick and every goal kick, too. No injury was shaken off; even the most minor bump and bruise warranted an extended period of treatment. Balls that had run out of play were knocked just a little farther down the line, out of the reach of Atlético’s players. No slight was too minor not to be met with indignation.That should not be read as a criticism of Manchester City; far from it. Often, it is so easy to be dazzled by the brilliance of Guardiola’s side that its character, its courage, is overlooked. His record in the Premier League, in particular, in recent years has been built as much on defensive parsimony as attacking threat. City does not wilt and it does not doubt; it keeps going, remorselessly, absolute in its conviction that it will be proved right in the end.As the Metropolitano — this sleek, modern stadium built by the success of Simeone — somehow morphed into the Vicente Calderón, Atlético’s crumbling, intimidating, nakedly hostile former home, what carried City through was not its magic but its mettle. That is as much part of Guardiola’s recipe as anything else.And nor, for that matter, should it be read as a criticism of Atlético. “What matters more than anything in soccer is winning,” Simeone said after the game, not long after the players had confronted each other in the tunnel once more. “It does not matter how you do it.”Even Guardiola conceded that Atlético had come close to winning, that it might have scored, might have won, if it had only possessed just a little more luck. “They had the actions to score,” he said. “We had to live this situation. We had to suffer. We were in big, big trouble.” On another night, in another world, he seemed to say, everything could have been very different.That Simeone’s team had been able to run City so close was not despite its brinkmanship, but because of it. As Atlético did what it does, in those final few minutes, as the sense of outrage outside the steep concrete banks of the Metropolitano started to build, so too did the noise inside it. The crowd responded to its team’s snapping and growling, ratcheting up the pressure just a little more, shifting things imperceptibly in the host’s favor. Atlético is not the way it is for fun. It is the way it is because it works.“They know how to do this better than any other team in the world,” Guardiola said. Nobody, anywhere, does not play soccer better than Atlético Madrid.Guardiola sounded impressed, in a way. He knows there are times when that is what matters, that is what counts. He knows that his team will, at times, need to be a little like Atlético Madrid if it is to return here and celebrate again in a few weeks’ time, if it is to climb the only peak it is yet to scale, to claim the Champions League. More

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    Manchester City Ties Liverpool, Defending Its Turf and Its Lead

    In a Premier League season of the finest margins, four goals add to the drama but don’t change the title math for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.MANCHESTER, England — Midway through the second half, as the game on which a season hung started to build in a nerve-shredding, pulse-straining crescendo, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold found himself waiting to take a throw-in within a couple of feet of Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager.Ordinarily, in these circumstances, the conventions of rivalry dictate that the two adversaries must studiously ignore each other’s presence. The manager offers instruction to someone standing in the opposite direction. The player averts his gaze, lest acknowledgment be mistaken for treachery.Guardiola, though, has little truck with convention. With Sunday’s game paused for an injury, he sidled over to Alexander-Arnold, draped his arm over his shoulder and initiated what can only be described as a chat. He was, as he always is, somewhere between animated and agitated, but there was a broad grin on his face, genuine affection in his gestures. It was unmistakable: In the game with everything on the line, Guardiola was enjoying himself.City’s Pep Guardiola and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold defusing the tension, if only for a moment.Michael Regan/Getty ImagesThat should not, really, be surprising. The meeting of indisputably the best and second-best teams in England — order yet to be determined — and most likely the best and second-best teams on the planet, had produced an abundance of things to enjoy. The goals, of course: four of them evenly shared in a 2-2 tie, each of them brilliantly conceived and surgically executed. And the chances, too, the majority of them falling to City, all spun out of golden thread.All of that, though, was simply the product. The greater satisfaction, perhaps, was in the process, the compelling ebb and flow of two finely balanced forces, a high-speed, high-caliber call and response. City pressed Liverpool, breaking its rhythm, triggering errors. Liverpool withstood the onslaught, drawing the sting and striking back. City twice took the lead, through Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus; Liverpool twice picked its way back, through Diogo Jota and Sadio Mané.That is not, though, the sort of thing that is supposed to appeal to a coach, particularly with quite so much on the line. This game had been pinpointed, months ago, as the one that would decide the Premier League title. As the season rolled on and rivals fell away, its significance had only grown.Manchester City is chasing a domestic and European treble. Liverpool can still, in theory, complete a clean sweep, winning all four of the trophies available to Jürgen Klopp and his team. This game had the air, from the outside, of the moment on which all of that would stand or fall. It was only after this that all that had gone before would have any meaning, any consequence.With all of that at stake, though, there was Guardiola, smiling away, laughing and joking with Alexander-Arnold as if he did not have a care in the world. Perhaps it was some sort of subtle psychological warfare. Perhaps he was trying to gain some sort of edge, to distract and discombobulate his opponent.Or perhaps Guardiola sincerely relished the experience, the chance to see if he could kill off the challenge — for now, at least — of Klopp, the coach he has described as the greatest rival of his career, and Liverpool, the team he has called, in the most complimentary terms imaginable, a “pain” in a particularly sensitive area.Most of the time, after all, Guardiola finds himself forced to try to unpluck the massed ranks of a defense, to overcome an opponent with little ambition and precious little hope. It is not every day that he finds a team willing to stand up to him, or capable of doing it.Or perhaps he knew that the day that had been declared decisive would not decide anything. Half an hour or so later, after all, the final whistle had blown on the 2-2 draw and everything remained as it was. Both teams stood where they had before. Manchester City, which now has seven games to play in the Premier League, has one point more than Liverpool, just as it had at the start of the day.It might have been better, of course: After 30 games and 94 minutes of the Premier League season, City’s Riyad Mahrez had found himself on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, the ball at his feet and Alisson, the visiting goalkeeper, stranded. Mahrez seemed almost spoiled for choice. He attempted a deft lob, conjuring an artful parabola, but his calculations were off, just barely. The ball looped down, over the bar rather than under it, and the chance to win here, to stretch clear of Liverpool in the table, was gone.Who knows? In time, City may come to regret that miss. This is a Premier League season of the finest margins, and whichever of these teams wins the title, there will be precious little between them.But, for now, stasis was enough. Stasis, from Manchester City’s point of view, was acceptable. A sense of vindication, if not quite triumph, swept around the Etihad Stadium as the players stood on the turf, heaving breath back into their lungs. John Stones, the City defender, pumped a fist in the air.There was a feeling of one down, at least one more to go. These teams will meet again next weekend, in the semifinals of the F.A. Cup, and could yet find each other in Paris at the end of next month, with the Champions League trophy at stake. Guardiola, it is fair to say, probably would not enjoy that one quite so much.In the Premier League, though, Manchester City still has the advantage. For now, anyway. It is a slender one, but it is an advantage. Its fate is in its hands. Liverpool, by contrast, must rely on someone else to find a way to stop Guardiola’s juggernaut at some point between now and the end of May.City’s lead is a single point, and it has been earned over the course of nine long months. An entire season has gone into that single point. At the end, though, a single point is enough. When things are so finely poised, when there is so much to enjoy, a single point can be a chasm. More

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    For Liverpool and Manchester City, a Showdown With Consequences

    Manchester City and Liverpool meet Sunday in the first of a series of collisions that could decide as many as three trophies. Neither team can be sure of what comes after that.MANCHESTER, England — Pep Guardiola lay on his bed in a Madrid hotel room, staring at the ceiling, contemplating his next move. He had already endured two sapping games, half a dozen choleric news conferences, more than a week of highly charged, thinly veiled animosity. He was exhausted and exasperated, and he was still only halfway through.In the space of 18 days in the spring of 2011, Guardiola’s Barcelona encountered José Mourinho’s Real Madrid four times across three competitions. There was a clásico in the Spanish league. There was a clásico in the final of the Copa del Rey. There was a pair of clásicos, home and away, in the semifinals of the Champions League.It was not the games, though, that drove Guardiola to the sanctuary of his room. The games, if anything, were a release, a blessed respite from the endless rancor, the pervasive friction of Mourinho’s total psychological war. Guardiola knew he was being tricked into losing his cool, being sucked into a fight he could neither avoid nor win.In retrospect, those 18 days — captured by the Italian journalist Paolo Condo in his book “The Duellists,” — were the culmination of the defining rivalry of soccer in the early years of the 21st century, a clash of cultures that reverberated well beyond the long and vituperative shared history of Real Madrid and Barcelona.A series of four clásicos in 18 days in 2011, games that featured Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and layers of drama, were a seminal moment for soccer of that era. Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty ImagesIt was not just the clásico. It was not just Lionel Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo. It was not just Guardiola against Mourinho, the finest managers in the world. It was two competing visions, two contrasting styles, two opposing forces: the creator against the cynic, the light against the dark.In the immediate aftermath, it was Guardiola who had the air of the victor. He did lose his cool, as Mourinho had hoped, and Barcelona did lose the Copa del Rey final. But Barcelona won both the league and the Champions League that year. Hindsight, though, would suggest all of that came at a cost for both men.A year later, Mourinho finally claimed a Spanish title. It would prove to be the high-water mark of his time in Spain and the end of his decade of greatness (though he would claim a couple of championships elsewhere). Something changed in Mourinho after Real Madrid. His fire never burned as brightly.Guardiola, too, bore the scars. He left Barcelona in 2012, drained and weary. He could not, he said, go on. He needed a break. Mourinho was not solely responsible for that fatigue, but it is hard to believe that the intensity of the rivalry was not a significant factor in it. It took Guardiola a year’s sabbatical in New York for him to refuel.Now, more than a decade later, he could be forgiven for hearing distinct echoes of 2011. Over the next seven days, Guardiola’s latest masterpiece, the Manchester City team he has guided to three Premier League titles in four years, will face its greatest — and only — domestic challenger, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, twice, across two competitions.Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, professional admirers but not friends in the truest sense. Jason Cairnduff/ReutersFirst, on Sunday, the teams will meet in the Premier League at the Etihad, in a game that will likely decide England’s next champion. Next Saturday, they will face off again, this time at Wembley in the semifinals of the F.A. Cup. Both matches may well prove a prelude to a third, altogether more epochal meeting: Liverpool and City are favorites to reach the Champions League final on May 28 in Paris.The parallel with those 18 days in Spain, of course, is not perfect. Manchester City and Liverpool have fostered a fierce rivalry in recent years, but it lacks the depth and the context of the clásico. Its tendrils do not stretch back decades, nor is it bound up with questions of politics and history and, particularly, national identity.Likewise, Guardiola and Klopp do not have the same combustible chemistry that Guardiola and Mourinho did. It would be a stretch to say they are friends, but, almost a decade after they first ran into each other in Germany, they remain cordial. In 2020, Guardiola called Klopp in the small hours of the morning to congratulate him on winning the Premier League. Klopp describes Guardiola as the best coach in the world at every opportunity.Many of the other ingredients, though, are present. Just as with Real Madrid and Barcelona, everything rides on games between these two clubs. One of these teams will win the Premier League. One of them will go into the F.A. Cup final as the heavy favorite. Only Bayern Munich might be considered a peer in the Champions League.Both coaches have done what they can to quash the idea, but both are perceived as chasing multiples of glory: City, a domestic and European treble, last achieved by an English team in 1999; and Liverpool, an unprecedented and, in reality, improbable sweep of all four trophies available to them. Their meetings are, in that light, the whole ballgame.Liverpool and Manchester City fans at a Champions League in 2018. The teams could still meet in the competition this year.Anthony Devlin/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThat their aims are so lofty illustrates that Liverpool and City can reasonably be regarded as the best two teams on the planet — Bayern alone may have the right to quibble with that assessment — just as Real Madrid and Barcelona could be in 2011. They are again led by the two finest coaches of their generation, the two minds who have done more than anyone else to define and distill what elite soccer will look like in the 2020s, the two scions of two great schools of thought. The rivalry of City and Liverpool does not have roots in the past. But it does encapsulate the present.The absence of overt institutional hostility between the clubs, meanwhile, should not be mistaken for affection. The schism that runs between Manchester City and Liverpool can feel superficial, almost confected, a friction that is performed out of instinct rather than something heartfelt. But it is not.There have been a series of flashpoints, ordinarily deemed serious transgressions by one side and dismissed as petty by the other: City’s complaint at the improper accessing of its recruitment software by Liverpool’s staff in 2013, an offense for which Liverpool paid £1 million ($1.3 million) in compensation; City’s team bus being pelted with bottles on arrival at Anfield in 2018; Liverpool’s annoyance at a 2019 video of City’s players adopting a terrace chant referring to its rival as “victims of it all,” an insult that is often associated with the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, which caused the deaths of 97 Liverpool fans.All of these events, though, are rooted in a deep-seated clash of competing corporate philosophies. Liverpool’s hierarchy believes that Manchester City’s primacy has been achieved through a form of financial doping — as highlighted most recently by another cache of leaked documents published in Der Spiegel. Manchester City’s executives, in turn, see Liverpool as the prime example of a longstanding cartel that feels threatened by the emergence of genuine competition.The same can be said of the coaches. Klopp and Guardiola’s mutual admiration should not make one forget the intensity of competition between them.Guardiola and Klopp rare disguise their emotions on the touch line.David Klein/ReutersIn a scene in “All Or Nothing,” the documentary that followed City’s victorious Premier League campaign in 2018, Guardiola and his coaching staff discuss the threat posed by Liverpool’s famed front three. That, in itself, is not especially remarkable. What stands out is that they are doing it in the changing room at Goodison Park, a few minutes before a game against Everton.Guardiola has never made much secret of his focus on Liverpool. That same year, he told a seminar at the city’s university that he did not read many books these days, because after a few minutes of trying his mind would wander to “Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool.”Earlier this year, with City apparently sitting on a comfortable lead at the top of the Premier League, he was asked if anyone could catch his team. Of course, he replied: Liverpool. “They are always there,” he said. “They’re a pain.” On Friday, he described Klopp as the “greatest rival” of his career.“When I retire and I’m playing golf, I will look back on Liverpool as the hardest opponent I faced, without doubt,” Guardiola said.For the last four years, the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester City, between Klopp and Guardiola, has defined English soccer. The next seven days — and perhaps the next six weeks — may decide how its story is told in years to come. As Guardiola knows from personal experience, though, that level of competition leaves its mark. It is entirely possible that, when it has all come to an end, neither coach, and neither team, will quite be the same again. More

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    Soccer’s Focus Needs to Be Product, Not Packaging

    A simple rule change paved the way for the modern soccer we watch today. An obsession with Super Bowl-style changes won’t move it forward.Everything started with a letter. In the summer of 1990, Daniel Jeandupeux, a young Swiss coach, was bored. More precisely, he was bored by that year’s men’s World Cup. The romance of Toto Schillaci, the joy of Roger Milla, the swelling aria of Nessun Dorma: None of it could quite dislodge his sensation that it had been, by and large, a deeply “ugly” tournament.That thought inspired Jeandupeux to explore why that might have been. As he described it to the estimable Dutch news outlet De Correspondent, he used an early example of soccer analytics software, a platform called Top Score, to examine what form the game took, particularly in matchups in which one team took an early lead.The answer, as he found it, was that the game essentially stopped. In some cases, the winning team’s goalkeeper had “10 times as many touches” as all of the other players combined. The best way to win in soccer, Jeandupeux had discovered, was to ensure that as little soccer as possible was played.He sent his findings in a letter to an old friend, Walter Gagg, a functionary in FIFA’s technical department, the part of soccer’s world governing body that looks after the actual soccer. His warning was stark. “Such possession is bound to kill the game,” he wrote, unless there was rectifying action. Jeandupeux had an idea of what that might be.His timing, it turned out, was immaculate. FIFA had been worrying about an epidemic of time-wasting for about a decade, but had always found the International Football Association Board (IFAB) — the British-dominated body responsible for the game’s rules — reluctant to change. There was one person at the top of the organization, though, determined to break the stalemate. Rather inconveniently, that person was Sepp Blatter.A few months after that World Cup, Blatter had created what he called Task Force 2000, which is precisely the sort of name that Sepp Blatter might come up with for something. Led by Michel Platini — again, in hindsight, a little problematically — it was given the job of identifying ways to make the game more appealing, more dynamic, more dramatic.Jeandupeux’s letter, passed to Platini and his fellow Task Force members, crystallized many of their thoughts. Now they not only had empirical proof that soccer had grown slow, cautious and dull, but a recommendation as to how to change it. Jeandupeux had suggested that the most egregious form of time-wasting — one that had been a soccer cornerstone for decades — be outlawed: Goalkeepers, he said, should be banned from rolling the ball to a teammate, getting it back, and picking it up again, only to repeat the process a few seconds later.The Task Force decided that proposal did not go far enough. Instead, its members decided that goalkeepers should no longer be able to use their hands to receive a pass from any teammate. Within a few months of Jeandupeux’s submission to Gagg, they had invented what would become known as the backpass rule.Neil Hall/EPA, via ShutterstockEverything in modern soccer flows from that single change. Without that letter, without that Task Force — and, yes, sadly, without Blatter — there is no tiki-taka, there is no gegenpressing, there is no Arsène Wenger or Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp. There is no game as we currently see it.It is easy for fans of a certain vintage to scoff at soccer’s tendency to treat 1992 as some sort of Year Zero, to bristle at how easily everything that happened before the dawn of the Premier League and the Champions League — an entire century — is dismissed as an irrelevant prehistory.But 1992 was not just a rebranding exercise. It also brought a substantive shift in the nature of soccer itself. That summer, two years after Jeandupeux sat down and wrote his letter, the backpass rule came into force. It is a legitimate before and after: The soccer that would follow was not just fundamentally different from what went before, it was better.It is important to remember that as, once again, the sport finds itself discussing change. UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, has already rubber-stamped a new format for the Champions League. This week, it confirmed that it would reserve two places in the tournament for teams that qualified on what has been called, a little euphemistically, “historical merit.”Even that, though, did not go far enough for Nasser Al-Khelaifi. In his role as chairman of the European Clubs’ Association — rather than president of Paris St.-Germain or chairman of BeIn Sports or chairman of Qatar Sports Investments or vice president of the Asian Tennis Federation — Al-Khelaifi has other changes on his mind.They range from the rather vague — amounting essentially to a list of Web3 buzzwords like “metaverse” and “NFTs” — to the more concrete. Al-Khelaifi believes it is worth exploring the idea of an expanded European Super Cup, turning a semi-serious showpiece into a tournament in its own right, one that may be played outside Europe. He would consider a Final Four-style tournament for the Champions League. He would, reading between the lines, contemplate changing kickoff times to suit television markets in the United States and Asia.Despite the very obvious self-interest of their source, despite the fact that not all of these ideas are his, and despite the circumstance — almost exactly a year since the sudden launch and swift death of the European Super League project — these ideas should not be rejected out of hand.They are not, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect, but nor are they entirely devoid of merit. Soccer would do well to remember that, at first, it was assumed that the backpass law would simply encourage goalkeepers to launch the ball at every given opportunity; nobody imagined that its ultimate consequence would be Éderson.Expanding the Super Cup is, on the face of it, a reasonable idea. It is possible that the benefits of staging the semifinals and final of the Champions League in a single location — the sense of occasion, the drama of a one-and-done knockout — would outweigh the undoubted complications in security, logistics and the loss of revenue and, crucially, atmosphere generated by semifinals on a club’s home turf.Albert Gea/ReutersEven the concept of teams’ being given a pass into the Champions League despite not qualifying domestically is not quite as absurd as has been presented: Though such a proposal would, doubtlessly, increase the inequality that remains the game’s greatest challenge, there is at least some logic in the idea that how you perform in the tournament itself should be rewarded.There is no reason to reject Al-Khelaifi’s ideas, then, simply because they represent change. Change, as Jeandupeux would testify, can sometimes bring improvements, and in ways that are not immediately apparent. The problem, in fact, is the opposite; these ideas do not represent change enough.It was striking, for example, that Al-Khelaifi should cite the Super Bowl as an example of the sort of things soccer should be doing. Why, he asked, was the final of the Champions League not more of an event? Why was it not more of a show? Why was there not a litany of the world’s biggest musical acts lining up to play at the world’s biggest annual sporting fixture?These are all questions that soccer executives ask with alarming frequency. (The answer to that last one, for what it’s worth, is that the world’s biggest musical acts know full well that they would be jeered if they played the Champions League final, because all of the people in the stadium are there to see a soccer match, not a concert.)Patricia De Melo Moreira/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesNobody, anywhere, is quite so obsessed with the Super Bowl as the people who run Europe’s soccer teams. None of them ever seem to stop to consider the fact that the global audience for the Champions League final dwarfs that of the Super Bowl, or the reality that soccer is more popular by an order of magnitude worldwide than the N.F.L., and that it has achieved all of that despite not having a halftime show. It gives the impression that soccer’s leaders have startlingly little confidence in the sport in which they have invested.That is not the case, of course; the reasoning is a little more subtle. The game’s power brokers propose these things — fireworks, dance troupes, rebranded competitions, format changes and all the rest of it — because, while the changes that would have the most effect are far simpler, they are very much not in their interests.The way to make every game “an event,” as Al-Khelaifi put it, is not to invite Maroon 5. It is to increase the competitive balance between the two competing teams so that the result does not feel like a foregone conclusion. The reason the group stages are not “compelling” is not because there is no Jean-Michel Jarre-style light show before kickoff; it is because it is a group stage, and so there is no genuine sense of jeopardy.Anyone with even a modicum of understanding of soccer — of sports — understands that: Memories only need to stretch as far back as last week, and the playoffs for the World Cup, to realize that drama is not generated by the staging of a game or even the quality of it, but the meaning and the content.Al-Khelaifi, of course, is not going to propose any change that radical, any change that meaningful. Addressing the chronic lack of competitive balance would not benefit P.S.G. or the rest of the cabal of superclubs whose agenda continues, even after the Super League debacle, to dominate UEFA’s thinking.Instead, he and his peers will continue to believe — and to insist — that soccer’s route to growth lies in improving the packaging, rather than the product. Like Jeandupeux, all those years ago, they very clearly sense in some way that things are just getting a little boring. The difference is that they are holding on to the ball, and they will do all they can to not give it back.Here’s What Else We Did This WeekKevin De Bruyne, center, and Manchester City broke through, eventually, Atlético Madrid’s defense.Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesSitting in the stands at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, it was very difficult to have any sympathy with the idea that the Champions League needs to change at all, other than perhaps by introducing some sort of rule that Karim Benzema’s presence should be compulsory in all matches.The previous evening, spent watching Manchester City try to break Atlético Madrid’s fearsome resistance, was not quite as entertaining. That is not because Atlético should not rely on grit and grizzle more than flash and flair, but because a cornerstone of any great defensive performance is some sort of attacking threat.And you may not have noticed, because FIFA has not been keen to publicize it, but it turns out we are not getting a biennial World Cup after all. Even the expanded Club World Cup seems to have faded from view somewhat. This happens a lot to Gianni Infantino’s big ideas, when you think about it.CorrespondenceA Qatar World Cup will turn off some viewers.Noushad Thekkayil/EPA, via ShutterstockIn good news for Alan Goldhammer, but bad news for both FIFA and the many and varied sports-washers of the world, we can now say with some certainty that he is far from alone.The audience for this newsletter is a self-selecting demographic, of course — one defined, let’s be clear, by its impeccable taste — and so cannot be treated as a broad sample. But it would appear that there are quite a few of you out there, like Alan, who do not intend to bless the Qatar World Cup with your attention.“I refuse to lend my eyes to an event which is designed by a nasty regime to bolster its image,” wrote Nathan Wajsman. “I also skipped the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the recent Winter Olympics in Beijing. It may not mean anything to the organizers, but it means something to me.Sjaak Blaauw has come to the same conclusion. “With 6,500 people having lost their lives, and many workers not having been paid what was their due, I cannot condone this,” he wrote.Some are a little more conflicted. “I am getting closer to Alan Goldhammer’s sentiment, but it is taking more time and thought for me,” wrote Rashmi Khare. “I feel more and more like I am being manipulated. If I participate, my eyeballs and my dollars will be used to justify the corruption that led to this tournament. If I do a full blackout, it’s just one less eyeball/dollar from billions.”And others still offered a different perspective. “Good on Mr. Goldhammer,” wrote Nick Adams, before acknowledging that rather than not watch, he would “put my mind to thinking how to make Qatar safe for all visitors, how I would voice a protest, and how I would do something to change the corrupt decision-making process” that led to the tournament’s being held there in the first place.There were many more submissions, all of them just as sincerely held and articulately expressed. Thank you to all of you who emailed, and please keep them coming. The correspondence on that subject has been rivaled only by the continued debate about deep dish “pizza,” including an assessment from Bart McKay that I enjoyed enormously. “Deep dish pizza,” he wrote, “is just casserole with better P.R.” More

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    Can Liverpool and City Win When the Bar Is Set Too High?

    The Premier League leaders will compete for three high-profile trophies this spring. But does failing to win them all turn a great season into a bad one?Manchester City had everything ready. A few days before the 2019 F.A. Cup final, the club’s executives had already mapped out the route for the victory parade. They had booked the open-top bus. They had arranged a whole day of festivities. They were well aware it was tempting fate, but they had no choice: These things, after all, take time and planning.Besides, whatever happened against Watford at Wembley, there would be plenty to celebrate. Pep Guardiola’s team had won the Carabao Cup, the first and the least of England’s domestic priorities, a couple months earlier. The previous week, it had seen off the spirited challenge of Liverpool to retain the Premier League title. The F.A. Cup would complete the set.The only thing left to decide was how to brand the achievement. Everything needs a name these days. Everything needs a hashtag. The previous year, it had been easy. Then, City had become the first team in English history to claim 100 points in a single season; the players who had done it were crowned not just champions, but Centurions, too.They were now on the cusp of following that with an even more impressive feat: becoming the first side in English history to win a domestic treble, a clean sweep of the league title and both cup competitions.Inside the club, though, there were qualms about using that word — treble — too loudly. Some executives feared it was too closely associated with Manchester United’s 1999 team, the one that won the league, the F.A. Cup and the Champions League. Needing to qualify City’s treble as “domestic” might, they worried, cheapen it somehow.Ferran Soriano, City’s domineering chief executive, felt there was another problem. City, he was adamant, would have four trophies to parade. It had, back in August, won the Community Shield, too. That the traditional curtain-raiser for the English season is, in effect, a preseason friendly with some fireworks at the end of it did not deter him. It was a trophy, Soriano said. City should celebrate it. He even had the nomenclature ready: the Fourmidables.Peter Powell/EPA, via ShutterstockThere was more than a little unease at the suggestion. Several City executives cautioned that including the Community Shield would expose the club to accusations of résumé padding that were, in the circumstances, entirely unnecessary. Soriano, though, would not be swayed. Crucially, he had Guardiola’s support, too. A couple of days later, after City won the final, its bus picked its way through the streets of Manchester, the word “Fourmidables” plastered on its side.That Soriano was willing to ignore the concerns of his colleagues and subordinates, and withstand the allegations of hubris from rival fans, is instructive. Whatever else he might be — visionary, maverick, the sort of person one can imagine self-identifying as a “disrupter” — Soriano has an instinctive understanding of modern soccer. And in modern soccer, he knows, glory is measured in bulk.In the month or so since Liverpool lifted this season’s Carabao Cup, Jürgen Klopp has fielded questions about whether his team can win a “quadruple” — all of England’s domestic competitions, plus the Champions League — on an almost weekly basis. He has dismissed them equally frequently. “We are not even close to thinking about crazy stuff like that,” he said last month.Guardiola will know the feeling. He, too, has been peppered with questions — certainly since the turn of the year, if not before — about whether this edition of Manchester City can claim another treble this season, one that does not require the geographical qualifier. He, too, has done what he can to minimize expectations. “I try to say to the club ‘enjoy these moments during the season’,” he said. “Don’t wait to win the Premier League, the Champions League or the F.A. Cup to be happy. Enjoy the day. Enjoy the moment.”Once you’ve won the league, does the Carabao Cup measure up?Andy Rain/EPA, via ShutterstockIt is not hard to trace the roots of this obsession with doubles and trebles and, now, quadruples: In several leagues across Europe, the superclub era of the last decade or so has rendered winning a single league title essentially meaningless for the likes of Paris St.-Germain, Bayern Munich and — until its self-inflicted implosion — Juventus.Their domestic leagues are so hopelessly unbalanced that the destiny of the championship is rarely in any real doubt. With that trophy essentially preordained, they are left to find other targets. That may be a streak — picking up nine or 10 titles in a row — or it may be supplementing it with a glut of other prizes. Failure to do so can, with increasing frequency, cost a manager their job.That has, slowly, turned this into soccer’s age of the multiplicative. When Manchester United won its treble in 1999, it was the only team in any of what we now think of as Europe’s top five leagues to have done so (though Celtic, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven had all pulled it off previously). Since 2010, it has happened five times. Barcelona and Bayern have both done it twice.Domestic doubles — winning the league and the (main) domestic cup in the same season — are now so commonplace that they pass almost without notice: five for Bayern and four for Juventus and P.S.G. in the last 10 years, as well as three for Barcelona.The landscape in England, of course, is different. Competition between the country’s Big Six means City is the only team to have done the double since 2010. But its superclubs are not immune to the broader trend. For them, too, the currency of greatness is no longer primacy, but dominance.Liverpool and Manchester City will meet in the Premier League and the F.A. Cup in April, and could square off in the Champions League after that.Andrew Yates/EPA, via ShutterstockThat approach, though, carries with it an attendant danger, the risk that great teams — teams that have enjoyed remarkable success, that rank among the strongest the Premier League has ever seen — will somehow find themselves cast as failures: not for not winning, but for not winning enough.The final eight weeks or so of the Premier League season has long been set up as a battle between Liverpool, pursuing a quadruple, and Manchester City, chasing a treble. As they are already set to meet directly in two of those competitions over the coming weeks, both of them, by definition, cannot succeed. The likelihood, even at this late stage, remains that neither of them will.That raises the prospect of two teams, each with trophies to display and achievements to celebrate, being told to look back on their seasons with regret. If Manchester City wins only the Premier League, would that represent disappointment? It should not, of course, but in an era defined by a gluttony for glory, it might be presented — or even feel — like an anticlimax.What if Liverpool emerges from this campaign with only two domestic cups? Is that enough? Klopp’s team would have missed out on the two trophies that it most covets, of course, but that is not quite the same thing as falling short. If the only true victory is one that is total, all-conquering, absolute, then it suggests the bar has been set a little too high, that we have somehow concocted a world in which even success can be dressed up as failure.The Ignorance of IsolationQatar is expected to be Lionel Messi’s last World Cup.Franklin Jacome/Pool Via ReutersBy the time Argentina next takes to the field — at Wembley, for a meeting with the reigning European champion, Italy — it will be nearing three years since it last lost a game. Since succumbing to Brazil in the 2019 Copa América, Lionel Scaloni’s side’s only defeat has come against Sao Paulo’s health authorities. Other than that, it is played 31, won 20, drawn 11.It is, without doubt, the sort of record that should stir Argentine souls ahead of a World Cup that has particular resonance: 2022 will, after all, likely prove to be Lionel Messi’s final bow in an Argentina jersey, his last chance to emulate Diego Maradona and carry his country to the greatest prize of all.But it must still come with a caveat. That meeting with Italy — the so-called Finalissima — will be the first time Argentina has faced a European opponent since drawing with Germany in October 2019. Its run, these past few years, has been a distinctly local affair, built and made in South America.Brazil, as it happens, is in much the same boat. Since losing to Belgium in the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals, Tite’s side has faced only one European team — the Czech Republic — and that, too, was three years ago. Brazil is currently rated as the favorite to win the World Cup, a status that is based almost exclusively on its ability to beat the same South American teams over and over again.Brazil breezed through World Cup qualifying. But the World Cup may end differently.Silvia Izquierdo/Associated PressThat sudden isolation, of course, is partly linked to the coronavirus pandemic, but it is also connected to the rise of the Nations League in Europe and the exigencies of South America’s endless round of World Cup qualifying and Copas América. There has, since 2019, been very little chance to play friendlies.But as the World Cup draws closer, that absence of varied competition leads to a sense of ignorance. We can be sure that Argentina (which drew Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia on Friday) and Brazil (which will play Switzerland, Serbia and Cameroon in Qatar) are competitive in South America. We can have no idea at all how they will hold up against the European teams that both must overcome to emerge triumphant in Qatar.Three Euro-Centric World Cup PredictionsBelgium sits right behind Brazil in the world rankings.Alessandro Di Marco/EPA, via ShutterstockThere is no question that soccer’s approach to draws is, deep down, extremely ludicrous. All of the pomp and the ceremony, the droning speeches and the self-importance, the window dressing and the time-wasting, all for the very simple act of some men in the warm embrace of middle age pulling pieces of paper from a bag.At the same time, though, Friday’s World Cup draw is extremely important in a way that we do not, perhaps, acknowledge as much as we should. The order in which names are flourished by a selection of soccer’s great and easily booked will not, perhaps, determine who wins the World Cup. But it will go a long way to deciding the fates of a whole clutch of teams.A kind group, for example, might make the difference between Senegal’s making the quarterfinals, or exiting after the first 10 days. A difficult one might cost Gregg Berhalter his job. It might turn Ecuador into the story of the tournament, or the Netherlands into a laughingstock. Random chance matters.It also, of course, makes it very difficult to guess at what might happen in Qatar this winter. Still, there is no harm in trying.1. A European team will win the tournament. It is now 20 years since a South American side (Brazil) won the World Cup, and only one team from the continent — Argentina — has made the final since. The balance of power has shifted in favor of the industrialized youth development systems of western Europe, and it is, sadly, hard to see that changing.Kylian Mbappé and France are chasing a second straight world title.Kimmo Brandt/EPA, via Shutterstock2. The surprise packages will not be much of a surprise at all: They will, instead, be the teams with the greatest concentration of players drawn from Europe’s major leagues. Those sides drawn from domestic competitions — Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Qatar — will struggle to make an impact.3. For the (relative) minnows and the makeweights, firepower will be the difference. Outside of the traditional elite, very few teams can call on high-caliber forwards. Those that can, like Morocco and Iran, will have an invaluable edge.CorrespondenceWorkers inside Qatar’s 80,000-seat Lusail stadium. It will host the World Cup final in December.David Ramos/Getty ImagesA note from Alan Goldhammer, whose surname remains the single greatest thing about this correspondence section, on an issue that we will confront over the next eight months. “I will not watch matches played in stadiums built largely by ‘slave’ labor,” he wrote. “It might be a minority view, but it was a decision that I arrived at 18 months ago and it did not require a great deal of thinking. I am sure the World Cup will have a giant viewership. That viewership will be diminished by one and I would hope many more.”If that applies to you, too, I would be interested in hearing from you. It is something we all have to be conscious of, whether we engage with the World Cup as fans, as journalists, or even as players: To what extent is that interaction a form of complicity?Paul Rosenberg, meanwhile, wants to know if there is “any shock comparable to Italy’s loss against North Macedonia?” In World Cup finals, the answer to that is yes: France’s losing to Senegal in 2002 and North Korea’s win over Italy in 1966, among several others. For qualifying, it is a little trickier, but I would suggest Ireland’s beating the Dutch to reach the 2002 World Cup might be up there.And, of course, there had to be someone who would leap to the defense of deep-dish pizza. (This was genuinely the first email that appeared in my inbox after last week’s newsletter; it obviously cut deep.) That someone was Rich Johnson. “I must express my deep disappointment at your recent pejorative characterization of deep dish pizza,” he wrote. “As a Chicago native, I can tell you that the only thing better than deep dish pizza is stuffed pizza, which is perhaps the perfect meal.”It may or may not be the perfect meal, but a stuffed pizza — like a deep-dish pizza — is not actually a pizza. More

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    Roman Abramovich and the End of Soccer’s Oligarch Era

    Stripped of its Russian benefactor, Chelsea now faces a reckoning. Soccer’s will come next.There were, over the years, three stories that explained how Roman Abramovich washed ashore at Chelsea. Each one, now, serves as a kind of time capsule, a carbon-dated relic from a specific period, capturing in amber each stage of our understanding of what, precisely, soccer has become.The first took root in the immediate aftermath of Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea. It was light, fuzzy, faintly romantic. Abramovich, the tale went, had been at Old Trafford on the night in 2003 when Manchester United’s fans stood as one to applaud the great Brazilian striker Ronaldo as he swept their team from the Champions League.Abramovich had been so smitten, it was said, that he had decided there and then that he wanted a piece of English soccer. He considered Arsenal and Tottenham and settled on Chelsea, drifting bohemian and glamorous just below the Premier League elite. He had fallen, so hard and so fast, that he bought the club in little more than a weekend.And that, at the time, was almost enough. It was absurd, alien, the idea of this unimaginably wealthy enigma suddenly descending on Chelsea, lavishing hundreds of millions of dollars in transfer fees as if they were nothing. But it was flattering, too, in those early days of Londongrad, of Moscow-on-Thames, as the stuccoed houses of the capital’s finest streets were filling with Russian oligarchs, the country’s finest schools thronging with their children.All of it appealed not just to the laissez-faire approach of Tony Blair’s Britain — come one, come all, as long as you can pay for the price of a ticket — but to the ego of both the country as a whole and the Premier League in particular.Russia’s young plutocrats had more money than Croesus, more money than God, money that could buy anything they wanted. And what they wanted, more than anything, it seemed, was to be British. Abramovich wanted to be British so much that he had bought a soccer team, a plaything in the self-styled greatest league in the world. His money added just a little extra spice, a further dash of glamour, to the Premier League’s endlessly spinning drama; his money served to make the great English soft power project just a little more enticing.Eaton Square in London, known as Red Square for the wealthy Russians who call it home.Andy Rain/EPA, via ShutterstockIt was only a few years later that the second story emerged, in the aftermath of the jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Perhaps, the idea was floated, Abramovich had not fallen in love with soccer; or, rather, he had not only fallen in love with soccer. Perhaps he did have an ulterior motive. Chelsea, after all, did not just provide him with access to the very highest echelons of British society; it gave him a profile, a fame, too.He did not seem to relish it, particularly — “one day they will forget me,” he had said, in one of the rare interviews he has granted since arriving in England — but he seemed prepared to believe it a price worth paying. Being an oligarch was a dangerous business. Chelsea, perhaps, was Abramovich’s security against the shifting tides in the Kremlin.That was the story we told ourselves as Chelsea went from usurper to establishment, the club that initially inspired the idea of cracking down on arriviste wealth suddenly recast as one of its foremost advocates. It was the story that took root as Chelsea racked up Premier League titles, as it conquered Europe not once, but twice: that soccer was the sanctuary, the ultimate mark of acceptance.It was only, really, when others started to adapt Abramovich’s playbook that the narrative was challenged. First one and then two Premier League teams fell under the aegis of nation states, or of entities so closely aligned to nation states that it can be difficult to tell the difference unless you really, really want to squint. The idea of sportswashing bled into the conversation. The sense that soccer was being used took root. Abramovich’s possible motives were reconsidered.And then, on Thursday, we saw for the first time — plain as day — what the purpose of it all had been, the story in its true, unvarnished form. For two weeks, the British government had dallied over applying sanctions to Abramovich, not necessarily the richest or even the most powerful but still by some distance the most high-profile of all of the caste of oligarchs, the face of oligarchy in the west.Abramovich’s wealth remade Chelsea, and the Premier League.Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesA surprising portion of those two weeks, it turned out, had been spent trying to find a way to make sure that Chelsea could continue to function, roughly as normal, once Abramovich’s other assets were frozen. The players, the staff and the fans — especially the fans — must not suffer, the government said. A few hours earlier, Russian artillery had shelled a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine. But the government was clear: The sanctity of the Premier League could not be sullied.That was the purpose all along, it seemed. Abramovich probably did cherish the profile that owning Chelsea brought him. He certainly seemed to relish the sport. But mainly, he had come to soccer because it entangled him in British society in a way that owning any other business simply would not. None of the other oligarchs who have been sanctioned have been given a bespoke “license” to continue operating one of their businesses. That is not, after all, how sanctions are supposed to work. It had taken us 19 years, and the death of thousands of Ukrainians, to realize that, to see the world as it was.Now, at last, we know why Abramovich was here. Now, at last, we can begin to understand the price we have all paid. It is not only Chelsea that must now face up to an uncertain future: not only the next few months, as the club picks through the thicket of restrictions on its existence — its club store closed, its hotel no longer permitted to sell food and rent rooms, its crowds restricted to season-ticket holders — but beyond, too.The club could yet slide into bankruptcy, sold off to the highest bidder by the government. Or perhaps it will wither, slowly and irrevocably, its players leaving whenever they are permitted, the club unable to sign replacements. Maybe there will be peace, and an easing of the sanctions, and maybe Abramovich can recoup his investment and his loans. No matter how it plays out, there is no going back. The fans do not, and cannot, know what comes next. It is up to them to decide if the memories and the trophies were worth it.Mason Mount and Chelsea beat Norwich City on Thursday in their first game since the sanctions against their owner were announced. Darker days may lie ahead.Chris Radburn/ReutersThe echoes of Abramovich’s swift, abrupt exit, however, will carry out further into the game. His arrival marked the start of what will come, in time, to be thought of as soccer’s oligarch age. It was Abramovich, as noted last week, whose arrival kick-started the inflationary spiral that has fractured European soccer beyond repair, with only a handful of clubs hoarding all of the wealth of the game, ruthlessly stripping its natural resources for their benefit.His departure will prove to be no less epoch-defining. Modern elite soccer is built on growth, the conceit that there is always more money out there. That is why Real Madrid and Juventus and Barcelona want, so fervently, to launch a European Super League, because they are convinced that if only they did not have to deal with UEFA, they would be able to harvest the bottomless riches of all of the broadcasters and sponsors desperate to fill their accounts.It is why UEFA has been so determined to expand the Champions League, so convinced that it can find the money to satiate the boundless greed of the great and the good. All of it is based not only on the idea that the golden goose will keep laying, but the faith that there are a hundred, a thousand more golden geese out there, a whole flock of them.If that was ever true, it is not now. UEFA will find another sponsor for the Champions League to replace Gazprom, but it will not find one that is quite so generous. There is, after all, a premium to be paid for exercising soft power. Exponential growth is rather more challenging when one of the prime drivers of it has closed down.So, too, the clubs face a reckoning. Not only the teams owned by princelings and nation states and politicians, but those that are not. It is not just the promise of soaring television rights deals that have drawn the “acceptable” investors into soccer, the private equity groups and the hedge funds and the Wall Street speculators. They have no more fallen in love with the game than Abramovich.All of them have bought in to get out, at some point in the future, when they have made their clubs as profitable as possible, when the prospect of a lucrative return is at hand. And yet, all of a sudden, they find their list of potential buyers limited. Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia: They all have their clubs now. The great gushing of cash from China ended years ago, as Inter Milan might attest. Now Russian money is out of the question, too.Chelsea, owned by Russian money, faces Newcastle, owned by Saudi money, on Sunday.Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThere is no shortage of the rich and the powerful and the speculative, of course, even with those markets closed up and sealed off. But those that remain are a different type of buyer: They are other private equity firms, other hedge funds, other Wall Street and Silicon Valley types. They are, for the most part, the ones who want to make a profit. They do not want to be the ones who buy at the peak of the market. They did not make their money by being the sucker.That might seem, perhaps, a little indistinct, a touch theoretical, but it has real consequences. It means reassessing how much profit might be made, and how large the payout might be. That, in turn, means altering the equation of how much it is worth putting in. The change will not be immediate, overnight, dramatic. But it will be a change nonetheless.That will be Abramovich’s ultimate legacy, the lasting impact of the era he began on what seemed to be a whim and he ended, in the space of a couple of weeks, in the middle of a war. Soccer’s age of the oligarch is over. This time, there can be no excuse for failing to understand what the game has become. On that, we have clarity. Where it goes from here remains shrouded in doubt.CorrespondenceRyan Christopher Jones for The New York TimesWe would be here for a long time if I listed every single Brooklynite who wrote in, last week, to inform me that there are, as it happens, several cricket grounds in Brooklyn. There are so many, in fact, that my impression now is that there is little but cricket grounds in Brooklyn, and so if anything it perhaps needs to diversify its sporting offerings a little.The exact number of cricket grounds in Brooklyn remains the subject of fevered debate. Fritz Favorule pitched five, with the mention of a Brooklyn Cricket League, too, while Laurence Bachmann made mention of “at least half a dozen that I know of,” rather suggesting the real number could be in the thousands.Credit to Laurence, too, for being the only correspondent willing to take on the thornier side of that equation. “There are thousands of bakeries,” he added. That may be, Laurence, but do any of them do a steak slice? (Admittedly, he vouches for their sausage rolls, which is a good start.)Sorry, regardless, for causing such offense in what is, without question, one of the top five New York boroughs. If I’m honest, I don’t think Brooklyn particularly needs to worry about competition from Headingley.On a less fractious note, thank you to Felipe Gaete for offering a Chilean perspective on Bielsa. It was Chile, you will remember, that Bielsa transformed for a few, wondrous years into the foremost power in South American soccer. “I’ve thought a lot about why he is so loved in a field in which silverware is all that matters,” Felipe wrote.“I think he holds a good deal of the values that many of us know are right, but can’t afford to apply: He gives back a goal in the name of fair play. He is also an incarnation of what the majority of fans enjoy the most: hope. The joy of winning is usually very short compared with the sense of what it might become.”That is a wonderful, and accurate, sentiment, Felipe, so it seems fitting to leave you with the last word. More

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    Roman Abramovich, Owner of Chelsea FC, Has Assets Frozen By Britain

    The Premier League club will be allowed to continue operating, but it cannot sell tickets or merchandise and is blocked from buying or selling players.LONDON — For Chelsea F.C.’s players and coaches, the first snippets of information arrived in the text messages and news alerts that pinged their cellphones as they made their way to a private terminal at London’s Gatwick Airport on Thursday morning.The British government had frozen the assets of their team’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, as part of a wider set of sanctions announced against a group of Russian oligarchs. The action, part of the government’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was designed to punish a handful of individuals whose businesses, wealth and connections are closely associated with the Kremlin. Abramovich, the British government said, has enjoyed a “close relationship” with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, for decades.The order applied to all of Abramovich’s businesses, properties and holdings, but its most consequential — and most high-profile — effect hit Chelsea, the reigning European soccer champion, which was at that very moment beginning its journey to a Thursday night Premier League match at Norwich City.News reports and government statements slowly filled in some of the gaps: Abramovich’s plans to sell the team were now untenable, and on hold; the club was forbidden from selling tickets or merchandise, lest any of the money feed back to its owner; and the team was prohibited — for the moment — from acquiring or selling players in soccer’s multibillion-dollar trading market.And hour by nervous hour, one more thing became clear: Chelsea, one of Europe’s leading teams and a contender for another Champions League title this season, was suddenly facing a worrisome future marked by austerity, uncertainty and decay.Even as it announced its actions against Abramovich and six other Russian oligarchs, the government said it had taken steps to ensure Chelsea would be able to continue its operations and complete its season. To protect the club’s interests, the government said, it had issued Chelsea a license allowing it to continue its soccer-related activities.The license, which the government said would be under “constant review,” will ensure that the team’s players and staff will continue to be paid; that fans holding season tickets can continue to attend games; and that the integrity of the Premier League, which is considered an important cultural asset and one of Britain’s most high-profile exports, will not be affected.But the sanctions will put a stranglehold on Chelsea’s spending and seriously undermine its ability to operate at the levels it has for the past two decades.By Thursday, the effort to ensure that no money flows to Abramovich was playing out in ways large and small. The telecommunications company Three suspended its jersey sponsorship — a lucrative revenue stream — and asked that its logo be removed from Chelsea’s uniforms and its stadium.At a club-owned hotel near the team’s Stamford Bridge stadium, the front desk stopped booking rooms and the restaurant shut down food and beverage service. Around the corner, at the official Chelsea team store, business continued as usual until security officials abruptly closed the shop. Shoppers, who had been filling baskets with club merchandise, were told to put everything back and leave.Moments later, signs were taped to the locked entrances. “Due to the latest government announcement this store will be closed today until further notice,” they read.Security guards closed Chelsea’s team store and blocked entrances to its stadium on Thursday.Hannah Mckay/ReutersAn uncertain future awaits, with the sanctions affecting everything from the money Chelsea spends on travel to how it dispenses the tens of millions of dollars it receives from television broadcasters.Chelsea acknowledged its new reality in a statement, but suggested it intended to immediately enter into discussions with the government about the scope of the license the team had been granted. “This will include,” the team said, “seeking permission for the license to be amended in order to allow the club to operate as normal as possible.”At the club on Thursday morning, staff members were struggling to come to terms with what the government’s actions would mean for them, their jobs and the team. Many club officials, including Chelsea’s coach, Thomas Tuchel, a German, and Abramovich’s chief lieutenant, the club director Marina Granovskaia, were still trying to understand what they could and could not do.One major deal is off the table: The freezing of Abramovich’s assets makes it impossible — at least in the short term — for him to follow through on his announced plans to sell Chelsea. Under the new arrangement, the British government will have oversight of that process. And while it said it would not necessarily block a sale, the effect would be to heavily diminish any proposed sale price, and the proceeds “could not go to the sanctioned individual while he is subject to sanctions” — leaving Abramovich little incentive to move forward.Whatever happens next, nothing will be the same at Chelsea. Since Abramovich arrived as a little-known Russian businessman in 2003, he has lavished more money on buying talent than almost any other club owner in soccer history, with Chelsea’s constant flow of players and coaches in and out of the club being a hallmark of his years in charge. In the minutes after the sanctions were announced, though, it quickly became apparent that Chelsea would cease to be a player in the multibillion-dollar player trading market, unable to acquire new talent, to sell any of its current players and, without Abramovich’s regular infusions of his personal fortune, to continue to pay the huge salaries of the players it currently employs.The American Christian Pulisic and other Chelsea players now face an uncertain future.Toby Melville/ReutersFor Chelsea fans, too, there was confusion about how and when they could attend games. While season tickets will remain valid, any new sales are prohibited, including to away matches and, crucially, any future Champions League games should the team advance to the later rounds of the competition. Chelsea’s next Champions League game, at the French champion Lille, is set for Wednesday; a berth in the quarterfinals is at stake.That trip and any future travel outside London will now be carefully scrutinized after the government announced a per-game limit of 20,000 pounds (about $26,000) in travel expenses. Those penalties might have been among the discussion points as Chelsea’s players and staff members traveled to the private terminal at Gatwick Airport, south of London, to board a chartered jet for the short flight to Norwich.By then, Tuchel’s phone was buzzing. Tuchel, the coach who last week responded angrily to a stream of questions about Abramovich and Ukraine at a news conference, probably knew little more than those who were peppering him with questions.On Thursday, he would have been trying to focus on the trip to Norwich City, where his team won, 3-1, and on the one that will follow on Sunday, Chelsea’s first home game since its world turned upside down.At that game, perhaps for the final time in months, Chelsea will play in front of a full house. A sign attached to the entrance of Stamford Bridge said as much on Thursday: The home game against Newcastle United is sold out. More