Real Madrid’s defeat of PSG showed the cracks in elite football

The draw of the Champions League relies upon the notion that this is elite football. But are there cracks appearing in the logic?

by Jon Mackenzie

(Photo credit: Oleg Dubyna)

One of the curious paradoxes of Wednesday’s marquee fixture in the Round of 16 in the Champions League was that the match was very much an acid test for both clubs.

Under Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid have been almost impossible to assess with any level of certainty. By the time the summer ended, they were being talked about as one of histories greatest teams. Fast forward six months and the Frenchman is fighting for his job.

As for Paris Saint-Germain, the standard narrative persists: yes, they might turn over Metz by double-figure goals but does this lack of competition mean they lose their edge on the big nights? 

On Wednesday night, Adrien Rabiot confirmed it: “It’s great to put 8 goals past Dijon, but it is in these matches that you have to make it count.”

There are also questions asked about the workability of playing an almost exclusively attacking front three at the risk of defensive solidity. Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe may offer more threat than the armies of some small countries but unless you can defend leads it makes very little difference.

In the end, then, it was almost impossible to draw any conclusions from the game. That Real Madrid came out 3-1 winners seems unfair based on the run of play. But then, PSG offered very little resistance at times. 

Had the result gone the other way, though, nothing would change in the narrative. PSG would have been lucky. But Real Madrid could only have themselves to blame.

The only obvious conclusion that can be made is that elite football is leaving its audience short-changed. 

Here we are now: entertain us

This week saw the announcement that the huge increase in television revenue for football’s broadcasting rights had finally slowed. With five of the seven live packages sold for £4.464 billion, the next four years of Premier League rights look likely to come in below the last deal’s £5.14 billion.

It is no secret that, for better or for worse, football has become an entertainment business. Underpinned by the logics of capital, the money spent on broadcasting rights indicates the fact that the product remains desirable. And as long as it does, then the money will remain high.

However, it is not always the case that the logics of the markets are always entirely transparent. The answer to the question “Why do you watch football?” is not immediately obvious and, as we are seeing more and more, many people are being driven away from the upper echelons of world football out of a realisation that the correlation between money and success ruins the excitement somewhat.

But the fact remains, the Champions League is there to entertain. And when it stops doing that, then problems will emerge for the people who make huge sums out of the commercial value of the beautiful game.

What is ‘good’ football?

And so to Wednesday’s game. As to its entertainment value, there would be few who would question the excitement elicited by two teams hammering one another for 90 minutes.

But the Champions League has curated a very specific idea of entertainment. This is the stage upon which the battle for the Ballon d’Or is played out, a utopia for Millian accounts of individual meritocracy: who will come out on top? Messi? Ronaldo? Neymar?

And, of course, there is value to this as a form of entertainment. The pinnacle of the footballing pyramid is a heady place to be. To see Neymar float through players, to see Messi display his almost-archetypal perfection against the best in the world, to see Ronaldo’s enactment of pure will – these are all sights worthy to behold.

But isn’t there something more to football than rampant individualism?

The battle of the Bernabeu

As far as the game itself went, though, there seemed to be something missing. For a matchup that was – understandably – hyped, the gameplay itself was disappointing.

With scores level, Ronaldo missed a chance that you might expect a player of his calibre to put away. A good ball in by Marcelo, no doubt about it, but already an indication that the PSG defence might not be unimpeachable.

When the opening goal came, it was all too easy. A Dani Alves ball in, a Neymar lay off, a perhaps lucky finish from Adrien Rabiot. Luka Modric, on defensive duty, was nowhere to be seen.

And then Toni Kroos went down all-too-unconvincingly. Ronaldo scored a penalty all-too-unconvincingly. 

With the game heading nowhere in particular, Marco Asensio flashed a ball into the box that was bundled in by Ronaldo leaving social media debating how much he knew about it. 

And then, to the delight of the Madridista, Marcelo shinned one to make the score look respectable for the hosts.

Short-changed

Given the cult of personality that elite football thrives on, the dissatisfying nature of the game has largely gone unnoticed.

The pro-PSG supporters pointed out Neymar’s incredible dribbling stats or blamed Unai Emery for bringing off Edinson Cavani. The pro-Real Madrid supporters pointed out Ronaldo’s incredible goal-scoring stats or blamed the referee for not sending off Neymar.

But there is an elephant in the room here. If elite football is supposed to entertain, what happens when the entertainment isn’t actually as good as it is advertised to be? When then?

Cristiano Ronaldo is nowhere near his peak. In fact, there are detractors who argue that he is holding Real Madrid back. Yes, he may score a brace but, when he finally comes up against a more convincing defence?

The fact of the matter is, neither of these two teams – pipped by many to be ‘favourites’ in the tournament – look anywhere near the level you might expect for a Champions League winning side.

Is that it?

Now it must be acknowledged at this point that the pressure of competition play changes the nature of a football match. And it must be said that a thrilling 3-1 win, even one littered with mistakes, is more entertaining than a carefully-constructed 0-0 draw.

But there is a point to be made beneath all this and that is this: elite football can, and will, enjoy the pecuniary benefits that football fans continue to bestow upon it. But there may come a point where those disappear.

For despite the fact that they the elite clubs may have grown comfortable in their privileged place at the top table of global sport, there is still a responsibility on their part to entertain. And unless they do this, they may find themselves losing their audience. 

As Jonathan Wilson put it in the Guardian, “[the Real Madrid versus PSG match]  was a glimpse into a future in which elite clubs, focused more on marketing and the generation of revenue than the pursuit of a coherent footballing philosophy, gather together elite players and throw them out onto the pitch to perform without any thought as to whether they can play together.”

At this point in time, the commercial benefits of an aging Ronaldo vs young pretender Neymar might be enough to attract the collective eyes of the football-watching community. But at some point, the fans might grow tired that the games themselves give little indication that they deserve the ‘elite’ label.

What do you think? Is the Champions League as enjoyable as it ever was? Let us know by getting in touch through the comments below.

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Jon Mackenzie

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