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New York Times
22 Apr 2023

NextImg:The Champions League Ventures Down Memory Lane

The blockbuster matchup, no question, is the one that pits the establishment against the insurgent, the old guard against the new wave, the incomparable past against the inevitable future.

Real Madrid against Manchester City has Pep Guardiola, Luka Modric, Erling Haaland, Karim Benzema. It is the team with more European Cups than anyone else against the team that wants a European Cup more than anyone else. It is a sequel, of course, but the Champions League — like Hollywood — loves a sequel. It is pure box office.

It might, then, seem both distinctly counterintuitive and obviously pretentious to suggest that the other Champions League semifinal might somehow be more alluring. A.C. Milan against Inter Milan is very much the art-house offering, the feature directed at a niche, self-selecting audience. (Unless you are, of course, Italian.)

It will not, make no mistake, have quite the production values of the show on offer at the Bernabéu and the Etihad. The cast list is not quite as glittering. And despite featuring two rivals so local they share a stadium, it does not offer quite such a straightforward, compelling narrative.

Real Madrid against Manchester City, at heart, is about revenge and it is about power. It offers an insight into the ever-mutable nature of the Champions League, and by extension European soccer. There are conclusions to be drawn from its outcome.

Credit...Christophe Simon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Inter versus Milan, on the other hand, has just kind of happened. It is not to diminish their achievements to suggest that neither team expected, realistically, to be here. Their presence in the final four is not a consequence of rich form or stellar seasons; both have performed modestly in Serie A this season.

It cannot even be read in good faith as proof of the resurgence of Italian soccer, which remains mired in debt, hidebound by bureaucracy and hamstrung by grinding conservatism. As the magazine Rivista Undici pointed out this week, nobody seriously believes that Serie A is now the best domestic competition in Europe because it provided three of the eight Champions League quarterfinalists this season. The successes of Inter, Milan and Napoli belong to the clubs themselves, not to the league as a whole.

But for all that, the matchup’s appeal is undeniable. First and foremost, of course, it is a derby, one being played out over two of the biggest games of the club season. It is what was described, the last time it happened, as the “longest derby in the world,” a week of worry and stress and hope from which both heroes and villains will emerge.

That it is fresh helps, too. No Italian team has reached the semifinals since Roma’s equally unanticipated surge in 2018. Neither Milanese side has made it this far since the last time they won the competition: Inter in 2010, Milan in 2007.

Credit...Mladen Antonov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Champions League has long felt like a private club. The two sides of this rivalry, the Derby della Madonnina, make unlikely interlopers. Milan, with seven titles, has won the European Cup more than anyone except Real Madrid; Inter is eighth on the list, with three. Neither would accept the role of underdog either naturally or willingly, even as their presence is an infusion of new blood that the tournament needed.

But most of all, for a certain vintage of fan, it has to do with memory. It was 2003, the last time these two teams were drawn together at this stage of this competition. (They would meet again, in the 2005 quarterfinal, a tie that A.C. Milan won with ease.)

Back then, it was far closer to a curiosity than a miracle. Serie A, after all, was regarded as the finest league on the planet, and had been for 20 years or so. Milan — or at least the combined geography of Piedmont and Lombardy — was Italian soccer’s capital, and by extension the mistress of the world. That Inter and A.C. Milan might stand in each other’s way was only a matter of time, part of the natural order of things. A.C. Milan scraped through, that time. It beat another Italian team, Juventus, in the final.

It is hard to pinpoint, precisely, when that world ended. Eras, in soccer, do not divide as neatly as journalists, historians and the subset of fans who think about these things like to pretend. Italian clubs won the Champions League three times in the first decade of this century: Milan twice, in 2003 and 2007, and Inter in 2010. Juventus made the final in 2003, too, and Milan in 2005.

Credit...Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And yet, by the time of Inter’s victory, few would have pronounced Serie A the best domestic competition on the planet. That title had passed first to the Premier League, and then, thanks to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to La Liga.

(It would return to the Premier League, by common consensus, no later than 2016. But again: In that time, English sides have won the Champions League twice. Real Madrid has delivered four more trophies for Spain. These things are unhelpfully messy.)

Likewise, there is no single explanation for why or how it happened. Serie A lost its primacy in the same way that Hemingway wrote about going bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. The stadiums started to look a little outdated, and then the style of play did as well. The debts piled up. The television product grew stale, the revenues dwarfed by those on offer in the Premier League.

The players, as players do, gravitated to where the money was, and the money was in England and in parts of Spain. Violence flared with ever greater frequency in the stands. Attendances started to fall. Patches of empty seats appeared on screens.

And against that backdrop came Calciopoli, the great referee-influencing scandal of 2006, dripping poison and doubt into Italian soccer’s bloodstream. Juventus was disgraced. Others were stained. Everyone suffered. Serie A was faded and diminished and now it was tarnished, too. It has never really recovered.

That there is a Milan derby in the semifinals of the Champions League — that, for the first time since 2017, there will be an Italian team in the final in Istanbul — is not a remedy for that decline.

Credit...Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Serie A that has emerged from the ashes of its past has plenty of attractive qualities. It is on course for a fourth winner in four years. It has a competitive balance that few of its peers can match. It is home to bold, intelligent coaches, giving rise to an enticing heterogeneity of style, and it has more than a few owners seeking to introduce a degree of innovation.

But it is not on the cusp of reclaiming its place at the summit of world soccer; that crown is awarded not by artistic merit or even by popular acclamation but by brute economic power. Serie A was not king in the 1990s or 2000s because of the weather, or the food, or some innate cultural supremacy. It just paid more. Now the deepest pockets are in the Premier League, and that is not going to change anytime soon.

It is there, though, that lies the appeal of Milan against Inter, twice in six days, for a place in the biggest game of the year. It is a break from the present, a chance to drift just a little in a past that has disappeared. There was no notice issued when Serie A slipped — or stepped off — its pedestal. There was no opportunity to say goodbye. Now, two decades later, there is an unexpected reminder of how the world used to be, before things moved and shifted and changed forever, when the light in Italy just seemed a little brighter than anywhere else.

Details, Details

At Bayern Munich, it’s back to the drawing board.Credit...Leonhard Simon/Reuters

Bayern Munich will not take this well. It is less than a month since the club fired Julian Nagelsmann, a manager it had paid more than $25 million to hire, at least in part because he went skiing at a time deemed inappropriate. The club is unlikely to shrug its shoulders at being eliminated from not only the Champions League but the German cup, too, in the space of a few days.

Thomas Tuchel, freshly installed as Nagelsmann’s replacement, should be safe for now, but all around him will be a blur of change. Oliver Kahn, the iconic goalkeeper turned chief executive, is under scrutiny. Hasan Salihamidzic, another former player and now Bayern’s sporting director, will not be resting easy. Herbert Hainer, the club’s president, already has hinted that there will be churn in the squad, too.

Whether any of this will have the desired effect is a different matter. There was a sense, watching Manchester City hold Bayern at bay on Wednesday evening, of two clubs moving in opposite directions. An era that belongs to City, and to its fellow avatars of the new soccer, is doubtless beginning. The one dominated by Bayern and its ilk is slipping into the past.

And yet the whole picture is much more complex, and substantially simpler, than that.

No, Bayern cannot compete with City, not in the long term: The combined forces of Bavarian corporate culture are no match for that particular blend of Premier League wealth and nation-state resources. The days when Bayern could function essentially as a Bundesliga All-Star team — plucking the finest players from its rivals to perpetuate its domestic dominance and its European relevance — are over. Like Juventus and Barcelona before it, Bayern Munich will at some point bow to, or be bowed by, England’s economic primacy.

But decade-spanning macroeconomic trends are not easily distilled into roughly two hours of soccer. Even in a game that seemed to define the direction of the whole sport, the margins were impossibly fine. In this case, it came down to the fact that City has a fearsome goal scorer — Erling Haaland, you may have heard him mentioned — and Bayern, essentially, does not. Tuchel’s team created half a dozen good chances before Haaland scored in Munich. It just did not take any of them.

And, frustrating though that might be, it is also a significantly easier problem to solve than the imbalance in financial prowess between the European continent and the acquisitive, swashbuckling utopia that sits shimmering just off its shores. (The Premier League, that is. Other adjectives are available for the current state of Britain.)

Should Bayern secure the services of Victor Osimhen or Randal Kolo Muani this summer — or even, the club’s ultimate dream, Harry Kane — it will certainly be back in the quarterfinals of the Champions League next season, and there is a better than even chance the outcome will be different. Long term, big picture, Bayern cannot keep up with the wealth of the Premier League in general, and Manchester City in particular. But then it does not need to, not really. It just needs to be able to overcome it for 90 minutes at a time.

Correspondence: Your Ideas, Rated

The good news: Many, many of you have been in touch to pitch ideas for how soccer might follow baseball’s example and tweak its rules to make the game more engaging for idle teenagers. Not quite as many as got in touch to tell me about why banning the shift in baseball is a good thing, but still, a lot.

The bad news: None of you got the correct answer, which was Extra Time Sudden Death Multi-Ball, so nobody wins the special prize of an afternoon of blue-sky thinking with Gerard Piqué.

There were, alas, too many emails to address every suggestion, so here is a fairly representative selection, each condensed into a pearl of wisdom and then assessed by an expert panel — me, talking to my dog — who considers the suggestion’s merit and then makes a slightly condescending remark about its viability.

Paul Kassel: “Shrink the field. It would compel tighter passing, fewer over-the-top balls that go nowhere, a bit more chaos. It would speed up the game, and likely increase scoring.”

I like the theory, but if anything I’d go the other way: Teams are too well-organized now, so let’s space them out a bit. Grade: B.

Charles Kelly: “The most obvious way to restore any modicum of sanity to the offside and handball rules is to restore their enforcement to the judgment of the referee. Accept that such calls are a judgment. Will some judgments be wrong? Of course. That’s the nature of judgment, and reasonable people know and accept that.”

Thoroughly sensible, certainly for offside. Handball would be better served if there had to be deliberate motion toward the ball, as was the case at some point, I think. All of this falls down on relying on people to be “reasonable,” obviously. Grade: A for idea, F for execution.

The referee will hear your complaints in order. Please take a number.Credit...Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

Kirk Farmer: “I would change the offside rule so that a player is onside if any part of his/her body is even with the defender.”

Wouldn’t we all, Kirk? Well, you, me and Arsène Wenger, which is not a bad group to be in, unless you’re Wenger. Grade: A

Steve Elliott: “Some league somewhere should stop awarding points just for showing up, and say to get points in the table, you need to score goals on the field. No points for a goal-less draw.”

Hard pass, I’m afraid, Steve, but there is the kernel of an idea here. Could an away draw earn more points than a home draw? Could scoring three goals or more earn a bonus point? Grade: C for you, D for me.

Gregory Crouch: “Punish time-wasting by adding all those extra minutes like they did at the World Cup. Punish intentional tactical fouling more harshly.”

Yes to both. But you lose points for the third suggestion, omitted here, of making refereeing more consistent. Too vague. Grade: B

Laura Goldin: “How about enforcing the six-second rule that is supposed to be how long the keeper can handle the ball?”

This was the rule for at least a decade, and as far as I know, still is. We just seem to have stopped enforcing it. Grade: A, with an asterisk because it already exists.

Fred D’Ambrosi: “The solution to soccer’s problems is the salary cap. It will never happen, but leveling the playing field solves many more problems than cutting the game time by 30 minutes.”

A salary cap or some other alternative that bridges the massive, yawning rift between the rich and everyone else and that we have, for some reason, all decided is actually great? If anything, this idea is insufficiently outrageous. Grade: A