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May 25, 2009

View from the Gulf

The great thing about this year's Champions League Final is that it forces people across the world (not just Europe) to take sides, albeit against their will. Lots of people in Spain dislike Barcelona (and most of them wear white replica shirts) and plenty of English folk have issues with Manchester United's puffed-up pre-eminence, but if you exclude these national factors, there are no similarly identifiable groups around the globe who have anything against Barcelona or Manchester United.

And although Real Madrid might want to argue the case, the marketing statistics would seem to favour this year's two finalists as the major movers of replica kits on the third planet from the sun. Wherever you may roam, the post-modern travelling experience almost guarantees a spotting of the red shirt or the scarlet and blue, whether you do the urban thing or the rural retreat. The two teams have become strangely universal, with their colours instantly recognisable from Doha to Dakar.

It's one of the reasons why this year's final is such an attractive prospect, with apologies to certain districts of London. The interesting thing is that your choice of either Man Utd or Barca to win on Wednesday marks you out, and places you in a certain category. It's a lifestyle choice, so be careful.

I've been out in Doha, Qatar since January and it's getting hot. Apart from the obvious, and the fact that it's interesting to be living (temporarily) in the only country in the world that is not in recession, football does not pass the folks by in this small sandy country. 80 per cent of the population is expatriate, which makes it a strange sort of melting-pot, but already the urban dwellers are starting to make their preferences clear.

The Asians in my 'hood seem to have a preference for Utd, whilst the assorted Brits out here are almost universally pro-Barça. I'm not sure why the large Indian population here should be so pro-Man Utd, but my research has hardly been scientific. I may be wrong. The Brits are rather easier to read, and during the semi-final screening in a large hotel here, the hostility towards Chelsea was palpable, save for a few hardy souls sitting quietly in the corners in their blue shirts. The few Qataris who braved the throng were also pro-Barça.

What is it about Barcelona that drives so many people to feel that they wish to be seen as identifying with them?

The clue to the puzzle originates in Spain itself. Barcelona is never seen as an entity in itself, but rather as the antithesis of Madrid. Barcelona is loved whereas Madrid is merely admired. Where Madrid's famous Parque del Retiro has an organised, more symmetrical beauty, Barcelona's Parque Güell is all exuberance and wild ambition. The contrast is a significant one. Europeans specifically, and now the world in general, seem to associate Barcelona with some kind of romanticism, some spirit of liberalism expressed in both its art and its politics. So when its football club enjoys one of its dream-team phases, everything seems to be right in the world somehow.

How can one explain this allure - all the more curious for being so unique? There are plenty of other 'romantic' clubs around the globe - Manchester United among them - and yet none has achieved the scale of Barcelona's popularity - expressed as a sort of neutral sympathy. To identify with Barcelona, however distantly, however mistakenly, is to proclaim oneself a liberal romantic, an aesthete of football.

It hasn't taken Barça long to recover the spirit that Ronaldinho had rekindled so recently. The two-year interregnum that then saw them concede the throne to Real Madrid has been snatched back in convincing style. It's difficult to dislike this side, so typical of the traditions that have infused Barça's philosophy over the years, a kind of happy mixture of anarchy, work and beauty. And whereas it would be simplifying matters to draw parallels between Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff as managers, it may be true - at least as far as Wednesday is concerned, that Guardiola would concur with the Dutchman's famous outburst after his Dream Team side lost 5-4 to Atlético Madrid in 1994 (after leading 4-1) that he would prefer to lose in style than draw 0-0.

Guardiola is a touch more pragmatic than this, but there is no way that Manchester United's reputation will worry him into changing the team's basic approach on Wednesday. The fact that Rafa Marquez and Eric Abidal will be missing from defence is probably less significant than the absence of Dani Alves, nominally a full-back but in truth a major spoke in the team's attacking wheel.

Barça had issues at the back before Marquez and Abidal withdrew, and United will have always fancied their chances from set-pieces and corners, but the absence of Alves means that the four-pronged attacking combinations involving Xavi, Iniesta and Messi will have lost 25 per cent of their potency.

Alves is also a key figure in the Catalans' pressing game, where the opposing midfield is harried and hurried into giving the ball away. Xavi and company do not tend to give the ball away very much ('Xavi gave it way once in 2006' quipped Guardiola recently) but without Alves they might not manage to get it back quite so easily - and may not dominate possession to the degree that they enjoyed against Chelsea in both semi-final legs.

Why do people wish to be associated with Manchester United? Good question. As a kid, I wanted the romance of the Best, Law, Charlton era to rub off on me and give me some of its shine. There is an element of romance in the very phrase 'Manchester United', and all that some of its post-war teams have come to represent, but the international popularity of United has nothing to do with the city that the team hails from, or any resounding philosophy that the team or certain individuals may have come to express over the years.

I think that it's become a power thing, an association with alpha ambition, where all else are deemed unworthy of serious attention. Real Madrid, in their more powerful moments, express a similarly brutal winners-take-all sort of attitude that you are invited to either take or leave. Outside of the church of Manchester United, you kind of hate Sir Alex Ferguson, but you would die to have him as manager of your club.

All week I've heard people asking each other which team they are intending to support on Wednesday night. The question has rarely met with a neutral shrug. People feel obliged to make a choice, and though the reasons may be admittedly more complex than those outlined here, a choice will be made. Between power and romance? Whatever, it can hardly fail to be a classic.

United will surely not be persuaded to adopt Chelsea's catenaccio approach, and will attempt to play their normal high-tempo possession game. Since Barça will do the same, despite a weakened defence, a 0-0 draw looks somewhat unlikely. As Paul Gascoigne once said, ''I never make predictions and I never will'', so I think that Man Utd will win it. Barça have been wonderful up to now, but have simply not come up against a side of United's potency. It might depend on which side can panic the other first, and then take sufficient advantage, but the English club's greater defensive assurance suggests they should win it, so long as they don't have one of their off-days.

I'll be watching the game in the hallowed surroundings of Doha Rugby Club, where fish and chips will allegedly be on the menu. Ah, some corner of a foreign field! The outside temperatures are touching 47 degrees now, and the mercury only drops a little after dark, so it promises to be a sweaty occasion. It's been nice to return to the equally hallowed pages of Soccernet, and so thanks to Iniesta for giving me the excuse to return to the rusty keyboards.

As the final seconds ticked away at Stamford Bridge, my thoughts turned to John Terry, and how he would be practising penalties in his garden for the subsequent weeks. It was not to be, and now he sits around a pool somewhere sticking pins into a doll called Tom. The only compensation, I guess, is that we are about to see a much better final. Games like this only come along once in a while.

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