It was not a classic final. It’s hard to imagine anyone, even the most devoted Manchester United fans, watching it over and over again, enjoying the key moments.
Here’s the part where Antonio got a bit off track and got fouled. Here is the moment when Rafaël Varane won a header in a crowded area. Here is the rudimentary part when Lisandro Martínez stopped an attack. If you like angry men yelling at each other in Portuguese, then you will have loved it: otherwise it was a lesser game for what it was than for what it meant.
This mattered. That’s why he was so irritable. More than 40,000 Newcastle fans headed south and took part in a huge celebration of their identity in Trafalgar Square. Their resources make these occasions more and more common, it won’t be another 24 years before they are on another, but for now, a final is an event to be experienced to the fullest extent possible: it may continue to be a unique event in life.
Success is more familiar to Manchester United, but they haven’t won a trophy in six years and this seems different anyway. For the bigger clubs, there are pots won almost by accident, just by being in the right areas with enough good players, and there are those who feel they can be extremely important, part of something special, and that’s where United is. now under Erik ten Hag.
Finally, a decade after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, they have a leader capable of ushering in a period of prolonged success. It is possible that this final will stick, like Manchester City’s victory in the FA Cup final in 2011, like Chelsea’s victory in the 2005 League Cup final, like their own victory in the final of the 1990 FA Cup, as a major milestone – the start of a new era.
And that is what a final should be. It shouldn’t be a tiring family walk. There must be a sense of danger and importance. Anxiety must play its part. Moments should be memorable less for their aesthetic quality than for what they mean. And in that sense, this was a finale that fitted into a season that has been brimming with intrigue and excitement.
Less than two-thirds of the way into the season, nothing is close to being resolved in the league. The fallibility of the contenders means there is a proper title race with twists and turns. There are at least three and perhaps as many as six contenders for fourth place in the Champions League. Neither side has been left adrift at the bottom and it is likely that at least one very decent squad will go down. The knockout stages of the Champions League have begun with their family drama. Crowds in England are at record levels.
The soap opera of the game has rarely been better: there is narrative throughout – Liverpool’s fall, Chelsea’s waste, Everton’s crisis, Brentford’s rise… – and even the supporting players and cameos -Willian, Nathan Jones, Lord Pannick…- they’re hitting the mark. . It would not be difficult to portray this as a golden age for English football. And yet this final was also representative of the impending sense of doom.
Newcastle is majority owned by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. If anyone wants to make clear how distinct this entity is from the Saudi state, consider the fund’s recent assertion in a US federal court that it has sovereign immunity as part of a foreign government.
Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, chairman of the Islamic Bank of Qatar, whose father was Qatar’s prime minister, may soon take over at Manchester United. The extent to which he acts as an individual rather than as a representative of the state of Qatar will be up to the football administrators to determine.
It’s perhaps understandable that fanatics, grappling with legal disputes and trying to unravel the complicated politics of the Middle East, would rather simply focus on the pitch, but what’s depressing is how many seem obsessed with their own sense of victimhood, so obsessed with with the money they will attack anyone who questions its origin. Journalists who have raised questions about laundering sportswear, about clubs that have been at the center of their communities for more than a century being used by foreign powers, were verbally assaulted at Wembley on Sunday.
And that contributes to the feeling of a game on the brink of the abyss. Which of their leaders really cares about the good of football? Or if they do care, that they are able to protect it from a possible future of rotten values, of bloated tournaments with endless games of questionable relevance, of domination by a dubious collection of state agencies, oligarchs and billionaires? But then, the League Cup itself was once the meaningless new trophy; repetition can invest anything with the meaning of tradition. Nothing is constant, but the inevitability of change doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good.
Sunday was a pleasantly old-fashioned occasion. It was spiky and taut, colorful and loud. He had a reserve goalkeeper take center stage, a brilliant striker rediscovering his form and an aging maestro enjoying a new stage in his career. He had a slightly comical own goal. It was an old-fashioned Wembley final, not a game for all time, but with enough incident to hold attention, to trigger future memories. It may be the herald of a new era for Manchester United, but it may also be one of the last of its kind, a monument to old football.