Who Is Having Fun?
Briuce Samba was trying, as best he could, to share the crowning glory of his career with his wife. The goalkeeper’s road to stardom had been a circuitous one. By Samba time he was 24, he had played only a handful of senior games. He spent the next few years toiling in the second divisions of France and England.
Now, though, it had all paid off. In March, not long before his 29th birthday, Samba was told he had been selected for France’s squad for its upcoming European Championship qualifiers. He would be sharing a changing room with Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and the rest. He would wear the No. 1 jersey.
Naturally, it was an achievement Samba wanted to celebrate with his wife, Jessica. He called her on FaceTime to revel in the moment together, but it did not — by his own admission — really work. He was, as he put it in an interview with the French sports newspaper L’Équipe, too busy being “jumped on” by his delighted teammates at his club team, R.C. Lens.
Samba’s long-awaited call-up has not been the only thing Lens has had to celebrate in the last few months. He was probably exaggerating when he suggested this has been the “best season the club has had in 120 years” — an assertion that the 1998 team, which won the French title, might reject — but not by much.
Thanks in no small part to Samba, a key element in the most miserly defense in France, Lens started the season with a nine-game unbeaten run. It did not lose its second game until the start of February. It beat Monaco in Monte Carlo, Marseille in Marseille and then swept past Paris St.-Germain on home turf.
Thierry Henry, no less, described Lens as the best team to watch in France. “It is contagious when you see a team going forward, fighting together, regardless of the starting 11,” he said. As late as April, the Lens manager, Franck Haise, was being asked if his team — constructed on a shoestring by modern standards — had a chance of winning the title. “We can always dream,” he said. “We’re not going to forbid ourselves anything.”
In the end, that will most likely prove a step too far. Lens is currently six points behind P.S.G. with only five games to play. The emphasis now, for Haise, is on beating second-place Marseille again on Saturday and securing a place in the Champions League for the first time in two decades.
The title, as was always probable, will be returning to Paris. When it gets there, though, it will find a club in a starkly different mood to Lens.
These are troubled times at P.S.G., though whether it is more troubled than any of the other times is not clear. Lionel Messi, the greatest player of all time, the jewel of the Qatari project to transform the club into a genuine European superpower, is currently on two weeks’ unpaid suspension, having traveled without permission to Saudi Arabia for a family vacation.
(“Who thought Saudi has so much green?” Messi asked his 458 million Instagram followers this week. The answer, presumably, is “anyone who has seen your contract with the Saudi Tourism Authority.”)
In the circumstances, it seems reasonably unlikely that he will be signing a new contract when he returns to Paris. Few will mourn his departure: not Messi, who has always given the impression that his relationship with the club has been emotionless, transactional; not the club, which can now part with him at no financial or emotional cost; and not the P.S.G. fans, who have spent most of the last five months jeering him at every opportunity.
That will not be the summer’s only departure. A clutch of P.S.G. players, carrying the can for yet another year of disappointment in the Champions League, will be shipped out to make room for new signings.
There is the lingering possibility that Neymar may be among them; it is possible that Kylian Mbappé, his relationship with the club’s hierarchy once again strained, might find his feet itching once again. Christophe Galtier, the manager, will not be around to coach, whatever happens. That job will go, instead, to whoever P.S.G. can find to manage them who is not Christophe Galtier.
Winning yet another French title will make no difference to any of that. The club’s fans will be pleased, of course, by the passing of another year in which none of its rivals had any cause to celebrate. But it is hard to discern any emotion approaching genuine joy. This is just how things are now.
This will, after all, be P.S.G.’s ninth French title in 11 years. It does not matter who the coach is. It scarcely matters who the players are. It makes no difference if the team is good, or bad, attractive, ugly, interesting, dull. It can win the league when it is riddled with dysfunction, falling apart behind the scenes. It can win the league when nobody is enjoying themselves. It can win the league and it changes nothing.
In time, few at P.S.G. will remember much about this season. Not the good parts, anyway. There will be some dim recollection of Messi’s unauthorized trip, of the surprising amount of greenery in Saudi Arabia, of Galtier’s brief, unhappy stint in charge, but little else. It will blur, quickly, into nothing but a fuzzy outline of disappointment.
Lens, by contrast, will end the season with nothing but happy memories, recollections of one of the finest campaigns in the club’s long history. There will be no trophy to commemorate it, but no matter. The year that Samba was called up to the France team, that Lois Openda scored all those goals, that Haise might have won something, will be etched into legend.
It is tempting to ask, then, which of those two teams has experienced the better season? Which has enjoyed themselves more? Soccer is, after all, about emotions as much as it is about glory, and the emotions on offer in the heart of Pas-de-Calais seem substantially healthier than those playing out in Paris.
It is, though, perhaps better to ask whether all of that wealth, all of that power, has truly made P.S.G. happy, or whether — more than a decade on from the arrival of its Qatari backers — one of the richest clubs in the world, the pre-eminent force in French soccer, the team that employs Mbappé and Messi and Neymar, might look at little old Lens and think: That looks like fun.
A Test of What Matters
The journey, then, is complete. In the space of three short years, Leeds United has traversed the full range of soccer’s theoretical spectrum: from Marcelo Bielsa at one end, with his unwavering belief in spectacle and romance and aesthetics, all the way to Sam Allardyce.
There is, presumably, a parable in here somewhere. More than one, perhaps. It might be an example of how revolutions can only triumph if their leaders remain loyal to their principles. Or it might illustrate how pragmatism and compromise have a habit of intruding on even the purest, the most innocent, among us. It might be that ideas do not always survive an encounter with reality. It might be that they are abandoned too quickly by the callow and the plain.
Either way, Leeds now stands as a curious case study. During Bielsa’s tenure, it was not simply the outcome — promotion back to the Premier League, a top half finish — that restored pride to the team’s fans, but the methods. Leeds had a style, an identity. The club, at long last, stood for something.
Allardyce, appointed this week with the desperate, urgent task of somehow staving off relegation by sheer force of reputation, represents a permanent break with that. Allardyce is not always given the credit he deserves for the farsightedness he displayed early in his career, but he would not argue with the assertion that he is an outcome-oriented manager. He wants results. He does not much care how he gets them.
Whether Leeds fans can buy into that, though, is a difficult question. They have spent the last few years, after all, cherishing the idea that the journey matters as much as the destination, internalizing the Bielsista logic that what you do is not as important as how you do it. Soccer has long believed that fans are happy if they are winning; everything else is window dressing. Leeds may provide a petri dish to find out.
Please Do Not Be So Emotional, They Scream
A torn hamstring — Grade 2C, six weeks out — was the least Jürgen Klopp deserved. His racing over to celebrate in the face of a slightly bemused and utterly undeserving fourth official in the aftermath of Liverpool’s late winning goal against Tottenham last Sunday was, without question, an inherently ugly act. The Liverpool manager will, deservedly, be punished.
Severely, too, because he has form for this sort of thing. He has already served one touchline ban this season. He can expect his second to be substantially longer, partly for the flagrancy of his offense and partly because the incident — broadcast live in the Premier League’s flagship Sunday afternoon slot — was sufficiently high-profile that it has become a lightning rod for the State of Our Game. The Football Association, in these circumstances, feels compelled to look and act tough.
It is not to excuse Klopp’s actions, though, to suggest that — as ever — there is something missing from the conversation. Every so often, managers, coaches, players and fans are informed in arch, censorious tones that they must control their emotions better. They must not get too angry, or too impatient, or too passionate, or even, at times, too gleeful.
And yet at no point does anyone seem to connect that emotionality with the sustained pitch of frenzy laced into the rhetoric that surrounds soccer: the constant calls, on broadcasts and in print, for players to be dropped or sold or replaced; for managers to change their methods or lose their jobs; for fans to fear or rage or despair.
Is it any wonder that some of the participants in the game struggle to maintain their equanimity when they are endlessly informed that their jobs are on the line, that everything except eternal victory is failure, that each and every setback is evidence, deep down, of some moral shortcoming on their part?
There is a reason that exists, of course: The soccer industry thrives on controversy and debate and drama and outrage. The people passing judgment act as observers when they are, in fact, participants. Klopp deserves to be barred. He needs, obviously, to calm down. He needs to control his emotions better. He is not, though, the only one.
A Step Too Far
To return to a theme: Soccer does not, as a rule, know how to gauge relative success. Arsenal’s (men’s) team will, for example, spend much of the next month or so having its very character pored over and picked apart and dredged for clues as to why, exactly, it did not win the Premier League title.
The fact that this in itself represents a considerable triumph — that Arsenal was in a position to be criticized for not winning the Premier League — will receive considerably less attention.
With any luck, the club’s women’s team will avoid the same fate. On Monday night, Arsenal lost at the death in the semifinals of the Women’s Champions League: a single lapse, after more than two and a half hours of soccer, from Lotte Wubben-Moy that allowed Pauline Bremer to sweep Wolfsburg to a 5-4 aggregate victory.
It would be possible, of course, to point out that the ongoing failure of the clubs of the Women’s Super League to establish some sort of competitive dominion in Europe is, given their financial edge, a substantial disappointment. Or to suggest that Arsenal, with home-field advantage and an early goal, had lacked the composure to see the game out. Or to take the path of least resistance and just blame Wubben-Moy for being caught in possession.
But again: Success is relative. Arsenal made it to the last minute of extra time in the semifinals of the Champions League without its captain, Kim Little, and its three best players, Leah Williamson, Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema, all of them victims of long-term knee injuries. Getting so far, coming so close, in those circumstances, is not failure. It is quite the opposite.
Never let it be said that this newsletter does not confront the most pressing issues in sports: corruption, engagement, how to get your dog into soccer games. “I would suggest you approach a club and offer him as a mascot,” Stephen Gessner wrote. “You might have to teach him some tricks: bark when the opposition scores, growl at the referee, jump on the opposing manager.”
This is a perfectly valid suggestion for most dogs. Sadly, it does not apply to my dog, who needs to be in my presence at all times for his own peace of mind and who has a steadfast objection to learning anything. He does have a natural indisposition toward authority figures, though, so he could probably tick the “growling at the referee” box.
The good news is that Phil Aromando might have solved the problem. “I have no idea if your dog is interested in Major League Soccer,” he wrote. (Not sure, I’ve never asked.) “But St. Louis City S.C. has just opened a pet friendly section at their stadium.” Moving to St. Louis strikes me as extreme, but also somehow more realistic than teaching him to walk at heel.
I wondered, meanwhile, if we had exhausted our seam of suggestions to improve soccer, but there is still time for a couple of doses of common sense.
“Why can’t incidental, or nonthreatening, handballs in the box just be punished with indirect free kicks from the spot of the infraction?” Doug Lowe asked. “It would give the team a scoring opportunity that isn’t brutally punished, as it is with a penalty.” Great question, Doug, because this seems perfectly logical to me.
Adam weighed in on the need to engage the next generation of fans. “As a high school math(s) teacher,” he wrote, “I fully agree with the assertion of ‘to hell with pleasing restless, bored teenagers.’ They’re entitled enough as it is.” I have redacted Adam’s surname for his own protection, in the very unlikely event that any of his teenage students get this far into the newsletter.
And finally, Lee Gillette is here with an eternal plea: Why don’t more people talk about Belgium? “As refreshing change goes, Union St.-Gilloise almost ended its first season in the top division for 48 years with a title, and it is in the running once again,” he wrote. “In Belgium’s infuriating four-team title playoff, Union is surrounded by Flemish clubs. The only Walloon club to win the title in years was in 2009, and Union hasn’t won a title since 1935.”
He is quite right, of course: We have covered the club’s rise before, but Union should nevertheless have been included last week as a potential usurper to the established order. Mind you, perhaps be grateful that it slipped my mind: Dortmund, naturally enough, blew its chance at a first title in a decade at the first available opportunity.