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There is a rush to declare everything The Greatest without stopping to either consider what that actually means or enjoy the thing in question.
The Santiago Bernabéu collectively realised what was happening a couple of minutes before Rodrygo, a substitute who has been searching for a purpose for much of his Real Madrid career, scored the first of two goals that changed the entire complexion of the Champions League semi-final against Manchester City on Wednesday evening.
Noise levels rose, not necessarily expecting something different, but hoping for it. Despite being wholly outplayed by City for the previous 88 minutes or so, struggling to even keep the ball and failing to muster a single shot on target, there was always a sense that a late twist was in their nature. Madrid had come away from celebrating a 35th La Liga title over the weekend – Carlo Ancelotti, donning a cigar and sunglasses, had just made history as the first coach to win each of the top five European leagues – but domestic football has never felt like this club’s natural home. As cliched as it has become, especially this season, Real just hang on and then come alive in the Champions League.
Paris Saint-Germain have arguably replaced Los Blancos as the obsessives of European football, desperately trying whatever they can to position themselves as potential winners without reward. Chelsea, the reigning champions, provided a stern threat, too. This against a Madrid side who are said to be in the grip of a transition which rested the beast inside them somewhat. Both were vanquished, not through brilliance – they each outplayed Ancelotti’s men for long periods – but by sheer belief and a sense of belonging, stemming from comebacks that defied greater logic by the round. City missed countless chances across both legs, so in that sense they were tempting fate, but with the minutes ticking away, they must have felt confident. Fernandinho’s presence as a late introduction certainly suggested that.
What happened next was, on the evidence of their campaign, not a surprise. The manner of events still caught everybody off guard, including Ancelotti. Within the blink of an eye, City went from planning another showdown in Liverpool in the final in Paris to preparing for extra-time in a cauldron of momentum against them and then, courtesy of Karim Benzema’s penalty, mulling over yet another near miss. City fans’ disdain for the competition dictates they cannot be put in the same boat as PSG when it comes to desire to win it, but there are obvious parallels between both clubs’ failures and subsequent attempts to rebuild and achieve that goal.
Immediately, the watching world felt a need to quantify their reaction. It was a historic moment, sure, and there were elements that had to be seen to be believed, even against the backdrop of Madrid’s previous work in the knockout rounds, or indeed the Champions League’s consistency for creating drama in the latter stages that is unseen anywhere else in the world of football. Yet still, the same debates about this being the greatest night in Champions League history raged on, amplified in the echo chamber of social media; hyperbole swirled around, almost without a hint of self awareness. Similar conversations were being had only weeks earlier, and certainly a couple of years ago.
Nobody is to blame for this incredibly frustrating trend, but almost everybody partakes in it, knowingly or otherwise. The need to label and grade everything is natural. It comes from the desire to organise and make sense of life. But it flies in the face of what football is all about: enjoyment, the more fleeting the better. Nobody lives in the moment anymore. Everything is filled with recency bias, a desperation to categorise, whether as a football fan in the crowd with a camera phone, or a pundit eagerly awaiting their latest sweeping declaration.
These opinions are formed and sustained by inflated emotion. Of course, nobody is really considering what calling something ‘The Greatest’ really means at that time, but it is tedious all the same. Comebacks, especially in the Champions League, are becoming an annual occurrence, whether it be Barcelona against PSG in 2017, Roma against Barcelona in 2018 or, the most pertinent example here, Liverpool against Barcelona en route to their sixth European crown three years ago.
What makes that the most useful match with which to illustrate this point is the fact BT Sport’s coverage was saturated in the sort of praise that gave it historic acclaim, with the same absolute language attached, a night before Tottenham Hotspur did something equally as incredible at Ajax to set up their meeting in the final. Then the cycle began all over again.
The issue isn’t that there aren’t genuine reasons to call each example the greatest of all time, but the desire to be so definite with that appraisal. There has to be a ranking, a competitive element which takes the fun out of just witnessing what has gone on, enjoying it, basking in it and waiting for the next one. Not everything needs to be heard, not everything needs to stand out.
It is tiresome and annoying and it needs to stop. With so many examples, a better use of energy would be to ask why UEFA seem so hell bent on putting a stop to these amazing knockout battles, and generally diluting the sense of jeopardy that leads to them when the very best teams in the world collide. But the issue runs deeper, too, and has infiltrated other football discourse; Michael Owen gleefully declared Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk the best centre back of all time this week in the latest of his comments which bewilder and frustrate in equal measure.
All of these things are subjective, and the fact that more recent examples get the same treatment is proof that there is very little forethought involved beyond the infatuation with labelling everything. It has become an all too common issue within the realm of football debate.
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