Liverpool, Real offer nostalgia but sportwashing looms

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Liverpool, Real offer nostalgia but sportwashing looms

Two of the three most successful clubs in European history meet in the Champions League final on Saturday in Paris. But in a season defined by events off the pitch, the specter of the state-owned clubs looms large.

Liverpool vs. Real Madrid feels like a fixture that could have been played in almost any season in the history of Europe's premier club competition.

That the ninth meeting of the pair will be the third in a final speaks to their history of success, but there's also a creeping feeling that, though these clubs may own the present and the past, the future belongs to a new, state-sponsored breed. The last, and biggest, major club final of the season where geopolitics and football have collided like no other is played in a context that should not be ignored.

Close to 100,000 fans are expected to travel, mainly from England, to Paris for Saturday's match at the Stade de France, where the clubs will officially split about 40,000 tickets. But a few months ago, they would've been heading to Russia, with the final moved from St. Petersburg to Paris following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The impact of war on football has also seen Roman Abramovich sanctioned and forced to offload holders Chelsea and Russian clubs banned from European competition, not to mention the human cost.

Qatari backdrop to big stages

That human cost of state-aligned club ownership has hung over football in the French capital for more than a decade now. This week's re-signing of Kylian Mbappe on the most lavish terms in football history, denying Real in the process, further underlines the determination of Paris Saint-Germain's Qatari owners to spare no expense in bringing the Champions League trophy to Paris for more than a night or two.

Six months from now, the World Cup will be an even bigger stage for Qatar to show its good side and hide its human rights abuses, stadium worker deaths and bigotry.

In such light, it's briefly almost tempting to see Liverpool and Real, the tournament's third and most successful teams respectively, as romantic heroes of the old tradition. A time when champions contested this tournament, teams and fans were broadly part of the same community, money wasn't the only path to the top, and nation-states didn't buy clubs.

Admittedly, the boss of an American investment vehicle and a construction mogul with close and controversial links to the Spanish government (both of whom were ringleaders in the formation of a European Super League designed to destroy competition and make the rich even richer) are unlikely beacons of hope and nostalgia. But, compared against human rights abuses and deaths, perhaps they are. In relative terms, anyway.

New generation sign on for state-owned clubs

Though Real have dominated a weakened La Liga this year and somehow squeezed past Manchester City in the semifinals of the Champions League, PSG's Mbappe deal and City's fourth Premier League title in the last five years (sweetened further by the signing of the other new-generation global superstar, Erling Haaland), appear ominous. The limitless wealth of Qatar and City's owners from the UAE is worrying even for super clubs like Liverpool and Real, let alone those that make up the numbers in European leagues. Hence the keenness of both to break away last year.

They, and the other rebel clubs, have got their way eventually, with the new Champions League format a watered-down version of the Super League proposals that come in to effect in 2024-25. With more qualification places likely to go to bigger leagues, the chances of failure for the big beasts fade. But with Newcastle United now boasting the wealth of Saudi Arabia and others, particularly in England, happy to follow given the opportunity, the road to the top may increasingly only be navigable for those paying in gold and blood.

Sport still serves as distraction

But in recent weeks and years, both Liverpool and Real Madrid have done plenty to convince the world that knockout ties between high-quality sides (rather than more group-stage matches) can capture the public imagination in a way little else can — Liverpool's semifinal comeback against Barcelona in 2019, Real's whole campaign this year. The thrill of comebacks, late winners and surprises has not yet been available for exclusive purchase.

And there's little doubt that on Saturday night, the attention will be on the pitch rather than the politics, which, perhaps, is the point. Sportswashing works when the spotlight falls on stars instead of suffering.

Inevitably that will be the case on Saturday and for 90, or 120, minutes football will take center stage, as it should. But it's important not to forget to look behind the curtain from time to time.

Liverpool, Real offer nostalgia but sportwashing looms

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