20 October 2009 ~ “There are two teams I love to see lose more than anyone else,” a Galatasaray-supporting friend said to me the other day. “Real Madrid and Chelsea.” He said it with firm conviction, and wearing a semi-smile filled with genuine relish at the very thought of such results. And for all its faults, you have to thank the Champions League for heightening one aspect of following football that can never be over-rated – the sheer joy of another team’s defeat. Whatever you say about the competition’s fostering of greed, its super size, and its predictability, you can ultimately be thankful for one thing – in the end only one of the 32 teams from the current group stage can actually win it.
That means at some point over the course of this season, at least nine of the following ten teams – Liverpool, Inter, Rangers, Arsenal, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Real Madrid, Milan and Chelsea – are going to suffer the disappointment of failing to be European champions. Contrast that with the domestic leagues, where not taking the title is seen to be offset by the relative success of qualifying for the CL. There is rarely a moment in league competition where you see faces fall at the final whistle like you do in the CL knockout stage. There is seldom the satisfaction of the all-out Schadenfreude that comes from being assured that, to take a purely random example, Frank Lampard and John Terry will have to go another 12 months without a European Cup winner’s medal.
It’s true that moments of delight-in-defeat are rarer during the group stage, but even here there has already been cause for glee in AC Milan’s home defeat by FC Zurich three weeks ago, Liverpool’s feckless showing in Florence, and the effortless, humiliating lesson in basic football that Sevilla handed out at Ibrox. It’s not just the loss of both face and revenue that gladdens our hearts, but the feeling such games are a tantalising taster for the highly anticipated night when any given team’s full elimination will be completed in a packed, howling stadium before a global TV audience.
It may be that your way of escaping the Champions League tonight will be to head for the East Midlands Counties League clash between Radcliffe Olympic and Borrowash Victoria. But for those of us unable or unwilling to leave the house and make it to a live game, there’s at least the fallback option of negative hope, helped this year by the UEFA reforms that allowed greater trans-European club representation in group play. So though we may not be standing on the table furiously cheering on Dinamo Kiev as they try to dent Massimo Moratti’s annually thwarted aspiration to become Europe's number one, we can at least glance over the top of our newspapers and fanzines and momentarily sneer at some big name’s downfall.
Call it the opposite of glory-hunting. Appreciate all the good things that defeat can bring. And remember that the payoff for enduring Cristiano Ronaldo’s victory grin may well be (to take again a purely random example) the sight of tiny tears streaming down the saddened, saturated cheeks of a colossal but now withered central defender in blue. Ian Plenderleith