Barcelona turn up with barely a first-teamer in their ranks, Celtic show off a new away shirt, Spurs struggle in their latest kit abomination, while Al-Ahly make up the numbers. Taylor Parkes welcomes you to the Wembley Cup, summer's latest soporific pre-season tournament
The English summer: airless buses, flies in the wheelie-bin and pre-season tournaments we'll never, ever forget. It's that time of year again (this morning was so summery, a hailstorm set off all the car alarms down my street), so it's off to the Wembley Cup, a star-studded spectacular in the grand tradition of the Araldite Trophy, the Dr Pepper World Shield and the All-England Esso Bauble, or whatever the hell they were called.
They've been rolling out the hype for weeks, which is just as well, since tickets for the Wembley Cup start at £30 a go and it's twice that much for a decent seat. According to the adboards, this is "An IMG Event brought to you by Palm Hills Developments" – I'm slightly surprised that the International Marxist Group, British chapter of the Fourth International from 1969 to 1985, would be this keen to price out the working class, but hey, I guess there's a crisis on the Left. With time to kill before today's first match, I leaf through the programme, which is sumptuous and worthless. On the back, a full-page advertisement for Palm Hills Developments suggests we move to Egypt, in order to play golf in "residential projects". Clearly, this has nothing to do with the presence of Al-Ahly, this year's Egyptian champions, who I'm sure would have been invited whoever was "bringing this event to us," even if that happened not to be Egypt's largest real estate investment firm.
Reserves of sarcasm almost exhausted before kick-off, I slump into my seat as the teams appear. Celtic fans have turned out in fairly startling numbers, as they tend to for London friendlies, but then their team has a new away kit to show off (it makes them look like lime wasps). Al-Ahly – "Team Of The Century", as they've been dubbed by CAF in a nice piece of Afrocentricism – run out looking fierce. Their 35 fans are arranged around a flag that says, in stark white letters, "WATCH UP!!!"
As it turns out, Al-Ahly play rather like a cultured League One side, passing neatly with the best of intentions, but tending to misjudge the final ball, failing to run on to that sneaky little pass. Their first attack has Artur Boruc clawing the ball away, but when Celtic send in a low, slow cross and two Al-Ahly defenders perform perfect air-kicks, it's obvious what's going to happen. Half an hour in, they twice try to clear by kicking the ball into the shins of Celtic forwards; it falls to Massimo Donati, who ambles round the box for what feels like a decade, then draws the keeper and scores as if shrugging. The suspicion that this is Al-Ahly's lot is more or less confirmed less than ten minutes later, when goalie Hameed grabs the cunningly placed ankle of Celtic's Scott McDonald, who stands up and rolls in a lazy penalty.
On the big screen, the beaten keeper stands stock still and slumped, hands on hips and tongue sticking out, eyes rolled up and to the left. Tony Mowbray walks out to the touchline, claps once or twice, then walks back to his seat with head bowed and hands in pockets. Yes, this looks like a football match; everyone's doing those familiar football match things. But there's something wrong here – an unreality, a dreamlike stillness. A couple of pigeons land on the pitch and sit there for some time, untroubled by the gently jogging feet. I start to get the creeps, and welcome the shrillness of the half-time whistle.
After the break, Celtic are still no better than they have to be. Aiden McGeady is staring into space as though obeying the touchline ads for EgyptAir, which urge us to "enjoy the sky". Marc-Antoine Fortune is so utterly anonymous, the No 10 shirt may as well be filled by a silhouette with a question mark on its face. But they're unstoppable now, like a rolling pea – Shaun Maloney, one of three Celtic players who are clearly offside when the ball comes in, side-foots a third. A warm rain begins, which patters nicely on the Wembley roof, and the match feels even more like a slate-skied camping holiday. Al-Ahly's coach, Hossam El-Badry, spent the whole first half in his technical area in baggy tracksuit bottoms and a bright stripy top that looked like it was borrowed from a two-year-old; as the downpour thickens he dons an Adidas anorak, but Tony Mowbray just stands there and takes it, as proud and immobile as if he were still watching West Brom getting humped at home.
On the hour, McDonald curls one into the top corner from the far side of the box, like Michael Owen used to when England were already 6-0 up against Greenland. Boruc gets down brilliantly to block a close-range shot, and Al-Ahly finally give up the ghost (which doesn't stop Lee Naylor diving in the box and running screaming to the ref). Arriving Spurs fans lend half-hearted support to the ailing Egyptians, but to no avail. Aside from Chris Killen scoring a fifth (offside again), there's nothing more to see here – unless you count the entry of Dan Fox, Celtic's big signing from Coventry City, in a shirt without a name or number on the back. Admittedly he only signed yesterday, but you'd think they could have stopped off at the club shop to buy three letters, two numbers and a travel iron. At the final whistle Celtic try to celebrate, but the big screen cuts to Lionel Messi getting off a coach, and everyone looks at that instead.
In the media lounge, someone hands round team sheets for Tottenham v Barcelona, and hardened hacks are seen to choke on their banoffee meringue roulade. No one expected a full-strength Barça side, but few were prepared for this: a 22-man squad lacking every single starter from the Champions League final, except for Yaya Touré. Samuel Eto'o's absence is no surprise, since Barcelona are poised to swap him for football's ultimate 20-percenter, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in the least sane transfer of the century so far. But one or two others will also be sitting this out. Messi. Xavi. Iniesta. Henry. Puyol. Alves. Pique. Marquez. Valdes. Hleb. Sylvinho. Milito. Busquets. That's right – to Pep Guardiola, the Wembley Cup (an IMG Event brought to you by Palm Hills Developments) is not worth risking Sergio Busquets. In their place are names sure to thrill the eight-year-old Spurs fans who've begged their dads to bring them tonight: Gaiyigaal Assulin, José María Rueda, Albert Dalmau, Victor Espasandin. Most of them don't even have squad numbers, and have taken other people's on loan. I feel for Eric Abidal, who's been picked, and must wonder what this says about his long-term prospects.
To the surprising sound of Billie Jean, a bunch of Royal Marines abseil into the stadium clutching match balls. It's hard to tell if the chorus of boos which greets the announcement of the Barcelona team is a sullen response to its lack of lustre, or just a hearty "home" team welcome. Personally, I feel like booing Spurs, or at least their shirts – perhaps the hardest English kit to spoil has been spoilt once again, in spectacular fashion. This time they've got bright yellow patches under their arms, like they wore the same clothes to the gym last night. They look like freshly forked fried eggs.
Barça's team of inch-thin 16-year-olds are very good at football, but I doubt they'd win too many trebles. Bojan Krkic, by far the best player on the pitch, sells Tom Huddlestone a stunning dummy, then places his chip on the roof of the net. Out on the left, Gai tries hard to fill Messi's old No 19 shirt, but if his moves (and hairstyle) vaguely recall Lionel's, there's also one crucial difference: he can't dribble past Wilson Palacios. Eventually, Touré goes on a long-legged, loping run past three Spurs defenders and Bojan arrives to finish the move with a neatly placed low drive. This seems to hit the Tottenham fans hard – when, moments later, Pedro has another ruled out (wrongly) for offside, a chap to my left gets to his feet, points, and screams "Hahahaha – BASTARD!" for a full 30 seconds.
So the game settles: Barça's reserves grow in confidence and start to take the piss, while Spurs respond with ineffective force. Luka Modric hits the woodwork, then Benoit Assou-Ekotto kicks the ball into the turf and almost chips Jorquera by mistake, but these are isolated moments – Barcelona's understudies are very well trained. When they do lose the ball, they press maniacally, and this three-quarter-strength Spurs side flounders. At half-time Harry Redknapp makes four substitutions, while Guardiola (to the crowd's eye-rolling amusement, and an audible chuckle from the stadium announcer) feels the need to make 11. So one team goes out, another comes in and Martin Montoya, Andreu Fontas and Victor Sanchez make way for Marc Muniesa, Eduard Oriol and Jeffren Suarez. This all-new Barcelona start the second half by passing the ball around their entire team, then give it away in front of goal; catastrophe is averted when Jermain Defoe falls on his arse.
Down in the Barça enclosure, a few unpicked first-teamers are watching with their chins on their fists. An hour and a half ago, Thierry Henry stepped off the team bus with giant iPod headphones pushed up onto his temples, making him look like he was receiving electro-shock therapy. If his current expression is any guide, this may in fact have been the case. On the pitch, Oriol curls a pass round a stranded Jermaine Jenas, and Rueda robs Robbie Keane with contemptuous ease. Redknapp can't be bothered to stand up, but Guardiola takes a leisurely walk to the touchline and back – hilariously, he's turned up in a shiny Lacoste tracksuit top and tight jeans, like he's just dropping by on his way to a roller disco. His attitude could not be clearer had he been waving a placard on which he'd written, in English, "The Wembley Cup Is A Load Of Shit".
Which it is, of course. That could be why his kids have grown complacent – after 82 minutes, Tottenham (whose most diverting act of the second half has been to bring on a player named Dorian Dervite) win themselves a corner. Junior Barça watch the ball float overhead, like jaded UFO spotters, and Jake Livermore leaps to head an equaliser. Good for him… I suppose. As the game expires, the PA booms: "Let's look at the standings!" The standings? A silly league table appears on the screen, telling us what we already know, and everyone's urged to return on Sunday for the Wembley Cup's exciting denouement. "There are still tickets available!" Yeah, I bet.
On Sunday, Barcelona's kids put four past Al-Ahly, while Celtic reserves beat Spurs 2‑0 to lift the coveted trophy – that is, if there actually was a trophy. Maybe they won an Egyptian golfing holiday instead. I wouldn't know. I didn't watch it.
From WSC 271 September 2009