It sounds like sour grapes when fans of a losing team claim their club was better, but probability laws remind us that the “wrong” team will win more often than people realize. One way to deal with this is to construct a sports season that works to bring the best to the top. The NBA, for instance, plays 82 regular-season games in order to eliminate the 14 worst teams, leaving 16 for the playoffs. The more games in a season, the less chance the “wrong” teams will advance … if the regular season was only 2 games long, you’d find some poor teams winning both of their games, but 82 games is considered enough to weed out the bad clubs. In the playoffs, teams meet in best-of-seven series, and seven games is hopefully enough to give the better team a strong chance of advancing. Again, just due to random factors, the “lesser” team will advance a certain percentage of time … no, I’m not doing the math here, I suck at it … and since there are many seven-game series to be played, the likelihood that one or more “lesser” teams will advance all the way to the finals is reasonably high. Finally, when the two teams meet in the finals, the “lesser” team will triumph on occasion … if they played best-of-100, the better team would almost always win, but best-of-7 allows the lesser team a chance.
My point is that it takes a lot to make it to the finals of a sports competition, and among the factors you must deal with are the random ones. So not only do the better teams at times lose in the finals, the better teams don’t always even make it to the finals. So, when you get an ideal matchup of great teams, be thankful … that Super Bowl you’re looking forward won’t always feature the two best teams, and it is not guaranteed that you’ll get Kobe/LeBron in the NBA finals (granted, I’ve switched from teams to players in that example, but the NBA doesn’t seem to have any great teams this year, so people are looking forward more to a matchup of the marquee players).
The UEFA Champions League has a complicated structure … complicated enough that I’m not entirely sure how many teams participate. There are several qualifying rounds where champions from smaller leagues and not-quite-champions from bigger leagues play each other to determine who will join the champions from bigger leagues in a 32-team tournament. Those 32 teams are then broken up into 8 groups who play mini-league competitions, each team playing the other twice (home and away). The top two teams in each of the eight groups advance to a knock-out format, home and away, until there are only two clubs remaining. Those two clubs play one final match at a neutral venue for the title. For a variety of reasons, including the random ones referred to above, the two teams left standing at the end of the tournament (which this season began more than ten months ago) are not always the two best clubs in Europe.
This year, the random factor may have been defeated. The two teams meeting today probably are the best on the continent. Manchester United are the defending champions of Europe. They have won the English Premier League three years in a row. They won the English League Cup. They won the Club World Cup. They are, for what it’s worth, the richest club in the world. During the season ending today, they played 38 matches in the Premier League, 6 League Cup matches, 5 FA Cup matches, 2 Club World Cup matches, 12 Champions League matches, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. Just in the knockout phase of the Champions League, they had to beat Inter Milan, Porto, and Arsenal, all great clubs. Barcelona are no chumps, either. They won the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey. In the knockout phase of the Champions League, they defeated Lyon, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea.
There are also great individual talents ready to take the field today. Man U’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barca’s Lionel Messi finished 1-2 in the voting for last year’s FIFA World Player of the Year, and the only expected difference in this year’s award is that it will be Messi/Ronaldo instead of Ronaldo/Messi.
Finally, there is the “beautiful” aspect. Danny Blanchflower famously said, “The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.” As soccer’s detractors know, a soccer match can be a soul-deadening waste of two hours. And, far too often, the most crucial matches are the ones where the managers retract into a defensive shell, fearful of giving up that one goal which will lose the match. Correct me aftewards if I’m wrong, but Man U and Barca both play attractive soccer. Pep Guardiola, manager of underdog Barcelona, has come right out and said his team’s best chance is to “play beautiful.” Everything is in place for a great match.