PHOTO of the week was that one taken in a Madrid car park. If you knew nothing about football, the prominence of the dinky toilet bags might have led you to believe the shot was of the runner-up for Metrosexual Man of the Year congratulating the winner.
In fact, here was the world’s most expensive footballer (deposed) welcoming his successor as a team-mate. Now, pictures speak a thousand words but, frankly, stuff that. We really need to know what Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale were saying to each other.
Bale’s warm smile could be interpreted thus: “I’m only here to play. You’ve still got the biggest vanity valise round these parts.” Ronaldo, a bit more inscrutable, could be saying: “Darn right, kemosabe, by the way.” Or maybe: “I see you’re going with a combo of David Beckham pompadour and my pointy-pointy sidelappers from season 2007-08 – do you really think that look will catch on?” More seriously, it could be: “What’s in your ponce pouch? Let’s hope it’s the European Cup.”
What, literally? He’s folded it up much like Hibs’ Willie Hamilton is supposed to have bent a silver salver in half to fit his tiny holdall after scoring seven goals in a pre-season game in Ottawa? Not quite, but if Bale doesn’t deliver the Champions League to Real Madrid what’s the point of his £85 million move?
The Champions League starts this week and Real have to win it. They always think they should but these days rarely do.
Jose Mourinho, the tournament specialist, was hired to re-establish that divine right but the best he could manage was two semi-finals.
Now they’re going for broke with the two costliest players in history. But that is precisely why they’ll fail again.
The signing of Bale is a partial return to the decadence of the “Galacticos” era when the club acquired too many of the same kind of superstar.
Bale offers nothing that Ronaldo cannot do (and less if you factor in the latter’s superior heading). Doubts remain about Bale’s mental fortitude for what is the most political dressing room in football and this may have to be a transitional season for him. It’s amazing that you can cost £85m and still qualify for one of those, but there you go.
It is properly balanced teams who tend to win the Champions League rather than lopsided ones. Some would doubtless contend that Bayern Munich last season were almost boring in their balance but these people should remember what went before, the style of play that Bayern vanquished – Chelsea’s.
When John Terry got out of his suit and lifted the trophy there was a suspicion this anti-football might catch on and become the method du jour. Mercifully, it didn’t.
Bayern’s triumph was great for the Champions League. Great, too, for Arjen Robben, a player both Chelsea and Real reckoned they could do without.
But, arguably, Borussia Dortmund’s march to Wembley was more significant and more welcome. It broke up what was threatening to become a private party for the so-called elite clubs in which the big cup would be shared among them.
It encouraged the belief that, just as Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and Lyon had done previously, unfancied teams could make a big mark on the tournament. And it gave the competition a new post-match voice – one unfamiliar with the smooth certainties of the CL establishment – and a hugely charismatic personality in coach Jurgen Klopp.
Last season Dortmund were the team of the tournament’s first phase, something it really needed, because the group stages had become awfully predictable. Chelsea and Valencia weren’t actually drawn together four seasons in a row, it only seemed that way.
Seeding and the competition’s expanded size have made qualification fairly routine for the elite. Real and Manchester City were expected to progress from their group but Dortmund won it and Mourinho – for all his tactical nous and, if that doesn’t work, borderline thuggery – failed again to overcome the Germans in the semis.
So who can be this season’s Dortmund?
Theirs was a tough group last time out but, for Celtic, starting in Milan on Wednesday is tougher still.
Scott Brown has been on great form for Scotland recently, both in the pre-match wind-ups and out on the pitch. It would be great to think he might have something in his toilet bag with which to shock Europe’s big boys.