Champions League final sets stage for World Cup

BOSTON — It always seems to invigorate Europe’s Champions League final when the two teams are actually champions of their domestic leagues.

And for the second year in a row, that’s the case. Last year, Spanish champion Barcelona out-dazzled England’s supreme Manchester United. And this year pits German champion Bayern Munich against Italian Serie A kingpin Inter Milan.

However, there is unlikely to be much dazzle in Saturday’s finale. It seems destined to resemble some combination of a chess and a boxing match rather than a free-flowing game that epitomizes soccer at its pinnacle. And as such, it may be a fitting appetizer for the main course, the World Cup, just three weeks hence.

Every four years, we wax poetic in anticipation of the World Cup and every four years, at Cup’s end, we despair about the tactical game plans, the fortress mentality of the coaches, the low-risk defensive style and thuggish tactics that make any reference to “the beautiful game” an exercise in irony.

This is not an old man’s nostalgic lament for bygone years that I never actually witnessed. Numbers don’t lie. Until 1990, there was not a single shutout in the World Cup final. Then there were four in a row, including the stultifying Brazil-Italy 1994 final that went scoreless all the way to the penalty shutout.

The shutout streak was broken in the 2006 World Cup. But it was hard to rejoice over a 1-1 affair that featured the ejection of the tournament’s best player for head-butting an opponent after a crude, sexual insult aimed at his family.

Hopefully, Saturday won’t sink to that level. But no doubt we will witness something that is more crude than beautiful. Start with the fact that, despite the presence of some gifted players on both teams, virtually all pre-game attention has been focused on the two coaches, Bayern Munich’s Louis van Gaal and Inter’s Jose Mourinho.

Both are master tacticians and enthusiastic practitioners of gamesmanship. And their careers are intertwined in a fashion that makes this sideline showdown rather delicious. Van Gaal, 58, has won league championships in three countries — in his native Netherlands with Ajax, in Spain with Barcelona and now in Germany.

Mourinho, who is Portuguese, was a lowly assistant with Barcelona under van Gaal in the late ‘90s. His principal responsibilities were as an interpreter so if he didn’t exactly learn at van Gaal’s knee, he certainly poached a soccer education. It could be said that, at just 47, Mourinho has equaled or even surpassed the old master, having won league titles in three countries— with Porto, Chelsea and Inter — and having reached the Champions League finals with each of them.

Actually it has been said or at least hinted at, most frequently by Mourinho. The coach, whose mystique is bolstered by matinee-idol looks, has never been content to wait for the soccer establishment to sing his praises, preferring to sing them himself and leave the press to quote him. After winning the Champions with Porto, he jumped to Chelsea and, with no visible embarrassment, introduced himself to the British press by saying, “I think I’m a special one.” Since then, Mourinho has embraced that nickname and, arguably, earned it.

To get to this final, Inter first upset English champion Chelsea and then defending European champion Barcelona. Wesley Sneijder, the Dutch midfielder who has been Inter’s standout all season, noted after the Barcelona triumph that Mourinho always has a plan “to destroy the opponent.” Try waxing lyrical about that gladiatorial thrust.

But that is a fair description of the havoc Inter wreaked in Barcelona. After winning 3-1 at home Inter went to Spain for the rematch with a simple plan that is not always easy to execute. Inter collapsed its defense in front of the net, never panicked or lost its shape and withstood the ceaseless Barcelona onslaught.

Barcelona wound up controlling the ball for more than 80 percent of the game, but couldn’t find a way through the impenetrable mass. (When an Inter player was sent off for a bad tackle and the team was reduced to 10 men, the Italian side’s tactics were only confirmed.) Last year’s dazzlers first tried to dance their way through enemy lines, but were kept on the periphery. They wound up frustrated and eventually began a futile exercise in firing away from a distance.

There is no arguing with success, the aesthetic footnote being the last bastion for losers. Unlike most coaches who celebrate big victories with handshakes and discreet hugs along the sidelines, Mourinho charged onto the field in Barcelona and strutted center stage amid the victory dance. He is a special one in many ways, not all of them entirely flattering.

Van Gaal has thrown down the gauntlet, baiting his former aide by saying that he faced a greater challenge this week because “I coach my players to play attractive football and to win and [Mourinho] coaches only to win.” But “The Special One” is unlikely to bite because, in truth, both coaches prize victory over pleasing the fans let alone the sportswriters. After all, where do we think Mourinho learned to do whatever it takes?

All 32 World Cup coaches will, of course, be watching and learning. No doubt after Barcelona won Champions last year, each concluded that it was impossible to replicate that kind of offensive cohesion with the short-timers on their all-star squads. But if a conservative, defensive, destructive approach prevails this year, as seems inevitable, each will smile and say, “Now that’s something that maybe we can do.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the age of Jose Mourinho. He is 47, not 37.