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Champions League final sets stage for World Cup

All 32 World Cup coaches will no doubt be watching and learning as Inter Milan takes on Bayern Munich on Saturday.

Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho attends a news conference after a training session at the La Pinetina training center in Appiano Gentile near Milan on May 18, 2010. (Paolo Bona/Reuters)

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.