On these shores, footballing success is often viewed as being synonymous with ‘bravery.’ The secret to success is often presented as being little more than determination, hard work and ‘wanting it more’ than the opposition. Thundering into last-ditch challenges, withstanding heavy pressure and a prosaic preference for the primitive are widely held as symptomatic of sporting excellence, with such suffering and stubborn endurance seen as proud emblems of sporting gallantry. In such context, Celtic’s recent display in Barcelona can be viewed as a flagship performance of bravery; a show of valour and iron-will cruelly denied its rightful reward by Jordi Alba’s dramatic late-strike. Predictably, their efforts against the world’s finest side attracted rich praise, with reports stressing a narrative of heartbreak and callous fate. For former Germany playmaker Bernd Schuster however, such epithets were wildly misplaced.
‘I’m fed up of seeing these sort of matches,’ spat Schuster, ‘there should not be teams like Celtic in the Champions’ League.’ Of course, those without an allegiance to the Glasgow club or the stereotyped British ideal are unlikely to be too enamoured by a team ‘defending with 10 men and almost snatching a point’ but to question their participation at this level clearly invites claims of arrogance and elitism. Whilst neither trait is necessarily as deplorable within the game as outside its peculiar parameters, Schuster’s comments fail to recognise that having won their domestic league and successfully navigated the preliminary rounds, Celtic’s presence is unquestionably deserved. Of course, the aristocrats of Europe’s stronger leagues possess better players, play better football and consequently are involved in better matches but that should not discount the involvement of teams from less prestigious environs.
Still, despite Schuster’s criticisms seeming somewhat graceless, the opposite extreme as evidenced in the British press’ appraisal is equally misplaced. Bravery is intrinsically predicated upon the premise that should the act of proposed courage fail, the perpetrator would be left open to charges of stupidity and crass foolishness. When facing Barcelona, bravery would therefore be defined in opting for an open, attacking game where the risk of humiliation at the hands of their wonderful forwards is off-set by the belief of exposing their makeshift defence. This, largely is what Rayo Vallecano did last Saturday and although the Catalans struggled to attain their usual fluency, their opponents would ultimately succumb to a 0-5 home defeat. In opting to engage with Barcelona, Rayo’s manager Paco Jemez (who insisted he would be ‘too ashamed’ to adopt Celtic’s approach), although aware of the adverse implications displayed far greater ‘bravery’ than Lennon. This is not a criticism of Lennon; what he did was pragmatic, measured, reasonable and not perhaps predictable given the huge disparity in quality between the teams and the precedent set by Mambo favourite Martin O’Neill, whose Celtic side’s approach against the same adversaries in 2004 was denounced as ‘anti-football’ by his opposite number, Frank Rijkaard.
Where Schuster presents a more agreeable argument is in his contention that had Celtic held on for a point purely by ‘defending with 10 men’ such an outcome would be ‘not fair.’ Now, in implementing a strategy designed to stifle and aided, as such re-active paradigms always must be, by good fortune, had Celtic held on to steal an improbable draw, Lennon and his players should have been applauded. This however, does not mean that such a result would have been in any way just or warranted. The last-minute nature of Celtic’s defeat inevitably leads to the conclusion that they were in some way unlucky; that having battled so vigilantly for so long they deserved to get something out of the game. Defending deep, attacking only through occasional set-pieces and fortuitously scoring via an own-goal from one such set-piece deserves nothing other than defeat. Whatever the inequities, financial, sporting or otherwise, such a philosophy should never be greeted by glory but as Schuster identities, the success of Chelsea last season has offered a template for others to ‘repeat the system’ when facing sides of vastly superior ability.
Indeed, whilst almost an inevitability from clubs of Celtic’s stature when facing the continent’s heavyweights, for a club of Chelsea’s resources to grind so joylessly to the continent’s foremost crown last season was far less noble and the fear must be that such cowardice legitimises craven negativity amongst others. Whilst many may delight that recognition of such shortcomings have precipitated a welcome and radical reappraisal from the London club, there remains the potential for adverse consequences. Despite the craft and class of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar, deficiencies elsewhere have provided an unstable foundation for such flair and Chelsea have this season been comprehensively outplayed by Porto, Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk. The troubling paradox is that even in abandoning their tactical straitjacket, Chelsea continue to extol its legacy as they continue to demonstrate that, at the highest level, it is far easier to destroy than to create.