As epic as Paris Saint-Germain’s comeback was, and as entertaining as the whole game in Lisbon had been, there was also ultimately something thoroughly depressing about it.
That goes a lot deeper than the simplicity of the French champions denying Atalanta their dream, or the emotions of the city of Bergamo.
It was more what the whole outcome was about.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Something that would have resembled a morality play was just turned on its head. The rich just beat the poor. Of course, anyone in football will tell you where to go if you’re looking for morality in the game. That is pretty much anywhere else.
Albert Camus had a famous line that is always referenced when any kind of philosophy or ethics in the sport are discussed.
“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.”
It thereby fully follows he went on to write absurdist literature about the meaninglessness of life.
That was what was a bit unsettling about Wednesday’s outcome. It was all a bit too… real.
There can be no denying an Atalanta victory would have had meaning. Given how Bergamo has suffered in the coronavirus crisis, it might have been a victory that meant more to people than any Champions League win ever has.
There was even a deeper football significance for the game as a whole. Atalanta were not just beating a club with much more money, but the way they were doing it suggested a potential solution to the crippling problem of financial disparity in the sport. It was for long stretches as if Gian Piero Gasperini was offering up an efficiency and cohesion of football that a bloated project like PSG never could.
He had himself referenced this before the game. “We’ve shown that even without spending lots of money you can do well in the Champions League by drawing on other values: enthusiasm, sacrifice, play. Resources like this are unlimited and available to everyone.”
This is what seemed possible when you don’t just buy the best-paid stars. It was commitment to a coach’s idea that is almost impossible at the super clubs.
It was also just too good to be true. Success is no longer available to everyone.
This is the reason they’re the best-paid stars. PSG were able to bring Kylian Mbappe off the bench to win the game.
And what is the meaning of that, exactly?
PSG, thanks to Qatari investment for an entirely political purpose, just had a critical mass of quality. They beat little Atalanta by sheer force of numbers rather than any kind of intelligent design.
There was footage of Parisians cheering, and it evidently meant so much to the players, but the wider objective of what they are is a sportswashing project for Qatar.
Set that against the Atalanta story. Uplifting.
There was carping about how their players celebrated a victory over little Atalanta, but that is one area where they maybe deserve some slack. Wrapped up in that relief was a lot of emotional release from so many years of emotional trauma in the competition before this. They were celebrating averting another humiliation.
Even that, though, speaks to the grimmer bigger picture.
One of the more interesting things about PSG was their neuroses in this competition. It gave them a story.
There’s nothing interesting about throwing money at something until you get what you want. There’s no story there. That’s just reality, that we’ve all endured so much of.
It only made it all the more cruel that Atalanta got so close, that they almost went the distance.
That’s just football, that’s the modern Champions League. So great to watch, but with an increasingly large price.
The top level of the game is only available to the limited few.