Livescore Thursday, April 25

It was 5.30am and the sun was already rising by the time the last of Manchester City’s jubilant supporters made it back from the Ataturk Olympic Stadium to the beating heart of Istanbul.

This vibrant, enthralling, gloriously chaotic city at the crossroads of the world, where Asia meets Europe in the waters of the Bosphorus, was waking to a new dawn.

Local men and boys were making their way to their usual spots on the Galata Bridge, the symbolic link between the residential district of Beyoglu and the old city, home to the Blue Mosque and the religious and secular sites of the Ottoman Empire.

Empires rise and empires fall. Istanbul — Byzantium in the days of the Greek empire, Constantinople to the Romans — is the perfect illustration of that.

Napoleon famously said that “whoever possesses Constantinople ought to rule the world”. City are not champions of the world just yet, but on Saturday evening the champions of England became the champions of Europe, Rodri’s second-half goal defeating Inter Milan and allowing Pep Guardiola and his players to get their hands on that giant trophy at last, winners of an historic treble.

And as the night before rolled into the morning after, we were left once more to reflect not just on City’s brilliance but on the nature of empire-building (in football and beyond) in the 21st century: on a project perfected by a genius of a coach and a richly talented group of players but built on the wealth and ambition of Abu Dhabi, for whom the sport seems like a diplomatic tool, a means to different ends.

This has felt like the never-ending season. The EFL started on July 29, the Premier League on August 5, Serie A on August 13 and the Champions League group stage, earlier than ever, on September 6. And here we were, at the end of Europe, at the Champions League final on June 10, the whole campaign extended at both ends by the need to accommodate a winter World Cup in Qatar.

City’s players returned for pre-season training on July 11 and their campaign ended in Istanbul 11 months later. For many of them, there are international fixtures to play over the next week or so and only the shortest of breaks before heading off on tour to Japan and South Korea, gearing up for a season that will include the European Super Cup in Greece and the Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia. Then there is the Africa Cup of Nations and Asian Cup in January and the European Championship and Copa America next summer.

FIFPro, the world football players’ union, will join coaches like Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp in expressing profound concern about welfare — and nothing will be done about it because the clubs, the national associations and the federations just want more, more, more to sell to a world that can’t get enough.

It can be exhausting for the rest of us too, whether we watch from the terraces, the press box, the sofa or staying up late — or getting up ridiculous early — on the other side of the world to watch in sports bars. Such is the all-consuming nature of football and European club football in particular. We consume it and it consumes us.

It occupies so much of our consciousness so much of the time. When we’re not watching matches, we might still be devouring the latest machinations of the transfer market or digesting the kind of written or data analysis that didn’t exist five years ago, or fretting about a fantasy football team or betting on the outcome of a game between two teams we know nothing about or getting far too upset by something posted online by someone who doesn’t share our rose-tinted view of our favourite team or player.

That World Cup feels like it was a lifetime ago. To recap, it began with a limp performance from the hosts, totally out of their depth against Ecuador, and a dreadful press conference from FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who was up to his neck in ethical contradictions, but quickly went up several notches — on the pitch at least — thanks to the endeavours of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Japan and others, and reached the most thrilling climax in a final which saw Lionel Messi achieve his life’s ambition, leading Argentina to victory, on a night when Kylian Mbappe scored a hat-trick and Gonzalo Montiel scored the decisive penalty in the shoot-out.

There was barely time to reflect and draw breath. There were Carabao Cup ties just two days after the World Cup final and only another six days before the Premier League resumed on Boxing Day. To many of us who had been in Qatar, which was a strange experience in any case, lacking soul and authenticity, the World Cup quickly faded to something like a fever dream.

Then you cast your mind back further to the opening months of the season: Barcelona facing what seemed like a day-to-day battle to persuade La Liga’s auditors to allow them to register their new signings; Thomas Tuchel sacked by the new regime at Chelsea; Cristiano Ronaldo in a sulk at Manchester United, burning his bridges with that extraordinary interview with Piers Morgan; English football brought to a standstill by the death of Queen Elizabeth II; the terrible tragedy at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Indonesia, in which 135 spectators were killed in a crush.

As is so often the case these days, the news cycle has been dominated by off-the-pitch controversies: one apparent scandal (the Negreira case) following another (financial) at Barcelona; the Prima affair at Juventus; the charges brought against City and Everton for alleged breaches (115 of them in City’s case) of the Premier League’s financial regulations.

It sounds like the authorities getting tough, but time will tell. The growing impression is of a game that has allowed things to slip for so long that tighter regulations will have little impact on clubs who, whether on account of their history or their new-found wealth, have become too powerful to be brought under control.

European football faces a battle for its soul. And it isn’t just, as those with vested interests would like to depict it, a battle against entitled, historic heavyweight clubs or against politically compromised state-owned clubs who have emerged over the past decade — or indeed against the sudden emergence of the Saudi Pro League, which has paid mindboggling sums to lure Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and others to the Middle East in the hope of challenging the hegemony of the European game.

The simplistic culture war is old money vs new money — “legacy” clubs vs state-owned or state-influenced — but the people in charge of those clubs have far more in common than will ever be acknowledged in the echo chambers of social media. Whether long-established or nouveau-riche, those elite clubs are run by people who have demonstrated greed, self-interest and a disregard for the game itself and the leagues and the clubs who are left further and further adrift.

As a football writer, you can choose to ignore those issues — “The game is about men in boots, not men in suits,” to quote an eminent sports editor — or you can find yourself so preoccupied by them that they distract you from what the game is and should be about.

Anyone who cares deeply about the sport should be troubled by the way competitive balance has been distorted in the Champions League with so much power and wealth concentrated among a handful of clubs in a handful of leagues. Anyone who cares deeply about the sport should also be concerned by the idea that state ownership of clubs a) has become the only way for clubs outside the elite to compete and b) has been allowed in the first place. It shouldn’t even be a debate.

And yet, and yet … for all these entanglements and alarming trends, football retains the ability to captivate us like few things on this planet. FIFA claims 1.5 billion people watched the World Cup final in December and it is hard to imagine any of them being other than rapt, wide-eyed, on the edge of their seat, as the Messi-Mbappe show built up towards its dramatic denouement.

One of the most compelling aspects of Messi’s crowning glory was the recognition that this had become an odyssey for him, the pursuit of his holy grail. Even as we marvelled at the way he tormented Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol like a prize matador before teeing up Julian Alvarez in the semi-final, there was appreciation for the human side of this story of a footballer with an extraterrestrial talent. When the moment came, as Argentina prevailed on penalties in France, he sank to his knees in triumph, the realisation of a dream.

Ultimately, human endeavour is what powers sport and our appreciation of it.

City’s modern success story might be anathema to you — particularly when commentators talk of a “fairy tale” as if the benefactor who transformed the club’s fortunes was a local boy made good rather than a regime described by Amnesty International as “one of football’s most brazen attempts to ‘sportswash’ a country’s deeply tarnished image through the glamour of the game”.

But even this team, assembled with surgical precision and drilled so relentlessly by a genius of a coach that they come closer to perfection than any of the great Premier League sides of the past, reflects the most basic human qualities of striving for greatness.

Going through the line-up, you are given numerous reminders that greatness has not come easily: Ederson, who considered turning his back on football when he struggled to find a club as a 15-year-old; John Stones, who was held back a year in his time at Barnsley’s centre of excellence because his progress had stalled; Nathan Ake, who spent years being shunted out on loan at Chelsea and suffered relegation with Bournemouth; Ilkay Gundogan, whose career was threatened by serious back and knee injuries; even Erling Haaland, who arrived in the big time via the relative backwaters of Bryne FK, Molde FK and Red Bull Salzburg, and Kevin De Bruyne, who had such a chastening time as a youngster at Chelsea before relaunching his career with Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg; Jack Grealish, who had some tough years before the penny dropped at Aston Villa and he began, gradually, to fulfil his talent.

Grealish struggled to hold back the tears in his post-match interview on BT Sport. “I was awful today. I don’t care,” he said, his voice cracking. “This is what you work for, your whole life. I’m so happy, man. You think of all the people who have helped you along the way, and I saw my family, and it just made me emotional. Anyone who knows me knows how much of a family person I am and how much I love football. And this is my whole life.”

Then there is Guardiola, a coach who, for all his brilliance and the multitude of trophies won in the meantime, had gone 12 years without winning the Champions League, attracting accusations of overthinking or even (imagine this) tactical naivety. His delight at the final whistle in Istanbul was that of a man whose shoulders had been freed of a huge burden — reunited with the European Cup at last.

City were left hanging on for dear life at the end, with Ederson and Ruben Dias making crucial interventions as Inter pushed for an equaliser. By their own elevated standards, City were poor. Watching them in the middle period of the game, in particular, they were sending too many passes astray.

But the official statistics said they had a pass completion of 87 per cent, completing 448 passes out of 514. And that was while trying to force the issue for the majority of that period against an Inter team who impressed with their tenacity and their organisation. Sloppiness isn’t what it used to be.

When it was over, seconds after Ederson flung himself to his right to keep out Robin Gosens’ header, City’s players fell to their knees. This was never the inevitability some pundits had imagined after the way they overwhelmed Real Madrid in the semi-final. A team as majestic as this will often be described as enjoying a procession to glory. That has not been the case this season. The players’ emotional, exhausted reactions at the end told you that.

And then there are the supporters. Many of the fans in Istanbul were the same fans who were turning up in droves when City were slumming it in the third tier in 1998-99, standing on dilapidated terraces at Lincoln and York and watching in dismay and occasional hilarity as their team sank to new depths. The club went 35 years without winning a trophy, bouncing up and down the divisions as neighbours Manchester United swept all before them in the 1990s and 2000s.

There was a view that even Sheikh Mansour could not turn City, a pig’s ear of a club in 2008, into a silk purse, let alone into the relentless beast they have become. “Not in my lifetime,” Sir Alex Ferguson infamously said when asked, post-takeover, whether he could imagine a time when City would go into a Manchester derby favourites. How the tables have turned.

And the “how” is apposite because nobody can possibly begrudge the simple fact of City and their previously long-suffering fanbase being successful. The resentment among rival fans and the caveats that appear in media coverage simply reflect the “how”.

The obvious response is to ask how else a club of City’s size and previously limited resources could have any hope of glory in an era when the financial divide between the Champions League and the rest had become unbridgeable — and when UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations were only ever going to reinforce those inequalities.

Just as state ownership of clubs is unjustifiable, so is the way the game’s wealth has been distributed over the past couple of decades, distorting competitive balance for the benefit of clubs who already had the cards stacked heavily in their favour.

Both are symptoms of the way the sport has been misgoverned, allowing the big clubs to become too powerful, constantly putting the pursuit of wealth above all else and never stopping to worry about where that money comes from and whatever entanglements might come with it.

And then the game kicks off and you find yourself captivated, hooked. And for 90-plus minutes, it is all about the football. And at the final whistle, you see what it means to the individuals involved — not just the players and the coach but the supporters who have followed the club through thick and thin — and you are reminded that this is what is all about. Or should be all about.

Quite apart from City’s first European Cup success and Argentina’s first World Cup since 1986, this season has brought Napoli’s first Scudetto title since 1990, Luton Town’s return to English football’s top flight after 31 years, and Heidenheim’s first promotion to the Bundesliga in their history. It began on July 31 with England’s first triumph at the Women’s European Championship finals — or was that the previous season? It can be hard to keep track where one ends and the other begins.

In Istanbul, where one continent ends and another begins, an English club under Middle Eastern ownership finally achieved its ambition, winning the European game’s biggest prize. A new football empire? Let us just say that right now it feels like the club that prevailed in Constantinople have taken custody, for now, of the keys to football’s universe.

For Guardiola, his players, the staff and those supporters — who for so long were starved of hope, never mind glory — it is a wonderful thing. A new name on the European Cup is certainly a good thing in an era when the most powerful clubs have done so much to try to kill the dreams of those outside the elite.

But the sport itself is at a crossroads that has led it to a first Champions League triumph for a club under the ownership (not formally, but in practical terms) of a foreign state.

The quality of the football has never been higher, but all these geopolitical entanglements leave you wondering where it is all going to end for the sport. It is the best of times and the worst of times, summed up by a City of two tales.

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