Bayern Munich wins Champions League, a victory for tradition and team

By Rory Smith

In a moment of elation, the cameras hunted for despair. They found it in the slight, forlorn shape of Neymar, sitting on Paris St.-Germain’s bench, a perfect picture of heartbreak. Neymar, with tears in his eyes. Neymar, staring into the middle distance. Neymar, with his head in his hands.

Here, in tight focus, was the shot, the story. No player fits so neatly as an avatar for their team as Neymar. He is the most expensive player in the world, and his club is the richest project soccer has ever seen. His career has been shaped by money, and the club’s ambitions are fueled by it. He is the star concerned only with his own light. He is the princeling who yearned to be king. He is the modern PSG made flesh.

His quest is his club’s quest: to win hearts and minds, to prove their greatness and their worth and, in doing so, to gain recognition and acceptance. Both see the Champions League as the only stage on which that can be achieved. Both had failed at the last step on Sunday: a single goal had been enough to give Bayern Munich a 1-0 victory and a sixth European crown, and prolong the agony of PSG.

In those lingering camera shots, in the silence, Neymar not only illustrated how that felt, but exposed the limitations that had led him, and his team, here. It is always easier to tell an individual story than a collective one. There is no one image — not Joshua Kimmich’s artful cross, not Kingsley Coman’s precise header, not Manuel Neuer’s trophy lift — that encapsulates the source of Bayern’s success.

Nor is there a single, pithy explanation. Bayern was, by a shade, the better team in a final that produced a dish quite distinct from any of its ingredients. Two teams front-loaded with attacking talent combined in Lisbon to create a game — a compelling, absorbing game — that was more slow-burn drama than quick-fire entertainment.

Both defended with grit and steel and thought. Neither was quite as assured as normal. Robert Lewandowski was a touch short of his ruthless best leading the Bayern line; Kylian Mbappé was not quite as explosive as he could be for PSG. Neymar did not want for work ethic, but his invention was just a little lacking.

Both teams were in pursuit of a domestic and European treble — league, cup and Champions League silverware — and yet neither was quite itself. Bayern won because it came closer than PSG, because its self-perception is better defined, because it draws its strength and its wonder from its system, not from the lavish talent of its individuals.

Hansi Flick, Bayern’s coach, had the courage not to change tack out of respect for — or fear of — PSG’s fearsome front line. Bayern played the high defensive line which, common consensus had it, Mbappé in particular would relish. He trusted his players not to blink. The margins were fine, and PSG hardly played badly, but the reward justified the risk.

That will be of scant solace to Neymar and his teammates, of course. The identity of the player that proved their undoing will add a little sting for PSG, too. Coman was born and raised in Paris; he joined PSG’s youth academy as a child. He was a teammate of Presnel Kimpembe, the French champion’s central defender, until both were 18.

Coman is, in other words, the ultimate player for European soccer’s superclub era. He is the embodiment of the game’s stratification, for how different the world of the elite is from that of those mere mortals who might not win a championship every single season of their career. In these circumstances, it feels almost inevitable that at some point he was going to score the winning goal in a Champions League final. He is proof that, at a certain height, it is almost impossible to fall.

For all Neymar’s tears, he and the team he represents — in more ways than one — are precisely the same. Sunday’s final had been dressed up as a meeting between two visions of soccer: the old power and the new money, the establishment and the insurgent, the immovable object of European soccer’s self-appointed aristocracy and the unstoppable force of a sports team co-opted as the marketing tool of a nation state.

But a single picture does not tell a whole story. PSG has not failed, not really, not in the long term. Its presence here was success. A decade since its Gulf money arrived, it can breathe the same rarefied air as the old elite. That, in the context of what Qatar wants from its investment, is almost the same as the Champions League trophy. Almost.

So, too, all of the associations that come with it. To have Neymar — the most expensive player on the planet, an icon, a social media phenomenon — as the avatar of this PSG team is to demonstrate all of the things that are valuable to the club’s backers about this project. It speaks of power and wealth and glamour and relevance and affection, in some quarters, if not universally.

Neymar’s despair might have been the final image of the night, but that is the closing of a chapter, not the culmination of the book. Just as the European soccer season lasts nine months and, at the end of it, Coman gets a medal or three, the same is true of PSG. There will be another chance, and another chance after that, and on and on into the future.

Young money soon morphs into old power, and the insurgents become the ruling class. Neymar will be back here again; PSG will be back here again. That is the way the game is built. That is the way the game works. At a certain height, the tears never last for long.

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