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Old Rivals, New Ideas and Why Clubs Are Too Scared to Try

Nobody wants to say it is over. Steven Gerrard, the Rangers manager, will not tempt fate. He will only believe the title is won, he has said …

Nobody wants to say it is over. Steven Gerrard, the Rangers manager, will not tempt fate. He will only believe the title is won, he has said, when the math says so. Neil Lennon, his counterpart at Celtic, similarly cannot concede defeat. His team, he has said, will keep going, keep fighting, while there is still some small glimmer of hope.

But both must surely know that it is over, and has been for some time. It was over long before this last, toxic month, when Celtic staged a winter training break in Dubai in the middle of a pandemic and flew back into a coronavirus-infected storm.

It was over before two Celtic players duly tested positive, before pretty much the whole first-team squad had to go into isolation, before criticism rained down on the club from the Scottish government and even its own fans. It was over before Lennon gave a startlingly bellicose news conference defending the trip only a few days after Celtic’s hierarchy had admitted it had been a mistake.

All of that has served to foster a sense of crisis around Celtic, created an impression that the club was falling into disarray as its dream of a 10th straight league title disappeared, but the narrative does not quite match up to reality.

Rangers has been clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership for some time, stretching further and further ahead of its great rival, the gap spooling and yawning until it became a chasm. Its lead currently stands at 23 points. Rangers needs to win only eight more games to be crowned Scottish champion again. Or, to put it another way: Rangers needs to win eight more games so that Celtic cannot be crowned Scottish champion again.

It is hard to pinpoint, precisely, when the idea of Celtic’s winning 10 titles in a row was first touted as an ambition, or floated as a possibility. A mixture of instinct and memory suggests it was after the club had won three or four straight, in the early years of the last decade.

It is easy, though, to see why it appealed. The power tussle between Rangers and Celtic — the twin, repelling poles of Scottish soccer — has long provided the driving animus in that country’s sporting conversation. With only occasional exceptions — particularly in the 1980s, when Hearts, Dundee United and Aberdeen all had their moment in the sun — the story of the former has felt like the story of the latter. Seasons turned on their head-to-head meetings. Trophies were a zero-sum game: the more won by one, the fewer by the other.

Celtic has led Scotland in trophies, and confetti, for a decade.Credit…Russell Cheyne/Reuters

In 2012, though, the rivalry disappeared — if not as a sentiment, then certainly as an event. Rangers, after years of mismanagement, went into liquidation and was forced to start life again in Scotland’s semiprofessional fourth tier. Unmoored from its counterweight, Celtic effectively found itself in a league of its own, its financial firepower vastly superior to any of its putative rivals’, any challenge to its hegemony entirely theoretical.

In lieu of an opponent, it set out to play against history. Celtic’s great team of the 1960s and 1970s had won nine league titles in a row. So, too, had the Rangers teams of the late 1980s and the 1990s. But nobody had ever made it to double figures. Celtic was in need of a target, and Scottish soccer in need of a plotline.

And so, for the better part of the last decade, the quest for 10 in a row has consumed both sides of the Old Firm: for Celtic, the chance to outstrip its rival once and for all; for Rangers, an almost existential urgency to prevent it from happening.

For several years, though, the achievement seemed inevitable. Even after it was restored to the top flight in 2015, Rangers was operating at such a vast financial disadvantage that the prospect of overhauling Celtic seemed fanciful. Under Brendan Rodgers and his successor, Lennon, Celtic completed the quadruple treble: winning all three of Scotland’s senior domestic competitions, four years in a row.

And then, this season, it happened. Under Gerrard, now in his third season in his first managing job, Rangers has an air of invincibility. It has only conceded seven goals. At the same time, Celtic has all but collapsed. Though Lennon has pointed to the fact that his team has only lost twice in the league, he also has confessed that he does not know where his all-conquering players of the last few years “have gone.”

Celtic has dreamed of 10 titles in a row for almost nine years. All of that work, all of that hope, has evaporated over the course of a few months. The race is over. The story is, too. And while one side of Glasgow will greet that with delight and the other with despair — happiness in soccer is a zero-sum game, too — that may be a good thing, for both teams.

Steven Gerrard and Rangers can clinch the league as early as April.Credit…Andy Buchanan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Scotland occupies a strange, outsize place in soccer’s landscape. By most measures, it is a small country: five and a half million people or so, roughly the same size as Slovakia, a little smaller than Bulgaria, half the size of Portugal.

But partly because of its historical significance to the sport — it is the place that invented passing, inspired professionalism, produced some of the game’s most celebrated players, and for a considerable period of time quite likely possessed the best or second-best national team in the world — it does not judge itself like a small country.

The fact, for example, that until it qualified for this summer’s postponed European Championship, Scotland had not been to a major tournament since 1998 was a source of the sort of embarrassment and disquiet that, in all likelihood, would not really happen in Slovakia (though, in fairness, Slovakia has been to major tournaments much more recently).

The nature of the Old Firm, too — both the size and scope of its clubs, with their vast stadiums, global fan bases, rich histories and unyielding enmity — distorts the reality of Scottish soccer.

What matters to Celtic and Rangers, at all times, is winning — to garland their own reputation and to dent that of their rival. It leads to a form of thinking in which tomorrow must necessarily be sacrificed for today, because losing today is unfathomable.

That logic has been on full display as the thought of 10 in a row consumed both clubs. Celtic has failed to refresh its squad, fearful of the consequences of getting it wrong. Rangers has had to invest heavily, often in players in their peak years, in order to catch up as quickly as possible.

But that approach is out of step with the most forward-thinking clubs in leagues of comparative size: places like Belgium, Denmark, Austria and, to an extent, even Portugal.

There, even the most dominant clubs have accepted that they are no longer a destination, but a way-point on a journey. Teams like Club Bruges, Genk and Red Bull Salzburg may not have the history of the Glasgow clubs, but they are not without pride. Still, though, they have embraced the idea of being steppingstones and have made it work for them.

They have worked to scour specific markets for players, offering them the chance to hone their craft in a Western European league before making the jump to one of the big five. They have focused almost exclusively on either recruiting or developing young players. In doing so, they have found not only domestic success but often European relevance, too.

For fairness, this is a picture of Rangers celebrating.Credit…Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
And this is a picture of Celtic celebrating.Credit…Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Thanks to the geographical and stylistic proximity of the Premier League — as well as their almost guaranteed places in European competition — Celtic and Rangers should be well-placed to do the same. Celtic, indeed, was the first point of arrival in Britain for the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Victor Wanyama.

But the obsession with today, with outdoing each other, mitigates against it. Celtic has lost two of the stars of its academy to Bayern Munich in recent years; both should have been able to see a more viable pathway to first-team soccer in their homeland than at one of Europe’s superclubs.

Though Celtic sold defender Jeremie Frimpong to Bayer Leverkusen this week, only three more of Lennon’s regulars are 23 or under. Only one, the French striker Odsonne Edouard, is likely to catch the eye of the Premier League. The Rangers squad is older still: Gerrard has fielded only one under-23 player, Ianis Hagi, regularly. His most salable asset is the controversial Colombian forward Alfredo Morelos.

Rangers, of course, needs only to point at the league table to justify its approach, just as Celtic has done for the last nine years. But now it is over. There will be no 10 in a row. And as both teams ask themselves what comes next, they must determine whether it is enough to have eyes only for each other, or whether, perhaps, it is time to shift their horizons.


Read This Before You Send That Angry Note

Can’t we all get along, at least in this newsletter?Credit…Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Two more Rangers-Celtic points before we move on:

A NOTE ON NAMES Some Celtic fans, perhaps even a majority, reject the use of the term Old Firm. That was a rivalry, they say, between Celtic and Rangers, and it ended in 2012. The team that replaced Rangers, in their mind, is not that Rangers. It is just another team that plays in blue, in Glasgow, at Ibrox, called Rangers.

ON THAT OTHER WORD From experience, the exact meaning and nature of the term liquidation, at least as it applies to the demise and revival of Rangers, is contested by Rangers fans. It is effectively impossible to write about this subject without transgressing some minor, semantic point of difference. When you don’t have a horse in the race, it is almost too much trouble to bother with.

Now, onward.


Long-Term Thinking and Short-Term Rewards

Fans turned out to see off Palmeiras as it departed for Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final.Credit…Amanda Perobelli/Reuters

Even by the standards of Brazilian soccer managers, Cuca’s résumé is pretty remarkable. Not just for the successes it contains — half a dozen regional trophies, a national title, a Copa Libertadores — but for the sheer length of it. Cuca is 57. He has been coaching for 23 years. He is currently on his 27th job.

All but one of those roles have been in his native Brazil. He has taken charge of Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo twice each. He coached Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro — fierce crosstown rivals in Belo Horizonte — back to back. Grêmio and São Paulo are on the list, too. In August, he was appointed coach of Santos for the third time.

Five months later, he has steered the club to its first Copa Libertadores final since 2011. Whether or not Santos beats its local rival, Palmeiras — quick check; yep, Cuca has coached there too, twice — at the Maracanã on Saturday is unlikely to make much of a difference to Cuca’s long-term prospects. He led Atlético Mineiro to the biggest trophy in South American club soccer in July 2013. It was the first Copa Libertadores title in the club’s history. He was fired that December.

Name a Brazilian club, and chances are good that Cuca has coached it.Credit…Pool photo by Alexandre Schneider

Brazilian soccer has been this way for some time, and its managers are accustomed to its volatility. Indeed, in some ways, both Cuca and his counterpart on Saturday — Abel Ferreira — are advertisements for its benefits. Ferreira has only been in his post since October. Cuca, by contrast, has almost had time to get comfortable: He rejoined Santos last August.

And yet there are signs that this cycle may be changing. Palmeiras’s rationale for appointing Ferreira, a 42-year-old Portuguese, rather than plucking a name off Brazilian soccer’s endless carousel was that it wanted to build for the long term, rather than seek yet another short-term fix.

In the context of Brazilian soccer, that makes sense. Each of Saturday’s finalists boasts a cadre of bright young things: Gabriel Menino, Gabriel Veron, Danilo and Patrick de Paula at Palmeiras; Kaio Jorge and the Venezuelan Yeferson Soteldo at Santos. What players at that stage of their development need is stability, a clear pathway, a long-term vision.

Changing coaches is not in their interests, or those of their clubs, which rely on the transfer fees they can generate to compete. A second continental crown would be ample reward for Cuca’s long, circuitous journey. But so too would be the thought that it might buy him time to settle into a job for once.


The Danger of Too Much, Too Young

At Chelsea, all eyes have turned to Thomas Tuchel, who coached his first game Wednesday.Credit…Pool photo by Neil Hall

Managerial instability is, of course, not unique to Brazil. A few months after leading a young Chelsea team to a creditable fourth-place finish in the Premier League, and on the back of a career in which he became one of the greatest players in the club’s history, Frank Lampard was fired on Monday morning. His replacement, Thomas Tuchel, was in position by Tuesday afternoon.

There has been an abundance of wailing and gnashing of teeth in England in the days since about what that might mean for the young players — Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham and the rest — who flourished under Lampard’s aegis, but in truth those worries are misplaced.

Tuchel, after all, has a background in youth coaching, and he made his name at Borussia Dortmund, a club that draws its very identity from the dynamism of youth. More tellingly, Tuchel took that approach with him to Paris St.-Germain, where he blooded a host of academy products in the superstar-infested first team.

More interesting is what it means for Lampard. A few months ago, the Manchester City player Raheem Sterling questioned whether high-profile white players were more readily given opportunities in management than high-profile Black players.

Lampard did not disagree with the general assertion, but resented the suggestion that he might be a living example of the phenomenon. “I certainly worked from the start of my career to try to get this opportunity,” he said. “And there’s a million things along the way that knock you, set you back, that you fight against.”

At the time, it felt a little like Lampard had misunderstood the point — the difficulties he has faced are not equivalent to structural discrimination — and had also misinterpreted his own journey. His first managerial job was at Derby County, in the Championship. His second, a year later, was at Chelsea, in the Champions League. He had not, as a coach, experienced any setbacks at all.

Now he has, and how he responds will be telling. It is fair to assume that he would have regarded Chelsea as the pinnacle of his managerial ambitions, the club he wanted to coach above all others. Will he now be prepared to work his way back up? How low will he be ready to drop to do so? And most of all: Will he be willing to undertake the journey without a clear destination in mind?


Correspondence

Mesut Ozil’s move to Fenerbahce is a fresh start, not a swan song.Credit…Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A valid concern from Steve Marron over last week’s column on Mesut Ozil: “You make it sound like he’s retired,” he wrote. “Just because he’s not playing in the Premier League any more doesn’t mean he’s suddenly irrelevant.” No, of course not — and he may have a wonderful grandmother’s summer in Turkey — but it is legitimate, I think, to look back on his Arsenal career at this point, and ask whether he is remembered there as he should be.

The issue of Inter Milan’s forthcoming rebranding, though, seemed to exercise more of you than expected — enough, in fact, that it is probably worth a more thorough investigation. The current crest “was designed by Giorgio Muggiani,” Gavin MacPhee, a man of exceptional musical taste, wrote. “It’s a testament to his craft that the crest, 113 years later, remains classic and modern at the same time. One wonders if Juventus’s ‘J’ will stand the test of time.”

I think I know the answer to that. It is: “No.”

Some looks never age: Ronaldo in 1998.Credit…Luca Bruno/Associated Press
Romelu Lukaku on Tuesday.Credit…Matteo Bazzi/EPA, via Shutterstock

Callum Tyler, meanwhile, wonders if the crest is not the most iconic component of Inter’s jersey. “To a certain generation, the Pirelli logo is arguably far more synonymous with Inter, its history, and personality. It’s been on the shirt since 1995. It has outlived four versions of the crest itself.”

Pirelli, Inter’s sponsor for a generation, is likely to go in the rebranding, too — the Chinese company Evergrande is the favorite to replace it — and, weirdly, it will feel strange to see those blue-and-black stripes promoting something other than tires.

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