In this maddening universe of soccer, we all love a good underdog, don’t we? It is, after all, the narrative trait that keeps us most enthused when tales of big clubs squashing minnows and breaking the hearts of plucky pub sides the world over simply gets boring.
And it all-too-frequently does; heck, we’ve been forced to indulge in a season-long on-again/off-again relationship with the English media and all their talk about paradigms shifting in the EPL. Last I checked, this season’s occasional odd result doth not a world-shift make; the only real stunner at the top of the table is that—gasp!—last season’s first is set to finish second, and second to finish first. What madness!
Ergo, back to the underdog. If Disneyfied sports movies have taught us anything, it’s that the underdog is lovable and should be deified at all costs. Nevermind that they stumble along the way to glory; we know, deep down, that their tale should end in gut-wrenching, heart-in-mouth joy with the final kick/pass/hit/run/tumble/slapshot of the game, because we exit the experience feeling invincible, buoyed by the twin revelations that a. anything’s possible if you work really, really hard, and b. every dog has its day.
But what happens when two juggernauts from different galaxies collide here on Earth to decide a prize as grand and glorious as the Champions League? Well, simply put, we get a race to claim underdoggery.
Congratulations are thus in order for Nemanja Vidic, whose opening salvo gives Manchester United a first grasp of the iconic nomenclature.
Speaking to Serbian website b92.net, Vidic had nothing but effusive praise to heap upon their Catalan opponents on May 28, thereby cementing United’s profuse underdoggery.
“They haven’t changed their style in years but they will be a tough prospect and definitely the favourites in the final. Maybe we have a little bit of an advantage in logistics because we are closer to the venue, but we know that their fans will turn up in numbers just like our own.”
It’s a classic bait-and-switch by ooh-ahh-Nemanja; by piling and heaping the favorites tag upon Pep Guardiola’s men, it thereby plants the seed of underdoggedness for him and Sir Alex Ferguson.
The script from here is familiar and well-worn:
- CONTINUE to gush with praise and compliments for the opponent.
- LAUD your opponent’s skill, deftness in attack, good grace, good manner, and impermeable run of form
- MAKE many mentions of how hard you’ll need to work simply to stay on the same pitch as the opponent.
- Similarly, NOTE how eager and wide-eyed your teammates are for the challenge ahead.
- Also be sure to REINFORCE how your starry-eyed side is mentally preparing for the game.
- POINT OUT any atmospheric and/or environmental factors that’ll surely aid your opponent in their routine quest for trophies. Pitch size, weather, proximity to home fanbase, height of grass and, closer to game time, the choice of officiating crew.
- REAFFIRM your team’s inherent humility and simple happiness at being lucky enough to take part in the big game/big tournament.
Psychologically, it feels good to be humble, and the careful chess match of underdoggerel ensures that ones team is snugly insulated from the precipice of over-expectation and has a nice, rich wave of goodwill to crest should they slay their much-bigger, much-better opponent.
Pep Guardiola did this masterfully in the semi-final, showing he too is no slouch to Underdoggery:
“Few people are betting on us, but we will go for it,” said Guardiola, whose side is eight points clear of Madrid in the Spanish league. “Now it’s evident that Madrid is much better than we are.”
That’s just genius, folks! Yes, Madrid pistol-whipped the Spanish champs in the Copa Del Rey final the week before, but that result had all the trappings of a classic Mourinho smash-and-grab as opposed to being a sign of some vital, tectonic shift in La Liga’s two-team power structure. And yet, Pep couldn’t possibly be less convinced in his own side’s prowess when handling the media; we’re dealing with kings of the underdog art form, people.
Of course, Vidic was equally underdoggy before their semi-final against Bundesliga lollygaggers Schalke, such is his skill at handling this dangerous game: “I know we are the favourites but that doesn’t mean anything. Schalke scored five goals away from home against Inter. You have to respect that. Any team you play at this stage of the competition is not going to be easy.”
It’s almost a double-switch-reverse maneuver, easy as he shrugs off the dreaded FAVORITES tag for one much more down-to-earth, grounded, and utterly unspoken.
In short, I expect much more of this underdoggy madness over the next two weeks; do keep an eye out for examples of fine underdogging, as I bet both sides will be tripping over themselves to set the talking points and own the Champions League final’s narrative before either side has even packed their overnight bags.