“Stand out of my light.” So goes the punchline in Plutarch’s retelling of the one and only meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher, the latter of whom had only the preceding request for the Macedonian king. To take the tale at face value, there couldn’t have been too many duos less alike in ancient Greece around 336 BCE. As powerful as almost any human being ever, Alexander is infamous for having wept at the notion that he had no worlds left to conquer. Diogenes sought out poverty, thriving in destitution and sleeping in a ceramic jar.
As cavernous as the gap between Diogenes and Alexander was, so, too, is that between the teams meeting in Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final. With a cursory glance, one may suspect that the teams share few similarities. Part of that, of course, comes with comparing any team to Real Madrid in the European Cup; having won ten of them, more than any other club, gives you an air of esteem and pomp without parallel. Their opponents in this case, however, are achingly familiar with flying close to the sun as their wings start to melt. Like Alexander after meeting Diogenes, Real may leave San Siro stunningly impressed with the exploits of Atlético Madrid.
For all the talk about sports being an escape from reality, the reason so many of us enjoy them is the same reason many people enjoy video games or trash television: they are just close enough to life itself that, for the time we spend indulging in them, we feel apart of something. Better yet, that something isn’t necessarily happening to us, like missing a green light or getting unexpectedly charged an exorbitant gratuity, so we can be as attached or unattached as we want.
Going a step further, sometimes sports can function as a perfect facsimile for life, really. Excessive hope leading to monumental disappointment; lowered expectations giving way to delightful surprises; and beauty presenting itself as madness, or vice versa. At various points over the last eighteen months or so, Leicester City F.C. has embodied all of these. Yet now, only one distinction matters to the team and its fans: champions of England.
For all its faults and the criticism it generates, the international break in soccer does, at the very least, afford us the opportunity to survey the first third of the European domestic leagues. A cursory look at the tables as they stand now reveal mostly what you’d expect with even a rudimentary knowledge of how these things tend to go: Barcelona leads in Spain, tracked closely by both Madrid squads; Bayern Munich is on top in Germany with the kind of goal differential that is reminiscent of a college student’s bank account (which is to say, impressive for the soccer team, and dire for the student); Paris Saint-Germain is looking to have the French title wrapped up by Christmas, when its focus turns to completing an undefeated domestic season; Inter and Roma are sharing some space with Fiorentina, which is awfully (suspiciously?) charitable of them; and the two Manchester clubs are firmly slotted in the top four in England, with Arsenal and Tottenham closely trailing.
Leading that latter group, however, is an unheralded and unexpected group, with a Jamaican international serving as captain, who are only two seasons removed from promotion. While not the most desolate of England’s clubs, Leicester City is not among its notable fat cats either. With an incendiary scorer, a host of heady midfielders, the keeper son of a keeper man and a well-traveled manager, however, King Power Stadium may yet see meaningful continental matches and, with more than a bit of luck, a trophy.