Gary Imlach: Who to back in Paris? Arsenal...but my loyalties are increasingly open to offers

The Champions' League would get my vote for competition of the season
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The Independent Football

Who are you supporting at the World Cup? Oh come on, don't give me that lazy, nationalist answer. You've got the planet's best players to choose from, surely you're not going to let your allegiance be decided by an accident of birth. All right then, who are you supporting in the European Cup final?

I'm with Arsenal - just. Not because they're our lot. Not because I live close enough to turn down the television on match nights and hear the authentic Highbury soundtrack rolling over the neighbourhood rooftops. I'm with them for the usual jumble of reasons: the way they play (most of the time); the way Arsène Wenger leads them (most of the time); the pull of their history, and the particular moment of it in which they find themselves. And because they're our lot.

But that final reason wouldn't be enough on its own, not against Barcelona. I passed a West End pub early last Saturday evening just as the pint glasses shot up and a massive roar shook the windows. Chelsea have equalised, I thought to myself. No, Liverpool had gone two up.

This wasn't some particular Scouse enclave, the adopted local of displaced Koppites, it was any old pub, bang in the middle of the nation's capital. It would be easy to imagine the same reaction to a Ronaldinho goal on 17 May, if it were Mourinho's men instead of Wenger's carrying the notional national flag into the Stade de France.

Chelsea, I grant you, make for an easy contrast, and largely for reasons that have little to do with the players. Still, the days are gone when - unless you absolutely hated them - you'd automatically do the decent thing and set aside parochial grudges to support a domestic team abroad. And thank God for that. Who could honestly root against Frank Rijkaard's wonderful side if they were up against some Premiership work-rate merchants, however plucky or likeable, who'd harried and chased their way through the group phase and ridden their luck in the knockout rounds?

I still might end up rooting for Barcelona regardless. I find my loyalties increasingly open to offers these days. A deft first touch here, a great through ball there; my meter light is on well beyond kick-off. Sometimes I don't realise myself who I'm pulling for until the first goal goes in.

That's the beauty of Europe, and not only for the unaffiliated spectator. I know the big one is still to come in June but, as things stand, the Champions' League would get my vote for competition of the season, if such an award existed. Football's global market, with its multi-national squads of itinerant millionaires, may be fraying the traditional bonds between player and fan at home, but it suits the Champions' League and vice versa.

The Premiership has become a fractious marriage, a tense domestic stand-off between the people who run the game and the people who ultimately pay for it. There's resentment, feelings of betrayal; old vows have been broken. But it's all forgotten for a midweek night of passion in Europe.

The Champions' League isn't built on the ancient foundations of community and tradition and hating that lot down the road. It's about distance, exoticism and sheer skill. Who cares if they've changed the name and tampered with the format, it wasn't ours to begin with.

The Champions' League isn't burdened by our memory of what we think it used to be. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: a big, glamourous money-spinning entertainment.

So we don't carry any of our domestic baggage on to the easyJet flight to Milan or Madrid, we accept the competition on its own terms and judge it on quality. According to my sporadic, strictly non-scientific sampling methods, it has saved the season from a humdrum Premiership.

Admittedly, I'm not the most impartial or thorough judge, being probably more of a lapsed football fan than most. My regular spot for a Sky live Sunday game is sitting at the kitchen table with the papers, half an ear cocked for the change in the pitch of the commentator's voice that will tell me when it's worth looking up.

I usually get through most of the colour supplements. European games have been proper sit-down jobs on the settee in the living room, the remote control untouched and the bladder held in check. In time, the Champions' League may find its own ways to let us down: over-expansion, power politics, breakaway threats by the biggest clubs. But, in the meantime, it's liberating stuff. And if it means a generation of young fans deciding their affiliations as much on glamour and brilliance as on local geography, that might not be too high a price.

Of course, I write all this in the week that we lost one of the landmarks of my own childhood football landscape. Brian Labone would probably be shaking his head at all this heresy, although it took the prospect of a revived international career to persuade him to reverse his decision to retire in 1969 from a domestic game of which he'd grown tired.

His last full season with Everton was my first: the glorious Championship-winning side of 1969-70, powered by the midfield of Ball, Harvey and Kendall, anchored and captained from the centre-half position with quiet intelligence by Labone.

One last Arsenal note: I wonder which lucky resident at the redeveloped Highbury is going to get the flat with the piece of Wenger's soul in it? I mean, you'd be annoyed to put down a deposit on the penthouse (Emirates Stadium views from the balcony) and then find it had turned up in a moderately priced one-bed facing Avenell Road.

Maybe it'll manifest itself as a light Alsatian mist on significant anniversaries, hanging over that section of the landscaped central gardens where the technical area used to be. Or it might stalk the common parts like a patrician porter, remonstrating with those who fail to respect the spirit as well as the letter of the Highbury lease: "You must put out your rubbish at the correct time. If you don't put it out, it's not fair to everyone else." On second thoughts, maybe you'd be better off on a floor occupied by the soul of Charlie George.

Gary Imlach's book, My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes, won the 2005 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award Brian Viner is away

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