Manchester United to take up Rugby. Maybe the Premier League should play Gaelic. Then Messi would have no chance and Sepp Blatter would disappear.

Boris Johnson
Champions League final: The beautiful game is not for us, after all – anyone for rugby?
If Manchester United can be bamboozled by Barcelona, there can be little hope for the rest of us, writes Boris Johnson.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is challenged by Manchester United’s Fabio Da Silva Photo: Reuters

By Boris Johnson 9:30PM BST 29 May 2011
Forgive the name-drop, but I was talking to Sir Bobby Charlton at the end of the Manchester United-Barcelona match on Saturday night, and it struck me that he got to the heart of the matter. We had all – 87,950 of us – seen a superb exhibition of football, played with high sportsmanship and energy by two of the world’s greatest sides. Wembley looked fantastic, the crowd behaved well, the whole thing was a credit to the game.

And yet there was no getting round the truth: England’s number one side had been completely and utterly educated by the Spanish team. The trouble, said Sir Bobby, the lionhearted victor of 1966, was that the Barcelona team were all so small and nippy and fragile. “You just touch them in the tackle and they fall over,” he said. “That’s the difficulty.”
In the bar, I heard a former England international articulate the same point. “England players will never win,” he said, “unless the game is allowed to get more physical again.”
I suppose he was thinking partly of Lionel Messi and the seeming impossibility of depriving him of the ball by any intervention short of a full-scale collision with a JCB. It was as though Man Utd were hypnotised by his fluorescent green boots, or as if he was wearing an invisibility cloak that meant only we spectators could see what he was doing. “He’s behind you! He’s behind you!” we wanted to shout, as Messi shuffled almost geriatrically into exactly the right spot to receive the ball, and then started pinging it around him with a single touch, like part of a pinball machine.
But it wasn’t just Messi. There was Xavi and Iniesta and Villa and Pedro – the whole lot of them. It was like watching a match between two slightly different codes of football, or even between two species. With the height of the average Barça player at five foot seven inches (and Messi himself doing quite a lot to bring that average down), it was like an unequal contest from the pages of Tolkien or Norse mythology – the elves against the trolls.
The Catalan team achieved a grace and symmetry unlike anything I have ever seen. They completed 667 passes, compared to 301 for United, toying with them, taking the tempo up and down as they pleased. You could sense the frustration of the bulkier English players as they tried to play in that Homeric, individualistic English style – kicking, surging, chasing, charging – only to be comprehensively outfoxed by the Spanish; and whenever there was the slightest shove or knock, the Spanish player would go down and the English player would get blown up.
That, for so many of us, is the basic problem with the cultural dominance of Association Football. Rooney and Co are mind-bogglingly skilful, but if they can be made to look so galumphingly inferior by Barça, then think of the physical frustration of millions of kids who have only a tiny fraction of their talent.
It will come as no surprise if I reveal that I was one of this talentless throng. I used to love the idea of playing football, but whenever I found myself on the pitch, it was like one of those awful dreams where your feet are made of lead and will not move while everyone else is quicksilvering past, and with ever greater desperation you scythe the air with your boot, and you either miss the ball altogether or else you connect with the shins of some other player and over he goes and – peep – you are penalised yet again, or even sent off.
You become paranoid about bumping into people, and instead of achieving the catharsis of violent physical exertion, you find yourself engaged in a balletic avoidance of contact, leaping histrionically out of people’s way, tripping over your own shoelaces and falling flat on your face. My point is that there are large numbers of young people, especially young males, who are not at all averse to running around on muddy pitches, but who find the beautiful game simply too beautiful to master.
We cannot seem to tackle without fouling; we cannot run and kick at the same time – and that is why it is such a joy to follow the example of William Webb Ellis and pick the blinking thing up. If we want a more physical version of football, if we want to be able to surge and charge to our hearts’ content, and if that is the basic urge – as I think it is – of many young men in this country who will never achieve the metronomic passing skills of Messi and Co, then why don’t we do the obvious thing and issue them with oval balls?
The social benefits could be huge. Rugby sublimates your aggression, while football can simply bottle it up. Areas with the highest participation in rugby are also the areas with the lowest violent crime, and though there is an obvious correlation between rugby pitches and leafy peaceful suburbs, it is also true that rugby is a fantastic way of letting off steam. At the end of a game of rugby, you sit in the changing room with the relief of one who has just survived being beaten up by the secret police. Your ears ring, your breath comes in gasps, you can hardly focus your eyes on the splodges of mud on the floor. There is absolutely no reason for you to go off and get involved in gang violence because frankly that is what you have been doing for the last couple of hours.
That is why I am so excited by a programme called “Hitz”, spearheaded by the Metropolitan Police, and designed to bring rugby to parts of London – especially in the north and east – where kids have hardly ever handled an elliptical football. Hitz is being championed by Deputy Commissioner Tim Godwin, who looks as though he may once have had something to do with the front row of a scrum, and it deserves every possible support.
When God-gifted geniuses such as Manchester United can be made to look like clodhoppers, it is time to think of the millions of kids who would benefit from a game that is in some ways less technical but more physical than football – and every bit as exhilarating. They should be given the chance.