When Manchester United play Barcelona in the European Cup Final on May 30 2011 they do so in an atmosphere rich in memory and expectations. There are echoes of Henry 5th’s famous battle cry “God for Harry, England and St George”
Memory because Manchester United’s first victory in the competition occurred at Wembley in 1968 against Benfica. Bobby Charlton led a team managed by Sir Matt Busby, built with the core of players who had survived the Munich air crash of 1958. Expectations because a victory would give Sir Alex Ferguson his third European Championship, an achievement to crown his 19th title in the top flight of English football.
Will tension heighten performance?
What effect might this cauldron of tension, expectations and emotion have on the performance of the Manchester United players? The effect could heighten their state of arousal, a physiological state which releases energy and intensifies the drive to perform. In elite sport, the balance between a state of high intensity and composure is very delicate. In soccer, it takes composure to score a goal as the finish to a move, or to execute a tackle in the penalty area, where poor technique could result in a penalty and the dismissal of a player. To remain cool at moments of high intensity is frequently the difference between winning and losing.
Edwin’s last match
So how might the Manchester United players achieve that balance? Sir Alex Ferguson frequently plays tribute to the influence of his senior players on occasions such as these, in particular Edwin van der Sar, the goalkeeper. The final has added piquancy for van der Sar. It is his last competitive match for the club, and doubtless he would really like to leave Old Trafford with one more winner’s medal. Another player Sir Alex might turn to, Ryan Giggs, is recently embroiled in controversy and is the subject of intense media attention. It remains to seen how this will affect his, and the team’s performance.
The greatest team in the world?
As he leads his team to Wembley, Sir Alex will be acutely aware that Barcelona is a team seen by many as the best in the world. Will Pep Guardiola, tipped as his successor at Old Trafford, lead his team to a positive performance at Wembley? It would expunge memories of the hacking football on the pitch, and the thuggery off it, which characterised the first leg of the semi final against Real Madrid.
Retaining composure in terms of the managers leading the teams and the players involved in the match may well be the key to success. As the players line up in the tunnel, might the rallying cry ‘For Sir Bobby and the Boss!’ help or hinder the players’ performance? They and the fans know and understand the significance of the match. Any post-match analysis cannot fail to take the emotional elements of the occasion into account.