14/05/2013 08:03 BST | Updated 10/07/2013 06:12 BST

Mongols, Global Conquest and the Champions League


I have been working on the history of the steppes of Central Asia recently and looking at the interaction between the nomadic and sedentary world.

To the naked eye, the former looks completely chaotic: nomad tribes were famous for their vicious and savage lifestyles, as different as night and day to the civilisation of cities and towns. The Persians had names for this: Touran, for the world of disorder; and Ouran, for the world of slippers, country clubs and a man was as good as his word. It gives us the name of one of today's least popular countries by the way - Iran.

As is usually the case with history, things are never quite what they seem.

I've been looking at the great tribal movements in the Middle Ages and particularly at the Mongols and the way they came to dominate cities, states and regions that had been greatly admired for their nice table manners, clever lawyers and poets with a neat turn of phrase (one of my bugbears, by the way, is just how bad a lot of surviving medieval poetry is - but that's another story). How and why could marauders sweep away supposedly superior societies so easily? Who could claim the pen is mightier than the sword, when the opposite seems to obviously the case?

The other night, the light-bulb came on when I watched Real Madrid and then Barcelona being dismantled by German teams on successive evenings. The excitement was partly about the football itself, but mainly at the way two powerhouses of European football were swept away with barely a whimper. The much-heralded and admired tiki-taki of Spanish football - admired across the world, assumed to be dominant and the height of sophistication - was swatted away contemptuously. The entire Borussia Dortmund team cost less than some of Real Madrid players sitting on the substitutes' bench.

It was the same with the Mongols. The great empires of China and Persia, world leaders in the two things that matter most in society - science and tax collection - went up in a puff of smoke, demolished without throwing a punch in self-defence. Kiev, Novgorod and the cities of Russia were smashed, one after another. Europe buckled at the knees. It was like watching an imperious procession to the final - from nowhere, the Mongols were breaking one record after another, the equivalent of not conceding a single goal in any round, and scoring more than any other team in the process: one of those times that football commentators like to say means that 'the history books will have to be re-written.'

But it was the triumph of another set of nomads from Central Asia that I've been tracking with even more interest: the Mamluks. These were men captured on the steppes and sold into slavery in Egypt, in due course overthrowing the leadership and taking control for themselves. At Ayn Jalut in 1260, the Mongols and the Mamluks met in battle with much at stake. The former were fighting for world dominance; the latter were fighting for their lives. (As a neat side note, the implications for Christianity and Islam hung in the balance - there was everything to play for, as the Crusaders looking on realised only too well).

It was the Champions League Final, 1260.

The Final at Wembley Stadium later this month when Borussia Dortmund meet Bayern Munich is unlikely to be quite so eventful - for one thing, the winning captain at Ayn Jalut was assassinated by his own team after the battle.

But like the battle between the Mongols and the Mamluks, the final does not so much mark a confrontation between two teams in an epic battle as the triumph of a system. Spain and the Spanish league teams might have dominated in the past; but history counts for nothing when it comes to the battlefield - or the football field.

Germany is triumphant - no fancy footwork, over-pampered stars or hysterionics; rather, a strong team ethic, high work rate, and good solid toil on the pitch.

And in that sense, the all-German Final, like the clash of the nomads in 1260, is the perfect symbol of the age of austerity: if you want to succeed, apply yourself, do the basics well, don't complain, and get on with it. Genghis Khan would have understood that well.

Oh, and I should probably admit that I've had a soft spot for nomads since I was an student. They are not chaotic at all in fact - if you can work them out, they're like a bunch of extremely vicious accountants on a blood-curdling away day: you might not like them, but they do know what they are doing....