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THE MIRACLE OF THE CAMP NOU: A CATALONIAN TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

FC Barcelona engineered the greatest comeback in European Champions League history, shocking Paris Saint-Germain, 6-1, before a jubilant, disbelieving crowd of 96,000 at the Camp Nou to advance to the quarterfinals on a 6-5 aggregate.

Barcelona scored three goals after the 87th minute, with substitute Sergi Roberto netting the deciding goal in the fifth minute of add-on time.

PSG was all but assured of an upset decision after humbling the Spanish giants, 4-0, three weeks earlier in its home leg.  It was a humiliation that prompted Barcelona boss Luis Enrique to confirm that he will leave at season’s end, saying the job had “exhausted” him.

Barca got its comeback underway with a headed goal by Luis Suarez in the third minute.  Three minutes before the intermission, Andres Iniesta worked some magic in tight quarters at the end line that forced an own goal by PSG’s Layvin Kurzawa, and in the 50th minute Lionel Messi converted a penalty kick drawn by Neymar.  But in the 62nd, Edinson Cavani scored to give the French side a 5-3 overall lead and a precious road goal as the Camp Nou balloon deflated.

But in the 88th minute, Neymar ignited what became the second comeback of the evening with a magnificent free-kick strike from the left that dipped inside the near post.  A minute later, Neymar converted a penalty kick after Suarez was pulled down in the box.  Barca 5, PSG 1, and the aggregate tied at 5-5.  And in the dying moments of stoppage time, the Brazilian striker’s chipped pass enabled Roberto to beat PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp for the winner.  [March 8]

Comment:  Perhaps the greatest rally by a great team in an important competition ever.

There have been several “back from the dead” performances in huge matches.  Liverpool’s epic “Miracle of Istanbul,” its PK victory over AC Milan after falling behind, 3-0, in regulation in the 2005 European Champions League final, comes to mind.  In the World Cup, you could start with the 1982 semifinals and West Germany’s resurrection in extra time against a fine French team to erase a two-goal deficit and force a winning shootout.

But there’s that qualifier, “great team.”  The 2005 Liverpool team couldn’t match the talent and accomplishments of its Reds brethren from the 1970s and ’80s; the banged-up Germans, featuring Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Paul Breitner, Uli Stielike, Felix Magath and Pierre Littbarski, were dispatched by Italy in the ’82 final.

Barcelona is a great team, the greatest club side of our generation.  It’s Hungary’s “Magic Magyars” of the early 1950s, Brazil from the late 1950s to ’70, clubs like the late ’50s Real Madrid, the early ’60s Santos led by Pele, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax and Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich in the ’70s, AC Milan of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and, yes, this current version of Real Madrid starring Cristiano Ronaldo.  Since 2005 it has won four Champions League titles, three FIFA Club World Cups, three European Super Cups, eight Spanish La Liga crowns, four Copas del Rey and seven Spanish Super Cups.  (It leads La Liga by a point over Real Madrid with a dozen matches remaining.)  But what will be remembered is how players like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi (now riding into the sunset with a Qatari club) turned soccer into art, and that art into hardware.

And that’s why this stunning victory–without the need for overtime or a penalty-kick tiebreaker–over Paris Saint Germain was the most impressive by any team, anywhere, anytime.  Indeed, the ball bounced Barca’s way a few times:  German referee Deniz Aytekin falling for yet another instance of Suarez acting as though he’d been shot in the area by a sniper, thus setting up Neymar’s late PK; Aytekin finding an extra five minutes to tack onto the game’s end with the home side in need; the free kick drawn inside the PSG half by Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen ahead of the sequence that led to Roberto’s winner; a performance by Ter Stegen’s counterpart, Trapp, that won’t qualify for any goalkeeping instructional videos.  It’s better to be lucky than good.  And Barcelona on this night benefited from the “style-be-damned” teachings of Enrique, who, with Messi, Suarez and Neymar at his disposal, has nevertheless steered his team to a more direct approach.  But after watching FC Barcelona over the past decade run over La Liga teams, pick apart Champions League opponents with precision, it was impressive–perhaps unsettling, even–to see that this team can reach back and will its way to an unlikely triumph.  It’s as if Picasso momentarily turned his brush into a switchblade.

 



ARE WE NOT RUBES?

Manchester United, looking to recover quickly from its worst showing in the English Premier League era, rallied to defeat EPL rival Liverpool, 3-1, at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium to win the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup.  A 14th-minute penalty kick goal by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was cancelled out by strikes by United’s Wayne Rooney (55th minute), Juan Mata (57th) and Jesse Lingard (88th).

The tournament, held in 12 U.S. cities and Toronto as a warm-up to the European season, kicked off July 24 with eight European clubs, two of them defending champions of their respective national leagues, plus UEFA Champions League winner Real Madrid.  Manchester United (2-0-1) won its group over Inter Milan of Italy (1-0-2), AS Roma of Italy (1-2-0) and Spanish giant Real Madrid (0-2-1).  Liverpool topped a group that included Greek champion Olympiakos (1-1-1), English champion Manchester City (1-2-0) and Italy’s AC Milan (0-3-0).

Attendance for the 13 games totaled 642,134, for an average of 49,395.  Topping the list was the throng of 109,318 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., to see Manchester United defeat Real Madrid, 3-1.  That crowd was the largest in U.S. soccer history, eclipsing the 101,799 on hand for the 1984 Olympic gold-medal match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.   A more modest 51,014 were on hand for the Manchester United-Liverpool finale.  [August 4]

Comment I:  Proof positive that World Cup fever not only hit America full-force early this summer but that it lingers.  Throw in the 84,362 who witnessed Manchester United’s 7-0 demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, a Bayern Munich-Chivas Guadalajara friendly at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and a dozen other exhibitions involving Major League Soccer teams and foreign opposition ranging from Spanish champion Atletico Madrid to EPL tail-ender Aston Villa, and about a million fans in the U.S. paid top dollar to say they saw in person some of the finest players from some of Europe’s most storied clubs.

Comment II:  Are we not rubes?

Sure, there are plenty of expatriates here who’ve just got to see the old hometown club.  And then there are the so-called Eurosnobs, young Americans who’ll get up at dawn from August to May to watch their adopted club–usually from the English Premier League–on a television at the local pub, er, sports bar, but wouldn’t cross the street to watch an MLS game for free.

But to the folks in Europe, a million people over here just shelled out big bucks to watch some clubs with fresh hardware and others living on their good name.  The spectators wore their replica jerseys and cheered and chanted as their favorite players went through the motions during cameo appearances while plenty of the playing time was taken up by fine fellows fighting to win a place on the roster, if not into the starting 11.  Wholesale substitutions disrupted the flow of the games, players weren’t exactly keen on the extensive travel, and coaches considered these moneymaking adventures an intrusion on serious pre-season preparations.  In the end, fans here saw moments of brilliance, mis-timed tackles, remarkable goals, and shots that actually resulted in throw-ins.  And at the final whistle of each match, a result that meant absolutely nothing.

There are many benchmarks that will indicate that the U.S. is developing into a soccer nation.  Like criticism of the U.S. National Team for its shortcomings in a World Cup instead of praising its goalkeeper for repeatedly bailing it out.  Or the prompt emergence of a genuine successor to the soon-to-retire Landon Donovan.  Or, in this case, attendance at meaningless midsummer friendlies involving European clubs in numbers that aren’t an embarrassment to MLS.



THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE’S SAME GAME

Atletico Madrid, behind goals by Adrian Lopez, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, recovered from a scoreless draw at home in the first leg to pound Chelsea, 3-1, at Stamford Bridge to win its UEFA Champions League semifinal series, setting up an all-Spanish final May 24 in Lisbon.

The victory comes a day after Real Madrid humbled defending champ Bayern Munich, 4-0, on a pair of goals each by Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo and won its home-and-home set by a 5-0 aggregate.

The final, at Benfica’s massive Estadio de Luz, will mark the first time that teams from the same city have met for Europe’s biggest club prize.  Since the European Champions’ Cup became the UEFA Champions League in 1992, four finals have pitted clubs from the same country:  2000, Real Madrid 3, Valencia 0, at the Stade de France outside Paris; 2003, AC Milan 0, Juventus 0 (Milan on PKs), at Old Trafford in Manchester; 2008, Manchester United 1, Chelsea 1 (United on PKs) at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium; and 2013, Bayern Munich 2, Borussia Dortmund 1, at Wembley Stadium in London.

Real Madrid, a finalist for the 13th time, will be seeking an unprecedented 11th European champions title.  Atletico, which last appeared in a final 40 years ago–losing to Bayern Munich–will be playing in its second final.  [April 30]

Comment:  Like Spanish soccer?  You’d better.

(Full disclosure:  This writer likes Spanish soccer.)

This derby showdown–to be played more than 300 miles from Madrid–will be the fifth this season for the two teams, and the sixth since Atletico defeated Real in last May’s Copa del Rey final, ending a 14-year, 25-match winless streak against its rival.  In La Liga, Atletico, the current frontrunner, won at Real, 1-0, in September and tied at home, 1-1, last month; Real swept their Copa matches in February by an overall 5-0.

It raises the question, what will this grand finale prove?

Sometimes, these things work.  Last year’s UEFA Champions League final was an entertaining advertisement for German soccer.  But for those who want to see a real contrast in styles, a meeting of sides that don’t know one another too well, it often does not.

There’s no going back to the days when the European Champions’ Cup was true to its name and involved only defending league champions.  This year’s competition was open to a whopping 76 clubs, including a handful from the more powerful nations who dazzled the soccer world the previous season by finishing fourth in their league.  Of course, this is about money–lots of it.  Clubs that qualified for the group stage automatically pocketed $11.9 million; maximum points in the group would bring in another $8.3 million.  The payout for an appearance in the knockout rounds began at $4.8 million.  As for the final, one of the Madrids will walk home with an additional $14.5 million.  And the public doesn’t seem put off by a same-country final:  Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund last year attracted a global television audience of 360 million–better than three Super Bowls.

But from a sporting perspective, the UEFA has both turned its prime club championship into the impossible dream for dozens of its member associations and reduced its secondary competition–once known as the UEFA Cup and now known as the Europa League–into an afterthought for all but the most ardent fans.

As for the “champion” credentials of this year’s two finalists, Real Madrid qualified for the 2013-14 Champions League by finishing second to FC Barcelona a year ago, a whopping 15 points off the pace; Atletico was third, a dot in the rear-view mirror at 24 points back.

 



THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME

Electronic Arts Inc. has announced that its FIFA Soccer 14 video game, set for release in North America on September 24, will for the first time feature all-time greats such as Pele, Ruud Gullit, Paolo Maldini, Marco van Basten and George Weah, as well as the Brazilian National Team.  In all, the 2014 version will draw on 33 officially licensed leagues and more than 600 clubs and 16,000 players.  Among the newcomers are the Argentine and Chilean first divisions.

The 2013 version of EA Sport’s FIFA Soccer video game sold 353,000 copies the day of its launch in the U.S. last September, a 42-percent increase from the 2012 edition.  By January, EA reported that its FIFA Soccer 13 had sold 12 million units, up 23 percent from the same period for FIFA Soccer 12.  [August 20]

Comment:  It was called “The Simplest Game” during its beginnings as an organized sport in the 19th century, but it took high tech to lift soccer in this country to its current standing.

Without soccer news and league and club sites available via the worldwide web, American fans trying (and usually failing) to follow soccer would still be at the mercy of hidebound sports editors and sportscasters here who were indifferent or even hostile toward the game.

Without the cable TV explosion, American viewers would still be limited to the occasional match with Spanish language commentary–live or perhaps delayed by as many as two weeks.

Without social media, there would be no way for huge groups of fans to assemble, organize, and call themselves things like “American Outlaws” or “La Barra Brava.”  Throwing a viewing party at the local soccer-friendly bar for a big match would be a word-of-mouth proposition.

Consider EA Sports’ FIFA Soccer franchise, then, gravy, but a vital gravy.

EA’s soccer video game, introduced in 1993, has become a sensation among the U.S. college crowd–the kids who have played soccer, understand it and, after they graduate and somehow find gainful employment, can buy tickets behind a goal to support the local MLS club or, more likely, keep the local barkeep happy while cheering on televised heroes many time zones away.

But EA and their competitors are also converting the previously unconverted, the young adults who’ve never played soccer–or were turned off back when they tried.  Soccer can be very, very off-putting to anyone who has never played it.  The fitness required is daunting to the outsider, and the skills required are beyond daunting.  So imagine the enormous gulf bridged when a college sophomore with two left feet but two healthy thumbs can control the destiny of Liverpool or AC Milan.  Suddenly, electronically, while burning up at least two calories a minute, he’s in the middle of a high-profile match, surrounded by a passionate crowd, and–somewhat–in control.

The American youth soccer boom has been generating an increasing number of adult passengers since it got underway in the 1970s.  Credit things like video games with picking up even the stragglers.  If you live in a country with a true soccer culture, you can easily become a fan–even a rabid fan–without having to have played the game; in a country like the United States, you have to.  Thanks to high tech, everyone, from the college’s star midfielder to the couch potato in the dorm room next door who can’t juggle a ball beyond one touch, can look you in the eye and say, “You kidding?  Of course I play soccer.”



IS FC BARCELONA THE BEST CLUB EVER?

Argentine forward Lionel Messi, all of 24, became the first player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times in a row as the world’s top players and coaches were honored at the 2011 FIFA Awards Gala at the Kongresshaus in Zurich.

Messi received the FIFA Ballon d’Or, beating out FC Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez of Spain and Portugal and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo in voting that involved national team coaches and captains and selected media members.  A two-time runner-up, he joins Ronaldo (1996, 1997, 2002) and Zinedine Zidane (1998, 2000, 2003) as the award’s only three-time winner.

Other honorees:

          o  Homare Sawa of Japan, Women’s Player of the Year.  Marta of Brazil, the winner the previous five years, finished second and the USA’s Abby Wambach third.

          o  Pep Guardiola of FC Barcelona, Men’s Coach of the Year, ahead of Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson.

          o  Norio Sasaki of Japan, Women’s Coach of the Year.  Pia Sundhage of the U.S. and Bruno Bini of France finished second and third.

          o  The FIFA/FIFPro Best XI:  Iker Casillas; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic; Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso; Messi, Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney.

          o  Best goal award went to Brazil and Santos forward Neymar, and the Japan Football Association received FIFA’s Fair Play award for its response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck its country in March.  [January 9]

Comment:  The night may have belonged to Messi, but Guardiola deserves the brightest spotlight.

The Coach of the Year award is as close to a Club of the Year trophy as FIFA can hand out, and Guardiola has played a leading role in creating a club for the ages.

A couple of years into Guardiola’s four-year tenure at the Barcelona wheel, his team had already drawn comparisons with Ferenc Puskas’ Honved of the early 1950s, Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid of the late ’50s, Pele’s Santos of the early ’60s, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax of the early ’70s, Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich of the mid-’70s, Liverpool of the early ’80s, AC Milan of the late ’80s, and Manchester United of the late ’90s.

On a practical level, Barcelona won five trophies in 2011 and 13 of 16 possible honors since the Catalan powerhouse began to roll three years ago.  It is the current FIFA Club World Cup holder, having dismantled Santos, 4-0, in last month’s final, and the UEFA Champions League winner.   Its youth academy and scouting system are the model for ambitious clubs worldwide.  Its talent serves as the backbone of the Spanish National Team, the reigning world champion.

But on an artistic level, Barcelona is tiqui-taca, that oh-so-pleasing style that features 11 players, each of them comfortable on the ball, nine of the other field players running to provide the ball holder with myriad options, and nothing so ugly as a 40-yard thump into the box that would be described by the British as “speculative.” 

Guardiola may have had the horses–Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Cese Fabregas, David Villa, Pique, Carles Puyol, et al.–but he has held to the Barcelona way and gotten everyone on the same page.  And to the observer, what they do game by game  is so much more appealing than what they’ve done.



SO-CALLED ‘BECKHAM EXPERIMENT’ HAS BEEN WORTH IT

A pair of two-time Major League Soccer champions, the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy, will meet Sunday, November 20, before a sellout crowd at the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles in the 2011 MLS Cup final.  Kickoff will be at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m. PST (ESPN and Galavision).  [November 13]

Comment:  The game could mark David Beckham’s final appearance in the U.S., and that’s not a good thing.

The 36-year-old English icon’s five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Galaxy expires at the end of the year, and among Beckham’s reported suitors are Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur and even Queens Park Rangers.

If he leaves, despite the Galaxy’s reported interest in re-signing him, what sort of grade does the so-called “Beckham Experiment”–the title of a rather premature book on his MLS adventure published a couple of years ago–deserve?

Call it a high “B”; not quite a low “A”.   That’s an “A-” for overall effect, dragged down by an “S” (satisfactory) for effort.

There were just as many highs as lows over the five-year period.  More than a quarter-million Galaxy/No. 23 jerseys were sold before Beckham was even introduced as a member of the Galaxy, a media event that attracted 700 journalists.  As advertised, there were memorable free kicks that produced goals, and that crowd of 66,000 that poured into Giants Stadium to see the man with the educated right foot make his Big Apple debut.  There also, however, were injuries, plus the controversial loans to AC Milan and training spells with Arsenal and Tottenham that caused many to question Beckham’s commitment to his American team.  The collapse of  the much-vaunted Beckham youth academy in L.A. didn’t help.  So mixed has been the Beckham legacy in MLS that he earned–or was saddled with–the 2011 MLS Comeback Player of the Year award for assisting on 15 goals in 26 games a year after a torn Achilles limited him to just seven league appearances in 2010.  Oh, and no MLS championships or U.S. National Open Cups or CONCACAF Champions League trophies.

Nevertheless, Beckham will forever be linked with a brief period in MLS history when things went from flat to positive, from indifference to optimism.  The year before Beckham’s arrival, the league had 12 teams, too many of them troubled.  The charter U.S. internationals and key foreign starts like Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry who had given the teams their initial identities back in 1996 had retired.  It wasn’t, to quote Rodney Marsh’s assessment of English soccer in the early ’70s, “A gray game played on gray days by gray men,” but it was close. 

The creation of the so-called Beckham Rule–the introduction of the designated player exception that allowed teams to reach beyond their salary cap and sign marquee foreign players like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Denilson (sorry, FC Dallas), Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and, most recently, Robbie Keane–changed all that.  Beckham’s arrival and how it lured other big names to MLS added the necessary flesh and blood to the brick and mortar as MLS grew by six clubs and added an impressive list of soccer-specific stadiums.

Most Americans aren’t aware that MLS (17,872) has surpassed the NBA (17,323) and NHL (17,132) in average attendance; that the expansion team fee has ballooned from $10 million, pre-Beckham, to $40 million; that the league’s most recent TV rights deal, with outsider NBC, hit $30 million for three years.  What they do know is that they can name one soccer player–David Beckham–where before they didn’t know Tab Ramos from Jamie Moreno from Mike Petke.  Back when the league was just trying to gain any sort of traction, back when the Galaxy was 11th out of 13 teams in 2007 (9-14-7) and 13th out of 14 the following year (8-13-9), people were talking and writing about Becks, or at least the photogenic Becks and wife Posh.

And that’s why Beckham will be missed if he chooses to close out his playing career elsewhere.  If and when he goes, don’t count on the general American public and the typical U.S. sports columnist or commentator to magically shift their attention to Dwayne De Rosario or David Ferreira or even Henry.   In that sense, Beckham has proved to be irreplaceable.



THE ORIGINAL RONALDO, AND WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, citing the toll the game has taken on his 34-year-old body, announced his retirement from soccer.

Once known as The Phenomenon, the striker leaves as the all-time World Cup scorer with 15 goals over three tournaments (he was part of the 1994 World Cup squad as a 17-year-old but did not play).  Winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1996 and 1997, Ronaldo received that honor a third time for leading Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title.

Ronaldo scored more than 400 goals in a stellar career that began in 1993 with Cruzeiro and followed with stops at PSV Eindhoven, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan and, finally, back in Brazil with Corinthians.  His contract with Corinthians was due to expire at the end of the year, and he had been routinely hooted by fans for his obvious lack of match fitness.

“With this announcement, it feels like my first death,” Ronaldo said. 

He added:  “My career was beautiful, was wonderful.  I’ve had many defeats but infinite victories.”  [February 14]

Comment:  Ronaldo’s career was doomed four years ago, when he learned he had hypothyroidism, a condition that makes it difficult to lose weight.   But it should be remembered that the man whose irresistable, explosive runs into the enemy penalty area often ended with a goal and a trademark gap-toothed grin was among the most star-crossed stars in modern soccer.

Best known of his physical setbacks, of course, is Ronaldo’s mysterious performance at the 1998 World Cup final against host France.  Ronaldo had scored a team-leading four goals to that point, but the afternoon of the game, in the team’s hotel in Paris, he suffered convulsions, possibly the result of the combination of medications that had been administered to him for injuries to an ankle, a calf, a knee.  Scratched from the starting lineup an hour before the game, he was reinstated (it was rumored under pressure from the team’s mega-sponsor, Nike), played a lackluster 90 minutes and managed two shots, one a sitter from five yards that he sent directly at the chest of France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.  Shaken by the pre-game drama, the swaggerless Brazilians bowed to the French, 3-0.

Not as well remembered is the period, starting four months after Paris, that typified the career of Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima.  That November, he scored for Inter in an Italian Cup game against derby rival AC Milan, but he soon limped off the field with a ruptured kneecap tendon.  Upon his return the following January he sustained another injury that shelved him for two months.  But the most serious threat to Ronaldo’s career came in November 1999 when he tore up his knee in an Italian league match against Lecce.  After surgery and rehabilitation, he returned to action in April 2000 in an Italian Cup game and lasted all of eight minutes before rupturing ligaments in the same knee.  Ronaldo wouldn’t be back until the following season, and in September 2001 he sustained a thigh strain in a UEFA Cup match gainst FC Brasov of Romania.  After eight weeks on  the sidelines, he touched the ball three times in a league match against Lecce and limped off with another thigh strain.  In all, the six injuries over four seasons forced him to miss 14 months of games.

The triumph over Germany at Korea/Japan ’02 proved that Ronaldo wasn’t entirely snake bit, and Real Madrid, apparently convinced that he was indestructable,  bought the then-25-year-old for $58 million.  Five years and 99 goals in 164 appearances later, a falling out with Real coach Fabio Capello prompted Ronaldo to move to AC Milan, and naturally another career-threating knee injury–the rupture of left kneecap ligament–followed.  During his rehabilitation his reputation took a hit when he was caught in an encounter with cross-dressing prostitutes.

Things were never the same, of course.  And now, one can only wonder where Ronaldo’s place in soccer history would be if he hadn’t lost what were four years from the prime of his career.  One thing is certain:  For the past few years, when one mentions “Ronaldo,”  it’s understood that the player in question is the Portuguese–not Brazilian–version.