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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.

 



SAY IT AIN’T SO, LIONEL

Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi announced his international retirement immediately after Argentina fell in the Copa America Centenario to Chile on penalty kicks, 4-2, following a scoreless draw at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, before 82,076.

The defeat capped a string of Argentina disappointments for the 29-year-old, including losses in the 2014 World Cup final and the 2007 and 2015 Copa America finals.  Although he led La Albiceleste to an under-20 world championship in 2005 and a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he has never claimed a winners’ medal with the senior team.

A back injury caused Messi to miss Argentina’s Copa opener against Chile, but he came off the bench in the second group game, against Panama, and notched a hat trick in just 19 minutes.  He scored against Venezuela in the quarterfinals to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentine scoring record of 54, then surpassed it with a brilliant free-kick strike against the U.S. in the semifinals.

However, in the final he was hounded by multiple Chilean defenders for 120 minutes, and he capped a frustrating night by blasting his attempt over the crossbar on Argentina’s first shot in the tiebreaker.

“For me, the national team is over,” the distraught superstar told reporters.  “I’ve done all I can.  I’ve been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion.  It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but it’s over with the Argentina team.”  [June 26]

Comment I:  Perhaps the frustration got the best of him.  Maybe his tax problems back in Spain were weighing heavily.  Perhaps Messi will take a deep breath and reconsider.  (After all, he didn’t quit last year when Argentina lost on a tiebreaker to Chile–and Messi made his PK that day.)   But if he doesn’t change his mind, he’ll rue the day.

Messi has never been embraced by his fellow Argentines the way they adore Diego Maradona.  Messi left home as a 13-year-old prodigy for FC Barcelona, where he grew as an academy player and went on to win four UEFA Champions League titles and eight Spanish La Liga crowns.  In Argentina, he’s been more closely associated with Barca than the sky blue and white, and while Maradona also played for Barcelona (and later became a hero in Italy with Napoli), El Pibe de Oro was the one who delivered the goods, singlehandedly lifting Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship.  Messi has no such clout.

If Messi does not change his mind, he will have forfeited any chance to change how he will go down in soccer history.  As things stand, he will be recorded as probably the greatest player of his generation, better even than Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’ll be regarded as a the third member of Argentina’s holy trinity along with Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano.  But, in a world in which kids still look up to their sports heroes, he’ll also be regarded as a quitter.  Worse, a coward.

And this with the next World Cup, in Russia, and possible redemption, just two years away.

Comment II:  The question concerning the U.S. National Team was whether its Copa America Centenario performance had represented any progress.

Well, a year ago the Americans lost the third-place match at the Gold Cup, making it the fourth-best team in CONCACAF.  Now it’s lost the third-place game at the Copa America, technically making it the fourth-best team in South America.  What fourth-place mantle would you rather wear?

On a practical front, the mad scientist, coach Juergen Klinsmann, stopped with the tinkering and would’ve trotted out the same lineup throughout the tournament were it not for suspensions and injuries.  Young center back John Brooks grew into a genuine partnership with Geoff Cameron and was rewarded with a spot on the Copa America Centenario Best XI team, the only player from the U.S.–or Mexico–so honored.  Bobby Wood graduated from minor pest up front to major concern and will challenge Jozy Altidore for playing time in the future.

But then there were the questions raised over the course of the tournament.  Such as, will young right back DeAndre Yedlin couple his scintillating runs forward with some reliable defense?  Will Gyasi Zardes continue to have the first touch of a block of cement?  Will Michael Bradley’s skills as midfield maestro continue to erode?  Will 33-year-old Clint Dempsey, who scored three goals at the Copa to close to within five goals of Landon Donovan’s U.S. career record of 57, continue to defy Father Time?

Those are the questions that matter.  They were raised at the Copa, not answered, but perhaps they’ll be answered where it really counts, when the U.S. resumes World Cup qualifying for Russia ’18, in September.



MAKING THE SQUARE QATAR PEG FIT INTO THE ROUND WORLD CUP HOLE

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be an autumn affair, the first World Cup not to be played in late spring/early summer.

A task force formed to look into ways to avoid the sweltering summer heat in the tiny Gulf state is recommending that Qatar ’22 be played in November and December.  Its report is expected to be ratified by the FIFA Executive Committee when it meets in Zurich on March 19 and 20.

Summer temperatures in Qatar routinely top 100 degrees while the heat drops to the high 70s in late fall.

The task force, headed by Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, considered a January-February tournament,  but that would clash with the Winter Olympics.  April was rejected because Ramadan will be observed in the Muslim world in that month in 2022.

Under the recommendation, it is believed that Qatar ’22 would be shorter than the traditional 31 or 32 days, kicking off November 26 and ending on December 23, two days before Christmas.

Though FIFA says all of its confederations favor the move to November-December, it is expected to encounter fierce opposition from Europe’s top leagues.  Most of those leagues traditionally schedule a winter break of up to four weeks for weather reasons, but the task force’s plan would idle players not involved in the ’22 World Cup for up to eight weeks  [February 25]

Comment:  A very bad idea got worse.

The FIFA Executive Committee’s expected rubber-stamp to this topsy-turvy scheduling of a World Cup is further proof that the world’s soccer-governing body is hell-bent on holding its world championship in Qatar at all costs.  Allegations that the Qataris won over a solid U.S. bid through bribery have been swept under the rug.  Reports that foreign workers involved in World Cup preparations have been mistreated or even died in accidents is worth a shrug, all the more troubling because the stadiums and infrastructure promised by Qatar are being built from scratch.  At No. 109 in the latest FIFA World Rankings, the Qatari National Team is poised to be the worst host side in World Cup history, far weaker than South Africa in 2010.  And if a June World Cup in Qatar is being considered unworkable, then Qatar isn’t likely to be able to host the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup, the tradition World Cup dress rehearsal for a host nation.

On a much, much smaller scale, there’s something for Americans to consider, and it’s not just the fact that, among EuroSnobs, their favorite club’s schedule will be interrupted by a November-December World Cup after just a dozen matches.

TV ratings, those figures that determine in the future how often you can see your favorite European club or whether you can watch UEFA Champions League games on cable or network television here, will take a serious hit if the 2022 World Cup is played in late fall.

At last year’s World Cup, the USA’s first-round match against Portugal was played on a Sunday.  America was sitting on its couch with nothing more than mid-season baseball and a golf tournament as a diversion, and the TV audience for what will be remembered here for Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp, heartbreaking assist, was 24.7 million on ESPN and Univision combined, a record for a soccer telecast in the U.S.  There were no NFL games, no college football games, no NBA games, no NHL games to syphon off viewers.  A similar World Cup game, played on an NFL Sunday in 2022, will be buried in the ratings.  NFL games last season averaged 17.6 million–five pro gridiron games attracted more than 29 million.

Perhaps, in seven years, a November World Cup can steal casual viewers from the NFL.  At present, it’s doubtful.



ABBY WAMBACH: THIRD-BEST HERE, THE BEST EVERYWHERE ELSE?

Lauren Holiday was voted 2014 U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year, becoming the first player to win the USSF’s athlete and young athlete of the year awards.

The holding midfielder received 43 percent of the vote, followed by Carli Lloyd (25 percent) and Abby Wambach (18 percent).

Holiday has 110 caps, including 16 earned this year, when she scored two goals and set up three others.  She also starred for FC Kansas City, scoring eight goals with seven assists.  In the National Women’s Soccer League championship match, she assisted on both goals in a 2-1 victory over the Seattle Reign, winning MVP honors.

Taking part in the balloting for the athlete of the year award were players who earned a cap with the U.S. National Women’s Team in 2014, women’s and youth women’s national team coaches, National Women’s Soccer League head coaches and select former players, administrators and media members.  Goalkeeper Tim Howard was named U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year a week earlier.  [December 6]

Comment:  Wambach has been named one of three finalists for the 2014 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award, along with Brazil’s Marta (the winner from 2006 through 2010) and Nadine Kessler of Germany.  A finalist for the fourth time and winner in 2012, the imposing striker led the U.S. in scoring with 14 goals to increase her world-record tally to 177.  Despite a string of injuries during the NWSL season, Wambach scored six goals and contributed four assists in 10 games for her club, the Western New York Flash.

The winner of this award, along with the men’s honor (Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona and Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich are finalists), men’s and women’s coach of the year, and goal of the year, will be presented in Zurich on January 12.  The voters included national team captains and coaches and media members.

Best of luck to Wambach. We must live in a wonderful land of female soccer talent when the woman considered the third-best female player in America can also be considered among the three best female players on the planet.



U.S. SOCCER’S WARM SEAT GETS A BIT WARMER

The U.S. was denied passage to the second round and Portugal remained alive after the Portuguese got a goal from Silvestre Varela nearly five minutes into added-on time to eke out a 2-2 draw at Manaus in the second game for the two Group “G” rivals.

The Americans and Germany, both with four points, are scheduled to meet in Recife on Thursday, June 26, the same time that Portugal and Ghana play in Brasilia.  The Portuguese and Ghanans have one point apiece.

Portugual, coming off its disastrous 4-0 loss to Germany in its opener, got off to an ideal start when winger Nani pounced on a mis-hit clearance by U.S. defender Geoff Cameron and scored from short range in the fifth minute.  The Americans replied with a 25-yard blast inside the right post by midfielder Jermaine Jones in the 64th minute and took the lead in the 81st when striker Clint Dempsey chested home a short cross in the box by midfielder Graham Zusi.

The prospect of the USA notching its first-ever comeback victory in a World Cup dissolved with 30 seconds left.  Midfielder Michael Bradley was dispossessed just inside the Portuguese half, superstar Cristiano Ronaldo–neutralized for 94 minutes–carried the ball down the left and got off a perfect cross, and substitute midfielder Varela was on the other end for a flying header from eight yards away. [June 22]

Comment:  Though Portugal’s last-gasp equalizer left millions of American television viewers (a record 24.72 million, according to the TV ratings) stunned, Bradley seemed as shell-shocked as anyone.  Interviewed by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap after the game, he struggled mightily to put words together, especially after he was asked, “Do you blame yourself for what happened?”

http://www.espnfc.com/united-states/story/1904636/michael-bradley-has-no-regrets-on-united-states-performance-after-settling-for-draw-with-portugal

Was it a fair question?  No.  But there was a positive side to it.

Unlike the old adage, “Success has a hundred fathers, but failure is an orphan,” a review of most any goal will reveal mental and physical mistakes by the defense, just as that same goal will likely be the product of skill/creativity/luck involving more than one attacking player.  To pin the goal on Bradley–despite his having his second straight weak showing at this World Cup–would be unfair.  The U.S. had numbers back as Ronaldo dribbled down the wing, and regardless of Ronaldo’s pedigree, the situation appeared to be under control.   If there are goat horns to be handed out, they should go to Cameron, who had played a solid match six days earlier in the 2-1 win over Ghana.  Caught ball-watching and poorly positioned, Cameron allowed the much smaller Varela to surge past him and get to Ronaldo’s cross unmolested.

On the other hand, Schaap’s question is another of those indications that the U.S. continues to evolve into a soccer nation bit by bit.  It’s still too rare for American sports media members to put soccer players and coaches on the spot or generally make life hell for them like their European and South American counterparts.  It was only one question, but as interest in the sport grows and the United States becomes a country of one hundred million or so soccer critics, the media here will be under increased pressure to scrutinize every move made on the field and give us not just the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” as to what happened in a match but the “why” and “how”–even if it has to include unfair questions in the process.  As this World Cup has revealed, there’s a growing number of inquiring minds who want to know.



A STRING OF GEMS–AND JUST ONE ROCK

The first two doses of pain were inflicted in the so-called “Group of Death” as Germany humiliated Group “G” co-favorite Portugal, 4-0, in Salvador and the U.S. scored late to defeat Ghana, 2-1, in Natal.

German striker Thomas Mueller, the leading scorer at the last World Cup with five goals, picked up where he left off, scoring a hat trick.  The rout was both humiliating and painful for the Portuguese:  defender Pepe was sent off eight minutes before halftime for head-butting Mueller and both striker Hugo Almeida and defender Fabio Coentrao limped off with injuries.

U.S. forward Clint Dempsey scored 30 seconds after the opening kickoff–the fifth fastest goal in World Cup history–and the Americans held on until the Ghanans equalized through forward Andre Ayew in the 82nd minute.  In the 86th, however, substitute Graham Zusi curled in a corner kick and another sub, 21-year-old defender John Brooks, pounded a downward header into the net.  [June 16]

Comment I:  They can’t all be gems, but they’ve come close.

Two more entertaining matches.  Though it was lopsided, the German victory over the world’s No. 4-ranked team and its reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, was beyond impressive.  The U.S.-Ghana match was entirely different but no less compelling, with Ghana ratcheting up the pressure over more than an hour before gaining the tying goal, only to see the match turned on its head in dramatic fashion four minutes from the end.

Fitting, then, that those two games should bookend the day’s stinker, a toothless scoreless draw between Iran and Nigeria in Curitiba that put a dent in the average of 3.4 goals through the first 12 games–the best since 1958 in Sweden, a 3.6 average.  Unlucky No. 13 only underscored how entertaining this tournament has been.  Will any of the matches played thus far go down in World Cup history as classics?  No.  But this sure ain’t the dreadful 1990 World Cup in Italy (2.21), which gave new meaning to the word “dour.”

Comment II:  Americans are responding.  The Brazil-Croatia opener in Sao Paulo drew a total 9.5 television rating on ESPN and Spanish-language Univision, and the U.S.-Ghana game got a 7.0 on ESPN and 3.8 on Univision for a combined 10.8.  By comparison, the NBA finals on free TV (ABC) averaged a 9.3 rating and the Stanley Cup finals, also on free TV (NBC), averaged a 5.0.

 

 



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.