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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.

 

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ONE LAST PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE DUTCH MASTER

Johan Cruyff, the Dutch genius credited with helping to reinvent the game in the 1970s, has died in Barcelona at age 68, a victim of lung cancer.

Tributes poured in from around the world for the three-time European Player of the Year.

“Johan Cruyff was a great player and coach,” said Pele.  “He leaves a very important legacy for our family of football.  We have lost a great man.”

“We will never forget you, mate,” said Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi added, “Another legend left us today.”

A longtime smoker, Cruyff had said last month that he was feeling “very positive” after undergoing treatment for his cancer.  A minor heart attack in 1991 led to two bypass operations, yet it took another coronary scare six years later for Cruyff to kick the habit for good.

A friendly between the Netherlands and France the following day in Amsterdam was halted in the 14th minute for a moment of silence–which became a minute of respectful applause–in memory of Cruyff, who as a player famously wore No. 14. [March 25]

Comment:  Cruyff was arguably the first true soccer superstar produced by Europe.  The list of his accomplishments is long, highlighted by European Cups with Ajax Amsterdam in 1971, ’72 and ’73, the hat trick of Ballon d’Ors in 1971, ’73 and ’74, eight Eredivisie championships with Ajax, a La Liga crown and Copa del Rey while with FC Barcelona and, for good measure, a Dutch league-cup double with archival Feyenoord after Ajax decided that Cruyff, at 37, was too old and let him go.

But Cruyff will be best remembered for his impeccable skill, the graceful long-legged gait coupled with tremendous balance, the intelligence, the superhuman vision, and the burning desire to not just win but to win attractively.  His partnership with coach Rinus Michels at Ajax and with the Dutch National Team ushered in the era of “Total Football,” where every player was virtually interchangeable rather than a specialist confined to a single role.  Each man had to be versatile, and Cruyff was the most versatile of them all, defending smartly when needed, controlling the midfield with impeccable ball possession here or a perfectly threaded pass there, and, in the final third, scoring with some of the most audacious shots ever seen (392 goals in 520 matches over 19 years).  Cruyff and the Netherlands team dubbed “Clockwork Orange” may have lost the 1974 World Cup final to host West Germany, but they were the revelation of the tournament, spawning Total Football imitators worldwide.

Upon retirement as a player, Cruyff became that rarest of coaches:  a former superstar who could effectively translate what he could once do as a player to what he wanted of his charges.  He already proved as a rookie manager for Ajax in 1985 that he had an eye for talent, eventually unearthing gold nuggets Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and the De Boer brothers.  Beginning in 1988, he guided FC Barcelona over eight years to four La Liga titles and its first-ever European Cup crown, in 1992.  But more important, as someone who had been nurtured in Ajax’s groundbreaking youth development system, he introduced the same pipeline at Barca, a conveyor belt of talent that ultimately produced the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi.

Cruyff’s greatest achievement, however, may have been his contribution to soccer fans who are smokers.  He came from a time when players smoked in the team room after a rigorous workout and the coach nervously puffed away on the bench during a match.  Cruyff caught the fans’ attention after his second heart scare, when he appeared on television in a public service announcement in which he juggled a pack of cigarettes while delivering an anti-smoking pitch before kicking the pack away in disgust.  (The pitch:  “I’ve had two addictions in my life–smoking and playing football.  Football has given me everything, whilst smoking almost took it all away.”)  But now he’s punctuated the dangers of smoking with his death.  To those who saw Cruyff mesmerize on the field but still light up and to the many unfortunates who never saw him play and now vape, it’s never too early to quit.

 



PHIL WOOSNAM’S NASL LIVES ON … ON DVD

Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the North American Soccer League during most of its 18-year run, died at age 80 in Dunwoody, Ga., of complications related to prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, on July 19.  The death was made public two days later.

Woosnam represented Wales on the schoolboy, youth and amateur levels before making 17 appearances for the full Welsh National Team from 1958 to 1963.  A forward, he began his professional career with Leyton Orient–while doubling as a physics and mathematics teacher in London–and later played in the English First Division with West Ham United and Aston Villa.

Woosnam moved to America in 1966 and played in the pirate National Professional Soccer League before becoming player/coach/general manager of the Atlanta Chiefs of the new 17-team NASL in 1968.  The league withered to five clubs in ’69, but under Woosnam, who was appointed commissioner two years later, the NASL mushroomed to 24 clubs in the U.S. and Canada, thanks in part to the acquisition of such international stars as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and George Best.  The hard-charging Woosnam, perhaps best known here for his proclamation, “Soccer is the sport of the ’80s,” was dismissed as league boss in 1983, a year before the NASL’s final season.  [July 21]

Comment:  There can be no doubt that without Phil Woosnam, the evolution of soccer in this country would have been stalled for years.  At one point, the NASL’s very survival came down to Woosnam and the man who later signed Pele, Clive Toye, hunkered down in the basement of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, trying to figure out their next move.  Without the crowds of 60,000 and 70,000 the league occasionally drew, without the generation of promising young American players the league inspired, WorldCupUSA 94 might have become WorldCupUSA 06 and Major League Soccer’s debut might have been delayed  to, well, a handful of years ago.

Mistakes were made, of course–mistakes MLS, to its credit, certainly learned from.  But what raised the hackles of Woosnam and continues to get a rise out of the NASL’s former players and coaches is the suggestion that the league’s level of play was poor, that the NASL was a comfortable landing spot for aging superstars, a second chance for anonymous English Third Division players, a version of the sport degraded by transcontinental travel, summertime heat and humidity and artificial turf unfamiliar to its many imported players.

Though the NASL is long gone, you can judge for yourself.  Go to http://www.DaveBrett.com Historic Soccer Videos and DVDs, which offers a treasure trove of soccer telecasts, including more than 300 NASL matches dating back to 1969.  The recordings are for sale or trade, and trades are preferred.  Contact Dave at DaveBrett@austin.rr.com

The long list of offerings includes the marathon 1974 championship game between the Los Angeles Aztecs and Miami Toros, the Minnesota Kicks’ crowd of 50,000 to see Pele and the Cosmos in 1976, the classic 1979 playoff semifinal between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Cosmos, the grand experiment that was Team America, and a game between the Chicago Sting and the team with the most wonderfully awful uniforms in the history of sports, the Caribous of Colorado.   Of course, there’s plenty of Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Best, Teofilo Cubillas, Giorgio Chinaglia, Trevor Francis, and even a young  Julio Cesar Romero and Peter Beardsley.  There’s also Soccer Bowls, Trans-Atlantic Challenge Cup games and various friendlies against other clubs from abroad, and NASL highlight shows, plus matches with Spanish and French commentary.  (For those so inclined, there are indoor, college and MLS games as well.)

The sport, as presented by Phil Woosnam, was indeed a different game, one that was adjusting to the advent of  Total Soccer and other changes.  But have a look.  Those who experienced the NASL in person will get a pleasant reminder of how good and entertaining the league could be.  And as for the MLS generation, it should be an eye opener.

Comment 2:  Phil Woosnam was a cousin of golfer Ian Woosnam.  Phil Woosnam was 4-4-1 as U.S. National Team coach in 1968.  And in Phil Woosnam, has any other U.S. sports league had a commissioner who had more first-hand knowledge of his sport?



ABBY THE GREAT — BUT HOW GREAT?

Abby Wambach became the most prolific goal-scorer–male or female–in international soccer history when she scored four goals against South Korea in a friendly at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, as the U.S. rolled to a 5-0 victory.

All of Wambach’s goals were scored in the first half.  Her third, which came in the 29th minute, gave her 159 for her career and put her past former U.S. teammate Mia Hamm.

The 33-year old scored the record-setter with a trademark diving header off a corner kick by midfielder Megan Rapinoe.  A bench-clearing celebration followed as the crowd of 18,961 roared.  She exited the match to another long ovation 13 minutes into the second half.

Wambach also passed Hamm in another category:  The two had been tied at 38 career multi-goal games.

Wambach got even with Hamm with goals in the 10th and 19th minutes, both set up by Lauren Cheney.  She capped her historic evening in first-half added-on time on a selfless pass by Alex Morgan.

At the moment, Wambach stands alone at 160 career international goals, followed by Hamm at 158.  Among the men, Ali Daei of Iran (1993-2006) is on top with 109 goals in 149 appearances.  Among European/South American males, Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas (1945-56) remains No. 1 with 84 in 85 matches, nearly a goal-per-game average.  [June 20]

Comment:  So who’s better, Abby Wambach or Mia Hamm, who retired in 2004 after 275 international appearances?

Hamm, of course, was an attacking midfielder, not a pure striker with the 5-foot-11 Wambach’s aerial ability in the penalty area.  Hamm probably passed up several more goals, as her  career assist total–144–suggests.  (Wambach has 62; second on the U.S. list is the retired Kristine Lilly, 105).  And while Wambach’s sheer drive, power and talent with her back to the goal are tremendous, Hamm could do it all in the attacking half, embarrassing a generation of would-be defenders in the process.  In another country, Holland, among men, this would be a comparison between strike master Marco Van Basten and one of the most complete players of all time, Johan Cruyff.  (For the record, Van Basten scored 37 goals in 73 games for the Dutch, Cruyff, 33 goals in 48 before his premature international retirement.)

And from a cultural standpoint, Hamm, thanks to her considerable skills, her two World Cup winner’s medals, her two Olympic gold medals, her two FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year awards and the marketing geniuses at Nike and Gatorade, remains the best-known American female soccer player in the U.S.–despite Wambach having won a FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year award of her own last year.   Heck, among this country’s millions of non-soccer fans, Hamm may be the best-known soccer player, period, with all due respect to David Beckham and Pele.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s a wash.  When Hamm made her U.S. debut in 1987, she was 15, and the women’s game was only beginning to be taken seriously in the U.S., Scandinavia, pockets of western Europe and the Far East–while it was frowned upon in macho Latin America, Africa and most of Asia.  The first FIFA Women’s World Cup, won by the U.S., was four years away.  The first women’s Olympic tournament, won by the U.S. at the Atlanta Games, was another five years away.  It all seems like ages ago, and with the women’s game evolving at breakneck speed, the threats to U.S. hegemony aren’t just China, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Japan of Hamm’s day but Brazil, France, England, Canada, Australia and North Korea, while early powers like Italy and Denmark and Nigeria and New Zealand have faded into the second tier.   Wambach’s is a different world, one a whole lot more crowded–crowded with better teams with better defenders.



WOULD A 92ND GOAL HAVE HELPED?

Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps has been named the 2012 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, the AP has announced.

Phelps, who won six more medals at last summer’s London Olympic Games to bring his career medal haul to 22, including 18 golds, got 40 votes in balloting by 100 U.S. editors and broadcasters to out-poll basketball’s LeBron James, with 37, and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, with 23.

Phelps joins track’s Carl Lewis as the only Olympic-related athlete to win the AP honor twice.  Golfer Tiger Woods and cyclist Lance Armstrong have won the award four times each, and basketball’s Michael Jordan is a three-time winner.  [December 20]

Comment:  The elephant not in this room, of course, is Argentina and FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, whose 91 goals for club and country in all competitions during the calendar year broke the 40-year-old record of 85 set by West Germany and Bayern Munich poacher extraodinaire Gerd Muller.

The AP has been doing this since 1931, and it has rarely looked beyond its own shores, let alone smiled on a soccer player.  This is a group of sports editors and sportscasters that in 2000 voted on the best 100 athletes of the 20th Century.  The only soccer player was Pele, who was No. 15–six places below female multi-sport standout Babe Didrikson Zaharias.  No Alfredo Di Stefano.  No Ferenc Puskas.  No Eusebio.  No George Best.  No Franz Beckenbauer.  No Johan Cruyff.  No Zico.  No Michel Platini.  No Diego Maradona.  No Roberto Baggio.  (For the record, at the top of the AP heap was Babe Ruth, followed by Jordan, Jim Thorpe, Muhammed Ali and Wayne Gretzky.  The race horse Secretariat came in 81st.)

But before outraged soccer fans here throw up their hands, there’s this story, released a day before the Phelps announcement, by the same Associated Press:

BUENOS AIRES (AP) — Argentine journalists don’t think Lionel Messi is the country’s best athlete for 2012.

Argentine boxer Sergio Martinez was awarded the title of “Olimpia de Oro,” given to the South American country’s top athlete in voting by the Circulo de Periodistas–or association of journalists.

Martinez defeated Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. earlier this year in their WBC title fight.

Barcelona star Messi, who has had a record-breaking year with 90 goals, didn’t even finish second in the voting.  That went to Sebastian Crismanich, the taekwondo  fighter who won Argentina’s only gold medal in the London Olympics.  Messi finished third.



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.