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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.



THE LEICESTER LESSON

Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win it all at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League campaign, pulled off the near-impossible when its closest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, came from ahead to tie host Chelsea, 2-2, allowing the Foxes to assume a seven-point lead with two matches remaining.

It was the first top-division championship in the 132-year history of Leicester, which had not finished higher than second in the then-English First Division since 1929.  A four-time loser in the English F.A. Cup final, its trophy case previously consisted of English League Cups won in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The Foxes–or Filberts, take your pick–were on the verge of relegation this time last year, but the unfashionable club from the English Midlands won seven of its last nine matches under then-coach Nigel Pearson.  It was an omen that this band of unknowns, with ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri hired to replace Pearson during the summer, had bigger things in store this season.  [May 2]

Comment I:  Leicester City, previously known on these shores only as the club for whom U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller once toiled in relative anonymity (1996-99), indeed took the EPL by surprise.  The Foxes were a true party crasher, finishing ahead of the usual suspects named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

So Leicester’s surprise climb to the top was amazing, fun, worth a headline or two even in the U.S. sports pages, and a refreshing break from the usual routine, which has seen previous EPL titles–since the Premier League was created in 1992–go to Manchester United 13 times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three, Manchester City twice and Blackburn Rovers once.  And it sent a wave of hope rolling across the country, lapping up against fans of clubs as pitiful as Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby County, Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth–for such a small country, the list is long.

But it serves as a lesson in America, where Major League Soccer, now at 20 teams, has designs on expanding soon to 28.  This isn’t about dilution of talent, it’s about dilution of interest.

The reason leagues like the EPL can hold their public’s interest with–usually–one of the same small cluster of clubs finishing first year after year is because of promotion/relegation.  No season is completely uninteresting for the fan of a mediocre-to-poor club as long as there’s the thrill of booing a perennial bully and the terror of dropping into the second division, or the generously named “Championship League.”

Without promotion/relegation, a bloated MLS runs the risk of being saddled with a dozen or more clubs that endure years–decades, even–in which they neither truly contend for a championship nor get punished for their mediocrity.  Death by boredom.

Will MLS ever adopt promotion/relegation?  No.  But perhaps it will reconsider its race to over-expansion, or at least try to publicly offer a justification for its “bigger is better” approach to running a soccer league.

Comment II:   The point was made in some quarters that outsider Leicester rolled to its 22-3-11 record and the league crown partly because it could keep its eyes on the prize while EPL royalty was wrung out by pesky midweek UEFA Champions League and Europa League commitments.

Or, in other words, the EPL’s top clubs sure are impressive, but they don’t win in Europe because winning the lucrative Premiership is Job One and they don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that’s dominated by one club (Germany, Bayern Munich) or two (Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).  Alas, they have to play one another on Saturdays, so the pursuit of Continental silverware is an afterthought left for midweek nights at faraway places.

That’s an excuse that England would do well to retire.

Deep pockets mean player depth, which means the means to get through league, domestic cup and European cup matches, and there are few clubs more wealthy than England’s big five.  If need be, they can just study Spain’s La Liga, where teams manage to find a way to win a variety of trophies or at least come within touching distance.  The UEFA Champions League final will feature, for the second time in three years, two clubs from one city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, one year after FC Barcelona came out on top.  Atletico won Europa League crowns in 2010 and 2012, and Sevilla, a Europa League winner in 2006 and ’07, just won its third consecutive Europa title, beating Spanish rival Villarreal in the semifinal.  And all these clubs had the wherewithal to compete in La Liga, a league that’s supposedly FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and a bunch of nobodies.

 



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.

 



SIGI SCHMID: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, SEEN IT ALL

Four-time World Cup goalkeeper Kasey Keller, longtime MLS and collegiate coach Sigi Schmid and the late Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, a U.S. international and USSF youth coach, have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Keller, who made 102 international appearances for the U.S. from 1990 through 2007, played in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga before ending his career with the Seattle Sounders.  Schmid, elected on the builder ballot, is the winningest coach in MLS history and a two-time winner of the league’s Coach of the Year award.  Myernick, elected on the veteran player ballot as an American soccer pioneer, earned 10 U.S. caps and starred for the NASL’s Portland Timbers before coaching the U.S. national under-23 and under-17 teams and the MLS Colorado Rapids.

Details on the induction ceremony for Keller, Schmid and Myernick have yet to be announced.  [April 8]

Comment:  For interesting stories among this trio, you could probably start with Keller and his family living in an honest-to-goodness castle in Germany while he played for Borussia Moenchengladbach 10 years ago.  But for a career that has amounted to a sweeping panorama of the recent history of American soccer, nothing tops what Sigi Schmid has seen over the past half-century.

It’s not Forrest Gump-ian, but it’s close.

Born in West Germany, Schmid moved with his family to Southern California as a child in time to play for the Firefighters, one of the first four teams in the history of the hopefully named American Youth Soccer Organization, in 1964.  Little is know of what became of Schmid’s teammates and opponents, some of whom played this strange new sport in high-top basketball shoes.  None could have known that AYSO would grow to become a national program with, currently, more than a half-million players.

Young Schmid, on his way to becoming a CPA, played midfield at UCLA from 1972 through 1975, then coached the Bruins from 1980 through 1999.  He could have padded his lineup with foreign-born talent, which was common in the college game at the time, but he insisted on American players, most of them Californians.   Led by future U.S. internationals like Paul Caligiuri, Cobi Jones and David Vanole, Schmid’s UCLA won three NCAA championships.

An assistant on the USA’s 1994 World Cup team, he served two stints as coach of the U.S. National Under-20 Team and won MLS Cups with the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy.  Now, he’s the only coach the six-year-old Seattle Sounders have ever known, having guided that club to four U.S. National Open Cups, and his team regularly plays home matches before crowds of nearly 50,000.

But before USA ’94, MLS and the Sounders, Schmid can remember other days.  Like how AYSO, to a ragtag collection of 11- and 12-year-olds, had no business catching on and going nationwide.  And despite 16 NCAA playoff appearances, how UCLA–and top-tier collegiate soccer–seemed destined to continue to labor in complete obscurity, as the Bruins drew about 300 for many home matches.  And in 1989, how, while Schmid was filling a summer coaching the California Kickers, the World Cup the Americans would host in five years seemed headed for disaster on the field and at the gate.  The Kickers played in the Western Soccer League, which along with the East Coast’s American Soccer League, was home to nearly every U.S. international player at the time.   No one, from Tab Ramos and John Harkes to Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda, was paid a living wage.  Each club that year played all of 16 regular-season matches.  And as for the Kickers, their home games were played in a rickety high school football stadium.

The Kickers once played the visiting Arizona Condors in front of 72 spectators.  Seventy-two.  But Schmid, in retrospect, needn’t have worried.  Add 43,662, and that was the average number of fans at cavernous CenturyLink Field in Seattle who last season looked down and saw a former AYSO kid pulling the strings in front of the Sounders’ bench.



RONALDO’S SHADOW-BOXING MATCH

Cristiano Ronaldo was named the world’s best player of 2013 in balloting by national team captains and coaches and selected journalists, receiving 1,365 votes to Lionel Messi’s 1,205 and Franck Ribery’s 1,127.

The Portugal and Real Madrid star received his Ballon d’Or trophy at the annual FIFA awards gala in Zurich.  Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer was the women’s winner.   Jupp Heynckes, who led Bayern Munich to the UEFA Champions League crown, plus the German league and cup double, was the top men’s coach.   Germany’s Sylvia Neid was selected the world’s best women’s coach.

Ronaldo’s triumph was his first since 2008, when he won what was then known as the FIFA World Player of the Year award, while with Manchester United.  The following year, he finished second to Argentina’s Messi.  The FC Barcelona striker would go on to capture the honor the next three years as well, with Ronaldo the runner-up in 2011 and 2012.  [January 13]

Comment:  It was an emotional Ronaldo who accepted the trophy as world’s best from Pele, who earlier had accepted an honorary Ballon d’Or of his own.   Still, he had to be thinking about “the little man” in his rear-view mirror.

Though Ronaldo scored 69 goals in 2013, capping it in November with a stirring hat trick in Stockholm that lifted the Portuguese to victory in its World Cup playoff with Sweden, he won by default.  Messi may have finished second, but he was hobbled three times by injury during the year–and opened 2014 like he’d never missed a beat.

Ironic that Pele would be honored the same night that his rival, the great Eusebio, was eulogized.  The Black Pearl and the Black Panther, who died January 5, met in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup, with the irresistible Santos, behind Pele’s five goals, beating Benfica by an 8-4 aggregate as Eusebio scored once.   Four years later, at the World Cup, they met again.  Pele had been brutalized by Bulgaria in Brazil’s opener.  In its final group match, Brazil and a limping Pele bowed out as Eusebio scored twice and Portugal topped the group.  The Black Panther would go on to score a tournament-leading nine goals and the Portuguese would finish an unexpected third.

Unlike Pele and Eusebio, we’ve been treated to several clashes between Ronaldo and Messi in La Liga and El Copa del Rey since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid in 2009.  Nevertheless, here’s to a grand showdown in 2014.  If the stars align, Portugal and Argentina could meet in the World Cup quarterfinals on July 4 in Rio de Janeiro or July 5 in Brasilia.  Who knows?  It might determine the ’14 Ballon d’Or.



RAY HUDSON: YOU WANT IT, YOU GOT IT

Aguera Ander Herrera scored on a low shot in the final minute to give host Athletic Bilbao a dramatic 2-2 draw with FC Barcelona and prevent Barca from clinching its 22nd  Spanish league championship with five games remaining.

That same day, second-place Real Madrid won, 2-1, at crosstown rival Atletico Madrid to draw to within 11 points.

Bilbao was nursing a 1-0 lead in the 67th minute when Lionel Messi, who missed Barca’s last three La Liga matches with a hamstring strain and was ineffective four days earlier in his team’s shocking 4-0 loss at Bayern Munich in the opening leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinals, scored a breathtaking equalizer.  The Argentine striker turned three Athletic defenders inside out at the top of the penalty area in the process.  Alexis Sanchez then put Barcelona ahead three minutes later.  (April 27)

Comment:  Breathtaking, particularly for beIN Sport color commentator and former MLS coach Ray Hudson:

http://deadspin.com/messi-back-to-scoring-ridiculous-goals-bringing-ray-hu-483785010

No, that was not a man being torn apart by a thousand rabid squirrels.

Hudson, whose outbursts have produced some verbal gems (in this case, the Bilbao defense, truly, had to have felt “emasculated”), has his loyal fans and his bitter critics going back nine years to his days with GolTV.

But this nuclear explosion has to have TV viewers here examining exactly what they want from an announcer.

For those who compare American soccer announcers with their Spanish-language counterparts, the Americans are sorely lacking in passion.  And how can they not be?  Some Spanish-language announcers work themselves into a lather, screaming into the microphone, while the two teams are simply standing on either side of the halfway line, waiting for the referee to whistle for the opening kickoff.  Try that approach calling an NFL, MLB or NBA game on TV here and viewers will storm the network’s corporate offices.

On the other hand, there’s the thoughtful, understated,  library-quiet Martin Tyler, the Brit who probably converted few American viewers to soccer with his sleepy work during ESPN and ABC telecasts of the marquee games of the 2010 World Cup.

The right approach, as in everything in life, lies somewhere in between.  At present, for those who relished Hudson’s verbal meltdown, leaving him with nowhere to go if he has to call something even more amazing/dramatic: God help you.  In the meantime, beIN Sport should issue Hudson’s partner, solid–and Job-like–play-by-play man Phil Schoen, combat pay.  Or a Purple Heart.  Schoen, at this point, surely must be hearing impaired.