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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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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.

 



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.



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.



ALFREDO DI STEFANO

Alfredo Di Stefano, the greatest player of the 1950s, has died in Madrid.  He celebrated his 88th birthday on July 4 but suffered a heart attack the following day and passed away at Gregorio Maranon hospital two days after that.

Known as “The Blond Arrow,” the Argentine-born Di Stefano scored more than 800 goals in his career and was named European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and ’59.  Through his all-round skills and considerable leadership, Real Madrid won the first European Cup (now the UEFA Champions League) in 1956 and the next four that followed.  His record of 49 goals in 59 Euro Cup games still stands.  In the 1960 final before a crowd of 135,000 at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, Di Stefano scored four goals and teammate Ferenc Puskas three as Real Madrid pounded Eintracht Frankfurt, 7-3, in a match regarded by many as the greatest ever played.

Di Stefano’s career began in 1944 with River Plate.  He jumped to a Colombian pirate league in 1949 to play for Millonarios of Bogota, winning four titles in as many years.  Real Madrid tried to sign him in 1953, but, River Plate, which still technically owned his rights, struck a deal with Real’s arch rival, FC Barcelona, and FIFA approved the transaction.  The Spanish soccer federation, however, decreed that Di Stefano stay in Spain for four years, playing alternate seasons for Barcelona and Madrid.  Barca officials threw up their hands over the ludicrous decision and sold their share in Di Stefano to Madrid.  [July 8]

Comment:  Di Stefano never played in a World Cup, but nevertheless his career included a hat trick of national teams.  Early in his career he played seven games for his native Argentina.  While with Millonarios, he played four for Colombia.  And when he joined Real Madrid, he became a Spanish citizen and played 31 games for Spain, scoring 23 goals.  Had it not been for an injury, he would have played in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where he would’ve teamed with his Madrid strike mate, Puskas, the Hungarian legend who was playing for his second country, and a third star forward in the twilight of his career, Barcelona’s Ladislao Kubala, who was playing for his third country.  (Kubala earlier had represented Czechoslovakia and his native Hungary).  Not long after, FIFA tightened up its rules on players playing for more than one country in full internationals.

 



SPAIN’S PAIN

The Netherlands dismantled defending world champion Spain, 5-1, in its Group “B” opener in Salvador to avenge its loss to the Spaniards in the 2010 World Cup final.

Strikers Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben each scored twice and defender Stefan de Vrij once to wipe out an early Spanish lead created by Xabi Alonso’s penalty kick.

The shocking margin of defeat was the worst for Spain in a World Cup since its last appearance in Brazil, in 1950, when it was humbled by the hosts, 6-1, in a final pool match.  It also marked the first time a reigning world champ has dropped the first game of its title defense since France was upended by Senegal, 1-0, at Korea/Japan ’02.  That team infamously crashed out in the first round without winning a game or scoring a goal.  [June 13]

Comment I:  Amidst the Dutch jubilation, was there a sadder sight than Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas’ expression moments after his careless giveaway gifted Van Persie’s second goal?  And this, nearly three weeks after his blunder against Atletico Madrid nearly cost his club, Real Madrid, the UEFA Champions League final.

Spain may yet recover from this dreadful collapse and still make an impact on this World Cup, but at the moment, the face of its team is, fittingly, its captain, the one-time boy wonder who made his Real debut at 17.  He’s now 33.  Not a senior citizen as goalkeepers go, but like most of the team, not prime time.

Comment II:  Despite the grave concern by U.S. fans over their team being drawn into the so-called “Group of Death” and having to travel a total of some 9,000 miles for its first three games, there is a bit of consolation that’s been overlooked.

That was on display during the Netherlands-Spain match in the form of the spectators.  Fans of the Oranje were loud, of course, but much louder were the thousands and thousands of Brazilians, who were more than happy to see a team they considered a larger threat to their beloved Selecao go down in flames.

Count on Brazilians, who will out-number supporters of the participating teams at the USA’s games against Portugal and Germany by a wide margin, to be solidly behind the Americans, who they would much rather see Brazil face later in the tournament than the No. 4-ranked Portuguese or No. 2-ranked Germans.

Doubt it?  Go back to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, where the U.S. shocked mighty England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte.  America was represented by a team of semi-pros while the English, inventors of the game, were playing in their first World Cup after blithely skipping the first three.  The U.S. closed out the final minutes of the match to the roars of the crowd of 10,000, most of them Brazilians, and after the final whistle, newspapers were set ablaze in the stands in celebration while a crowd of happy locals carried the goal-scorer, Joe Gaetjens, off the field on their shoulders.



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.