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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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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.



IN SEARCH OF NASTY BOYS

Brazil, led by playmaker Neymar, defeated the U.S., 4-1, in a friendly before a crowd of 67,619 at FedEx Field in Landover, MD, in the second-to-last tune-up before the Americans open qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

The 20-year-old Neymar converted a penalty kick to open the scoring and set up two other goals as the Brazilians improved to 16-1-0 against the   U.S., which was coming off a 5-1 rout of Scotland four days earlier in Jacksonville.  Neymar’s Santos teammate, goalkeeper Rafael, made three spectacular saves to frustrate the Americans.

Despite some bright spots–including the play of forward Herculez Gomez, who scored the lone American goal just before halftime to cut Brazil’s lead to 2-1–U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann was upset not only with the officiating of Costa Rican referee Jeffrey Calderon but the overall play of his side.

“I think we need to get an edge–more nastier,” he said after the match.  “Maybe we’re a little bit too naive.  Maybe we don’t want to hurt people.  But that’s what you’ve got to do.  You’ve got to do that at the end of the day.  We’ve got to step on their toes more and get them more frustrated and make a case with the referee maybe that’s wrong for us, not only the opponents.  There was a clear penalty on Herculez Gomez in the second half not given.  But it is what it is.”

Klinsmann also took exception with the penalty kick, awarded in the 12th minute for a handball in the box by defender Oguchi Onyewu, and Brazil’s fourth goal, scored in the 87th by Pato, whom the U.S. believed was offside.

Comment I:  Klinsmann was criticized in some quarters for his “nasty” remarks.  The U.S. wins clean, y’know, or it doesn’t win at all.

Probably a poor choice of words despite his command of the English language.  Most American coaches probably would have put it this way:  The U.S., for most of the first half, showed Brazil far too much respect and deserved to be down by two goals after 26 minutes.

(Obviously, one player he need not convert is midfielder Jermaine Jones, who could be described as a latter-day Chris Armas with real judgement/anger management issues.  His tackle from behind on Neymar–in front of the Brazil bench–was the latest addition to a long list of nasty incidents.)

Comment II:  After five years of faithfully giving us the Bob Bradley Bunker, the U.S., under Klinsmann, is attempting to become an attacking, risk-taking side.  It’s a work in progress, but some of the pieces don’t fit any longer.  Center backs Onyewu and captain Carlos Bocanegra, who was honored before the game for earning his 100th cap, now find themselves without a host of friendly midfielders directly in front of them when they retreat to the top of their own penalty area.  Klinsmann’s challenge in the coming months is to identify those fast, skillful players–converted midfielders, if need be–who may lack in defensive instincts but make up for it in smoothly getting the ball out of the back.

Comment III:  The early handball call against Onyewu that left the U.S. swimming upstream was correct.

There was a question of whether Onyewu was fully in the penalty area when he handled Leandro Damiao’s shot.  He was.

There was a question of whether the ball played Onyewu or Onyewu played the ball.  The shot struck the U.S. defender in the left arm, but he twisted in such a fashion–his right arm reaching across his body–that it appeared that he could have caught the ball instead of just knocking it down.

Referee Calderon got it right.



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.



DOCTOR SOCRATES

Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, one of the stars of the 1982 and 1986 Brazilian World Cup teams that dazzled but ultimately disappointed, died at a Sao Paulo hospital of septic shock resulting from an intestinal infection.  He was 57.  His survivors include a wife and six children

Socrates captained the ’82 Brazil side that, needing only a tie to advance, lost a second-round match to Italy, 3-2, in Barcelona to become one of the greatest teams never to win a World Cup.  Socrates scored a brilliant goal in that game, and an even better one in a group-round victory over the Soviet Union.  Among those who exited with him were Zico, Falcao, Serginho, Oscar, Toninho Cerezo and Leandro.

Socrates scored 22 goals in 60 international appearances.  The midfield maestro’s club tally reads 207 goals in 396 matches, 172 of them for Corinthians, for whom he starred from 1978 to 1984.  He later played one season each in the late ’80s for Fiorentina, Flamengo and Santos.

Socrates was a true Renaissance man.  He studied medicine during his playing career and went on to practice in his hometown of Ribeirao Preto.  Politically active, he founded an opposition movement to Brazil’s then-ruling military government, and he became a popular soccer columnist and TV commentator.  At the time of this death, he was working on a novel.  [December 4]

Comment:  The 1983 South American Footballer of the Year and a member of Pele’s FIFA list of the top living players of the 20th century, Socrates is probably best remembered by a younger generation as the older brother of star midfielder Rai, a member of the 1994 World Cup champion Brazil team who was ignominiously deposed as skipper four years later. 

In his time, Socrates was the face of Brazilian style between the post-Mexico ’70 sag and the embrace of the Dunga-style grit and guile that produced world championships in 1994 and 2002.  At 6-foot-4, he thoughtfully surveyed the field from a high perch and would pry open an opposition’s defense with a wide variety of tools, most notably his trademark back-heeled pass.

With Brasil ’14 fast approaching, what’s disappointing is that the hosts, with luck, may win the next World Cup, but they won’t embody The Beautiful Game, they won’t do it with any player as elegant, as thoughtful as Doctor Socrates.