As we approach the waning days of our time here accross the pond, I thought I would take a page from Peach’s book and do a post on Sports, British (actually European) style.
Last night was the Champions League football (soccer) final. You might ask what is the Champions League? Essentially, the four top teams from the previous year’s professional soccer season in each European country compete in a nine month, round robin tournament to determine the “Champion of Europe.” In theory, and often in practice, this is an excellent idea. The best of the best competing throughout the Continent in, and for a fan of American professional sports this is the most astounding thing, the midst of their home professional league season. This fact often creates conflicts for managers of Champions’ League teams and endless debate fodder for the team’s “supporters”. For example, should Avram Grant play Joe Cole and his gimpy hamstring against the Spurs this Sunday when Chelsea has a Champions’ League match on Wednesday against Marseilles? It’s the European equivalent of Willie Randolph skipping a Santana start against the Dodgers so that Santana can pitch a few days later against the number one team in the Venzuelan professional league. It just would never happen in US professional sports and this lack of proprietary commercialism, in my view, is the single greatest thing about European sports generally. For example, all football matches, even Premier League matches, are televised without commercial interruption. Watching sport played at the highest level without artificial play stoppages is truly a joy.
But I digress. Last night’s final was unusual in that two of the top English Premier League (that is highest level of professional football in England) clubs, Manchester United and Chelsea, emerged from the pan-European round robin to play for the Championship. Man Utd is the dowager queen of English football, they are a storied franchise, with multiple English and other Championships. Their current manager, Sir Alex Ferguson has multiple Premier League crowns on his resume and has been knighted by the Queen. In short, they are English football’s equivalent to the Yankees but, with a twist. They play in Manchester. Imagine what the Yankees would mean to their fans if Yankee Stadium was “the Big ballpark in…Pittsburgh”. That’s what the Manchester football club means to the Manchurians.
Chelsea, on the other hand, is the shiny, new, johnny-come-lately of English football. Their home grounds are brand spanking new and are located in probably the most expensive section of west London. Although their history is pedestrian, in the last 15 years they’ve come on strong. Their owner, just for emphasis, is the epitome of nouveau riche, he is a Russian gas magnate rumored to have procured his fortune in Corleone style bloodbaths in the early 90s. Picture a Kuwaiti shiek buying the LA Clippers, hiring Phil Jackson to turn them around and building a new arena in Beverly Hills and you’ve got a bit of the Chelsea spirit.
Naturally, this game generated HUGE interest throughout England. Everyone wanted to be at the match, despite the fact that very few of the players on either side are English (if you know any English people you should remind them of this today, throwing in the evidence that, of course, the English National team failed to qualify for the European Championship to be played this summer…they love that). Just one catch, however, the European football powers that be granted this year’s Champions’ League final to…Moscow! Apparently, the European Football Association has hired the same consultants as the NFL owners who, just yesterday, awarded the 2012 Super Bowl, played every year in February, to Indianapolis, Ind., that toddlin’ town.
The unfortunate location of the match did not, apparently, deter the die hard Manchurians (“Sorry luv, have to cancel the trip to Marbella with the kids this summer, the footie’s in Moscow in a fortnight and I just booked a 1500 quid return with Thompson. Supper? No thanks, bit of marmite and toast will do me. I’m off down the pub to chat with the mates about bribing the bloke at the Russian consulate to speed up the visa. Which reminds me, where’s the grocery money? I’ve left the beans and toast for you and the kids.”) or the well heeled west Londoners (I actually heard an Oxbridge type on the upper deck of the 74 bus in Chelsea the day after Chelsea qualified for the final, shouting at his secretary on his “mobile” to make sure his visa application went in “TODAY! ” In a more civilized age he would have been summarily executed.) as Moscow was overrun by English fans.
To the match. After such frenzied anticipation, the expectation was for a classic football match. And, in many ways, it was. Man U struck first with Ronaldho (Think Kobe Bryant, this year’s Premier League MVP with matinee idol good looks and of course, not English) heading in the first goal at the 26 minute mark of the first half. As an aside, apparently, you’ve truly made it in football, like popular music (think Madonna) when you only need one name, like Pele or Ronaldhino (both, not English). Chelsea “equalized” the match with a goal by the far more pedestrian Frank Lampard (of course, English and he has two names) just before half time.
The second half saw Chelsea take the game over, outplaying Man U throughout. Twice, Chelsea put shots off the post, first by the exquisitely named and gerry curled Didier Droghba (need I say that he is not English) and Lampard also put one off the lower half of the crossbar that somehow stayed out of the net. Thus, regulation time ended at a 1-1 draw.
In Champion’s League play, when there is no winner after regulation, the teams play two 15 minute periods of extra time. If after that there is still no winner the game goes to penalty kicks. During penalty kicks, each team takes five alternating shots mano a mano, a striker against a keeper. If the teams are still tied after the five penalty shots, they shoot in sudden death kicks, where one goal not matched by the opposing side, decides the match. This, my fellow countrymen, is where the “beautiful game” breaks down.
A few things to keep in mind. First, every starter on the “pitch” runs, sprints really, the equivalent of a 10K race during the 90 minutes of regulation time. In addition, as in baseball, once you are substituted for you cannot reenter the game. As you might imagine, by the time the game has entered the “crunch time” phase of extra time, all of the starters on both teams are exhausted and many are actually cramping up. At this point, the managers start subing for these players because they have no other choice. Therefore, at the end of the match, in the deciding moments of a game you have worked nine months to reach, your best players are either exhausted or on the bench. This almost guarantees that the match will end in a draw, with the happenstance of penalty kicks, where the keeper really has no chance unless, by complete luck, he happens to guess which way the striker will kick the ball and “cheats” correctly.
Imagine spending the current equivalent of $5000 for two nights in god forsaken Moscow to see your favorite team compete for the most prestigious professional championship in the sport and the game ends up being decided, not during the course of play, but in a game of H_O_R_S_E or a home run contest. That’s the moral equivalent of deciding the European Champion on penalty kicks.
For all that, last night’s penalty kicks were both poignant and exciting. Ronaldhino (think MJ missing a last second free throw in an NBA Championship game or A-Rod striking out with the bases loaded in the 9th inning of the World Series game 7) missed his kick, putting Man U one down. This brought Chelsea’s Derek Jeter, the capitain, John Terry to the net with just a penalty kick standing between him and Chelsea’s first Champions’ League title. About midway through the game the skies opened and it had been raining for well over an hour. As Terry struck the ball on his kick his plant foot slipped in the mud, sending the ball wide right (perhaps Scott Norwood has already phoned him) setting up sudden death kicks.
Man U scored, Chelsea scored, Giggs from Man U scored again and then, Edwin van der Sar, the Dutchmen (not English) guessed right and blocked Nicolas Anelka’s attempt. Man U took the Championship.