Unsolicited thoughts is a recurring column of assorted musings from ACL’s most cultured friend Mr. David Coggins.
May is a fine time in the sporting world unless you support a team that plays in Madison Square Garden. The mediocrity of regular season basketball gives way to the intense playoff march, and hockey players grow their post-season beards while pursuing the Stanley Cup. In baseball parks, on the other hand, itâ€™s too early for true believers to abandon improbable dreams of October success. If youâ€™ve still got room in your life for more sporting distractionâ€”and you doâ€”consider another definitive contest: the UEFA Champions League.
For the uninitiated, this soccer tournament, which plays out over nine months, brings together the best club teams in Europe. The final, played in Rome on May 27th, is a dream match-up between the classic English side Manchester United and the Spanish practitioners of the beautiful game, Barcelona. United, a team equally loved and loathed, is led by the virtuosic and petulant Portuguese star, and reigning world player of the year, Cristiano Ronaldo. Rio Ferdinand anchors their stubborn defensive line, and Wayne Rooney, the jug-headed visionary, can pass and finish with equal deftness. Barcelona, the only major team in Europe whose jerseys are unsullied by a business logo, pays Unicef to display their patch on their uniform. Conversely, United is sponsored by corporate casualty AIGâ€”American taxpayers are more involved in soccer than they know.
The Catalan side plays a control gameâ€”all of their players are comfortable on the ball, and they dominate possession with an endless series of intricate passes. Theyâ€™re spearheaded by the Argentine maestro, Lionel Messi, perhaps the best player in the world. Above all, this team is built to scoreâ€”their defense is an afterthought, susceptible to set pieces.
The match begins at 2.45pm in New York, and if youâ€™re unable to enjoy the match over a pint with the lads, follow along with the hysterical minute-by-minute report on the Guardian website. That great English newspaper has incredible coverageâ€”their football podcast is indispensable. The Champions League has its intrigueâ€”there are annual charges of backroom conspiracies, and shenanigans with the referees. More curious is that each game starts with the singing of the sentimental Champions League anthemâ€”adapted from Handel, whose lyrics include: â€˜Those are the best biggest teams/These are the champions.â€™
Itâ€™s hard to tell whatâ€™s more tedious: soccer proponents endlessly preaching the virtue of their sport or American skeptics complaining about the lack of scoring. Without casting judgment, this match-up may be the best the world game has to offer. If the threat of a nil-nil draw still strikes fear in your heart, be assured that there will be 30 minutes of extra time, and, if itâ€™s still tied, brace yourself for the unspeakable pressure of penalty kicks. Still want guaranteed action after sitting through all that? Lay a twenty on a goalless drawâ€”at 5/1 youâ€™ll get the handsome payoff you know you deserve.