Tag Archives: 2012

The Very Best Of Friends

It’s La Liga’s winter vacation, and Lionel Messi hasn’t scored a goal in more than two weeks. Which, after Messi’sbarca real era-defining, award-winning, 91-goal 2012, comes as a bit of a relief. He’s good, but enough already. Messi’s Barcelona is undefeated in the league, and with two Champions League titles, four La Liga championships and the odd Official FIFA Triumph[1] under its belt, the team is arguably (because these things are always arguable) the greatest of modern times.

At this point, the ins and outs of Barcelona’s recent history are common knowledge: how homegrown players like Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Puyol, Valdes, Pedro, Busquets and Messi gelled in Barca’s legendary academy; how Zlatan Ibrahimovich, one of the most talented players of his generation, simply couldn’t adjust to Barca’s selfless passing style and eventually fell out with Pep Guardiola (supposedly the nicest man in football, so the joke was definitely on Zlatan); how Spain, a perennial underachiever for most of its history, suddenly became world and European champions, thanks mostly to the same homegrown players (minus Messi) who boarded together as kids. It’s impossible to understand the last five years of football history without first understanding Barcelona. Since 2008, virtually everything that’s happened on the European football scene has happened because of Guardiola-era Barca.

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Ninety Minutes From The Sack

Last week, Manchester United unveiled a statue of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Bronze-Fergie’s hands are di matteofolded across bronze-Fergie’s chest, and while bronze-Fergie seems to be missing flesh-Fergie’s legendary watch, the sculptor looks to have done a pretty accurate job. Ferguson has coached United for more than 25 years. In that time, ten Liverpool managers have come and gone. Among the top English clubs (sorry, Everton), only Arsenal has a coach whose longevity rivals Sir Alex’s, and even he trails Fergie by a decade.

Ferguson is the last survivor of a dying era. Last month, Mark Hughes of Queens Park Rangers and Roberto Di Matteo of Chelsea were both fired after less than a year at their respective clubs. Hughes’ sacking came after a disappointing start to QPR’s season, but Chelsea won the Champions League earlier this year, and, at the time of Di Matteo’s dismissal, was only four points off the top of the Premier League. The team was also playing attractive football, which, for Chelsea – a club whose blunt, bullying, borderline-racist players[1] have been intimidating the West Broms of this world for about seven years – is not so much highly unusual as highly suspicious.

At least 90 percent of Di Matteo’s downfall had more to do with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and his bizarre, illogical management than it did with Di Matteo himself. Abramovich is an entertainingly shady Russian billionaire whose penchant for firing managers who probably don’t deserve to be fired has turned him into a bit of a cartoon enemy. There are probably lots of kind, humble Chelsea supporters who are deeply ashamed of their inability to hate Abramovich, and who spend at least a couple of minutes each day pondering this moral failure[2]. Without Ambramovich, Chelsea wouldn’t fire managers on a regular basis: his bizarre egomania forces the sackings, and his billions fund the big severance checks that departing managers take with them as a sort of consolation prize[3]. But remove Ambramovich from the equation, and Chelsea is a mid-table team. The Stamford Bridge faithful is obligated to love him.

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The Biggest Mess in Major League Soccer

Major League Soccer’s 19-team league season ends in a one-month, winner-takes-all playoff competition designed to generate a crazy amount of fun in a short period of time, but not necessarily to hand the cup to the team that, by any European standard, is truly the best in the land. In 2010, the un-fancied Colorado Rapids rose from sixth seed to beat FC Dallas, the most successful regular-season team, in the MLS Cup final. Real Salt Lake had done something similar the year before, and, even further back, teams like the New England Revolution had prided themselves on season-defying mid-October bursts that, almost inevitably, ended in cup-final appearances

These stories don’t illustrate the beauty of underdog successes. Contrary to popular belief, underdog successes are never “good for the game,” unless you think that stripmining the game’s biggest stars from the game’s biggest showcase is positive and exciting and worth dancing in front of the TV about. Rather, these stories reveal the inherent randomness of the MLS playoffs: Since the competition admits nine of its 19 teams into the post-season, there’s always a chance that one of the lesser lights will put together a run and knock out a more established force.

The 2012 MLS Cup final is still about a week and a half away, but one team we know won’t be playing in it is the San Jose Earthquakes, whose league-topping regular-season performances counted for nothing in the Western Conference semi-finals. But arguably the most shocking casualty of this year’s playoffs is the New York Red Bulls – not shocking in the sense that no one expected New York to be eliminated, but shocking in the holy-shit-they-really-screwed-up sense, where you’ve got your jaw hanging open even before the final whistle sounds, and then two days and a lot of internal therapy later your jaw’s still hanging open (and, at this point, people are starting to stare) because it was just that mesmerizingly gruesome.

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It’s Like Watching Brazil!

The 1970 World Cup was almost a religious experience. The tournament has gone down in football history as the greatest, most exhilarating exhibition of attacking play ever, and anyone who dares to say otherwise, or so the argument goes, is either “too young to remember” or “too fickle to be taken seriously.” This was the stage on which Brazil’s legendary striker Pele redefined the game, playing football with more exuberance and creativity than anyone before or since. It was the moment when the cult of the Brazilian – football’s worship of anyone with decent ball skills and a life story that starts with kicking soda cans in a favela – took root.

When non-football fans think about football, they generally think about Brazil. That has a lot to do with Pele, arguably the best player of all-time, and – largely because he devoted the last three or four years of his career to self-promotion – a recognizable star. People still love him even though, in the years since 1977, when his playing career formally ended with his second retirement, he’s demonstrated just how banal a retired athlete with guaranteed lifetime fame and a cushy administrative position can be. His post-career achievements include winning FIFA’s Player of the Century gong amid controversy – it took official intervention to stop Diego Maradona from walking away with the title – and deflecting criminal charges after his company robbed UNICEF. Still, clips of his greatest goals are a must for any TV montage worth its salt, and the image of a shirtless Pele lifting the World Cup is one of football’s most iconic.

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The Beautiful Weirdness of the Community Shield

Every August, one week before Premier League kickoff, the previous season’s FA Cup winner faces off against the reigning league champion in the FA Community Shield. Manchester United has won the annual curtain-raiser 19 times, more often than any other team, but Sir Alex Ferguson, who engineered half of those triumphs, doesn’t consider it a legitimate trophy. (Then again, Fergie can afford to dismiss ten victories; he’s the game’s most decorated coach.) The Community Shield is probably the most ambiguous thing football has ever produced, and, in a sport that still hasn’t settled the handball rule, that’s saying something.

Originally, the Community Shield wasn’t the Community Shield at all; it was the Sheriff of London Charity Shield, and instead of pitting two money-grubbing big-time teams against each other in a sponsored-by-McDonald’s spectacle, it served as a 90-minute diplomatic necessity, fought between a team from the Amateur Football Association and one of its professional counterparts. Scottish whiskey distiller Baron Dewar, an early promotional expert who also founded the Theatrical Sports Five Miles Cycling Championship Shield, is credited with conceiving the event. The first-ever Sheriff of London Charity Shield match finished in a tie: at the end of regulation, Sheffield United (the professional representative) and Corinthians (the amateur representative) had each scored a single goal. With United unwilling to play extra time, the two teams elected to “share” the six-foot trophy. It was all a far cry from Mickey D’s.

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