Are You Ready for Some Fútbol?
For the faithful followers of this summer’s World Cup tournament, seeing Iker Casillas triumphantly lift the trophy felt more bittersweet than the day after Christmas--you have to wait another four years until the next World Cup. But no need to weep because of soccer withdrawal, there is a remedy: the Champion’s League. The Champion's League, for those of you unfamiliar with the world of club soccer, is the uppermost crust of the professional game, where the top players and the most storied clubs in Europe clash every other week to establish who is numero uno on the continent. For the past several decades, the European clubs have been the dominant force in the world, as they have the spending power to attract the the highest-caliber players (a process fascinating in and of itself-Manchester City, for instance, spent close to $200 million dollars last summer alone on new talent- and that's not even considering the exorbitant wages the players pull down). As a result, the winner of the competition is the de facto world champ. Following a tournament format similar to the World Cup, the first half of the season is spent in group matches: four teams are randomly grouped together, from which two will progress to the knockout rounds. The competition, now well underway, just finished the third turn of the group. Here are the interesting subplots so far: José Mourinho is an arrogant, egocentric maniac. And he just may make history.
Yes, he's obsessed with himself. Yes, he's infuriatingly good at getting the press to eat out of his hand. And yes, he changes teams more often than Brett Favre- but there's no denying that at 47, "The Special One" is one of the most successful managers of the modern era. Having won his first Champion's trophy in 2004 with Porto, last year he doubled his tally after clinically guiding long-suffering Inter Milan past Euro heavyweights Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich (each of whom went on to win their respective leagues), and becoming only the third manager to claim the cup with two separate teams.
This season he holds court at the Santiago Bernabéu where he fully intends to become the first manager to win the trophy three times and the first to win it back to back. Madrid President Florentino Pérez has spared no expense in providing his coaching wizard the team he wants, purchasing the services of astute, technical young fantasistas like Ángel Di María and Mesut Özil, while bulking up a porous rear guard with the heft of Sami Khedira and Ricardo Carvalho. Factor in talent like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzaloa Higuaín and the (convalescent) Kaká, and you have perhaps the best starting 11 on the planet (on paper at least). The real question remains as to whether "The Special One" can break down so many titanic egos and forge them into a functioning, lethal mechanism. And of course, win himself some more glory.
The waning of the Italian giants and the rise of the German Bundesliga.
In the '90s, the Italian Serie A was touted as the premier competition in the world: icons like Marco van Basten, Gabriel Batistuta and Zinedine Zidane all piled their trade on the old peninsula. 20 years later, however, a combination of fiscal irresponsibility, lack of infrastructural investment, continuing violence and match-fixing scandals has seen the league flounder, falling to third place in the UEFA ranking coeffecient system despite having won the competition three times in the last decade (and currently holding the title). Meanwhile, the German Bundesliga, boasting the highest average attendance rate on the continent, as well as a dozen brand new stadiums from the 2006 World Cup, has quietly usurped the third place position, meaning, come 2012, only three Italian teams will access the Champions, while the Germans will have four. That is unless the Italians pull some magic out of a hat. Look for the Roma-Bayern and the Inter-Bremen games to have an extra spark for just that reason.
Goodbye Liverpool, Hello Tottenham.
The past few years have not been kind to Liverpool. Overburdened with debt, underfunded by the now-defunct American ownership, the Reds had one of their worst seasons ever last year, scraping to a measly 7th place finish and barely qualifying for the Europa League, much less the Champion's. Instead, their spot was nabbed Tottenham Hotspurs, Champion's League neophytes and the third London-based team to qualify this year. While very likely to progress to the knockout round, whether Harry Redknapp can lead the team past more pedigreed opposition remains to be seen. Reigning champs Inter Milan sliced Spurs to pieces, slotting 4 in the opening 35 minutes, though second half individual heroics from Gareth Bale saved them excessive blushes. Group A, with Inter, Tottenham and Werder all vying for those two spots, looks to be one of the most competitive groups out there, so it's anyone's guess how it will all play out. Tune in next Tuesday and Wednesday for round four, and remember, ask not for whom the vuvuzela sounds, it sounds for thee.