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I put in for a personal day for April 27, 2009.  It was rejected, fairly, under the clause in my teacher contract that states that personal days cannot be used to extend school vacations.  However, the superintendent reserves the right to make exceptions.  Here is my plea.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I will be traveling to Manchester to see Manchester United play Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on the 25th.  To be back at work on Monday, I’d have to fly out of Manchester the next day, which presents a problem.  Any American who follows English football knows that the games take place on Saturdays, Sundays, Monday nights, and occasionally on Wednesdays.  The schedule is released in the summer but is hardly in its final form at that time.  No, the Premier League, much like the NFL, employs the “flexible schedule”, which allows games to be moved with only seven days notice.  That makes booking a flight home barather difficult.   The game, currently scheduled for Saturday, could possibly be moved to Sunday, so if I bought a ticket for a Sunday flight, I’d be out of luck.  Flights to North America tend to leave in the morning, and finding an evening flight has been impossible.   If the game were guaranteed to take place on Saturday, there’d be no problem.  It seems the safest way to make plans would be to fly on Monday, but that would require missing a day of work.  Therefore, I put in for the personal day, which has already been rejected.

This is a trip I’ve been planning for years.  I took on after school detention duty, a job that almost no teacher wants, to help pay for its hefty cost.  If I could go in the summer, I would, but the summer is the offseason for soccer.  Believe me, my wife would be a whole lot happier going to see Wimbledon than going to see Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, the new FA Museum, and Old Trafford.  The weather would be much more pleasant in the summer months, but I’m not going for the weather.   

I started this blog as an example to my Essay Writing class, and the concluding experience is this trip to Manchester.  I’d be willing to write about my trip for the school paper, too.  While I’m bargaining, if I’m allowed to use this one personal day, I won’t use the remaining one I have for this year.  In the two and a half years that I’ve been employed here, the vast majority of days I’ve missed are due to the deaths of my sister and grandmother.  I’ve never been late and I’m very good at my job. 

When I told friends and colleagues of my quandary with scheduling my trip, some told me to “just call in sick.”  I said no.  I have a standard.  I only call in sick when I actually am sick.  I don’t lie, I don’t “bend the truth”, I don’t cut in line, and I don’t cheat.  If I’m going to get this day off, I want to be honest and straightforward about it.  If I don’t get the day, so be it.  I’ll schedule the trip, schedule the flight out of Manchester for Sunday, and pray the date does not change.  If it changes, I’ll figure out what do do then.

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Separated at Birth?

  Actor Tim Roth…                     and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich

 

  Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry…               and Lost’s Matthew Fox

Everton’s Lee Carsley…           and his teammate Andrew Johnson

Chelsea’s Avram Grant…                 and Star Wars’ Boss Nass

 

Striker Michael Owen…             and actor Michael Biehn

 

United’s Carlos Tevez…                and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer

 

Everton skipper David Moyes…         and Rome actor Kevin McKidd

Legendary/tragic footballer Paul Gascoigne…          and The Thing

Ageless Aryan keeper Oliver Kahn…and actor Thomas Hayden Church

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I will never curse black clouds on the horizon again.  If not for rainfall, Chelsea, and not United, are champions of Europe today.  If not for a sodden pitch and an unplanted plant foot, and I’m writing a very different column today.  A penalty shootout is the worst possible way to end a long Champions League season, but I will say the drama of the finale kept my heart thudding like the kick pedal on my Rock Band drum kit.  Rivalry aside, my sympathy goes out to John Terry, a great captain and a class player who doesn’t deserve to live the rest of his life wondering if longer cleats or a slower approach could have made him a European champion. 

     United was outplayed for the majority of the match.  Consider they could easily have been up 3-0 at the half.  Ronaldo’s precision header found the net, but United missed opportunities on Rooney’s dead-on pass into the box that skidded by Carlos Tevez, and Cech’s brilliant double stop of a Tevez header and Carrick’s follow-up. Tevez, playing a head game of anticipatory football, had come off stride, expecting his defender to reach the ball before him on Rooney’s cross, but he fooled himself and came up short.  Running on to that ball, it’s a near guarantee that Tevez slides it into the back of the net.  Of course, only a fortuitous bounce off of Rio Ferdinand’s turned back allows Lampard a tap-in goal just before the whistle, but that’s the nature of the beautiful game. 

     In the second half and extra time, Chelsea were clearly the better side.  Outshooting United nearly two to one, they deserved to be in the lead at the end of regulation.  John Terry in particular was huge in this game, making a number of plays in the first half and a game-saving body-moving-one-way-head-moving-another save on Ryan Giggs left-footed extra time shot.  Chelsea’s defenders can be proud today.  They held Rooney and Tevez in check admirably, and aside from Ronaldo’s headed goal, managed to continually frustrate the best player in the world.  Offensively, only two shots that clanged off the post prevented Manchester United from failing in their quest for the double.

     Penalty shootouts are desperately un-American.  Even the rest of the world can agree they are no way to conclude a grueling season or tournament.  How ironic that the last World Cup in America was decided on kicks!  After playing an entire season, to have the competition come down to what is largely a matter of luck—guessing correctly—undersells the athletes and the competition itself.  I don’t care if it was one-thirty in the morning.  It’s the last game of the season.  Play until someone scores a legitimate goal!  I also don’t understand why so many tournaments eschew the golden goal.  Nothing is more infuriating than having a team go ahead in extra time and for there to be an equalizer, and then the game goes to penalties anyway.  Golden goal should always be in effect, with the referee’s discretion to determine adequate possession.  As far as I’m concerned, if both sides touch the ball in extra time, a golden goal stands up, and the tourney ends.  The inherent drama in that and the instant celebration that would ensue are just as dramatic as a penalty kick finale.  As far as player fatigue and substitutions, allow an additional sub for every fifteen minutes of extra time, and if the game goes deep enough—here’s a revolutionary idea—allow now-rested players to retake the field.  Every football pundit I read writes the same thing about penalties deciding a final—it’s always the least desirable way to end a match.

     Un-American or not, the penalty shootout did contain a great deal of drama, from Cristiano Ronaldo’s stutter-step miss to Terry’s unfortunate hydroplane.  That’s the nature of the PK—the tide turns in a matter of moments, and the horns of the goat grow freshly on a new forehead.  As much as I hate Chelsea, it’s hard to despise a competitor like John Terry, who kept Chelsea in the game in the first half with several interceptions of dangerous crosses, and outright saved Chelsea’s hash with his outrageously athletic header to deflect Giggs’ open net finisher.  At the end of the match, the poignant scene between Terry and his manager, Avram Grant, was enough to soften even the most staunch United supporter’s rancor.  Terry, looking the very definition of the horse in the joke (Aside—A horse walks into a bar.  The bartender says, “Why the long face?”), was comforted not only by his own teammates, but by classy rivals like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, veterans who surely recognize the cruelty of fate, the assiduous dedication needed to win silver, and the pain of watching limited opportunities pass by.  Equally moving was the empathetic shows from members of the same national team.  Ronaldo and Nani went out of their ways to offer a pat on the back to Carvalho, and the audience can surely recognize that no player wished for this ending to the season.  Cruelty, thy name is penalties.    
    
     For there to be any doubt of Avram Grant’s future at Chelsea is wretched. Surely the gentleman deserves a shot at bringing this team back to contending for the top spot in the Premier League.  Surely he has proven himself in European play.  There is absolutely no shame in losing a Champions League final on penalties, especially when he was within a few slippery blades of grass of winning!  There is a holdover of European anti-Semitism at work, especially with the Eastern European Roman Abramovich sitting in the owner’s box.  It’s hard to call any anti-Semitism a “holdover”, especially when it occurs in that area of the world, where hating Jews has such a long and bloody history.  I might be being unfair, but given Chelsea’s history of incidents involving Chelsea supporters, I suspect that Grant’s lack of favor is at least partly related to his Judaism.  I have been extremely impressed by the man since he took over for Jose Mourinho.  He took out of form/out of favor players like Michael Ballack and got the most out of them late in the season.  Didier Drogba, too, after missing much of the season with injuries and the African Cup of Nations, found the better side of his mercurial nature and contributed in making the Premiership title race more than just a formality.  If Grant does not return, another club would be wise to snap him up quickly.

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      For years, come April break, my wife Audra and I have arranged a dogsitter for Daisy, packed up our beach clothes and sandals, and sojourned to sunny Florida.  It’s a welcome break from the New England weather, which at that point in the year is a mix of chilly and rainy, following a winter characterized by short, snowy, bleak, frigid days.

     Next April will be different.  Next April the plan is to travel to England and attend at least two football matches.  For many years, my sporting dream has been to attend a match at Old Trafford, and it looks like next year it will finally happen.  Still, there are potential pitfalls: the schedule, money, travel arrangements, tickets, my wife’s tolerance, and the EPL standings. 

     First is the schedule, which won’t be released until mid-June.  If it turns out that United’s schedule won’t align correctly with my own school break, then the trip is off.  I’m not going to see United play an away game, and while going to see Arsenal at their new stadium is a secondary goal, I won’t be satisfied by that moving into the main position.  No, it must be United and it must be at home.  If the schedule cooperates, then the plan is to fly into London on a Saturday and attend a Sunday match at either Stamford Bridge or Emirates, but if those teams had played on Saturday, seeing West Ham or Fulham will suffice.  We’ll follow that with a few days enjoying London, seeing the sights, taking in a show, or generally doing things that my wife wants to do, since I will be dragging her there primarily to watch football.

     Again, depending on the Premier League schedule, the next step is to catch a midweek game at another Premier League city, hopefully on the way to Manchester.   Aston Villa might be a nice midlands stop to make for a night.  After the rare Wednesday night game, it’s on to spend the rest of our visit in Manchester and Liverpool.  I’ve been to Liverpool before, as a twelve year old, and I’m looking forward to going back, this time with my wife, who is a huge Beatles fan.  We’ll do the touristy thing (the Cavern, Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Magical Mystery Tour, etc.) just like I did in 1984.  I also want to see the cathedral in Manchester, and take in some local history there, of course.  Being a Stone Roses/Smiths/Happy Mondays fan, I’m eager to get to know Manchester, the capital of the North.  Old Trafford tours are available on non-gamedays, and I’ll have to go on that.  The whole trip has been building to this concluding event, and the final weekend will finally give me a chance to see United play on their home field. 

     How much will this cost me?  Let me put it this way.  I am writing this as I sit in the detention room of my school, monitoring miscreants and perenially tardy students as they serve their debt to our institution.  I took this (profoundly negative) job to help raise a few extra bucks for this trip.  I figure the two of us will spend between four and six thousand dollars for this trip, given the state of the American dollar and the significant cost of tickets.  Once the schedule is published, and I contact travel agencies that specialize in these types of packages, I’ll have a better estimate.  This summer I plan to contact Manchester United’s affiliated travel agency–Travelcare–and find out more about how to do this affordably. 

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It came right down to the final few minutes of the final game of the season, but yesterday, Manchester United wrapped up another spectacular season by celebrating a League Championship.  Chelsea, needing a win and a Man U point drop, settled for a one all tie against Bolton. 

A foul in the penalty area set up Cristiano Ronaldo goal from the spot, and a deft pass from Wayne Rooney allowed Ryan Giggs to walk in alone on Wigan goaltender Chris Kirkland.  Giggs, playing in his (approximately) twelve millionth match for United, slid the ball past the helpless keeper to ensure Manchester’s celebration.

Celebrating a championship is nothing new to the people of Boston.  In my 35 years, I’ve celebrated three Super Bowl victories (2001, 2003, & 2004), 2 World Series Championships (2004 & 2007), and 3 NBA Championships (1981, 1984, & 1986).  I was born in 1972, in the afterglow of the last Bruins championship.  There are plenty of other cities in this country that would love to have that kind of 35-year achievement.  On average, that’s a championship in one of the major sports every four and a half years.  Imagine being assured of a championship parade at least twice a decade.  Imagine what such a guarantee would mean to a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan!  Cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles are so spoiled in that American sports (like their European counterparts) are driven by big money, and as such the biggest cities that generate the biggest revenues tend to see the biggest rewards, namely trophies.

Manchester United has won an astonishing ten Premier League titles in the short history (16 years in its present formation) of the league.  That’s more than half of the total titles–it’s five-eighths, to be exact.  I will admit, it’s kind of lame that the team that I follow, the team I consider myself a fan of, is winning so often.  I’d won’t say they are winning easily, but they are winning often.

It’s a drag that I really can’t be any part of the celebration, since I live 3000 miles west of Manchester, but it’s still nice for my team to win.  Given the Patriots’ collapse in the Super Bowl, I don’t think I could have taken another heartbreaker had United lost and Chelsea won on the final day.  Missing out on the party, or even having other fans to watch with, isn’t so big a deal, because of course had they lost, I wouldn’t have had to hear about it the way I did when my obnoxious Giant fan brother-in-law called at 11 PM to gloat.  Fandom works both ways.  I don’t have anyone to celebrate with, but I also don’t have to suffer as publicly in the face of a high-profile loss.

Congratulations to the Red half of Manchester.  I wish I could be there to celebrate, but it will have to wait ’til next year.  Here’s hoping there’s even more to celebrate when the 21st rolls around, and the Red Devils have the chance to send Chelsea home without a single piece of silverware this season.

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Three weeks from now, the first all-English final in Champions League history will take place.  While some will bemoan an all-Premier League final as less than representative of the best intentions of the Champions League, the next three weeks offer a rare opportunity.  Manchester United and Chelsea will compete on two different levels.  First, they’ll compete in England for points and the Premier League title, with United only slightly at an advantage due to goal differential.  On May 21st, the teams vie for the title of champion of Europe, in a direct match-up at the neutral site of Moscow.  This game will provide a rematch of last week’s, when Chelsea outworked United and got a deserved 2-1 victory on Michael Ballack’s penalty kick goal in the 85th minute.

 

Though I am a United supporter, in European play I always support English teams, so in a way an all-English final is win-win for me.  On the other hand, I hate Chelsea.  It’s always dangerous to characterize a very large group of people, but I’ve heard too many anti-Semitic and racist comments from Chelsea fans to ever consider the group less than despicable.  Avram Grant has been buffeted by rumors of his imminent firing all year, and has never gotten the credit he deserves for stepping into the shoes of the popular and charismatic Jose Mourinho.  That task could never be easy, given Mourinho’s success with the club, but on top of all he’s handled with aplomb, Grant must hear anti-Jewish chants from his own club’s supporters.  Grant certainly deserves to be back next season, given the comeback Chelsea has pulled, bridging five points in the past few weeks.  He also deserves to hear those horrific chants replaced by something more fitting a civilized nation, but sadly, there’s little chance of that happening.

 

There are so many compelling leagues in the world’s most popular sport.  Picking a league to devotedly follow is difficult.  It’s impossible to follow them all, unless it’s your job as a football journalist.  For me, which league to follow depended on American television coverage.  On Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV, I have access to a limited amount of games from many different leagues.   In South America, Brazil, Columbia, and Argentina boast highly competitive leagues, but many of the best native players play in Europe.  GolTV broadcasts the German league, which boasts many of the German players who always contend for World Cups.  German powerhouses like Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen dominate the league and acquit themselves ably in European competition.  France’s Ligue 1 powers historically include Marseilles, Lyon, Nancy Lorraine, and St. Etienne, but as is the case in South America, the best French players play in other leagues. 

 

The Spanish, Italian, and English leagues offer the most coverage for American football fans.  These also happen to be the best leagues in the world, offering by far the largest sampling of the world’s most exciting and skilled (not to mention richest) players, and the clubs that continually compete for Europe’s most prestigious honor.  Spain’s elite, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are among the most valuable clubs in world football.  Italian clubs like Juventus, Roma, Inter, and AC Milan offer stacked international rosters, plus nearly every Italian who played on the 2006 World Cup championship team.  Finally, the English Premier League is exemplified by its “Big Four”: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, and of course Liverpool, the most decorated English club in European history.

 

While I keep an eye on the other leagues and make certain to tune in to derbies and high profile match-ups, I dedicate the vast majority of my time for viewing soccer to the English League.  First of all, the language is a huge factor, and having commentators, managers, and players who speak English helps my understanding of the game.  The English league also gets the most coverage on American television and the majority of column inches of coverage on American sports websites, such as espn.com and si.com.  My favorite players from Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, namely Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Ballack, and Steven Gerrard, also play in the English league.  Many of the English national team’s newer stars, like David Bentley, Theo Walcott, Gareth Barry, and Jolean Lescott play for the other teams in the Premiership. 

 

Another reason for following the English game is its style of play.  The English, who are often credited with inventing the modern game of football, play a very physical, aggressive game that still allows for sublime skill.  Witness the contrast of a Rooney and Ronaldo pairing.  Rooney, the British bulldog, tenaciously covets ball possession in the final third of the pitch, and is nearly impossible to knock off the ball.  Ronaldo often flops to the ground at the slightest of touches, and draws plenty of free kicks in dangerous areas.  Ronaldo will finesse his way by defenders and Rooney will attempt to sledgehammer through them.  Dogged will and hard, physical fouls pair nicely with athleticism and elegance in the English game.

 

Finally, having other people in the area who also follow the English league helps.  There’s another teacher in my school—a genuine Englishman—who follows Tottenham, and is able to offer insights based on a lifetime of following football and actually attending games.  For as many Man U, Liverpool, and Chelsea shirts I see on the backs of folks in the Boston area, virtually none of them have ever been to a game in England.  I will be remedying this gap in my sporting resume next year, when in April my wife and I will travel to England, and hopefully take in three games in a week.  Look for details about the long-awaited trip to England in my next entry!

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In my last entry, I detailed my reasoning for proclaiming Cristiano Ronaldo the best active player, and since then, he’s received the Professional Football Association’s Player of the Year Award for the second year in a row.  Whether he wins the FIFA POY award remains to be seen, but I’d wager a hefty sum he’ll be collecting that silver soon.

While Ronaldo takes the prize for best club footballer, I feel it necessary to mention the most valuable international footballer I’ve seen play in the past year.  While he may not be as flashy as Ronaldo, Juan Roman Riquelme’s deadball striking, playmaking, and defense drove his Argentina squad to the final of the Copa America, where they lost to Brazil.  Having watched the entire tournament, I expected a much better showing in the final from Argentina, but it seemed to me that only Riquelme showed up, and even his talents were not enough when facing off against Kaka, Ronaldinho, and Brazil’s other superstars.

While Riquelme has had an up and down professional career—up with Villareal, down with Barcelona—on the international stage he has shined brightly, even when threatening to be eclipsed by striking stars the likes of Carlos Tevez, Hernan Crespo, and Lionel Messi.  No player was more invaluable than Riquelme in the Copa America, and in international play since then, both World Cup qualifiers and friendlies, he’s been a player that must be stopped to have any hope of beating Argentina.  Since he plays his club ball in South America, he largely goes ignored when award season rolls around, especially in non-World Cup years, but I’ll break the mold and say he deserves recognition for his performance last summer on the international stage.

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