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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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Save your work.  I say it so many times it’s lost all meaning (but not really).  To make a lo sto sho, I already wrote this entry, last Wednesday when my freshmen were taking a test on Of Mice and Men.  I wrote my Greatest Ever, Part 3 post directly into the blog entry box on my homepage, but didn’t realize there was a time-out feature, and when I hit “SAVE” I had to re-enter my password.  By doing so, I lost every single word I’d written.  Ouch.  ‘Twas like a punch to the, er, gut.  From now on, I’m writing in Microsoft Word and pasting over when I’m finished, and only after I’ve saved, of course.

 

The Greatest Ever, part 3

 

    Having the World Cup in America was an amazing opportunity, and I’m sorry to say I did not have tickets to attend a game.  Being twenty-one years old, fresh out of college, with no job prospects, and an English degree, I had no money for a ticket.  I didn’t have money for rent or food, so a World Cup ticket was not high on my priority list.  However, I did manage to watch every game I could, even with the problem of my brother’s wedding in Chicago intruding mid-event.  Never again will I drive to Chicago!  I’ll sell a kidney for a coach ticket before I make that hellish journey again.  Despite the fact that the 1994 World Cup featured the most disappointing final (Brazil vs. Italy) ever, a lackluster, play-not-to-lose nil-nil tie that went to penalties, the rest of the tournament was riveting.  Roberto Baggio, Italy’s star goal-scorer, carried them to the final, and was clearly the best player in the tournament, though he sailed a penalty kick over the crossbar when he had a chance to keep Italy alive against Brazil.  Baggio’s failure at the last was when I decided that a World Cup final should never be decided by penalties, and I’ll even expand that to any final of a major tournament.  The managers should be allowed an extra three substitutions at the end of every thirty minutes of extra time, and the players should play until a legitimate goal is scored.  For Baggio to go down as the goat of that tournament for missing a penalty still bothers me.  I’m not exactly a fan of Italian football, with their conservative, defensive style and tendency for one-nil victories, but Baggio is too often remembered for missing that kick in the final, and not for his sublime play in the games leading to it.  It’s shameful, really.

    In any case, 1994’s World Cup hooked me.  In the time since, I’ve watched all US coverage of major tournaments, mainly the World Cups of ’98, ’02, and ’06, and the European Cups of ’00 and ’04.  I’ve watched quite a bit of club football as well.  As an American, there are many disadvantages to following the world’s most popular sport, but one advantage is that you get to pick your team to follow, since Americans are not limited by geographical boundaries.  I have to root for the Sox, Bruins, Pats, and Celtics, or I’d be removed from the family and cast out by my friends.  But when I went to pick a club team, it was wide open.  First, I’d decide on a league.  No problem—it had to be the English Premier League.  The players and managers spoke English, and there were actually some games shown on American television.  Serie A was at the time considered the best league in the world, but I’d never seen AC Milan, Roma, Lazio, or Inter on television, so even if they sported skilled players the likes of Maradona, Baggio and Maldini, Italian teams were tough to find and tedious to follow.  Remember that the Internet was in its infancy in 1994, and research was more difficult and expensive then. 

    Once I decided that it would be the English League, it was time to decide on a team.  The English Premier League is really three leagues at once.  You’ve got the top four—Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United.  They play against the other sixteen teams, but at the end of a season, it’s rare that the top four teams are not some order of those four.  Then there are the ever-rotating bottom teams of the league.  They have a mini-league to decide who gets to “stay up”, instead of being relegated to the Championship, which is the next division down.  Dropping a division is a major demotion in terms of respect, and more importantly, money.  In between are the teams that are perennial middlers—too good to be relegated, but not good or rich enough to compete with the big four.  These are the Tottenhams, Manchester Cities, West Hams, Blackburns, Middlesbroughs, and Newcastles of the league.  In looking at these three distinct sub-divisions, I wanted to support a team that got some coverage on American TV, but I also wanted to support a team that WON every once in a while.

    Keep in mind that at the time I was choosing a team in 1994, we in Boston had been in a major championship drought.  The last title had come to the Celtics in 1986, and I wasn’t even a big basketball fan. Essentially, I’d never seen a Boston team I truly loved win a championship.  The closest I’d come was watching Bill Buckner let a World Series championship go between his legs on a fateful October’s eve.  I finally had a chance to choose a winning side.

    At first I figured I’d support Liverpool, because I was a huge Beatles fan, but their fans were notorious as the most hostile bunch of miscreants and hooligans in all of Europe, so I could hardly support the club whose fans were directly involved in the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters.  I realize that it’s simplistic to blame the deaths at those locations to the Liverpudlians, as many factors contributed to the tragedies, but Liverpool fans must shoulder at least some of the blame.  Their reputation is not entirely undeserved. 

    Chelsea also presented issues.  Their fans were given to reprehensible behavior, too.  They made apelike hooting sounds and threw bananas when black players touched the ball.  They even did this to their own players!  Without a second thought, Chelsea was out. 

    It was down to Arsenal and Manchester United.  I didn’t know much about Arsenal other than they had a cool name, and were known as the Gunners.  Being a Boston Irish kid, I knew the Irish star Roy Keane played for United.  Plus, I’d been into the Manchester music scene for years, and was a fan of bands like Happy Mondays, Joy Division, New Order,  The Stone Roses, and my favorite band ever, The Smiths.  While the guitarist of The Smiths, Johnny Marr, was a City fan, lead singer Morrissey was a fan of United.  Finally, I had heard of the Munich Air Disaster of 1958.  I was always scared of flying and fascinated by plane crashes, especially those that claimed celebrity lives.  Yeah, it sounds pretty creepy now, doesn’t it?  Anyhow, the crash suffered by United in 1958 was one the worst travel related disasters suffered by a sports team, right up there with the 1970 Marshall football team’s horrific crash.  The survivors of that crash went on to win the European Cup ten years later, and survivor Bobby Charlton, the team’s captain, was a member of the English 1966 World Cup championship team.  The story of United’s triumph over adversity and the way they chose to remember their fallen teammates touched me.  I had decided.  I would be a fan of Manchester United.

    Since 1994, I’ve followed a lot of club soccer.  I saw the coming and going of David Beckham, the triple in 1999, CANTONA, and I’ve come to understand the importance of a manager as gifted as Sir Alex Ferguson.  By following United, I’ve seen the best football in Europe, and England in particular.

    Do I need more qualifications to be taken seriously when I offer my assessment of the greatest footballer of all time, and the best one right now?  I also read about the game.  As a teacher and devoted nerd, I always believe that the best way to learn about something is to read about it.  I’ve read some fantastic books on football, my favorite being Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by the Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano.  It’s an account of a lifetime of following the game, written in a sparing, lyrical style.  How typical of a poet!  It’s brilliant, touching, and elegant.  Another great book is The Ball is Round, which offers a global history of the game.  The writing is more akin to a history text, but for sheer information, the voluminous tome has no peer.  For a look into the lives of the English yobs who somewhat follow the sport, but are really more interested in bashing teeth and inflicting property damage, check out Among the Thugs.  It’s the story of an American journalist who befriend these ruffians, sees their hidden humanity, understands their need to exceed, finds himself getting a thrill from being part of an unruly mob, gets pummeled by an Italian cop, and finally decides that hooliganism is for petty villains who have nothing else in their lives to make them feel empowered.  It’s a powerful book about getting wrapped up in lawlessness, only to utterly reject it in the end.  

    On top of my reading, I’ve seen the documentary The History of Football, which is a seven hour opus narrated by Terence Stamp, who most Americans will only recognize as General Zod from Superman 2.  The documentary does require a serious time commitment, but offers some rare footage and a worldwide look at the game.  It’s definitely worth checking out.

    I’m out of time for this entry, and I think I’ve accomplished my goal.  I am qualified to give my opinion on the best footballer of all time.  For next time then!

   

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