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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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All too often the discussion of the best player in the world is limited to goalscorers.  Goalies?  No.  Holding midfielders?  Nay.  Stalwart backs?  Never.  The main complaint that Americans have about soccer is the lack of scoring, and in a similar fashion, the soccer-appreciative world goes away disappointed from a nil-nil draw, while understanding that those score lines are part of the game, and that the game is not necessarily defined by its final tally.  The simple fact is that while spectacular tricks and pinpoint long, diagonal passes are recognized for their importance and flair by football fans, goals, with their relative rarity, take on even more importance in a sometimes scoring-starved sport.  FIFA, which is charged with the promotion and health of the game, somewhat counter-intuitively rewards goalscorers in their Player of the Year award.  Since 1991, only three defenders have finished in the top three.  Fabio Cannavaro broke through in 2006 with the only POTY win by a defender, riding a ferocious championship performance in the World Cup.  Roberto Carlos and the ageless Paolo Maldini were runners-up after career years. 

 

Even though scorers are favored, many midfielders, invariably of the attacking variety, have won in recent years.  Zidane, Kaka, Ronaldinho, and Luis Figo lead the list of recent winners who fit this mold.  It’s fair to say that with the most diverse role, a midfielder is a logical pick that represents a well-rounded player, capable of creation, attack, and defense.

 

I have other criteria for my own selection.  I respect players who play with passion.  While they may not have the pace, the finishing ability, or creativity of the truly elite player, dogged footballers like Wayne Rooney, Gennaro Gattuso, or Nemanja Vidic appeal to me on a different level.  Like the ice hockey defenseman who drops in front of a 100 mile-per-hour slapshot to ensure it does not reach the net, these players are the gutty grinders who sometimes go unappreciated.  That being said, none of those three deserves consideration for this award this year, though Rooney (who I’d hardly describe as underappreciated) will have his chance in the future, especially if he can lead England to the finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Gattuso has been out of form all year, and is one of the foremost reasons for AC Milan’s slip to mid-table this year, and their inability to defend their Champions League trophy.  Vidic is a beast who clashes heads so fiercely, so often, that I’m surprised he’s not a swollen, unrecognizable lump of scarred, misshapen flesh by the ends of most matches.

 

If you haven’t read my other posts, or haven’t figured it out already, I follow Manchester United as much as possible, even resorting to grainy, stop-action peer-to-peer internet connections to watch the games not televised on American TV.   To the best of my understanding, the English population has to pay for all the games, since the broadcast rights are extremely valuable and are held by BSkyB, a pay service.  If I could pay a reasonable amount (say $250-$300, which is an amount similar to NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL packages) to see every Manchester United game for the season in high definition, I’d sign a contract tomorrow.  I can’t devote all of my life for the Premier League package, nor could I afford the expected exorbitant fee, so I’ll have to make my “best active” judgment based on United’s opponents in the Premier League and Champions League.  I see about thirty United matches a year now, between Fox Soccer, ESPN, and the internet.  In addition to following United, I watch all the highlight shows on those channels, and I read SI.com and ESPN.com daily for more football news, so I’m certainly not limited to English football.  (Why am I so devoted to ensuring my credibility?)  I’m going to cheat a bit here on picking my “best right now” selection.  I’ll pick one man based on his international play in recent tournaments and friendlies, and I’ll pick the player who has separated himself from the pack in club football.

 

The only logical choice for club football is Cristiano Ronaldo.  If you want to complain about my United bias, now’s the time, but I will say that I thought Ronaldo did not deserve the award last year, and that it fittingly went to Kaka, a player of supreme grace who I was lucky enough to see play live in Foxboro in September.  If there is another indication that Ronaldo is the best player in the world right now, it’s expressed through media outlets.  No longer is Cristiano Ronaldo referred to as C. Ronaldo to differentiate him from the oft-injured, past-his-prime Brazilian striker just-plain-ole Ronaldo who played such a pivotal role in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win.  While Cristiano finished third to Lionel Messi and Kaka last year, this year the race for POTY is not going to be close.  It’s Ronaldo and everyone else.  Witness the swerving, drunken dead ball (dead drunk ball?) he struck against Portsmouth, a contender for goal of the year.  How about the between the legs, blind flick against Villa last month?  If Ronaldo gets plenty of credit for his goalscoring, he does not get enough for his ability to change the game by drawing defenders and opening up the pitch for his teammates to find space.  It’s fear that leads to that space—fear of being made to look foolish by a trick or a burst of speed.  Defenders confront a catch-22:  close on him and he may well draw a foul, leading to a free kick that he may put into the back of the net OR give him space and time and he’ll kill you in innumerable ways.  Witness Roma’s 7-1 Champions League destruction at Old Trafford in spring of 2007, where the Italian squad chose to give him space.  He created Michael Carrick’s opener, then scored a brace himself, and could have scored two more if not for saves from Roma’s besieged goalie.

 

If I have a complaint about Cristiano, it’s his on-pitch behavior.  His pretty-boy looks stand in sharp contrast to my preference for guys who look like bulldogs (Gattuso) and behave accordingly.  I was particularly annoyed when Ronaldo, who, to his credit, was playing a very physical game, was cut over the eye after a collision.  In the next match he sported a yellowish, painful looking black eye, but did not let it impede him from scoring.  It was his celebration after scoring that ticked me off.  Realizing the cameras were on him, he covered his black eye and grimaced at the camera because he felt he wasn’t looking his prettiest.  It was a second-rate show of callow vanity, and I was surprised not to see Wayne Rooney vomiting on the corner flag at witnessing it.  His obnoxious narcissism was also on display when interviewed.  He stated, “I will be beautiful once again!”  Shut up and play, Crissy.  Have you guessed I’m not really a Beckham fan, either?

 

Lately Cristiano has been criticized by other top pros for his disrespectful arrogance.  After a Champions League game, Roma midfielder David  Pizarro recently said, “He does certain spiteful things on the pitch. This is the ugliest thing for a player. In the return leg, I will have something to say to him.” 

 

Ronaldo responded, “There are plays that I do for the good of the team and never to ridicule my opponents. I tried to do the best for Manchester United and not to make a show. It’s just a part of who I am.”  Uggh.  I can’t stand the all too common “That’s just the way I am” excuse for irresponsible behavior.  That’s a dismissal and a refusal to change, or to even acknowledge the criticism in the first place.  I am a fan of Cristiano.  I love that he plays for United.  I hope all attempts to pry him away from Old Trafford fail.  That said, he is arrogant and disrespectful of his opponents.  His goal celebrations lack the pure joy and crowd connection of a Steven Gerrard charge to the corner at Anfield, instead focusing on himself and his “I’m so gifted”, “This game is so easy”, and “You don’t belong on the same pitch” facial expressions and body language.  His celebrations are the soccer equivalent of the chest-thumping, choreographed NFL wideout celebration that makes it seem like the player isn’t even playing a TEAM game. 

Sir Alex Ferguson apparently has no problem with Cristiano’s behavior as long as he keeps up his form, and maybe that’s a good thing.  Cristiano seems petulant enough to have his form decline after a public chastisement, such as Fergie’s famous “hairdryer treatment”.  Ferguson had no problem criticizing Beckham.  Will things reach that point with Ronaldo’s behavior?  It’s a delicate dilemma for Fergie, who has other stars to keep happy, and the need to protect Ronaldo from the very hard tackles he draws.  In being sent off and subsequently banned three games early in the season, Ronaldo fell for the bait after a hard challenge.  While Ferguson has stated that he respects Ronaldo’s professionalism, he has also criticized the young star for letting himself be trapped.  I don’t envy Ferguson the responsibility of balancing Ronaldo’s protection with his professionalism.

That brings me to my other major issue with Ronaldo—the diving.  I haven’t seen so much diving and crying since Greg Louganis retired.  The scary thing about Ronaldo’s diving is that he has actually reduced his fakery.  Compared to his behavior (and the behavior of many of his Portuguese teammates) at the 2006 World Cup, he’s actually at a tolerable level.  Add in the fact that English referees are taking a hard line on diving, and not such a hard line on physical challenges, and I redouble my concern about Fergie’s dilemma. 

He spends too much time looking for the foul when he could stay on his feet and beat the defender.  A player does not necessarily have to hit the turf to draw a foul, either.  If he’d only improve to the point of a Rooney, who almost never goes down looking for the foul, my respect for him would greatly improve.  Get rid of all the pained expressions and sitting-on-the-pitch pouty posturing and he’s even better off.  However, in all fairness, he’s doing a lot better than two years ago, when he and his international teammates looked like a Fosbury flop parody troupe. 

That’s all for today.  Next time I’ll reveal my pick for international footballer.

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