Wednesday, April 13, 2011

El Clasico Viene!

Happy Hump Day.

That's at least the 8th time I've used that picture on this blog, which must be the saddest record of all time.

Since the weather failed us yesterday and the Yanks got rained out, I'd like to spend today talking about SOCCER!

My involvement with The World's Favorite Sport is pretty typically American. I love the World Cup, I'll sometimes flip on an English premiership game if it's a weekend and I need something to occupy roughly one-third of my attention, and maybe I'll watch the occasional Champion's League or EuroCup game. No big deal. I'm not getting any awards.

But we have a situation developing in Spain, folks.

First, quick context for the uninitiated. You know how people complain about baseball's inherent unfairness since teams like the Yankees have a higher payroll than teams like the Royals?

Well, European soccer is like that, except totally unapologetic and magnified to an absurd degree. It works how actual business works, in third-world economies; the rich constantly get richer, and the odds against an underdog ever reaching the top are ridiculously small. The best teams have ungodly sums of money, and the system is set up so that they get financial rewards for succeeding. There's no draft or revenue sharing or any of the other checks and balances that strive to bring parity to American sports. The deck is so stacked that it's not uncommon for a home city to cut sham property deals with a team to ease financial burdens, or for the biggest teams to operate with astronomic levels of debt.

What that means, in short, is that each European league has anywhere from two to four teams that regularly dominate. It's an oligarchy that's near impossible to crack. If you look at the English Premier League, for example, you have to go back to 1994 before you find a champion not named Manchester United, Arsenal, or Chelsea. In Germany, Bayern Munich has won 9 of the last 14 Bundesliga titles. In Italy's Serie A, three teams (Milan, Internazionale, Juventus) have won 16 of the last 18. And in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have combined for 22 of the last 26 La Liga championships.

It's a top-heavy system, and while this is fun in some ways and horrible in others, it does create compelling match-ups between the very rich. Which leads me to my main point:

Over the next couple weeks, there are going to be some fireworks in Spain. Barcelona and Real Madrid will meet 4 times between April 16th and May 4th.

The ultimate accomplishment for a European club team is winning something the Brits call a 'Treble.' My gut instinct is to call it a 'Triple' since we're in America and I've hated the English since they stopped massacring people in Boston, but in the end 'Treble' is kind of a fun word, so what the hell.

Basically, there are three titles up for grabs for every team: the league title, the league cup, and Champions League (the European club championship featuring the best from every country). The Treble has been accomplished only six times in European history, most recently by Milan's Internazionale in 2010.

In the upcoming 18-day span, Real Madrid and Barcelona are going to meet on four occasions with every single title on the line.

First, this Saturday, they meet in a La Liga match. Barcelona is currently first in the "table" (British for "standings"), and Real is second. A win by Barca, and it's all over but the shouting. A win by Real, and they have a small chance to catch their rivals.

Second, they meet a week from today, April 20th, for the final of La Copa Del Rey (King's Cup), Spain's league cup competition. Somehow, the teams haven't met for this title since 1990, when Barcelona won 2-0.

Third, and fourth, they'll meet on April 26th and May 3rd in the semifinals of the Champions League. It's only the third time they've ever met in European action, the last being in 2002 when 500 million people worldwide watched Real (with Zinedine Zidane) advance.

This schedule is fairly incredible. Barcelona and Real Madrid have a very long history. In fact, they hate each other. When they meet, the game is called 'El Clasico.' During the Franco years, Real was considered the team of the Fascist state. Barcelona, located in Catalonia, came to symbolize that region's pride in the face of the dictatorship. Phil Ball, a really amazing sports writer, is quoted on that Wikipedia page as saying that it's a "re-enactment of the Civil War" whenever they play.

Real Madrid leads the all-time series 85-82-42.

This year, El Clasico arguably features the two best soccer players in the world. Cristiano Ronaldo, who you all might remember as the super annoying Portugese dude with the obnoxious hair being swooned over by every female during the last World Cup, plays for Real. Lionel Messi, the diminutive 5'7" Argentine genius, plays for Barcelona. Messi scored his 48th goal of the season for Barcelona yesterday, setting a club record, and he leads all scorers in La Liga competition with 29 goals and 17 assists. Ronaldo is second with 28 goals and 8 assists.

In a great article about the rivalry, Graham Hunter came to this conclusion:

It comes down to this: Messi really doesn't care about the rivalry, while Ronaldo, by his admission, desperately wants to become acknowledged as the greatest player of all time.

Yet the adoration of Messi stings Ronaldo. Messi stands in Ronaldo's way.

Five times over the past two years they have gone head-to-head on a pitch. Even if you favor Ronaldo, you can't ignore the results. Against United and Madrid, Messi has won three, drawn and lost once. Ronaldo hasn't scored against Messi's Barcelona -- even missing a penalty -- while Messi has two goals in those mano-a-mano clashes.

Each team also has some other fun players. On Barca, you've got a legion of great Spaniards, including Carlos Puyol, the guy who looks like he's from the movie "Spinal Tap." Xavi, Iniesta, and David Villa are also on Barca. Real features Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, and the Frenchman Karim Benzema.

The last time the teams met, earlier this season, Barcelona humiliated Real in front of 98,000 people at the Camp Nou, their home stadium. They currently have La Liga in a stranglehold, and Messi looks like the frontrunner for player of the year. In order to salvage their season, Real will have to win the King's Cup or beat Barca in the Champions League.

In my mind, there's a clear good guy and bad guy in this match-up. On one side, you've got the brilliant Messi, the greatest of them all, and a fun Barcelona side that scores like crazy. On the other, you've got the remnants of a Fascist regime and Cristiano Ronaldo, an egomaniacal pretty boy with an envy complex.

Over-generalizing? Probably. But as far as soccer goes, the next two weeks should be pretty awesome. Lots of Clasicos. If you've ever wanted to get into the sport, Saturday at 4pm on ESPN3 (maybe regular tv too, but I'm not sure yet) might be a good time to start. It could be, as the Spanish say...Epico.*

*Not sure if the Spanish say that, too lazy to look.

What follows might be the greatest YouTube video compilation ever. When I started, my plan was to fast forward to the top 10 goals. I ended up watching all 11 minutes. For the record, my favorite was #16.


  1. I can't deal with the horrible refs and diving players more than every two years. I'll stick to the World Cup and Euro Cup. Messi is fun to watch, though.

    ACC fans should feel right at home with the top heavy soccer leagues. Duke and Carolina have won 14 of the last 15 ACC Tourneys and 18 of 21 regular season titles.

  2. Thanks for posting about soccer (fussball, football) in these lock-out threatened times. Any tips on the Bundesliga?

  3. One of the greatest things about Messi--aside from the obvious--NastyEmu, is that he doesn't dive, even refuses to go down. He's the anti-Ronaldo in that aspect. He's fantastic to watch.

  4. You forgot one of the best parts about Euro-soccer: the "relegation zone." It gives small teams in the lower divisions a chance to compete against the best teams. In Italy 6-7 years ago, Udinese was a Serie B team who won Serie B, then improbably climbed the ranks of Serie A to make the Champions League tourney. Given the financial system of European soccer, its highly unlikely for the smaller teams to compete with the Man U's, Barcas, and AC Milans, but its kinda like Arkansas-Pine Bluffs making the NCAA tourney- just making it to the dance is a dream.

    I wish we had relegation zones in American professional sports leagues. Imagine if the four worst teams in MLB were relegated to AAA and the top four AAA teams got bumped up to the big leagues? Obviously this couldnt work for a number of reasons, including that AAA teams are affiliated with Major League clubs where players move up and down, stadium size, revenue sharing, etc. But it is fun to think about. And it would be awesome to see the Yankees someday playing against the Pawtucket Red Sox or Birmingham Barons.

    -Craig J.

  5. Good call, Craig. The relegation system also creates a ton of drama at the end of the year when teams are fighting for their lives in the top league. Especially when it's an established team that would be humiliated by relegation.

    There's a book called "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" that I've owned for a while but have yet to read, but it's all about a club team in Italy who keeps climbing the ranks and ends up (I think) in Serie A for at least a year. It's supposed to be amazing. I'll let you know.

    There's also a lot of room for huge upsets which, while they don't affect anything in the standings, still mean a ton to fans. I was reading "The Run of Play" today, which is to soccer what FreeDarko is to the NBA, and came across the story of Burnley. Last year they were in the premiership, and early on they actually beat Man U. They ended up getting relegated, which was inevitable, but that win over Man U was like 80 times more important than any non-playoff upset in American sports. It's probably the most famous game in club history.


  6. Soccer! Finally!
    Before I forget, I am disappointed by your comment "Enjoy what might be the year's only post about the GREATEST SPORT DEL MUNDO!" on FB. This should not be your only post about soccer… 

    Also quick correction about Castel di Sangro… They didn't make it to Serie A, they stopped their journey in Serie B but they were good enough to stay in Serie B a second year which was a miracle! I remember it was in the late 90s and everyone (by that I mean every soccer fan) was talking about it, even in French grade schools ^^
    I didn't know someone had written a book about it.

    And I wanted to point out that current (and newly re-elected) UEFA President, Michel Platini has plans to put European clubs on a financially equal footing… British hate the idea because all of their best teams are in heavy debt, but I think it would be interesting to see that happening… there's even a Facebook group that all British can join:

    Finally about your main point in your story, Here are some interesting things you could have mentioned:
    • Internazionale was coached by Joe Mourinho last year and he's the current Real Madrid coach. Up until last month he was saying he wants to accomplish the same thing and win the 3 trophies this season… He's always said that's the reason why he transferred out of Inter and went to a great club, such as Real: he couldn't do any more with the Italian club, and Real had the players and the resources to accomplish the treble.
    • In 2009, the treble was also accomplished (yes two years in a row!) by… Barcelona! Pep Guardiola was already the team's manager.
    => So basically we have Madrid's manager who accomplished the treble with Inter last year, and the Barça which accomplished the treble two years ago. CRAZY!
    => If Barca wins the treble, they will be the first team to accomplish that twice, and Pep Guardiola will be the first manager to do so (with the same team).
    => If Madrid wins the treble, it will be the first time for the club, but Mourinho will become the first manager to do it (with two different teams)… And most importantly Mourinho would become the first man to win the Champion's league with 3 different teams (he already won it with FC Porto in 2004 and then Inter last year). Only three men, including Mourinho have won the Champion's League with two different teams, and his goal is to become the first one to bring that figure to three. It might just happen… He is the special one after all.

    Basically if either of these teams accomplish the treble, it would mark soccer history in many ways.
    I'll just stop with the soccer trivia now because I could go on all day, but (sadly) I have papers to write.

    I'm just going to add two things:
    1) my personal take on it is that Real Madrid have no chance of winning the Liga, even if they beat Barcelona this weekend. It won't happen. Champion's League semi final and Copa del Rey final could both go either way though. It will be fun!
    2) LOVE that you mentioned two Frenchmen in a single post (Zizou & Benzema)

    Great post Shane. Thanks for writing about the best sport in the world! =D

  7. PS: And you wrote about soccer on my birthday!!! I'm sure it was all planned, so thank you very much. I appreciate the present =D

  8. The 50 shots are amazing. Question is, how many minutes of match time to produce those shots? There was a great article somewhere during the World Cup ("Why Americans Hate Soccer" I think) that did an analysis of how often something happens in baseball vs. soccer (and baseball is slower than football & basketball). The numbers are amazing. Essentially, nothing happens in soccer (but when it does, it's epic).

  9. Roxane, great comment! I'm excited to read the Castel di Sangro book now. I went on a huge kick of soccer books before, during, and after the last World Cup, and maybe I'll take it up again now. You should organize a Champion's League party (although I guess we might be out of town for the final...). Yeah, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

    Dan, too true about the game time. That's why if you haven't grown up with it, it's hard to get psyched for anything but the biggest matches, and it's why when I put the premiere league on on weekend mornings, I'm only half invested. But in the times when I've been into soccer, I've sort of gotten into the rhythm of appreciating the play even when there's no goal, and riding that wave of anticipation which can be super sweet and rewarding when someone finally scores.

    I remember this last World Cup, two games in particular were just amazing to watch. The first was when Germany beat Argentina, and the second was the third place game, when Germany beat Uruguay. The first German win was great just because it showcased total domination and some excellent soccer, and the 3rd place game was just a fantastic effort by both teams. At times like that I always think I'll start getting into soccer. Then the final happened, which was pretty boring, and I was content to ignore the sport for a while.

    But I'm thinking club soccer is where it's at...the quality of play there is probably better than international competition.

    Roxane, that's super interesting about the equal financial footing. That would really screw the big teams over, wouldn't it? Especially with all that debt.


  10. And Casey, thanks, didn't know that about Messi but it makes sense. He's definitely the man.


  11. Obviously you are for Barca. As A Real fan, I know Ronaldo is a pretty boy and Messi is pictured as a hard working man that everyone can look up to. But you are leaving out arguably Barca's 2nd best player David Villa who is just as much a pretty boy and diver as Ronaldo. Yet people do not despise him because he is not as good.

    Also, from the "other players" section, your listing of Benzema puzzled me. He is decent, but they have other more colorful and impactful players such as Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Adebayor, and Higuain to name a few.

  12. Will.I.Am34: Villa is definitely a diver as well, but no one said he was better than Ronaldo. The "battle" is between Messi and Ronaldo, and that might have started with the media but Ronaldo is the one who has been keeping the fire alive. Villa is out of the picture here. For Ronaldo and for everyone else, the battle is Messi v. Ronaldo, and the facts are that Ronaldo is an amazing player but he's also an amazing diver. Messi is an amazing player, period.

    As for Benzema, that you list Ozil, Di Maria or Higuain is fine, but Adebayor? Karim Benzema is much better technically than him. Adebayor has more experience and he might be physically better (well he's definitely taller and stronger which makes things easier in the box, especially for headers) but technically Benzema takes him any given day.
    Benzema has been really good lately. It took him some time to get acclimated to the Spanish championship (because let's face it, the French Ligue 1 is not half as good as the Liga) but he's scored plenty of goals lately, he is more fit than ever and, at 23, still has room to improve. Adebayor has done great things in England, mainly with Arsenal and I love him, but he hasn't done anything with Real Madrid yet. His appearances with the Merengue jersey have been disappointing overall. He wasn't able to take advantage of both Higuain and Benzema being injured… In short, he doesn't deserve to be in that list… yet.
    But I think Shane has named Benzema because until he got injured with the French national team a couple of weeks ago, he had been a VERY impactful player as he scored 10 goals in 8 games. That's something.

    Shane: It definitely would screw the big teams over. I think it passed and will be effective in a few years (2014/15 maybe?). But I think it's only fair… It's only meant for teams that are in debt. Clubs won't be allowed to spend more than what they make… so when you think about it ManU, Real and all the other teams would still be richer than the others because they make more money with merchandising than say… Valence in La Liga or Wigan in the Premiere League.
    Also, right now, the rules are currently different depending on the country the teams are in. In England, clubs are obviously allowed be in huge debts, but in other European countries it's not possible. Yet, all those teams play in the same competition and that's just unfair. I, for one, am looking forward to that new rule. It should make things more interesting for everyone. And maybe, just maybe clubs will stop paying players more than a million dollars a month, because that's just bs. I totally understand that players earn more money than me because they generate plenty of money for the teams. If they don't get the money, who will? So I'm fine with that, but I don't understand why clubs go in debt to pay them. That's just not right.

  13. I meant more than half a million dollars a month*