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.