By Mimmo Alfano
I’m warning you right now. This is going to be a long and sprawling post, because I am fired up!
For many US Sports Fans the end of March is a sad time. The Madness of the NCAA Tournament has ended, College Football spring practices are over and done, and the NFL draft will be behind us in the blink of an eye. Yes, there are the NBA and NHL playoffs still to come, and Major League Baseball is always there this time of year for those who hearken back to a simpler time when Baseball truly was America’s game. However, for the overwhelming majority of the world (and for a growing number of Americans), April and May signal one of the greatest annual occurrences. The conclusion of the UEFA Champions League.
If you’re not an avid follower of European Soccer, that’s understandable. As an American it takes a certain commitment to catch a lot of games. The Champions League games take place in the early afternoon on certain Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For working people in this country, it’s impossible to watch these games live. But for those that go out of their way to tape these games and then make time to watch these 2 hour games, they are greatly rewarded.
What the hell is the Champions League?!
You may have caught highlights of some games on SportsCenter, as one of the hosts half-heartedly explains a clip of a goal and then sarcastically says, “And they appear to be excited about this.” They don’t explain what the significance of the goal is, or inform the viewer where the teams are from, or anything else beyond reporting the score of the game. It’s a shame. Imagine if every country had a version of the NFL, and after we crowned our Super Bowl Champion, rather than just declaring that they were “World Champs!” they, along with the other Conference championship teams, were then entered into a massive tournament with all the other top 1, 2, 3, or 4 teams from every other professional league in say, North and Central America. This is what the Champions League is…except in Europe…and football instead of football. It also has one of the most addicting theme songs in history.
Semi-Final 1 — Hipster-Cindarella vs. The White Behemoth
If there was a Cindarella in this year’s Champions League it would be the German team Borussia Dortmund. If there was a sexy, cool pick at the beginning of the tournament, it would have been Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund won the German League or Bundesliga last year, and as a result made their second foray in the last two years into the UCL. A team that won the tournament in 1997, Dortmund found themselves in the “Group of Death” (in soccer tournaments, there is always a Group of Death…essentially just the most difficult group) with 2012 Spanish Champions Real Madrid, 2012 English Champions Manchester City, and 2012 Dutch Champions Ajax. If ever there was a Group of Death, this was one. Real Madrid and Man City were the favorites to come out on top of the group (in the UCL, each team plays the other teams in their group home and away, and then the top 2 teams advance to the knockout stage) and yet it was Dortmund that won it.
A team that plays aggressively and with a business-like attitude, Dortmund fears no team. Boasting some of the top young German players, a stingy defense (which includes Neven Subotić, who could have been a U.S. International) and a silky-smooth attack, BvB is a dangerous team. But their greatest asset has got to be their insane fans. Every soccer team can say they have the best and loudest fans, but everything I’ve seen suggests that Dortmund can actually take that cake; see here (ignore the title on this one) and here for examples of their intensity (keep in mind this is at an away game).
Dortmund fans were Dortmund fans before being a Dortmund fan was cool. Photo courtesy of bvb-fanabteilung.de
Dortmund beat well-organized and well-coached Spanish side Malaga in the quarter-finals. In fact, up until the very last minutes of the game, Malaga were going to be the ones advancing to the Semis. Down 2-1, Dortmund scored goals in the 91st and 92nd minutes of stoppage time to win the game and advance. This was one of the most miraculous things I have ever seen. I’d liken it to hitting two threes with less than 10 seconds to win a game. It just…shouldn’t have happend, but it did. It only served to illustrate Dortmund’s no-fear focused mental intensity that they no doubt share with and gain from their fans.
Perhaps the most famous team on planet Earth, Los Blancos of Real Madrid are trying to win their 10th European Championship. Their semi-final ties against Dortmund will be the second time in this year’s competition that these two teams will square off for a home and away series. As mentioned above, the teams met in the group stage with Dortmund winning at home 2-1 and drawing in Madrid 2-2. Real Madrid will certainly have revenge on their mind.
Madrid are the most athletic team in the competition. Their power and explosiveness is impressive to watch, and they usually are content to let teams come to them and blast forward with speed and technical skill to hit on the counter-attack. Their team is certainly the cream of the crop, and is headlined by the most high-maintenance athlete in history, Christiano Ronaldo. CR7’s ego is matched by only his athleticism and talent; in any other generation Ronaldo would be the best. (If you have 45 minutes free, here is a Sports Science-esque special on Ronaldo and his abilities.)
Rather than putting up a photo of young, chiseled Cristiano Ronaldo; I put up a photo of Old “Fat Ronaldo” to make us all feel better. Photo courtesy of mirror.co.uk
Madrid is a team full of fire and drive, and are instilled with these qualities by their Coach Jose Mourinho, otherwise known as (the self-proclaimed) “Special One.” Mourinho is the only manager to win the Champions League with two different teams (Porto in 2004 and Inter in 2010), and was brought in to Madrid to 1. Beat Barcelona (which he did several times last year en route to winning the Spanish League title) and 2. Win the Champions League. He’s made many ovations this season that he will be moving on at its conclusion, so there’s all the more desire to win this year’s tournament.
Even though Dortmund got the better of Madrid in the first two matchups, this tie is really Madrid’s to lose. They have the class to win this whole tournament and will be much better this time around.
Semifinal #2 — Culture vs. Redemption
If you asked a random person what they thought of when you said Barcelona, you’d probably get a lot of different answers — Gaudi; the beach; Spain; soccer; Picasso; culture; Catalonia — and they’d all beat right; both about the City and the Soccer team. Never has a team so fully identified and reflected the culture in which they were based as Barcelona has over the past 10-15 years. Many words have been written on this topic by those more-informed, and of better prose than mine, but suffice to say that the team is the city, and the city is the team.
Barcelona is perfection. They dominate possession of the ball, usually having it close to 70% of the match; lulling their opponents to sleep with their intricate passing and intelligent beautiful movement. Recently they won the UCL in 2006 and have missed the semi-finals only once since then; winning again in 2009 and 2011. I’m sick of them.
This year, Barcelona has seemed less dominant than in years past, and if not for one reason, many would not be counting on them to advance. That reason is the greatest player ever, Lionel Messi. You run out of superlatives when describing Messi, but he has nearly single-handily carried Barcelona to victory in a huge majority of their games this season. In their second quarter-final match against nouveau riche Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona was trailing at home 1-0. A loss meant they’d be knocked out and PSG would be into the Semis. On came injured Messi and 7 minutes later Barcelona was all tied up 1-1 thanks to an attack largely orchestrated by El Pulga (“The Flea”).
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique likely had to console former teammate and extra-special close European bro-friend Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the quarter-finals. Photo courtesy of flickr.com/jimmyskywalker
Up against Barcelona is the German Juggernaut of Bayern Munich. I’ve never been a huge Bayern fan, but after seeing this video about last season’s UCL Final when Bayern lost in their home stadium…I began to feel a little sorry for them. They have not been feeling sorry for themselves, however. Bayern clinched the German title this season with 6 games left to go; a season in which they have only lost 1 game, drawn 3, scored 83 goals and only allowed 13 goals against them. Ridiculous.
Bayern is full of players from the German National Team and is a very experienced side. They are as you would imagine a top German team to be — austere, resiliant, disciplined, organized and focused. This year’s team especially seems completely devoid of emotion, and has been transformed by heart-wrenching defeat into a relentless goal-scoring machine.
Whichever team advances out of this match-up has to be the favorite to win the whole tournament. Both teams attack and defend well, and are filled with some of the biggest names in international soccer.
Bayern has been making opponents taste their pain all year long. Photo courtesy of narharnet.com
I implore you, do whatever you can to watch these semi finals. They promise to be wide-open, wildly-entertaining matches, and if nothing else, will keep you from having to focus on who is leading the AL East for a bit longer.