Saturday, May 19, 2012

Champions League Fun

We like to think of ourselves as citizens of the world, so when it comes to sports we're drawn to soccer.  We got to go to South Africa with the college soccer team in 2010 for some World Cup action, and the only thing I've experienced that came close to the excitement there was a professional baseball game in the Dominican Republic.  Some one asked me the other day which professional sport I follow most closely, and I answered (I think honestly) professional soccer in Europe.  Now if you don't know much about professional soccer in Europe, you might think that is parochial too, just on a different continent.  But there you'd be wrong, as the best players from all over the world play in the leagues there.  And almost everywhere I've traveled in the world (with the possible exception again of the Dominican Republic), they follow their countrymen playing in the clubs there.

So today was something like the Superbowl of European Professional Soccer.  It's actually much bigger than that, since it is not just the teams of one country or one league.  But all the top leagues in Europe play in a tournament that lasts the whole season long, culminating in a single game.  Just like the Superbowl, the site of the game rotates around to different stadiums and this is set years in advance, so it is supposed to be a neutral site.  But as things happened this year, the game was played in the home stadium of Bayern Munich--the perennially top team in the Germany's Bundesliga--who made it to the final game against one of England's superpowers, Chelsea.

Lots of Americans have been conditioned not to like soccer, because there is not a lot of scoring.  Many of us prefer the instant gratification that comes with basketball, or even the relative frequency of success of football drives.  In soccer, you can go a long time without any points being added to the scoreboard, and it is even very difficult to track many meaningful statistics the way we do in baseball to keep ourselves occupied.  You have to learn to appreciate the more subtle successes of a nice build up or a sterling defense.  And because soccer is a fairly imprecise game, one of the common comments heard from coaches to their players when they've tried something well but it didn't come off right is "unlucky".  Today's game had a lot of that.

Bayern Munich was the clear favorite going in (as home field advantage in soccer is a really big advantage), and they controlled (even dominated) the game through the first 80 minutes, but without scoring.  It looked like it might be heading for one of those scoreless draws that go to penalty kicks to decide the winner.  I remember the world cup final game when it was in the US back in 1994, when Brazil and Italy played very conservatively and no one scored.  Not knowing much about soccer back then, I felt like they said, "well, since we can't decide this by playing soccer, let's try another game".  Now, I happen to think going to penalty kicks is pretty exciting... but more on that later.  Today, after many unlucky shots, a long cross found the face of Bayern's Mueller and bounced into the goal past Chelsea's celebrated goal keeper in the 83rd minute (they play 90 minutes).  Everyone went crazy and thought that this is just the way things should have played out.  The tension built throughout the game, until the good guys pull it out in the end.

But Chelsea has had quite a run of improbable returns this season, and just a few minutes later, Chelsea's big stud Didier Drogba (who hails from the Ivory Coast) put a header off a corner kick into the net.  Pandemonium.  In overtime, then, it appeared that Drogba would turn from hero to goat, as he was called for a penalty in the box, which results in a penalty kick for Bayern.  Arjen Robben (from the Netherlands) steps to the spot to face Chelsea's goalkeeper Petr Cech (from the Czech Republic).  This is supposed to be a freethrow, but he chokes.  More pandemonium.  So Overtime ends in a tied score.  We get penalty kicks after all, and Chelsea misses first.  But then Bayern misses one... and then another!  Now the last of the five players comes to the spot for Chelsea:  Didier Drogba.  He makes it to win, and thus becomes immortalized in the lore of soccer fans from London to Abidjan.

Fun stuff.

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