Monday, November 29, 2010

Barca Eviscerates Real 5 - 0

Merry Christmas everyone!  Here in the land of Jedi Soccer, joy and satisfaction are the order of the moment, as we bask in tonight's glorious victory of Barcelona FC over arch-rivals Real Madrid by the astonishing and deeply satisfying score of 5 - 0 in El Clasico, the World's Most Important Soccer Derby.  Coming on the heels of Barca's 8-0 annihilation of Almeria last week, we have now witnessded these Jedi Knights of Football score no less than 13 goals in the last two matches, without giving up a single opposing goal, a true football Tour de Force.

The scoring began at the 10 minute mark with Xavi Hernandez scoring from a pretty Andres Iniesta though ball.  Seven minutes later, Barcelona made it 2-0 when David Villa placed the ball in the six-yard box. Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas uncharacteristically failed to deal with it, and Pedro had an easy finish.  After this, Real Madrid settled down and produced a few chances, most notably a free kick by Cristiano Ronaldo going wide of the post.  And that was it for the first half.

Madrid Manager Jose Mourinho substituted Lassana Diarra for Mesut Ozil to begin the second half, in an attempt to jam the midfield and stop Lionel Messi, but the change had no effect as Barca continued to dominate possession with their patented fluent "Total Football" style of play.  In the 59th minute, Barcelona made it 3–0 with a beautifully placed pass by Messi, in-between Real's defenders Pepe and Carvalho. Barca srtiker David Villa beat the offside trap and slammed the ball in the net in stylish fashion.  Minutes later Messi and Villa linked up again with the latter outpacing the defense before he calmly slipping the ball through Casillas's legs to make it 4–0.  A final 'Insult to Injury' goal was scored in stoppage time when Barca substitute Jeffren Suarez chipped the ball into the net to end the scoring and the match with a Triumphe Deluxe for Barcelona. And Messi Wan Kenobi didn't even score.  He didn't have to.

Barcelona now moves into La Liga's top spot with 34 points, ahead of Real Madrid who remain in second place on 32 points. Trailing a further five points back of Real is Villarreal on 27 points.

Is there football club anywhere on the planet, that can match the power, skill and beauty of FC Barcelona at the present moment?  All things must fade, most especially championship-calibre sports teams; but for now, these are Days of Glory for FC Barcelona and its followers.

It's More Than a Club.  It's Jedi Soccer. Barca Rules.

Mes Que un Derby

Well, here it is:  El Clásico-- Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.  Tonight, Monday November 29, 2010.  Surely in the history of Association Football, there is no other match anywhere that surpasses the intensity of this annual rivalry.  (OK: Liverpool vs. Manchester United, maybe).  But just as Barcelona's club nickname is "Mes Que un Club" (More than a Club), so too can El Clásico be understood as More Than a Derby.  How so?  Let us count the ways...

1. Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain.  There is hence a regional rivalry between these two teams.

2.  Between them, Madrid and Barcelona have amassed no less than 141 football trophies (73 for Real Madrid and 68 for Barcelona).  The next closest team-trophy-total is Atletico Bilbao with 32.  No one else in Spanish soccer even comes close.  There is hence a professional rivalry between these two teams.

3.  From its inception, FC Barcelona has always been associated with Catalan nationalism, which makes it a favorite team of everyone in Spain who opposes Spanish hegemony.  Conversely, Real Madrid is the go-to side of most Castilian's and those who support the central government generally, and hence a vehicle for the expression of Spanish nationalism.    There is hence a national rivalry between the supporters of these two teams

4.  From its inception, FC Barcelona has also always been a people's team, inasmuch as the team's supporters have always generally been working people with socialist sympathies, who once supported the old Republic before the the coming of Francisco Franco and the Spanish Civil War.  Conversely, Real Madrid--with the word 'Royal' (Real) in its name-- has been the team supported by Spanish Monarchists and Francophiles generally.  There is hence a political rivalry between the supporters of these two teams.  Author Phil Ball, the author of Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, calls the El Clásico "a re-enactment of the Spanish Civil War". 

5.  This year's edition of El Clásico features virtually all of the starts of the 2010 World Cup Champion Spanish National Team.  These guys all know each other quite well, so there is hence a personal rivalry between the players of these two teams.

6.  Finally:  Speaking of personal rivalries, the two stars of the match are (of course) Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, arguably the two greatest players in the game today.

The two largest cities... the two teams with the most trophies... Catalan nationalism vs. Spanish nationalism... The Socialists vs. the Monarchists... the Republicans vs. the Francoists... two teams full of World Cup veterans and former teamates... and oh yeah, Ronaldo vs. Messi on top of everything else.

How big is El Clásico?  According to Wikipedia, a 2007 survey by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas determined that Real Madrid was the team with the largest following in Spain. Thirty-two percent of the Spanish population supported Real Madrid, while twenty-five percent supported Barcelona. (In third place came Valencia CF, who were supported by five percent).  Barcelona in turn is more popular in Europe than Madrid. According to a survey made by the German research agency Sport+Markt in 2010, Barcelona has approximately 57,8 million fans around Europe, while Real Madrid has 31,3 million fans.

You can bet that many millions of people worldwide will be tuning in to the match later today.

With so much nuance going on in the background of this 'simple' sporting event, its no wonder the Spanish call this "The Classic."  This is clearly no ordinary sporting event.

Yeah, this is probably the biggest regular sports rivalry in the world.  Don't miss it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Portugal 4 - Spain 0

Yesterday's slew of international "friendly" matches (which don't count towards international standings), produced a few surprises.  Most significantly, the friendly between World Champions Spain and Portugal, resulted in an unexpected thrashing of the Spanish in Lisbon 4-Nil.  Portugal winning the match is not so suprising-- the Portuguese side is actually quite strong-- but the score.... ah, that hurts.  With six Barcelona starters on the pitch, Spain was once again disproportionately represented by the Blaugrana.

But with Messi off doing duty with the Argentine national side, the Barca players seem to have lost the magic with their other Spanish teamates, that was so much in evidence during the World Cup.  The resulting thumping by Portugal was well deserved, with the Portuguese goals generally scored at the finish of strong runs and good ball control.  Luckily for Spain, this match does not count, aside from some momentary Iberian bragging rights for the Portuguese.  This was the worst defeat by a Spanish national team since 1963.

In other "Friendly Match" news, Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 in a match played in Qatar in the United Arab Emirates.  Our hero Messi Wan Kenobi provided the last-minute heroics, (and I mean in the 91st minute, stoppage time), outrunning three Brazilian defenders while passing give-and-go with Ezequiel Lavezzi, then firing a perfectly placed ball that found its way through Victor's net in slow motion for the only score of the match. 

So, to summarize Barca's day in International Friendlies: Messi wins for Argentina, but six of his teamates were unable to prevent a Portuguese rout of the World Champions.  For the Barcelona players, this sorry outcome is likely to be reflected in their play this weekend against La Liga bottom-feeders Almeria.  Look for a bloodbath, as the Blaugrana will have something to prove.

Finally, I would also like to note the victory of Team USA over South Africa down in Pretoria on Wednesday as well.  For this friendly match, coach Bob Bradley decided to give the younger players some match time, keeping his first team off the pitch for the most part.  Despite steady attacking pressure from South Africa the whole match, Coach Bradley's young players did not dissapoint him.  Brad Guzan filled in at keeper for Tim Howard and turned in a very credible goaltending performance, while New York Red Bull youth Academy graduate Juan Agudelo hammered a shot off the crossbar which ricocheted into the net, for the game winning score.  At age 17, Agudelo has now become the youngest player to ever score a goal for the United States in international competition, a nice footnote to this match.

Nevertheless... "Friendlies" don't count.  Right.  At least, not in the standings.  But you can rest assured that come this weekend, the players from the various teams who lost yesterday, will be just a bit more hungry than they would be otherwise.

Almeria better be ready.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Barca Takes La Liga Lead

Yesterday our beloved Barca FC defeated La Liga rivals Villareal 3 - 1, lifting them two points above arch-rivals Real Madrid at the top of the Spanish League standings.  David Villa opened the scoring when he gathered in a beautiful pass from Andrés Iniesta and cooly put it in the back of the net, for Barca's first score.  Villareal striker Nilmar evened the score for the Yellow Submarine a short time later, with a lovely run through the Barca defense, ricocheting a shot off the post to even the score. 

But after the break, Messi Wan Kenobi scored twice to put the Blaugrana on top for good.  It was a typically workmanlike (if not brilliant) day of football for Barcelona, and it put Barcelona on top of the league, where they belong.

Meanwhile... in an intriguing related development, Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo is hinting that he would be open to returning to Manchester United and the Premier League in the future.  According to UK Metro News, "The Portuguese international joined Real Madrid from United in a world-record £80million move in 2008 after one of the most protracted transfer sagas in football history.  But despite creating bad blood between Old Trafford supremo Sir Alex Ferguson and his counterparts in the Spanish capital, the fiasco of Ronaldo's departure from England has not put him off a possible return.  And the powerful winger has set tongues a-wagging in the north-west by refusing to rule out what would be a sensational return to the Premier League.

He said:  'To be honest, I miss the Premier League a lot.  Of course I have good memories about Manchester.  I have good friends there and I miss them a lot, so you never know.'

Wow.  We can only hope.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Barca too much for Getafe

Excerpts from The Bleacher Report, November 8, 2010, by Rael Mason:

"Fifteen minutes. A quarter hour of brilliance between the 20th and 35th minutes was all it took for Barcelona to score two, have another two disallowed and remind the world that when they’re on song, there’s no team that play football quite like them.

That 15-minute master class from Barca put them 2-0 up at the break through Lionel Messi and David Villa, before a defensive error let in Pedro for a third. Getafe got back into the game through a Manu penalty that also saw Gerard Pique dismissed, which was followed by a flurry of chances at both ends. The dismissal of Getafe’s Derek Boateng evened the numbers as Barca held out fairly comfortably to secure a 3-1 victory.

Barca began the game knowing that a win would take them back to the top of La Liga and put the pressure on Real Madrid, who were set to face city rivals Atletico later in the evening. They also knew that with their title rivals in such imperious recent form, they couldn’t afford to slip up.

The win took Barcelona temporarily top on 25 points from their 10 games, though Madrid’s subsequent 2-0 win over Atletico took them back above Barca on 26 points. Villarreal remain in third on 23 points after their 4-1 thrashing of Athletic Bilbao, while this defeat for Getafe saw them drop down to 11th place on 13 points.

Next up for Barca in the league is the visit of Villarreal to Camp Nou next weekend, a game that could prove to be vital for both sides’ title hopes and one Barca will have to play without the presence of the influential Pique."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Najar MLS Rookie of the Year

At last!  Something positive to report about DC United!  Having endured a perfectly dreadful season, today DC United fans woke up to the news that the league has named United newcomer Andy Najar as the MLS Rookie of the year, beating out Red Bulls defender Tim Ream, and Philadelphia Union forward Danny Mwanga for the honor.  At the age of 17, Andy Najar is now officially the youngest player in the 15 year history of the MLS, to win the award.  The last time that a player from DC United won the award was in 1998, when current United interim head coach Ben Olsen was given the honor.

The young man has an interesting background.  A Honduran immigrant, Andy Najar is a product of DC United's youth academy, where his precocious talent was spotted.  When he was offered a professional contract before he was even out of High School, young Najar sensibly took the money, dropped out of Edison High School, and turned professional with United.  (According to The Washington Post, Najar is working with a private tutor to obtain his High School GED equivalency).

According to United General Manager Dave Kasper, "We knew in preseason that we had a special player.  We weren't sure if he would become a starter quickly, but when he got a shot early, he ran with it."

This award, coming on top of United naming Najar as their Most Valuable Player of the Year on Monday, has clearly marked young Andy Najar as a player to watch in the future.  Beyond his modest statistics, Najar exhibited an  unpredictable style that tormented defenders. With blinding footwork and deceptive moves, he opened space for himself in the attack.  Against the Houston Dynamo late in the season, Najar made a superb shifting run across the penalty area that produced a goal, a taste of things to come, we hope.

Najar has been quoted as saying that the award is "exciting for me, it's exciting for the club and our academy.  This year has been hard for the club, so it is great to have this award, but our focus is on getting better next season."

Rumor has it that United will be shipping Najar overseas to either England or Spain, to further burnish his skills, before United's training camp reopens in January.  Najar is also expected to receive a pay raise (not including bonuses), on top of his current $59,000 salary.

Not bad money, for a 17 year old kid.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Barca and UNICEF

A reprint of, "Barca take the moral high road," from The Guardian (UK) September 13, 2006, by staff writer Paolo Bandini:

"Fair play to Barcelona.

For over a century club bosses stubbornly resisted the march of time and capitalism to keep their team strip sponsor-free, at a time when every other club from football's upper echelons right down to your average Sunday League side had given in to financial expediency. To be fair this may have profited them, with their logo-free red-and-blue-striped tops taking on something of an iconic status worldwide, and it was always assumed that when they did eventually sell out they would be all set to command unparelleled sums for the taking of their sponsorship virginity.

Instead, quite without warning, Barcelona's top brass have gone in a very different direction. Last Thursday, president Joan Laporta signed up to a five-year collaborative agreement with UNICEF that will see Barcelona not only sport the children's charity's banner on its shirts, which they did for the first time yesterday night against Levski Sofia, but also contribute just over £1m to its humanitarian projects each year. Obviously that sort of money is barely going to register a dent in the club's finances, but if you take into account how much they could have made from selling to a conventional sponsor (surely even more than Juventus's £15m-a-year deal with Tamoil), the decision is staggering.

"For the first time in our more than 107 years of history, our main soccer team will wear an emblem on the front of its shirt," said Laporta at a UNICEF executive committee meeting.  "It will not be the brand name of a corporation. It will not be a commercial to promote some kind of business. It will be the logo of 'UNICEF'. Through UNICEF, we, the people of FC Barcelona, the people of 'Barça', are very proud to donate our shirt to the children of the world who are our present, but especially are our future."

The conspiracy theorists will paint this as just another cynical marketing ploy by a club that is doing a fine job of casting itself as 'everybody's second favourite team', but with the sort of popularity and worldwide appeal they already had, I find that argument hard to swallow. Barcelona's squeaky-clean image has been overstated at times and I don't doubt for a second that they have been guilty of as much gamesmanship and underhand tactics on the pitch as any other team, but after constant reminders of the greed in football over recent weeks, let's give some credit where it's due to a team that's giving something back, even if only a little."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Messi vs. Ronaldo

It's coming.  El Clasico.  Clash of the Titans, twice a year.  And for this match, with only one point currently separating defending champions FC Barcelona and their arch-rivals Real Madrid, the stakes are higher than usual.

As we anticipate the coming derby, the focus will naturally be on each team's respective superstar.  And that means Lional Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the two greatest stars in football today.  What a matchup!  Fans live for this sort of encounter.

So the question has to be asked: which of these two stars is the better player?  Call me partisan, but here are four reasons why Messi Wan Kenobi is the better player:

1.  Messi is the better team player.  Let's face it-- they can both be a bit selfish, but Ronaldo's glory-lust is a bit more transparent, while Messi will just as readily dish off to a teamate, than take the shot himself.  People like to see their champions share the glory.

2.  Messi is both younger and yet more mature.  Two years younger than his great rival, Lionel Messi has already reached the same heights of international stardom, with more steam left in his legs.  Yet despite the age difference, Messi seems the more mature figure--see ' team player,' above.

3.  Messi seems more determined.  To state it plainly: Ronaldo is a diver.  He has taken so many transparently fake dives on the pitch, perhaps he should try out for the Portuguese national dive team and make it official.  Conversely, Messi will take a hit on his smallish frame before he goes down, trying to the last to keep a play going.  His obvious determination is admirable.

4.  Messi has a better attitude.  How many times have we seen Ronaldo pitch one of his patented temper tantrums about some play or another?  He's always arguing with the referee or crying about something or just generally throwing a temper tantrum.  Now ask yourself-- how often do you see Lionel Messi carrying on like that?  Not nearly so often.  He never stops before a match is over, his head is never down, and the only time he attracts attention to himself, is when the ball is at his feet. 

It is undeniably true that Cristiano Ronaldo is a huge, huge talent.  Everyone knows it.  And yet that is the problem, because Ronaldo knows it too, so he acts like everyone owes him something.  Basically, the man is a Football Prima Donna.  And yet, despite fundamentally similar talents and a similar level of professional success, Lionel Messi seems not to have fallen into the same ego traps, at least as far as we can tell from his behavior both on and off the pitch.  No one reaches this level of professional sports without having developed a considerable ego; but Lionel Messi seems to hide it better than Cristiano Ronaldo, and hence comes off as a more likeable figure and a better teamate. 

They have a word for this: Character.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Barca Routs Sevilla, 5-0

Saturday night's Spanish league matchup of Barcelona vs. Sevilla turned out to be a complete rout.  The match, held in Barcelona at Camp Nou, was a total showcase of Barca Football at its best, and the Blaugrana had complete control of this match from start to finish.  In just the 4th minute of play, Messi Wan Kenobi opened the scoring when he drilled a mishandled ball underneath Sevilla goalkeeper Varas for the first score.  And then it got worse for Sevilla.  In the 24th minute, Messi dished off a beautiful ball to David Villa, who drilled a left-footed shot into the top corner for a 2-Nil lead.  This match was clearly under control from the start.

Then, to add insult to injury, in the 45th minute Sevilla defender Konko was booked for his second Yellow card of the night, when he brought down Pedro after he pushed the ball through Konko's legs.  Down to ten men, Sevilla was in trouble and the rout was on.  In the 53rd minute, Barca scored a silly goal when Sevilla defender Romaric tried to head the ball back to Varas.  The head-pass fell well short and Danny Alves was on the spot to make them pay, looping the ball over the Keeper for a hugely embaressing goal for Sevilla.  In the 64th minute, Messi Wan Kenobi scored his second goal of the night, an aggressive flat-out charge on the goal that left the defense guessing left and right which way he would go, finishing off the confused Sevilla defenders with a sublime low-skimming shot on goal from 20 yeards out that punched into the bottom corner of the net.  The final score of the night was in the 90th minute, when Messi, Luna, Busquets and Villa combined on a false run into the box that set up a back-pass to Villa, who fired another low-skimming shot that also found the bottom corner of the net, for his second goal.  With two goals by Messi, two by Villa, and one by Alves, this result was even more impressive than last year's 4-0 result against Sevilla at Camp Nou.

This victorious effort by Barcelona can only be described as breathtaking.  According to The Guardian (UK) sportswriter Jacob Steinberg, "Incredibly, the current Barcelona side is even better than the 2006 version... For the last two years, Barcelona have been the team to watch: fluent and mysterious in equal measure, with the exquisite partnership of Xavi and Andres Iniesta supporting the sublime skills of Messi in attack."  This was well said. 

But not every side is going to roll over for mighty Barcelona.  It is worth remembering that the only major dissapointment Barca has had the last few years, was the 3-2 loss in last year's Champion's League match against Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan.  Possibly the best coaching manager in professional football today, Jose 'The Special One' Mourinho has coached Benefica, Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale... and now, Real Madrid.  A talented manager with hugely talented players like Cristiano Ronaldo, right now Mourinho has Real Madrid peaking and hungry.

And they are on a collision course with mighty Barcelona, their arch-rivals.  'El Clasico,' the greatest football Derby in the world, FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, is on November 28th at Camp Nou.  The winner will likely take the league championship.