Friday, July 4, 2008

The Not-So-Beautiful Game

For as long as I can recall, I've held soccer on a fairly high pedestal. The "beautiful game," as it is often called, has always struck me as pure--as somehow different from drug-riddled baseball, absence-of-teamwork basketball, and tireless-QBs football. Yes, soccer is a rich, textured, and beautiful game--a place to see eye-popping skills, blood-curdling rivalries, and unstoppable national pride.

Sadly, my long-standing esteem for soccer is being put to its limit this summer. Even after watching the most entertaining major tournament in recent memory, I'm beginning to think that soccer is no different from our American sports: ridiculously over-analyzed, lacking in loyalty, and rife with impatience.

The Favre Phenomenon
Thanks to first-class bloggers like the world-renowned MAO (not to be confused with this math professor, who teaches at Grossmont, which is actually a fitting name for an institution at which Mizz could be the dean), we are all aware that God's 13th disciple is already "itching" to return to the NFL, not even one full summer removed from his so-called "retirement."

Now, I'm not going to lie to you... I'm fairly accustomed to this hot-stove horse manure. These days, the Yanks-Sox rivalry is debated in December, NBA free agency is a boiling issue as soon as the Final are over, and Negotiating the NFL Salary Cap 101 is among the most GPA-deflating of summer courses.

Indeed, we American sports fan are accustomed to the usual summer madness--but since when did soccer join the ranks of this will-he/won't-he circus?

Consider the ongoing mating dance currently being carried out by Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez and (rather French politician-looking) Aston Villa helmsman Martin O'Neill. As is generally the case in the sporting world, the fundamentals of this story are rather simple: O'Neill and Villa have valuated prized midfielder Gareth Barry at roughly 18 million pounds. Benitez and Liverpool, anxious to sign the star player, have made 4--count them, 4--separate bids for Barry... except that none of these bids has reached the clearly defined, clearly communicated asking price.

Factor in the British soccer press and its affinity for overblown headlines and meaningless news, it's no surprise that the Barry "saga" (to borrow Soccernet's term) is front-page fare.

If you find yourself lamenting the apocalyptic nature of American sports coverage, simply click here.

It's All About the Benjamins
... Or, at least that appears to be the case. Again, I'm quite accustomed to sports figures being restless and loving money. I've grown up watching team-hoppers, and I know that sometimes greener (or bluer) pastures are simply too hard to pass up.

I get that. I am not naive enough to think that athletes value loyalty. I mean: Really? Seriously? Are you kidding? These days, a shirt is merely a shirt--a uniform--and nothing more; heck, the 3 guys just pictured left top-tier teams for their fiercest rivals!

While this transient behavior runs rampant throughout the sports world, nowhere is it more vividly illustrated than in European soccer.

This guy nearly led his team to a 10-man upset of Barcelona in the Champions League a couple of years ago. An unrivaled talisman for his club, Henry had a chance to join guys like Roy Keane and Paolo Maldini: players who will forever be linked indelibly with particular clubs. Instead, what did Henry do? He decided to jump ship. His stats differ from those of his Arsenal days, and--wouldn't you know it?--the Champions League trophy found its way back to England.

Now, sadly there comes word that another Arsenal stud wants to leave--for Barcelona, no less! It's the same ole' story: have one or two statistically ridiculous years, then bolt for a bigger bankroll.

Damon left the Red Sox, who then won another World Series; Vinatieri left the Patriots, who then went undefeated; Ashley Cole left Chelsea, only to see Arsenal become the most exciting young team in the EPL.

Athletes, and particularly soccer players, never learn. Sometimes, you should just stick with a team; the results can be astounding.

Fresh Nou Faces
In America, we think we know the definition of impatience: after all, we have the likes of this notorious title-buyer, and this coach-killer.

You want impatience? Check out these guys.

A little history:
  • During the 1996-1997 season, Sir Bobby Robson guided the Catalans to 3 trophies, but was ushered out of the managerial role because club big-wigs worried that he'd never win over the fans.
  • Only 2 years ago, Frank Rijkaard and Ronadinho led Barcelona to the apex of European glory--the UEFA Champions League crown. As of now, Rijkaard has been replaced as coach, and the Brazilian playmaker is rumored to be headed for Milan. Why? No trophies for 2 years...
The top European clubs--the Barcelonas, AC Milans, Chelseas, and Real Madrids--are ridiculous. Every time some young 20-something has a good season, one of these megaclubs rushes to sign him; it doesn't matter who they have to discard in the process, and it doesn't matter if (as in Sidwell's case) the player ends up riding the pine all year.

So, when you think that the Boss and Dan Snyder are nuts, look for solace in the European game, where complete club overhauls often happen due to a single loss, and where exceptional managers and players are recycled with soulless efficiency.


Soccer is indeed a beautiful game. Just remember though: at it's core, it's as ugly as any of our stateside pastimes.

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