The Reign in Spain

Europe crowned a new champion on Saturday, as Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid clashed for the title in Lisbon. For a second straight year, the Champions League final featured two teams from the same country, with a feisty upstart taking on an established, incredibly wealthy power. Both years, the upstart has played brilliantly, gave it everything they could, been in good position to pull it off near the end of the game…and lost.

Stylistically, the upstarts were pretty different. Borussia Dortmund pushed the pace and went up and down the pitch with Bayern Munich last season, while Atlético Madrid’s approach was about as defensive as it gets. Led by the Man in Black, Diego Simeone, they brought a heavy dose of physicality, roughing up Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the early going and consigning him to a very minor role in the win. Their incisive interceptions frustrated the Real attack, and they pounced on Iker Casillas’s error in goal to grab the early lead. But their legs began to fail them as the game progressed, and despite countless narrow escapes, they couldn’t keep out a Sergio Ramos header in stoppage time. Spent, Atlético conceded twice in extra time, and after ten years and over a billion dollars spent in the effort, Real Madrid are champions of Europe once again.

Two players on this Real Madrid team get all the attention: Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the $100 million man who, after countless wasted chances, finally headed home the game-winner. But in reality, neither of these players makes Los Blancos go; that honor goes to the midfield duo of Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric, who had the most energy on the pitch by extra time, setting up Ronaldo and Bale time and time again before one of them finally hit paydirt. Goals are rare enough in high-level fútbol that the goal-scorers will always get outsize attention, and Ronaldo and Bale certainly have their moments of brilliance, but in so many games, the supporting cast gets far too little recognition.

If I may let my colors show some, there is nothing terribly inspiring in a Real championship, but in addition to the under-recognized midfielders, one other man deserves some credit: the patient, low-key Carlo Ancelotti, who did what the far more dynamic José Mourinho could not. The Real manager turned his players loose and let them use their prodigious skill, and in the end, it all paid off. Even with all of the resource advantages in the world, winning it all isn’t easy, and Ancelotti was willing to take some bumps in the early going to get it right in May. When the wealthy traditional powers win, it sets the standard for everyone else, and while there’s a risk of European soccer drifting toward oligarchy, things are still unpredictable enough that a team like Atlético can frustrate Real for 92 minutes. Their championship should only inspire everyone else to get on to their level.

The ending will long haunt Atlético, and with a payroll less than one third of Real’s, they’ll struggle to hold on to many of their top end players after this season. This was probably their great chance, and as impressive as their defense can be, it alone can’t win a championship. Still, it was a heroic performance from Simeone’s squad, which elevated the standard for tough play in Spain and won their first La Liga title in 18 years. Their coach is a rising star, and they played their two biggest games—the Liga season-ending, title-clinching draw with Barcelona and the Champions League final with Real—with near nothing from two of their finest players, Diego Costa and Arda Turan. With Simeone in charge and some smart personnel decisions, they’ll continue to put pressure on the two big guns in Spanish soccer.

This all brings us to the team left out of the party in Lisbon, Barcelona. The Catalan power, rulers of the European fútbol scene for the past six years, did not win a single trophy, falling to Real in the Copa del Rey and Atlético in La Liga and the Champions League. To be sure, the gap is a small one: they dismantled British champion Manchester City in the Champions League, tied Atlético five times and lost once (1-0) in six meetings, and went 2-1 against Real. They lost all three major trophies by a single goal, and with Bayern Munich looking like they were trying to shove square pegs into round holes in their first season with Pep Guardiola at the helm, it’s not hard to argue that the three best club teams in the world right now are all Spanish.

Yet the times are changing at Barça, with veteran keeper Victor Valdes and longtime captain Carlos Puyol headed for the exits, and Xavi no longer in his prime. Argentine coach Tata Martino got more flak than he deserved for his management of an injury-riddled squad, but while his tactics were competent, the consensus was that he didn’t do enough to light a fire under his stars, and he is one and done. Add in the kerfuffle over Neymar’s contract, a (temporarily suspended) transfer ban for violating stupid but clear rules in their handling of several players in their youth academy, and a lot of squabbling on the board, and it looks like a mess.

Barça has moved swiftly in the past week, bringing in fiery former star Luis Enrique to take the reins and tapping Marc Andre ter Stegen as Valdes’ successor. The board is likely to open up the pocketbook, and Real’s win only rubs more salt in the wound. Even in a “down” year, Lionel Messi is still better than pretty much anyone out there; with Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets playing at an extremely high level and younger players like Neymar and Jordi Alba in the fold, the core is there for a return to dominance.

In the end, though, the big winners of this European soccer season are the Spanish. Yes, La Liga is top-heavy, but Spanish teams were strong across all European competitions, and the imbalance is far worse in some other leagues. And when the big guns do clash, it makes for some of the most thrilling fútbol in the world, with the distinct styles and sheer star power on display. For all that bothers me about club soccer, from its inequities and questionable international oversight to its inane rumor mills to its viciously short leashes, these matches still offer some of the most compelling sports drama out there.

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Since I’m writing about soccer, I’d be remiss not to mention the big news coming out of the U.S. National Team this past week: head coach Jurgen Klinsmann elected not to pick Landon Donovan, the longtime star and hero of the U.S.’s 2010 Cup run, for Brazil. It’s a gutty call, and earned him plenty of ire, especially among more casual fans, who see the 32-year-old as the face of U.S. soccer. It might just cost him his job if the U.S. doesn’t get out of the group stage—and that’s something I wouldn’t bet on happening at this point, with or without Donovan.

In principle, though, I’ll defend the decision. I don’t watch enough MLS to comment on Donovan’s form, but the reviews are generally not great, and, hard as it may be, there comes a time when teams have to move on. Klinsmann’s youth movement is a gamble, but it aims toward a brighter future, and in general, it’s a good sign to see that U.S. soccer is generating a bench deep in viable options instead of clinging to an aging fan favorite. I’m not sure I’d have done the same thing—I like the idea of a veteran, professional goal-scoring weapon off the bench—but in principle, this is a case where reasonable minds can disagree.

The most striking thing about Klinsmann’s squad, though, is its reliance on players with dual citizenship, some of whom barely qualify as “American.” It’s not that I’m chauvinistic about these things; it’s encouraging to see players excited to put on the red, white, and blue, and given my own roots, I’m rather partial to German-Americans. Plenty of other nations, including France and Germany, have had success with players who were born on different continents. Still, I can’t help but be reminded of Herb Brooks’s outrage when USA Hockey brass rushed to naturalize Canadians for U.S. Olympic hockey teams in the 1970s. U.S. hockey, Brooks argued, would never reach its potential so long as it relied on imports. Instead, it had to do the dirty work of training its own kids up from the youngest ages, building as broad a pyramid as possible to generate a self-sustaining pool of talented players. There’s no doubt Brooks’ strategy worked, and continues to work. To Klinsmann’s credit, he’s done some work on that front as well, and U.S. Soccer has given him a lot of time and freedom to do his thing. U.S. soccer doesn’t have much to lose, so it might as well let the man see out his contract and see what he can do. I appreciate Donovan’s career, but I also look forward to a day when the U.S.’s most illustrious goal on the international stage isn’t against Algeria.

Whatever one thinks of the Donovan saga, we’ve got less than three weeks until the World Cup. In Brazil. Need I say more?

Spring Fútbol in Spain

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to find a way to endure the gap between high school hockey and the baseball season. The NCAA Tournament is some consolation, but not much of one for us jilted Hoya alumni, and I’ve never liked basketball all that much to begin with. Instead, I let my attention wander overseas, where a pretty nice race is shaping up in Spain.

The European soccer leagues are now in their respective stretch runs, and on Sunday I was treated to an exemplary installment in European soccer’s biggest rivalry. The goals flew left and right, and while the referee imposed himself a bit more than one might like, Barcelona came out with a crucial 4-3 come-from-behind road victory over Real Madrid. The win rescued Barcelona’s chances at the La Liga title, and gives them reason for optimism heading into their other two trophy competitions—a Copa del Rey clash with Madrid in a few weeks, and in the quarterfinal stage of the European Champions League. The match-up had been hyped as a changing of the guard, with aging Barça perhaps finally relinquishing the crown Spain’s most expensive team. It wasn’t to be.

The man who grabbed the headlines was, of course, Lionel Messi, whose hat trick answered any questions about his recovery from injury, and quieted the tiresome efforts of the Madrid backers to suggest that Cristiano Ronaldo might have surpassed him. Messi breaks records nearly every time he scores these days (and he’s still just 26!), and his performance in his prime is a once-in-a-generation joy to watch. But just as dominant in Sunday’s win was Andrés Iniesta, the sublime midfielder with a flair for the dramatic. Iniesta’s goal in the seventh minute set the tone for the rest of the night, and his effort to wriggle through a pair of Madrid defenders earned the decisive penalty kick late in the game. At Barcelona he will forever be in Messi’s shadow, but the man who scored the game-winner in the 2010 World Cup final and was named the Player of the Tournament in the 2012 European Championships would be a legitimate superstar anywhere else, yet the quiet man from La Mancha is content to humbly play the wingman to Messi.

While Barça isn’t guaranteed of anything yet, they look much better heading down the stretch this season than they did a year ago, and the reasons lie in the wrinkles introduced by new coach Tata Martino. They’ve done a much better job of rotating their squad this season, keeping the top players fresh, and while they still rely on their bread-and-butter passing game and the peerless all-Spanish midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, and Sergio Busquets, they’re a bit more willing to play with pace on the counterattack now. Oddly unimportant in all of this is Neymar, the 22-year-old Brazilian record offseason signing, but he has some excellent flashes, and will slowly find his way into the system. Their demise, as has been the case of late, could be on defense, where Martino joins his predecessors in wishfully thinking that Javier Mascherano can hold down the back line against the best in the world. (I like Mascherano, but a central defender he is not, especially on a team whose fullbacks are often found bombing down the wings.) Goalkeeper Victor Valdes’s season-ending injury midweek could also dent Barça’s title hopes.

Real Madrid has also evolved tactically since last season, with new boss Carlo Ancelotti adopting a much more direct approach than José Mourinho’s dull counterattacking game. Against inferior opponents, it does look better, but the natural tradeoff here is a thinner midfield, where Xabi Alonso alone cannot quite cut it against an attack of Barcelona’s caliber. The front line of Ronald, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale piles up a lot of goals, but it isn’t clearly better than Barcelona’s somewhat deeper front line; like his fellow expensive transfer Neymar, Bale has been hit-or-miss in his first season in Spain, and Benzema, despite scoring twice against Barcelona, probably should have had himself another goal or two. Real’s saving grace may be the less-hyped midfield duo of Luka Modric and Angel di Maria, both of whom are having stellar years.

The thing is, neither of these teams is leading La Liga right now: that honor instead goes to Atlético de Madrid, the Spanish soccer equivalent of the New York Mets, the team that just sort of hovers there in the shadow of a giant crosstown rival. Atleti doesn’t have the firepower of the two perennial contenders—they’ve scored 14 fewer goals than Real, and 21 fewer than Barça—but they make up for it with rugged defense. Time will tell if they can hold up for another eight fixtures, plus a Champions League quarterfinal showdown with Barça. Those two also play on the regular season’s final day, so the race could be in for a thrilling conclusion. If Atlético can pull it off, it would be the first championship by someone other than Real or Barça in ten years.

Real has a somewhat easier road both in Spain and in the Champions League, where they drew injury-riddled Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. The favorite to win the thing, Bayern Munich, also has a pretty easy path forward, having drawn reeling Manchester United. (David Moyes, given the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson as manager, is allegedly facing open revolt in the dressing room, while opposing fans unfurl banners applauding his coaching skills. Once again, American sports fans have nothing European football fans.) The last quarterfinal, between Chelsea and Paris-St. Germain, is perhaps the most intriguing. PSG is very talented but has yet to win anything of any magnitude (the French league doesn’t count), while José Mourinho will look to rediscover his specialness and help English football save some face. I’ll admit it, I’m rooting for him: there is no more delightful mixture of arrogance, style, and coaching brilliance anywhere in the world.

Spain’s La Liga doesn’t draw the American audience that England gets, and that was true even before NBC snapped up the Premier League; the language barrier probably plays a role there, as does the league’s very real issues with competitive imbalance. But while Spain doesn’t have England’s depth of decent teams, it does have the best stable of top-end teams of any European league. The Brits and Italians have not fared particularly well in Europe over the past two years, while France and Germany are both dominated by one lonely powerhouse. Spain, meanwhile, has three serious contenders every year between Barcelona, Real Madrid, and one rising interloper, whether that be Atlético, Málaga last year, or Valencia in the not-so-distant past. In the Champions League, it is Europe’s best.

All is not well here, though, with debt burdening many of the lower-tier teams. Spanish soccer gives a taste of the best of the sport, but also more than its share of the worst, with its giant financial inequities and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Superficially, it’s easy to like international club fútbol: there are good teams in so many countries, and those teams draw from everywhere. Yet for all the apparent cosmopolitanism, this global sport is more ruthlessly capitalist than any major American sports league. While I actually prefer a bit of imbalance to some of the more rigid salary-capped leagues–sports need dynasties and villains– and one wonders just how strong the foundations really are in European soccer. The good news: we have a World Cup in less than three months!