Today is one of those days when I feel sorry for those who aren’t soccer fans. Seriously. Because what happened earlier this afternoon in the Champion’s League semifinal at Camp Nou in Barcelona was one of the most exciting things I have ever witnessed in any sport. And I don’t do hyperbole. I mean this literally. It was Miracle on Ice huge. If I called it David vs. Goliath, I’d be giving David way the hell too much credit. (Okay, maybe that was hyperbole. A little.)
Final score: Chelsea 2, Barca 2, with Chelsea advancing to the finals in Munich on a 3-2 aggregate score (the Blues beat Barcelona 1-0 in London last week).
The guys blogging the ESPN GameCast concluded thusly: “One of the best games of football ever.”
My response? Well, depends on what you mean when you say “best.” I might have a little trouble going that far, because in my mind a great match involves two great teams slugging it out. And as much as I love my Blues, this particular Chelsea team is a) old, b) injured, and c) nowhere NEAR as good as Barca. On paper, anyway.
But it was nonetheless one of those remarkable moments that illustrates the value of coaching, of strategy, of fanatical commitment to tactical execution and an equally amazing capability to overcome adversity. If anybody ever asks you for an example of the value of teamwork, you show them the playback of this match.
- One of your starting center backs was out with an injury.
- His replacement, who has played beautifully in recent games, goes down with an injury very early on.
- Then the team’s other starting center back, the captain the backbone and the soul of the team, takes what may be the dumbest, most inexcusable red card I have ever seen by a player at his level in this big a game. It was truly mind boggling.
So there they were. Down to ten men. On the road. In one of the most inhospitable environments anywhere in the sporting world. Against one of the two or three best teams in the game and the defending champions of the most prestigious club competition on the planet. Minus their three top-choice defensive center backs. With Barca’s stingy ball-control offense dominating possession something like 73% to 27% and outshooting the Blues 23-7. And, at one point, down 2-0.
If you scripted it, nobody would believe you. It was Rocky. It was 300. It was Braveheart. I have honestly never seen anything like it, with the possible exception of the aforementioned US hockey victory over the mighty Soviets in 1980. The Villanova and NC State NCAA hoops championships, which most Americans are familiar with, don’t come close. Kurt Gibson’s pinch-hit jack against Dennis Eckersley? Multiply that minute of adrenaline by 90.
In the end, I guess it comes down to how you define “best.” If your terms demand everyone’s consensus top teams (say the Lakers vs. the Celtics in the ’80s) then no, this flawed Chelsea team had to park a bus in front of the goal and pray for luck. Which they got, in spades – time and again, over the two matches, Barca rattled the woodwork (we were joking during the game that Chelsea should give the captain’s armband to the post); one goal today was disallowed due to offsides (a good call, but a close one); and everyone’s candidate for greatest player in the world, Lionel Messi, somehow contrived to gank a penalty. How do you say “shoulda coulda woulda” in Catalan?
However, if your definition of best allows for this level of one-sidedness and places a premium on sheer human drama, then yeah, today’s match was genuinely epic, and you’ll be hearing it talked about with awe for years to come (especially if Chelsea goes on to win in Munich against Bayern or Real Madrid, a question that will be decided tomorrow). They’ll be replaying Ramires’ cheeky first-half break-away chip-shot goal over Victor Valdes for the next century. No, that isn’t hype – it was a goal that would have made Pelé proud.
I don’t know that I have ever heard so much noise in a bar. (Well, technically, half a bar. The Barcelona end was kind of quiet.) The British Bulldog (the Denver home of the Chelsea Supporters Club) surely must have bounced when Fernando Torres put the capper on it. My friend Raf Noboa said there’s a Spanish barbershop on the floor below his office (in DC – Columbia Heights, by 14th St. & Park Rd., if you care about the specifics), full of Real Madrid supporters. “When Torres scored, the whole building literally shook.”
I have already said goodbye to many of my friends, because if the final is this thrilling I won’t live through it.