Thursday, August 25, 2011

Barca 3 - Real Madrid 2

The Spanish Super Cup trophy is awarded to the victor of a head-to-head competition between the prior year's League winner (the equivalent of the pennant race in Baseball, especially before division play began in 1969) and the prior-year's winner of the King's Cup--a coterminous competition involving every team in Spain regardless of the division (level) it plays in.  It's a head-to-head competition.  (Imagine the San Francisco Giants playing the Toledo Mud Hens in Toledo, then San Francisco, with the highest combined-game scoring team moving on to play the winner of the series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Carolina Mud Cats.)  

This year's Supercopa competition featured F.C. Barcelona (last year's Spanish League winner and the undisputed king of contemporary soccer), and arch-rival Real (Royal) Madrid (winner of last year's King's Cup, and arguably the all-time king of club soccer).   These clubs also feature arguably the two greatest players in the sport today, Lionel Messi (the Lionel King) of Barca, and Cristian Ronaldo of Madrid.  Madrid and Barca are the Yankees and Red Sox of Spanish Football but with an even greater distance between them and the rest of the pack.  It's super if you root for one of them, as nearly everyone in their respective cities and regions of Spain does.  If you don't, it's like being a Kansas City Royals or Minnesota Timber Wolves fan; there is never any real hope of winning.

Nevertheless, when the two teams play, soccer fans the world over gather round the television for a spectacle of pseudo-nationalistic import and an exhibition of the game being played the way it was meant to be.  This year's first Supercopa match was a draw, setting up the second game as the decider in Barca's Camp Nou.  It was dramatic.  And in the end, the better team, Barca, won.  

If you don't understand what there is to get worked up about in soccer, Noman suggests investing 14 minutes in the following link, which features English-speaking announcers.  The clip below is a short summary in Spanish of the goals.

It seems to Noman that Madrid is a collection of spectacular players, especially Cristiano Ronaldo who is a thoroughbred of an athlete, a demigod among men.  But, Barca is a spectacular team comprised of superb players; it is better than the sum of its parts, as good as those are.  Moreover, for all of Ronaldo's talent, technique and physical attributes, he cannot hold a candle to Lionel Messi: as electrifying a player as exists in any sport.

You can tell the difference between the teams in the way they react when scoring a goal.  Ronaldo preens about the field in all his magnificence while his teammates hover round, apprehensive about touching him.  Barca hugs and kisses, mobs and exults together.  They love each other, and play like it.  They love their team, too, especially those players who have grown up in the Barca system and are inculcated in its spirit.  Note the way that Messi touches and kisses the Barca emblem on his jersey (before making the sign of the cross!) after scoring his first goal, Barca's second of the match.

Barca has got Madrid's number; it's got everyone's number. And, it is evident that Madrid's coach, Jose Mourinho, doesn't like it.  That is as it should be.  He's figured out what Manchester United's Alex Ferguson still hasn't; if you want to be in the same stadium with Barca when the game is over, you must contest their every movement and play them physically.  That converts them into crybabies.  They are simply too talented, too fast, too well coached and too elegant to let them run around and do their thing.

Unfortunately, as is evident from the asassin-like foul at the end of the game and his personal behavior when the benches cleared to remonstrate about it, Mourinho doesn't quite know where the line between professional pride and poor sportsmanship is.  Shame on him, and on Marcelo for his cheap shot on Fabregas, who played brilliantly and deserved a better fate than to have his tendons menaced.

The drama of the actual games is heightened by history.  There is more going on than futbol when these teams play.  Contention between the cities stretches as far back in time as the the late 15th century marriage of Prince Ferdinand of Aragon and Princess Isabella of Castile.  (Yes, that Ferdinand and Isabella.)  The Castilian princess was stronger than the Catalan prince, and reconquered Spain's center of gravity settled in Madrid, its center.  Things turned nasty when Barcelona sided with the Hapsburg claimant in the early 18th century War of the Spanish Succession, and Madrid supported the victorious French Bourbon's.  The 20th century's Spanish Civil War was ugly for Barcelona, the last stronghold of the Republic.  (In truth it was just ugly, for everyone, without exception.)  While the city was further industrialized under Franco and enjoyed explosive growth, the Catalan language was suppressed as were Catalonia's flag and culture.  A Catalan friend once explained to me in tears how during the dictator's interminable reign, the people embraced Barca's flag and anthem as a means of expressing nationalistic (the Catalan nation's) pride.

On pure soccer grounds the rivalry is also tortured.  Barca signed Argentine-Italian superstar Alfredo Di Stefano--a player as transcendent as Diego Maradona, Pele, or Messi himself.  Unfortunately for the Azulgrana (the blue and scarlet of Barca), the flight from Buenas Aires necessarily passed through Madrid.  When the plane landed, Franco was on the tarmac to make Di Stefano (the "blonde arrow") an offer he couldn't refuse.  He'd play for Real Madrid, the Caudillo's team, rather than Barca.  The rest is history as Di Stefano led Madrid to the first five European Cup championships (1956-1960), establishing its everlasting preeminence in the lore of European Soccer.  He is the all-time Golden Player of Spanish Football.

The teams will play again several times this year, with all the ghosts and skeletons pulling up a bench alongside more than 100,000 rabid fans packed into either stadium.  This is great stuff for sports fans that Noman hopes you'll enjoy.  Games are streamed on ESPN.

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