Thursday, May 7, 2009

Chelsea Dagger


My first soccer post.

I'm a fan of the "beautiful game" even when it gets ugly. And, let's face it, it often does. I caught the second half of the second leg between Chelsea and Barcelona in the European Champions League Semifinal. My affinity for Barcelona comes in part for my love of the Catalan city but there's also something about the club's democratic soccer culture, history, passion and cosmopolitanism, that make Barcelona an appealing bandwagon option for the curious American soccer fan in search of a European club. (The New Republic's Franklin Foer examines this phenomenon in his interesting "How Soccer Explains the World." ). It also helps that they play an attractive, attacking brand of soccer.

Chelsea, on the other hand, play a more cynical defensive-minded game though it might be said that against a fast, free-wheeling team like Barcelona they have little choice. But Chelsea also represents the noveau riche and their money is changing the face of the game. Their owner, Roman Abramovich, is one of the Russian oligarchs and he has thrown a lot of money around trying to buy a championship for the West London club. They've won a couple of English titles, but have yet to conquer Europe.

I'll skip the full recap of the game. You can find that here. But the finish was one of the most exciting I've ever seen. Barcelona was down a goal and down a man and looking desperate. Three minutes into extra time, they found a miracle goal that seemed to come from nowhere. Bedlam! Because of the tiebreaker rules of these two legged matches (peculiar to Americans) a 1-1 tie was good enough for Barcelona to win the series. They'll meet Manchester United in the finals on May 27th.

In the time honored tradition of soccer, the losing team claimed they were robbed. Chelsea players and fans insisted that the ref blew four calls, any one of which would have resulted in a penalty kick (and surely a Chelsea win). One of the outraged players looked right into the TV camera and called the ref a "fucking disgrace" The ref had to be smuggled out of England for his own safety and will probably receive death threats for the rest of his life. Sports blogs are aflame with apopletic Chelsea fans. What's great about soccer is the passion. But is this pathetic display of whining and poor sportsmanship the inevitable other side of the same coin?

A brief response to those Chelsea fans who say they were robbed:

You don't "deserve" to win just because you claim the greater number of penalty appeals.

Only one of those appeals (Pique's handball) was clear cut, the rest were borderline at best and none of those non-calls was more outrageous than the absurd sending off of Abidal, who didn't seem to even touch Anelka. Actually, Anelka could easily have been carded for diving (the same is true for Drogba several times over).

As a result of that sending off, Chelsea had a man advatage for over 25 minutes but they couldn't manage to score a goal in open play. Over two games, Chelsea scored a single goal (albeit a spectacular one) and didn't dominate the play in either game.

We get it. Losing a close one hurts, especially when calls go against you. But this ugly Chelsea whine is a bit much. Here's hoping that when Barcelona plays Manchester United on May 27th, we get to see the beautiful side of the beautiful game.

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