Man Utd vs Barcelona – An American perspective!!!!

26 05 2009

It’s about time you drop the notion that soccer is to the sports world, what straight-to-DVD releases are to the Academy Awards. Ignore the low scores, short shorts, players who feign injury for professional gain, the often pedestrian pace, and embrace the uniqueness of a game where no two situations are alike.

Convinced? Probably not.

For most Americans, the game occupies a tiny space on the periphery of their sporting conscience. But if you enjoy all the trappings of an over-the-top action flick — heart-pounding action, far-fetched storylines and the tumultuous birth of new rivalries — then there’s a (gasp) soccer match you shouldn’t miss.

The 2009 UEFA Champions League final — the culmination to a season-long tournament involving Europe’s best soccer clubs — has all the makings of an instant classic, one that just might alter the way you feel about the sport.

A dramatic conclusion will be reached
Although they’ll rarely admit it, even the world’s geekiest soccer fans can be bored by listless stalemates. No one, not even the most dedicated of enthusiasts, likes a storyline that lacks direction and urgency — and that goes twice for sports fans. But that’s what makes this encounter so fascinating: This match is guaranteed to produce a dramatic result!

The final — between reigning champions Manchester United of England and Barcelona of Spain — is a winner take-all, run-until-you-can’t-stand-anymore encounter for continental bragging rights and a massive pot of money. Whereas earlier knockout rounds are decided over two matches, the final is a single game affair. There’s no coming back for more — if 90 minutes does not settle the matter, overtime, followed by penalty kicks will have to suffice.

In this respect, the Champions League final is no different than Game 7 of the World Series. The certainty of witnessing a conclusion creates an environment of heightened anxiety that grows as time passes until it bursts forth in pure jubilation (or sadness).

The mounting pressure of one-off title games is often etched on the faces of fans. Onlookers scream, shout, curse, sing, gesture, cry — and in some cases, have massive cardiac events. According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, “viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event.”

Conducted during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the study found that on days the hosts played, cardiac emergencies more than tripled for men and nearly doubled for women. Once the Germans were eliminated from the tournament, the heart-stopping effects dropped considerably.

So remember: When it comes time to watch the big game, keep your friends close and your cardiologist’s phone number closer.

A hero (and perhaps a villain) will emerge
It’s no coincidence that the growing tension of one-off finals often gives rise to legends. The impact of errors and triumphs – usually lost amongst a season’s highs and lows – are left to fester in plain sight.

As the inconsequential in-game action quickly fades from memory, fans are left clutching their emotional responses to the extraordinary. These unexpected moments — be it a home run that wins the World Series, or a reception that clinches the Super Bowl — transcend the game, and allow fans to collectively release the apprehension that was nearly at its boiling point.

Toronto Blue Jays fans probably don’t remember the play that ended the second inning of Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, but they’ll never forget where they were when Joe Carter’s title–winning home run landed just beyond the SkyDome’s left field fence.

And Philadelphia Phillies fans never will forget who served up that home run. Next time you’re in town, try arguing for Mitch Williams’ Hall of Fame credentials — you’ll never call it the City of Brotherly Love again.

The UEFA Champions League final is no stranger to heroic acts. Look no further than Liverpool’s miraculous 3-2 victory in a penalty shootout over heavily favored AC Milan in 2007. The British club was completely outclassed in the first half, as their Italian counterparts built (by soccer standards) an unassailable three-goal lead. While fans stood shell-shocked, Liverpool embarked on a sensational comeback, making heroes out of club captain Steven Gerrard and goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek.

A rookie will rise — or a record will fall
Nothing tops off a title celebration like the knowledge that you’ve witnessed something extraordinary. The minds of sports fans are littered with interesting tidbits about acts once thought impossible — they are the conversation-sweeteners that propel water cooler banter across the world. This year’s final boasts a number of juicy subplots.

Winner of its third Premier League title in a row, United heads to Rome chasing its fourth triumph in European soccer’s most prestigious club competition. If they raise the trophy, the reigning title holders will become the first club to defend their UEFA Champions League title in the modern era.

If Barcelona prevails, 38-year-old Josep “Pep” Guardiola, a former midfielder for the club, will hoist the trophy as a rookie manager — an amazing accomplishment given the long list of experienced and gifted managers who have yet to get their hands on the trophy.

A rivalry will blossom
Rivalries can be found in all sorts of places. From high school football fields to the living rooms of your favorite soap opera characters, wherever there’s competition, there’s bound to be someone who thinks they deserve to be on top.

On Wednesday, despite the presence of numerous mouth-watering head-to-head encounters, the most anticipated is between two players whose paths will rarely cross: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Both are sensational talents. Ronaldo, the 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year, scored a staggering 42 goals last season, as he played a major part in United’s winning its first Champions League title since the 1988-89 season. Despite offseason ankle surgery, the Portuguese winger quickly reclaimed his place as one of the world’s best with powerful performances both domestically and abroad.

Messi is a little Argentinean with quick feet and an even quicker mind. The 21-year-old finished second to Ronaldo in last year’s balloting for FIFA World Player of the Year, and has the uncanny ability to create goal-scoring opportunities from next to nothing.

What links these players — and excites fans and pundits — is their ability to alter the tempo of a match with a simple swivel of their hips. Their matchup is soccer’s answer to Magic vs. Bird — a rivalry forged not out of disdain, but rather, out of respect for the other’s ability to turn a game completely on its head.

Although Messi and Ronaldo may not face each other directly, excited onlookers will note each positive movement, assigning a value to each pass, shot and goal, until one strikes the knockout blow and tips the scales in his favor. This game is as much about the teams, as it is about cementing one of these two as the world’s best.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you tune in because you’re a dedicated fan, or because your roommate just happens to be watching. All that really matters is that you sit back, relax, and give the game a chance — remember, it won’t end in a tie!

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