United in their love
Outside, it was just another day in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Inside, it was all football, all the time.
We were gathered inside an Irish pub called The Banshee because yesterday was a certified High Holy Day of international football, or soccer to you Yanks. Manchester United was playing Barcelona in the final of the Champions League, the annual competition to crown the best club football team in all of Europe.
And this was no ordinary Champions League final. Defending champion Man U and Barcelona are the two uberpowers, loved and/or loathed by millions worldwide. Each team is wealthy and stocked with an obscene amount of high-priced talent. And each is led by a superstar of the highest caliber.
Man U presents for our perusal Cristiano Ronaldo, a 24-year-old native of Portugal who is the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year. He is lanky, handsome, and theatrical. Barcelona counters with the FIFA Player of the Year runner-up, 21-year-old Argentine Lionel Messi, who is short (5 feet 7 inches), somewhat ordinary looking, and very shy. But each can produce goals, lots of goals, either for himself or others.
Ronaldo or Messi? It is football's biggest contemporary argument.
Kobe vs. LeBron, OK?
So this was not the kind of game you watch sitting home by yourself, you know what I'm sayin'?
No, this was the kind of game for which you need the proper atmosphere, so you watch in the company of zealots, aficionados, and football pundits. That's why you go to an establishment like The Banshee, where people come to watch the Premier League games every Saturday, not to mention the hurling games on Sunday morning.
Man U is easy to understand. Think Yankees. Think Notre Dame. People either love 'em or they despise 'em. There is no in between.
I learned years ago that there is a species of football fans who identify themselves as "ABU." You know, "Anybody But United." As the afternoon wore on, I decided the ABUs may very well have constituted a plurality in The Banshee.
Take Terence, for example. He wore a red shirt, which first took to establish him as a Man U supporter. Then he pointed to the logo: "Liverpool."
He was a qualified ABU. He was rooting for Barcelona, yes, but what he was really hoping for was a truly good game. "I'd like an overtime," he announced, "with Barca winning."
The televisions were tuned to Sky TV for the pregame stuff. The big story was a major ticket crisis for some Man U fans. It seems the turnstiles at Rome's Stadio Olimpico were not acknowledging the bar codes for many Man U ticket-holders. Oops. Bad luck? Conspiracy? Counterfeit tickets? By game time we were switched to ESPN and we never did find out. But we did learn that nine people had been arrested the night before in game-related frivolity, and in the world of international football, that's not bad at all.
Everything was great for Man U until the game started. Check that. Man U was right on top of things in the first two minutes. They had a pretty good chance for a goal in the first minute and a half when a Ronaldo free kick resulted in a rebound opportunity for South Korean Park Ji-sung. But defender Gerard Pique materialized forcefully enough to cause an open-net misfire, and a great chance was gone.
Within another 30 seconds Ronaldo unleashed two bombs. But neither could beat Victor Valdes. Ronaldo had one more great burst of activity near the end of the half, but he would never again come close to scoring.
The teams played equally for the next eight minutes or so. But then Andres Iniesta set up Cameroonian star Samuel Eto'o, who dribbled in, put a breathtaking spin move on defender Nemanja Vidic, and slipped one by goaltender Edwin van der Sar, who was blameless. A lot of folks at The Banshee were mighty pleased.
Barcelona had clearly been the better side, leading Terence to opine that Man U coach Sir Alex Ferguson (Scotty Bowman might be the best reference here) would "be reading them the riot act" at halftime. If he did, it did little good, for the team with an immediate second-half spark was Barcelona. It very nearly became 2-0 in the 49th minute when Eto'o made a solid bid for a second goal. Van der Sar needed to make a spectacular sliding left leg save to prevent a goal. A moment later, Eto'o was at it again, forcing van der Sar into a save that was only slightly less acrobatic.
A menacing Barca figure throughout was Spanish midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who prefers to be known simply as Xavi. At one point in the second half his free kick hit the right post. His athletic virtue was finally rewarded in the 70th minute, when he centered one for Messi, who headed it past Valdes to seal the game. It was a beautiful goal, the type of exquisite football moment that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile. There was absolutely nothing in the air to suggest that Man U was remotely capable of a comeback. This was just not Man U's day.
It was, of course, a moment of supreme vindication for Messi, who, from what we're told, does not like to get caught up in the Ronaldo comparison, but who needed to make a statement in this game because the soccer scribes had been making quite a big deal out of the fact that he had not scored in 10 previous Champion League games against English sides. Now he had a goal, and a Champions League title to go along with it.
The game was not the memorable masterpiece people had been hoping for, mainly because Man U was not sufficiently competitive. "I'm not surprised," declared Kieran, a Man U skeptic. "They were outplayed in the midfield. They're not tough enough, and haven't been since [Roy] Keane left. They think it's a pretty game now, but you've still got to go out and hit somebody."
He was ABU, all right, and he was happy. I had to leave, but I'm sure Kieran was staying for one more beer.