Thursday, December 09, 2004

After the first round of the Champions' League finished up this week, it's clear that FC Barcelona is by far the best team in Spain this year. Despite the fact that they sent out a team without Ronaldinho, Etoo, Deco, Márquez, and Oleguer in a meaningless game against no-names Shaktar Donetsk and got trounced 2-0 on a cold night as quiet flowed the Don, Barcelona's been winning in the Spanish League--they have a huge lead--and has looked good in the Champions'.

Real Madrid simply hasn't looked very good at all. They've been scraping by, more wins than losses, in third place in the League, and they squeezed through to the second round of the Champions' with an 0-3 victory over AS Roma, for whom the game was meaningless. They're not out of it in either competition, and they have so many great players that you can never predict what they'll do, but it looks to me like this is a team in decline.

As for Spain's other two powerhouses, Valencia and Deportivo, they got embarrassed in the Champions' League. Deportivo didn't score even one goal in six games and stunk up the joint. They managed, get this, two 0-0 draws. Valencia was playing for a spot in the second round of the Champions', and all they had to do was beat Werder Bremen (a good but not great team) at home. Werder kicked the crap out of them 0-2 and everyone involved on the Valencia side behaved disgracefully. The soon-to-be-ex-coach, Claudio Rainieri, whined on camera about the ref favoring Werder. Meanwhile, after Werder's first goal, some of the Valencia players got in a fight with some of the Werder guys. Angulo committed an extremely nasty foul on the guy who had scored and then he spit in the face of one of the Werder players. The ref red-carded him, of course. This should get him a rest-of-the-year suspension. During all of this, the Valencia fans were throwing shit on the field, and the ref got hit in the head with a flying cigarette lighter. The club's board of directors is pissed off and forced Rainieri to apologize publicly, and the UEFA, the European football association, is opening an investigation of the events.

Neither Valencia nor Deportivo has been particularly impressive in the Spanish league, either. The midtable teams that are looking good are, in order, Espanyol, Sevilla, and Betis. Espanyol is quietly putting together a low-key success of a season. They haven't been getting a lot of attention but watch them qualify for a place in Europe next year.

Barcelona is down to thirteen first-team players, or maybe twelve, since Belletti and Giuly are gimpy and are going to have to sit out next weekend in Albacete. Albacete is a very weak team, and the Barça should have no trouble picking up the win. I imagine Damià will move into Belletti's place and Iniesta will replace Giuly. That leaves them with a bench consisting of Sylvinho, Navarro, and a bunch of kids from the B-team who didn't look too great in Donetsk. You just have to hope nobody else gets hurt. Probably not coincidentally, Edmilson, Gabri, Gerard, Motta, and Larsson are all out for the rest of the season after popping ligaments in their knees. Their leg muscles just got too powerful for their ligaments.

Right now they are wishing three things: that they hadn't let 17-year-old Cesc Fàbregas get away to Arsenal, that they hadn't sold off Luis García this preseason, and that they hadn't sent Javier Saviola on loan to Monaco. Supposedly they are interested in acquiring the loan of Tacchinardi from Juventus to back up the midfield and Carew from Besitkas to fill Larsson's role. I think it would be cool if they signed up Fernando Morientes, who has announced, "play me or trade me," to the Real Madrid junta directiva. He says he'd like to go to Monaco, and he won't accept a loan-out this time.

Tournament-style play starts now; the top sixteen teams have qualified for the second round. Both Barça and Madrid finished second in their groups, so they will draw one of the first-place teams in home-and-away knockout competition. Teams classified first in their group: Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus, Olympique Lyon, Arsenal, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Chelsea. Both Barça and Real Madrid will draw one of these teams in the round of 16 (exceptions: Barça can't get AC Milan and Madrid can't get Bayer Leverkusen). Ouch. Each of these teams is capable of knocking out Barcelona--Barcelona is quite capable of knocking out any of them, too--and I think most of them are likely to knock out Madrid.

The other teams classified for the round of 16, who finished second in their groups as well as Barça and Madrid: Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, PSV Eindhoven, Werder Bremen, and Oporto. Ouch. None of these teams is precisely the Kansas School for the Blind, either. All the really weak teams, your Maccabi Tel Avivs and Sparta Pragues and Rosenborgs and Anderlechts, are now gone.

The other things in sports I need to mention are that Spain beat the US in the Davis Cup final this week. Both teams played well and Spain's 18-year-old Rafael Nadal beat Andy Roddick in singles. Everything was sportsmanlike and very well-done; there were crowds of more than 25,000 people in Sevilla, where the finals were held. The US team praised the organization and the fans.

And, of course, the Balco steroids and Dope-Is-Us outlet scandal. Over here most of the attention is going to Marion Jones, who of course is the most internationally famous of the jocks involved. In the States, though, I think the baseball scandal is bigger. Several of the game's biggest stars have been proven to have greatly improved their performances by using roids since the late 1990s. The most important one is Barry Bonds. We've all known Bonds was on the juice ever since he got all huge and started setting all-time batting records at age 35, just when even the best hitters are going into an unstoppable decline. Nobody was really willing to admit it, though, because we were all having too much fun with the home-run records. Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, of the Yankees, have both been exposed as roid monsters as well, and I will bet money that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were on steroids when they had their 1998 race for the home run record.

The saddest thing is that Ken Caminiti, until then a run-of-the-mill player, got all roided up in 1998 and had an MVP season. Bill James, the baseball historian and statistician, says that was the flukiest performance in major league history--never before had such a mediocre player (as his career record demonstrates) had such a great single season. Well, now Ken Caminiti is dead, apparently of a heart attack. The football player Lyle Alzado long ago admitted taking steroids, and he accused them of causing the brain tumor he died from. And Florence Griffith-Joyner was on something, too. I wonder how many more of these guys are going to die young.

All I can say is that these guys' records don't mean anything now. Does anyone seriously think that Barry Bonds would be about to break Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's records without drugs anymore? Would Bonds and Sosa and McGwire have come even close to Maris's and the Babe's records if they hadn't been doped? No matter what it says in the record books, from now on Maris has the single-season home run record again, and even if Bonds hits nine hundred home runs, Hank Aaron is still the all-time champion. Oh, by the way, Mr. Bonds, you've behaved like an asshole to your fellow players, the fans, and the media for years, the complete opposite of proud, dignified, gentlemanly Hank Aaron. You are nowhere near the player nor the man he was. And as for Babe Ruth, sure, he was on the juice all the time, but in his day and his case "on the juice" meant "a pint of bourbon down and two to go". He'd have hit eight hundred home runs, too, if he'd taken care of himself. And at least he was a nice guy even if he was usually drunk and more than likely either just getting over or just about to get the clap. That's probably where the baseball player tradition of scratching your genitals on the field began.

Completely Off-Topic Sports Anecdote: Jesús Angoy, a Spanish soccer player who was once the backup goalie for the Barça (probably didn't hurt that he was Johan Cruyff's son-in-law) became the placekicker for the Barcelona Dragons back before their untimely demise. One year he got invited to training camp with the Denver Broncos. I'm paraphrasing him when he came back: "Oh, it was great, first-class all the way. They treated me like the rest of the players, and it was interesting to watch an American professional team from the inside. I wasn't actually expecting to make the team, so I'm not too disappointed. The only thing I couldn't figure out is that you can't get a "bikini" in the US." A "bikini", in Barcelona-speak, is a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich. The thing is you have to realize that your local slang doesn't work around the world. I can just imagine Angoy in a Denver coffee shop trying to explain to the waitress that he wanted a bikini.

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