Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When "Anti-Football" Is Very Unbecoming ...

Saturday's Spanish La Liga mega-matchup between Real Madrid and host Barcelona at Barca's mammoth Camp Nou was intriguing for so many reasons beyond the usual political and footballing issues associated with the rivalry. For one, Barca came out of the box this season under new manager Pep Guardiola (pictured above, in 'deep conversation' with Argentine striker Lionel Messi during the match; Messi himself, sporting a sharp new haircut, is also pictured after scoring in the game) and has put considerable distance between themselves and Real Madrid. Former Madrid legend Bernd Schuster of Germany, who delivered a La Liga title while in charge last season, was fired instantly in the lead-in to Saturday's match when he declared that his side had no hope of beating a rampant Barca. As I told some of my American friends, that's like a Boston Red Sox manager saying his team has no hope of beating the New York Yankees. Then, there was the instantaneous appointment of Juande Ramos (pictured giving instruction to Raul) as Schuster's successor. After an impressive Carling Cup victory over Chelsea early on, Ramos lost the plot in England as Spurs' latest savior. He quickly regained his footing in his native Spain by landing the Madrid job, but what we saw on Saturday -- incidentally, Barca won the match 2-nil, with a missed penalty thrown in for good measure -- was an assault on the spirit of the game. The best strategy Ramos could come up with was to have his team kick chunks out of Messi when the ball was elsewhere, when the referee wasn't looking ... or, basically, the whole match! It was a strategy so unbecoming of Madrid (and I'm sure local 'Madridistas' in southern New Jersey like Dave "Horse" Holak and Steve Miller would agree). Many of us involved in loving and following the game also coach our boys (or girls!), and we all like to win matches. Often times, you "pack it in" and hope to score on a counter-attack when faced with superior opposition. But, as a fan of the sport in general and someone still concerned with the seemingly-antiquated concepts of grace and honor, I could never countenance a strategy that is, basically, a version of anti-football. The fact that Messi's labors bore fruit in the shape of a goal was pure justice (French teammate Thierry Henry joined him on the scoresheet), and it makes you wonder where Real Madrid goes from here. Can you imagine: no Champions League for the Merengues next year? Could happen!