This is a great time of the year in the United States. The final four of Champions League soccer is being piped in during mid-afternoon across this huge country.
On Wednesday Americans got to see Messi break down Bayern Munich with two killer strikes, three minutes apart, as Barcelona won, 3-0, at home in the Pep Guardiola Bowl – his current team (Bayern) against his old team (Barça).
On Tuesday, Juventus held off Real Madrid, 2-1, at home, as described so well by Sam Borden in the Times. I enjoyed watching old hands like Buffon, Pirlo and Chiellini, who sported a bandage and a bloody jersey -- and Suarez was nowhere in sight.
(Euro calcio scribes dispatch with first names; everybody knows the players, or is supposed to. Fact is, American tifosi recognize the manic features of Buffon, who has been a staple of our lives for two decades. We know this stuff.)
Next week the teams play again and the final is June 6 in Berlin. Pubs and restaurants will be jumping in New York as fans celebrate the true rite of spring.
The big question is: how far can the growing sophistication and demand for soccer go in the New World? We do know that European clubs are thrilled to make money here. In July the master impresario Charlie Stillitano will import some of the best squads for the International Champions Cup -- what amounts to pre-season training. (That’s right; these blokes will be whacking away in two months.)
But how long will American fans, with their discretionary income, be willing to serve as out-of-town tryout audiences, like spring training baseball fans in Florida and Arizona, or theatre-goers watching plays before they reach Broadway?
Americans are getting the hang of world soccer. The New York Times dispatched Sam Borden to Europe to add to what Chris Clarey and Rob Hughes have been doing. Americans know all about master schnorrer Sepp Blatter of FIFA. (Check out Bloomberg’s big piece on Blatter.)
Every four years, American fans must settle for their plucky Last Picture Show national squad. Major League Soccer is growing its product correctly. I think the time zones over the Atlantic are a barrier to having a Boston team or a New York team playing in a top European league. But money can make anything happen, I suppose.
It’s been a huge transition in the past generation, just having the top clubs show up in our summer. In 2001, Bayern won the Champions League on a Wednesday night in Milan and flew home for a parade in Munich on Thursday and celebrated with no sleep until the flight to Newark on Friday for a Saturday night exhibition.
Bayern scraped together eight starters from the final but their legs and brains were shot by the time they wobbled onto the field in New Jersey. The hideous MetroStars won the exhibition, 2-0 – and over 30,000 fans showed just to watch the best players in the world, hung over. More recently, Bayern has opened a New York office. You think they’re not serious?
I knew the appetite for American money was growing when Sir Alex Ferguson deigned to lunch with American soccer writers before a rake-in-the-bucks swing in 2003. The extroverted Dutch striker Rood Van Nistelrooy told a charming story about getting into a coed pickup match in North Carolina the summer before and finally being recognized by a female opponent.
Footy in the Colonies! In 2011 I covered a Liverpool-AC Milan match in hallowed Fenway Park. And I used to watch Champions League matches in BXL, Foley’s, and the late, lamented L’Angolo in Greenwich Village.
We Americans have learned a bit in recent decades. But will we ever really be part of world football? Or will we remain well-heeled consumers rather than participants?
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.