Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gabriele Marcotti

English offer reminder of why we still see - a disturbed

Unlikely hero: De la Pena, the English midfield player, had not scored in more than four years before his goal in 2-1 win over Barcelona
Gabriele Marcotti

That is why we watch. James "Buster" Douglas send Mike Tyson to the canvas. Greece will be champions of Europe. Joe Gaetjens and the U.S. get the better of England in 1950 World Cup finals. Pak Doo Ik and North Korea do the same to Italy in 1966. Wrexham, bottom of the Football League, stun Arsenal, the English champions in the 1992 FA Cup. One horse, appropriately named appalled at 100-1 beating Man O'War the line in 1919.

Without unrest - or more accurately, the threat of unrest - the sports would be like most Hollywood movies: you can be entertained, but you know who will get the girl, and that James Bond will get away.

These thoughts came to mind when watching Barcelona Derby Saturday night. The game was at Nou Camp, before the largest crowd in club football, 98 percent of them cheering for the home page. Barcelona had lost once in La Liga this season and it was in August, when Lehman Brothers was still around. English had not won in the league since November 2, when George W. Bush was still the leader of the free world. When they last won at the Nou Camp, Saddam Hussein was a dear friend of the West, ET was in theaters and Michael Jackson's Thriller was not yet released.

Barcelona have scored 3 ½ times as many league goals as English. Samuel Eto'o had hit 23, three more than English. Josep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach, was hailed as the next big thing. Until a few months ago, Mauricio Pochettino, the English coach, was working in women's football. Barcelona was the top of the English league and the bottom with just 42 points separating them.

But there is more. Yes, as cliché goes, anything can happen in a Derby. But Barcelona Derby is different. The first is that you must wonder how a full-blooded Barcelonan may be other than a Barcelona fan. It is not just that they are much better than English and always have been. It is that marketing, culture, history and politics have stacked the deck in favor of Barcelona. In a city where Catalan identity is hammered home on every street sign and in each classroom, where children grow up on stories about how the hallowed Nou Camp was the only place outside Francisco Franco's dictatorship, you have to wonder why no Catalan would support a club whose name means "Spanish".

Many do support English, but it is fair to say few would have dared to dream what was the Nou Camp on Saturday. The fight was definitely one-sided - Barcelona outshot English 20 for two - even after Seydou Keita, the Barcelona midfield player, was controversially sent off late in the first half.

But the English found themselves two goals up in the wake of an astonishing four minutes shortly after half time. The fact that the scorer of both goals were a Iván de la Peña only added to the surreal nature of events.

De la Peña is a football oxymoron, a player who looks like he came from the 1930s. He has technique and vision, but is about as quick and dynamic as a sofa. Which is why, despite the hype surrounding him as a young - in Barcelona, no less - he never lived up to its potential.

He turns 33 in May, had started 14 games in the last two seasons and before Saturday, had not scored a league goal in more than four years. And yet, it was De la Peña, the second smallest player on the pitch at 5FT 7in, headed in Nene's cross five minutes into the second half and then seized on a clearance of BOTC Víctor Valdés, the goalkeeper, to deliver a sweet chip that flew under the crossbar. Barcelona pulled a goal back but the damage was done.

The amazing thing about anxiety is that they do not have to make a difference to have a lasting effect. Barcelona will probably win the league. And English, will probably be referred.

But the magic of what was life. It fuels the fire of possibility every time teams step on the pitch. It serves to remind us that during the pay checks, the hype, the talent and reputation, it is still 22 men chasing a ball. Which means anything can happen, although it is not likely. And that is why we continue to look at.

And another thing. . .

Platini right to interfere in Wada doping debate

After lobbying hard to prohibit Davide Possanzini and Daniele Mannini 12 months of the Italian players showed up 25 minutes late for a post-match doping test because they were in a team meeting, Brescia, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has a new case that sink his teeth into.

On 7 February after a match against Borussia Moenchengladbach, two players Hoffenheim, Andreas Ibertsberger and Christoph Janker, arrived at their post-match test ten minutes late in similar circumstances. The German FA have started an investigation and Wada will be to see. In a precedent, it can not leave this page, although once again, a hefty punishment seems absurd. Michel Platini put the best two weeks ago. "Football is to find a way to fight back against Wada, who do as they please when they please, that" the UEFA president said.

Jumping to conclusions

Here's a safe bet. Three English sides face three Italian teams in Champions League first knockout round, which begins tomorrow. Should either league to see all three of its clubs lose, the Pundits will start to draw general conclusions about their health and Serie A Barclays Premier League.

People are only six games. Anyone with a little bit of rational thought knows that this is not representative. If the English sides are knocked out it would not mean that Serie A is a stronger league. And if the Italian sides are removed, it does not mean that the recovery evident in Serie A over the last few years - attendances rose by 15 percent, as opposed to elsewhere in Europe - is meaningless.

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