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“Stand out of my light.” So goes the punchline in Plutarch’s retelling of the one and only meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher, the latter of whom had only the preceding request for the Macedonian king. To take the tale at face value, there couldn’t have been too many duos less alike in ancient Greece around 336 BCE. As powerful as almost any human being ever, Alexander is infamous for having wept at the notion that he had no worlds left to conquer. Diogenes sought out poverty, thriving in destitution and sleeping in a ceramic jar.

As cavernous as the gap between Diogenes and Alexander was, so, too, is that between the teams meeting in Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final. With a cursory glance, one may suspect that the teams share few similarities. Part of that, of course, comes with comparing any team to Real Madrid in the European Cup; having won ten of them, more than any other club, gives you an air of esteem and pomp without parallel. Their opponents in this case, however, are achingly familiar with flying close to the sun as their wings start to melt. Like Alexander after meeting Diogenes, Real may leave San Siro stunningly impressed with the exploits of Atlético Madrid.

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A magnificently threaded through-ball eludes four nearby defenders to find, all alone in the opposing box, the world’s best soccer player, who dances with his mistress for a moment long enough to attract the attention of an entire defense, along with the world. A shot on goal ricochets under the goalkeeper, whose effort provided only the briefest moment of respite preceding the inevitable. A trailing teammate, a regular on the B squad, tracks the ball and slots it into the back of an empty net, winning the game for his dominant side at an abnormally late time.

This was the scene in Sunday’s match between FC Barcelona and Villarreal. For the Catalans, these moments are a dime a dozen. With Lionel Messi, all is possible except for failure, which is a distinct and unacceptable impossibility. My adulation for him, at this point, goes without saying. In this case, the focus belongs to the other two players involved in the movement, Brazil’s fallen hero Neymar, the catalyst, and the Barça B wunderkind Sandro Ramírez, who scored the goal, his first ever for the senior side and in his first La Liga appearance. At just 22 and nineteen years of age, respectively, these two (literally, at times) have the world at their feet, leaving the rest of us to admire immortality and ponder its antithesis.

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argentina vs portugalOn Thursday, the 2014 FIFA World Cup begins in Brazil. While many eyes will be on the home team, which is the nominal favorite to capture its record-extending sixth World Cup title, thirty-one other teams will be vying to bring the glory of the beautiful game’s most hallowed prize to their homelands. Many of these sides have legendary players in various stages of their primes. Some seem simply to be along for the experience of playing on a senior international level as a sort of deposit for the future (See: Green, Julian). For all the acclaim of Brazil’s joga bonito, Italy’s azzurri and Die Mannschaft of Germany, two individual players are carrying the weight of their countries perhaps more heavily than anyone else, with the outcome of the tournament potentially dictating their places among the game’s all-time greatest.

I am, of course, talking about Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

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Courtesy of Soccerroomtoday.com

Courtesy of Soccerroomtoday.com

When anyone mentions La Liga, the top soccer division in Spain, in the United States, the most popular notion which comes to mind is the FC Barcelona-Real Madrid dichotomy which has ruled the country and succeeded in European play for decades. The last team other than these two to win La Liga was a Mista-led Valencia squad in 2003-’04, a season in which Barcelona finished second and Real Madrid finished fourth. Incredibly, Madrid (32) and Barcelona (22) have accounted for 54 out of a possible 81 La Liga championships since the inception of the league in 1929, and the two best players in the world, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Christiano Ronaldo, keep these teams at the vanguard of Spanish football thought. This season may just end the decade-long reign of those two clubs, however, as a powerful team has emerged just south of Real’s Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid.

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Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated

He needs help like a fish needs a bicycle.” – Ray Hudson, on Lionel Messi

Here is what we know about Lionel Andrés Messi: originally from the Argentine city of Rosario, he is 26 years old. He is of relatively small stature (reportedly 5-foot-7), physically. He is left-footed and had a growth deficiency when he was a child, for which FC Barcelona, his current club in Spain, offered to pick up the medical tab in exchange for his coming to the Catalan youth academy. He is the four-time defending recipient of FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, the most prestigious individual award in soccer. He is, unequivocally and absolutely, the finest soccer player on the planet. And he has more than a solid chance to be, when all is said and done, the best the world has ever seen.

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Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, old Time is still a-flying: And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

Robert Harrick, “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time”

For the better part of the last five years, at least since Euro 2008 signaled the dawn of a Spanish renaissance in the sport, the Spanish men’s national football team has ridden a possession-heavy, triangular passing-based game to great success and historic heights, and not only by Spanish standards. The style they have made their own, affectionately dubbed tiki-taka for its quick passing, had its roots in the Ajax/Netherlands “total football” system of the 1970s. When the greatest Dutch player ever, Johann Cruyff, became FC Barcelona’s manager in 1988, he brought the total football mentality with him and placed the greatest burden in the field on his most talented midfielder, Josep Guardiola. Guardiola ascended to the throne at Barcelona in June 2008 and left it four years later having put together perhaps the greatest list of accomplishments in any four-year span in the history of club soccer.

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