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Photo courtesy of Reuters

Quick, off the top of your head: who was the last player not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to win the Ballon d’Or? It has literally been a decade, for starters. It’s a period of shared dominance so lengthy that the award itself has changed structure and name twice within that time, and yes, it is a truly enviable time to be watching soccer with these two creating magic week after week.

No matter if you didn’t come up with the answer quickly; the dichotomy of these two stars, whose orbits encapsulate seemingly the entire history of the game they have perfected in wholly contrasting styles, is so clear and sustained that you’d be forgiven for thinking the game hardly existed before them. But once upon a time, a Brazilian with flowing locks and a million-real smile was the best player in the world, sporting a combination of skill and native moxie that catapulted him to superstardom. This morning, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaka and as the answer to that question until further notice, announced his retirement from soccer.

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Photo courtesy of the author, in the shadow of Nino Heroe Manuel Bonilla in Miraflores

In the work of literature to which I return most frequently, Eduardo Galeano writes, “There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than the stands bereft of people.”

He goes on to describe the sounds of games past, the echoes of Wembley from ’66 or the Camp Nou at any time when you’re unfortunate enough to miss Messi’s magic in real time, but he could have just as easily been describing any of the myriad pickup games that my oldest, not older, brother and I saw happening in Lima on and around Christmas, the holiday season be damned for anything but an occasion on which to kick around. People certainly invoke God enough to demand some time, after all.

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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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Bear surprise

On Wednesday, FC Porto, last year’s third-place Portuguese club who only made it into the UEFA Champions League by virtue of the Play-off round, beat reigning Bundesliga kings Bayern Munich, with noted machinist Pep Guardiola at the managerial helm. The German giants had lost only three games all season coming into the match, depending on when you started counting, and looked poised to similarly dismantle the ostensibly outmatched Porto. But a funny thing happened on the way to the semi-final.

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The jumbotron at Bank of America Stadium flashed to a crowd scene in the middle of the match. Once people realized they were on the massive, newly built video screen, they flashed their Liverpool and AC Milan paraphernalia. One man, wearing a black polo and white pants, decided to take the opportunity to take his hat off to show the insignia that was on it’s side. It was an image associated with the other kind of football.

“Steelers?!” A child behind me screamed in disgust. “Doesn’t he know this is a football game?”

Where the hell am I?

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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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