Soccerphiles & Soccerphobes, Lay Down Your Arms!

I know that the world (at least the VC world) is sharply divided into opposing camps on all matters soccer-related, but we should put aside our differences and gather together at our favorite watering-holes tomorrow (Wednesday — 230 PM EDT, rebroadcast at 8 PM EDT on Fox Soccer Channel) for a match that should be a real beauty (and a chance for the ‘phobes to see what it is that gets real soccer fans so passionate about the game). Arsenal FC v. FCB Barcelona, quarter-finals of the European Champions League.

The ECL is far and away the most prestigious (and the best, and the most-watched) club soccer tournament of all (eclipsed only by the battle of the national teams in the World Cup). It’s a season-long tournament, involving the teams that finished at the top of their respective national leagues the previous year (so, e.g., it starts out with the top four teams from the English Premier League in 2008-09 [Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool], the top three from Spain [Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla], France, Germany, etc.) leading up to a one-match Final at the end of May (this year in Madrid) that is always the most-watched soccer match of the year, world-wide. The level of play is generally astonishingly high in all matches – but the Arsenal-Barcelona pairing in this year’s quarter-finals should be particularly delicious. By common consensus, of all the thousands upon thousands of professional soccer teams out there on this earth, these are the two that play the most beautiful soccer of all. Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder — but most neutral fans, whomever they may be rooting for in the competition, would have to agree that no teams can match these two in sheer elegance and grace when they’re on their game.

Describing what is “beautiful” about soccer is no easier than describing what it beautiful in music or painting — but it’s mostly about the intricacy and delicacy of their passing and the complexity of their improvisational moves. For instance, virtually all teams, even at the very highest level, will, when the opponents are attacking and one of the defenders can get his foot on the ball, will simply whack it, hard, up the field to quell the danger. If you watch tomorrow, you won’t see that — or at least, you won’t see it very often. The Barcelona defenders, in particular, are always looking for the outlet pass to a teammate, always looking to start some intricate upfield move. “Hit and hope,” which characterizes the play of even some really good teams, just isn’t in their repertoire. And when they’re attacking the goal – well, you just have to watch. It’s a thing of real beauty.

The atmosphere tomorrow should be white hot at the Emirates stadium (Arsenal’s home ground – the “return leg” is next week in Barcelona). [One other note for neophytes: to determine which team moves on to the next round, the ECL uses a scoring system that looks first to the "aggregate" over the two matches. If the teams are tied on aggregate, the first tie-breaker is "away goals" - the number of goals scored on the opponent's pitch. It has all sorts of interesting implications for strategy, especially in the second of the two games. But it means, for instance, that a 1-1 draw, say, would be a better result for Barcelona than for Arsenal, because of that "away goal."]