High drama indeed… but never shoot it high!!
Last fall my oldest son Brendan finally seemed to have come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have the size to play organized American football the way he’d like to, and has gotten more serious about his club soccer and in developing his skills in that sport. His brothers play soccer too. Our girls do field hockey, pole-vaulting (how cool is that?) and drama.
The other night, Brendan and I were watching the UEFA European Champions Cup final between Manchester United and Chelsea, which was being played in Moscow. Brendan and his soccer club teammates are all into this sort of thing... Brendan was virtually alone in supporting Man U; almost all of his buddies were rooting for Chelsea. Now, if you ask me why 12-year old soccer-playing boys in the US have such passionate convictions one way or the other about something like this, I really can’t tell you. All I can say is that soccer has become thoroughly internationalized. Neither of these teams can really be called “British” clubs anymore, and I suppose boys have favorite players they’ve seen playing in the World Cup that they want to root for. In the case of Chelsea, I’m thinking that a lot of them are fans of the German midfielder Michael Ballak.
Predictably, the game ended in a draw, and was decided by a penalty kick shootout. I think I’ve posted before about how this is a fundamental flaw in the sport. The rules of the game and the strategies employed by most coaches are weighted too heavily in the favor of the defense. It’s too difficult to score goals, and far too many important games are settled with penalty kicks, which seems unjust to me. If you are a true aficionado of the game, however, there is hardly anything like the high drama of a penalty shootout. Even for the casual observer, it can make the palms sweat.
In most of the world, soccer is more important than a matter of life and death. The pressure on the star players is beyond intense. One thing I’ve noticed in these shootouts is that it's often the best players who choke under the pressure and make mistakes. I’m no expert when it comes to fútbol, but as far as penalty kicks are concerned, the advantage lies with the shooter, and I think the main idea is to keep the ball low and just inside of either post, hoping that the goalie will choose wrong in deciding which direction to dive in. Too often, it seems, the best players try to get cute.
For example, in the Cup final the other night, Man U’s Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably one of the 2 or 3 best players in the world, tried some lame thing where he did a little stop-and-go before taking the shot. Didn’t work. The goalie made the save. His little move should be illegal. According to the rules, the goalie can’t move until the ball is in the air anyway. Serves him right.
With this advantage it came down to Chelsea’s captain, the defender John Terry, playing just ten days after dislocating an arm, and just minutes after keeping Chelsea in the game with a brilliant defensive header, to take his turn in the box. If he just puts his shot away, it’s all over and Chelsea are champs!
Well… Between a driving rainstorm and bad turf… Watch... About 1:20 in, Chelsea in blue, Manchester United in red.
You’ve got to feel bad for the guy. As for Ronaldo, while the rest of his teammates celebrated, he still lay face down on the turf in tears of his own, no doubt giving thanks to the Madonna… “I’m not the goat, I’m not the goat, I’m not the goat…” Afterwards, though, he didn’t seem too stressed about it. He just looked like he wanted to kill his interviewer, that's all.
Shortly before the shootout, one of Chelsea's best players, Didier Drogba, was given a red card and kicked out of the game for slapping Man U's Nemanja Vidic. This indiscipline under pressure puts me in mind a bit of the great midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who probably cost France the last World Cup by losing his cool, and of a really tough break for the player in 1994’s World Cup who was all the buzz that year, Italy’s striker Roberto Baggio. In the final match with Brazil, he put his penalty kick… over the net. Did he ever live it down? Is there redemption for fallen fútbol heroes?