Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Considering the King

We, as fans, often seem to be in the process of arguing before reflecting or honoring. Every goal, every win, every trophy is a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself, a data point to add to existing theses rather than an event that should be celebrated in its own right. Of course I'm exaggerating to some degree. It's hard to picture a room full of stoic faces after a wonder strike to give a team the deserved last minute win. But ask yourself, how long after the celebration before the conversation drifts away from "did you see that? That was amazing!" to "was that better than so-and-so's goal? No way, it doesn't stand a chance!"? We have a tendency to celebrate momentarily, but then quickly move into the "larger" conversation in which each moment and achievement is properly sorted, discussed, and ranked. There is nothing wrong with this as a basic action: you cannot live forever in the moment and eventually that moment needs to be fully processed by your mind and filed away, notations made under the title about how it made you feel, what was happening at the time, and how it might compare to other moments. But we do seem to be doing this a little too immediately at times, quickly breaking down the moment into its constitutive parts and using these facts as fodder for our arguments rather than properly celebrating what has actually occurred. And I am hard pressed to find many things in sports more worth celebrating than the wining the Champions League.

The Champions League is particularly draining because it is essentially a post season tournament that occurs during the regular season. This is not a shot at the structure of American sports in the least because being forced to win four best-of-seven series to hoist a trophy (basketball and hockey), make it through three rounds of playoffs after a 162 game season (baseball), or winning as many as four games in a single elimination atmosphere after a physically demanding regular season (football) is no easy task. But Champions League play comes with the added strategic and mental pressure of trying to win everything (domestic league, domestic cup, European cup, etc.) while still prioritizing those competitions and deciding when to rest players for the bigger matches. Going through six group stage games and then three rounds of home-away elimination series before the winner take all final is going to ensure that a deserving team comes out of the mix. It's easy for teams to get lucky once and pull out a two game series. Doing it three times and then winning the final? That should ensure legitimacy for whoever comes through. These days though, it seems that that legitimacy is almost immediately challenged during the process of public debate and if the champion of Europe is found wanting then people will immediately declare them unworthy champions and talk about how this team is nothing compared to a team in the past or another team in this year's tournament that the pedestrian winners managed to avoid. Why must our quest for rankings result in the degradation of one of the most prized trophies in sports?

The conversations are still fun and reasonable to have, it's the sense of immediacy that I'm concerned with (though perhaps "concerned" is an overstatement). Championship Team A vs Championship Team B is a valid comparison when deciding all timers and it is possible that the runner up, or even fourth place finisher, from a particular year is a better team than the champion from another. But it's still all talk. The fourth place team finished in fourth for a reason. Perhaps that reason was that they ran up against a nigh unbeatable team and just barely missed. Perhaps it was because they did not have the mental fortitude for pressure situations and cracked when the going got tough. We can't know for sure and while we shouldn't let this fact keep us from having any fun (because what are sports if not for the sake of fun?), we could at least be a little more responsible about how quickly we move on from the moment, and a little more judicious with our opinions on which teams are worthy or not.

After all, deciding a champion in sports is very similar to deciding a winner in a presidential election. Rules were created to determine who would be crowned (to use an awkward word when speaking about democracy) president and those rules represent a binding law that is our process for declaring the winner. If you truly believe in the underlying rules and theories of democracy, then you understand that whoever is president of the country represents you because they gained the position by following the rules that you yourself treasure. Meaning, you can't praise the system when it elects a Democrat but then decry it when it elects a Republican. It is a system meant to direct the talents and thoughts existing in the competition. By the same token, if the Champions League is good enough to crown an aesthetically pleasing Barcelona team as your champion, then you cannot balk when it produces this Chelsea squad. They are your champion. Every conversation you want to have about how they didn't show any creativity, how they were lucky to win because other squads squandered chances against them, or *Insert Team X would have beaten them if they played in the elimination rounds, still has to start with the admission, begrudging or not, "Chelsea are the champions."

Personally, I have some trouble with this Chelsea team. First of all, I just don't like Chelsea, so let's get that out of the way. Another rich, "go buy everyone who will help us win" type of team, and of course it doesn't help that they're a fellow London team. As for this squad in particular, I don't feel like they were the most talented that played in the Champions League this season, and certainly not the most creative. They got at least a little lucky to survive Napoli and definitely lucky to survive both Barcelona and Bayern Munich considering that star players on the other team missed penalty kicks that were almost certain game winners. Plus, John Terry. Ugh. But that's all the negative stuff that anyone says when someone they don't like wins something. You can have your problems with a team and still acknowledge that what they did was impressive. Because more than lucky or boring or anything negative, Chelsea was impressive to me in their Champions League play. They came back from down 3-1 versus a talented Napoli squad to move on. They beat Barcelona in London and then held them to an improbable draw in Barcelona after John Terry's idiocy sent them down to 10 men. They went to Munich, a supposedly neutral site, for a winner take all final and won in penalties after going down early, perhaps one of the nerviest experiences you can imagine in sports. The mental fortitude was more impressive than anything else and that was needed in spades playing the defensive countering style of soccer that seemed like a "back to basics" move for Chelsea.

To me, this Chelsea team is summed up by the play of Didier Drogba more than anything else. He is their talisman, their indicator, a microcosm of them as a whole. At times they were ugly, writhing around on the ground at Stamford Bridge trying to delay as much as possible and protect the precarious 1-0 lead over Barcelona. At times they were manic and lucky, getting in the way of every pass but let off the hook by Lionel Messi after an earned penalty kick. In the end, they were poised and confident, scoring the late match-tying goal and then striding up to the spot during penalties leaving no doubt in anyone's mind that this would be the shot that won the championship. They, and he, are not my favorites and if I had my way, there would have been a different outcome, but this is the one that was earned. Chelsea are the champions for 2011-2012 and it should not be argued any other way.

This isn't a diatribe about analysis in the "Twitter Age" (whatever the fuck that truly means), nor a commentary about the attention span of society in digital times. I've drawn enough society-wide conclusions from such a small sample size and I have no interest in using sport as a springboard to talk about the wider world in such definite terms. I simply ask for a brief delay when thinking about where to place these moments in history. There is always time for recaps, for "best of" lists, for end of season awards. Those will take place whether we jump to them or not. In the meantime, enjoy what you've seen (or spend the next week using alcohol to erase what you've seen if you're Bayern) and live in the moment that you've been waiting for rather than rushing backwards or forwards too quickly. Triumphs deserve our consideration, not only our participation and once you've given the wrong conquerors from London their chance, remember... there's always next  year.

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