If It Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably . . .

. . . is.** [see note below] But on a day when our sports pages are filled up with loads of nonsense — about whether Barry Bonds knew what every 12 year-old in America knew (that Bonds was taking steroids), and about whether Kobe Bryant’s utterance of an “anti-gay epithet” that is apparently so nasty that the NY Times can’t even bring itself to tell us what it is deserves a whopping $100,000 fine — real money, even to Kobe Bryant! — it’s nice to bring the discussion around to a sporting event where what is about to happen between the lines, on the field of play, could really turn out to be something most extraordinary.

If you have friends who have a passion for the world’s game (or are Spaniards), you might want to cut them a little slack over the next few weeks. Soccer fans around the world are now in a state of high heat about an unprecedented series of encounters about to take place between two of the real giants of international soccer, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The two teams, who ordinarily meet twice per year, are going to play 4 times over the next 3 weeks — their regular meeting (this Saturday afternoon 4 PM EDT) in the Spanish League (in Madrid), the Final of the Spanish Cup tournament (the Copa del Rey) in midweek, and then twice (home and home) in the semifinals of the big all-Europe soccer competition, the Champions League (April 27 and May 3).

It’s enough to make a soccer fan go mad – Spain will almost certainly grind to a complete halt (not great news for its bondholders, given its current economic woes), and much of the rest of world will at least slow down noticeably. It does indeed seem too good to be true. For any number of reasons, this could well be a truly epic matchup. To begin with, Barcelona and Madrid may well be, at the moment, the two best teams in the world; only Manchester United is really in that conversation right now. Madrid got spanked when they last met — a stunning and humiliating 5-0 defeat in Barcelona; but that was back in the mid-Fall, and virtually all observers agree that Madrid has gotten its act together and started to play a very different brand of soccer over the last few months.

Watching the two best teams in the world play four times in three weeks would be a treat in any circumstances – it’s just a million times more delicious that it’s Madrid and Barca. In a world full of great sports rivalries — a very partial and incomplete list would probably have to include (and I’ll surely offend many of you here) Yankees-Red Sox, the great US college football rivalries (Texas – Oklahoma, Michigan – Ohio State), maybe Celtics-Lakers, Bears-Packers . . . and many terrific soccer rivalries overseas as well (Inter Milan – AC Milan, Man U – Liverpool, Boca Juniors – River Plate in Buenos Aires, Galatasaray – Fehnerbache in Istanbul . . .) — Barcelona-Madrid has a very strong claim to being the greatest of all. The history alone assures that. Madrid, of course, was Franco’s team – his favorite, and he showered it with affection, and prestige, and financial emoluments. And Franco was no friend to the Catalonians, to put it mildly; at a time when all expressions of Catalonian culture were brutally suppressed by Franco’s administration (in Madrid), you could still root for FC Barcelona, and rooting for Barca thereby became a kind of reference point for Catalonian (and, not coincidentally, anti-Franco and anti-Fascist) identity. And all this, remember, is not some old tale out of the history books; it’s within living memory for millions of people (Franco’s reign of terror having ended only in the 1970s).

So there’s that. And there’s plenty of other stuff to give the games even more spice. Madrid’s coach, Jose Mourinho, was hired this year because he, supposedly, has the secret to beating Barcelona; last year, when he coached for Inter Milan, he beat the Catalonians in the Champions League semifinals (and went on to hoist the trophy in the Final) — though that 5-0 drubbing in the Fall put a dent in his reputation on that score. And then there’s the contrast between Madrid’s collection of international superstars plucked from other teams for outrageous amounts of money — Christiano Ronaldo from Manchester United, Kaka from AC Milan, Benzema from Marseille, Xabi Alonso from Liverpool, . . . — and Barcelona’s remarkable group of entirely homegrown stars — Xavi Hernandez, Iniesta, Pique, Puyol, and, of course, the transcendent Lionel Messi.

It all seems to good to be true. We shall see. Tune in, if you’re looking for some fantastic soccer.
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** I’ve been having a debate with a colleague about whether the correct form of the expression is:

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” [i.e., it is too good to actually be true] or

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” [i.e., it probably isn’t true]

It’s rather odd that both forms work and express the same idea … but I vote for the former as the clearer and cleaner of the two]