It was, quite possibly, the most extraordinary moment in sport that I have ever experienced (and I've been around, and experienced [live or on live TV] some pretty fabulous moments -- Mazeroski's home run, Gibson's home run, Fisk's home run, Laettner's buzzer-beater, that crazy shot Jordan hit to beat Utah, Dwight Clark's catch, Franco Harris's catch . . . hell, I'm old enough to remember [just barely, I admit, and it's one of those memories I'm not actually sure I had first-hand, but still ...] Sandy Amoros' catch!). And, in a nice touch that soccer fans will understand and appreciate, it occurred in a game that ended up tied 1-1!! Even those of you who don't follow international soccer -- and please, there's no need to repeat the usual "Here's why soccer really sucks," and "Americans will never love soccer" comments -- should appreciate this; it was a major moment in international sports history, of spectacular significance to maybe only a billion or so of your fellow-citizens of the planet, so it's worth knowing a little about what happened.
Here's the set-up: Barcelona vs. Chelsea in the semifinal round of the European Champions League, the big European club (as opposed to national team) competition. At stake was a place in the ECL Final in Rome on May 27th against Manchester United -- with the exception of the World Cup final, the most important (and most-watched) sporting event on Earth. It's the "second leg" of a two-game series -- the winner to be determined by the team with the most goals on aggregate -- or (importantly, as it turned out), if the two teams ended up tied on aggregate goals, the team with the most "away goals." The two teams had met for the first leg last week in Barcelona, and played to a 0-0 draw (more on that below).
Barcelona is a difficult team not to adore -- and I admit that I adore them. The soccer they have played this year is at a level far beyond anything I have ever seen before, and they are stunning to behold. It's not just that they've been winning a lot (though they have been winning a lot); it's that they've been winning by playing with truly extraordinary grace and beauty. [The pure aesthetics of soccer is something that is probably impossible to describe to those who don't watch the game, but every soccer fan understands what is meant by "beautiful soccer" -- crisp passes, intricate movement, brilliant improvisation, sensational technical skills with the ball at one's feet, all 10 field players moving together in an unscripted but magnificent ballet -- and no team plays (or, quite possibly, has played) more beautiful soccer than Barcelona has played this year.] And beyond just the magnificence of their play, Barcelona's a hard team not to love. Their history is glorious and inspiring; one of the few things Spaniards could do to protest Franco's fascism without risking imprisonment or death was to root for Barcelona, inasmuch as it was well-known that Franco was a fanatic supporter of Barca's great rival, Real Madrid. And with every big international soccer club selling off space on their jerseys and their stadiums to the highest bidders, Barcelona remains the only club in the world that has no advertising on their shirts -- in fact, in a deal they cut two years ago, they agreed to put the "Unicef" logo on their shirts and to pay Unicef for the privilege. Nice.
Chelsea has entered the top ranks of European clubs more recently, after being purchased by Roman Abramovic, the Russian oil billionaire, who has spent wildly (and usually wisely) to put together his team. They made it to the finals last year, only to lose to Man. U. in the most heart-breaking way imaginable -- a penalty shoot-out in which their captain and leader, John Terry, only has to convert a penalty kick for them to win, and Terry's feet slip out from under him and he sends the ball wide of the net . . . They came to Barcelona last week determined to slow down the incredible goal-making machine that is Barcelona FC, and they succeeded -- with some of the dullest and least imaginative soccer one can imagine. That's one thing about soccer: if one team gives up any hope of actually trying to score, it can go into a defensive shell, keeping everyone on the field back in the defensive third, and it's very, very difficult for the other team to get through to score. The soccer gods don't like it, but Chelsea seemed to have decided that was their only means of getting through to the final, to play for a 0-0 draw. Disgraceful, but successful; they got their draw, after a dull and lifeless 90 minutes.
So the scene shifted to London yesterday for the second leg. Again, Barcelona's in control of the action, Chelsea's sitting back in their shell ... But in the 9th minute, on one of Chelsea's rare forays into the Barca half, the ball ricochets to the foot of Michael Essien, Chelsea's wonderful Ghanaian mid-fielder, and he smacks it -- on the volley, with his off (left) foot, from 25 yards out -- into the back of the net. A true wonder goal! Golasso! And Chelsea's up 1-0, and now they really go into the shell -- if they can just hold on, they're off to Rome.
Barca attacks, and attacks, and attacks, wave after wave after wave, but can't break through. They just need one goal - because of the away goal rule, a 1-1 tie and Barcelona is the winner. But they can't get it. The frustration, for Barcelona fans, was excruciating -- I had to turn away on several occasions, it was just too painful to watch.
And then all was surely lost for Barcelona -- in the 61st minute, one of their defenders was given a red card for a foul that, as the replays showed, he clearly did not commit. It was a howler of a bad referee decision -- and it seemed to seal Barcelona's fate, for if they couldn't score (and it was now 90+61 minutes without scoring against Chelsea in the two legs) with 11 men, how could they score with 10?
[That's another thing about soccer -- Nick Hornby, in his fabulous book Fever Pitch, went off on a rant about the perfect soccer game, and he got it perfectly right: Your team, on the road, comes back to win 3-2 after trailing 2-0 ... there also has to be a terrible referee's decision against you [in the best of all worlds, a terrible decision that gives the opposing team a penalty kick, which they then fail to convert] because that will sweeten further your delight at the end . . .] O YE SOCCER GODS -- HEAR OUR PLEA!! HOW CAN YOU SO BE SO CRUEL, PUNISHING THE TEAM THAT HAS DONE YOU SUCH HONOR??
At the close of the 90 minutes, the referee signals for 4 additional minutes of "extra time." And in the 3rd minute, it comes -- a beautiful cross into the box, the ball falls to the great Lionel Messi, who pushes it wide to Andres Iniesta -- a Barcelona boy who grew up with the Barca youth team and is an integral part of the heart and soul of the squad -- and from 20 yards out, he cracks it into the net.
It is simply impossible to describe what that feels like, when that ball goes in, so I will not even try.
But if you're lucky enough to find yourself in Barcelona this summer and want to make some friends, head for any bar, buy a glass of beer, and stand up and shout: "A Andres Iniesta!!" Trust me, you'll make everyone there very happy, giving them an excuse to relive that moment.
Update: A word about the refereeing errors, about which many of you had comments. I completely agree - this was a very badly refereed game. That Chelsea supporters feel so-o-o-o aggrieved, however, is laughable — Barcelona had a man sent off for nothing. Pique's handball in the box should have been called, no doubt about it — so that might balance things out a bit. But the other so-called penalties that Chelsea fans are moaning about this morning were dubious at best — in particular, the final "handball" on Chelsea's final attack [the non-call that had Michael Ballack freaking out and screaming at the referee] was a very good no-call — the replay showed as clearly as you could wish for that there was no foul there.
Update #2. One commenter perfectly summarizes the issues and the debate here -- and by an astonishing coincidence, he just happens to be my son. [A first for the VC, I believe - inter-generational commenting . . .]