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05 June 2015

These are the Champions! 5 reasons why the UEFA Champions League is superior to the FIFA World Cup

What would you rather watch?—A quadrennial month-long tournament with just a handful of memorable matches and the same five or six champions?—Or an annual 10-month-long championship featuring the world's best club teams, literally hundreds of cracking goals and a different winner each year?

Given those options, most football fans would probably choose the latter. I know I would.

In anticipation of the 2015 UEFA Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus, why not toast the world's premier international club team showpiece?

Given the latest stains on FIFA's reputation and its dubious awarding of World Cups, why not praise the Champions League for being the superior tournament?

Before you rebel or accuse me of sacrilege, hear me out.

The Champions League trophy shown on March 12, 2015, prior to the second leg semifinal match between Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona at Allianz Arena in Munich. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Apples and Oranjes?

Perhaps it's unfair to compare the FIFA World Cup to the UEFA Champions League. After all, a World Cup is a WORLD CUP, right?

You wait four excruciating years for the most watched, anticipated and celebrated sporting event in existence. It's great. But just as suddenly as it begins, it's over. For all of your patience, you're only rewarded with a month of "fever pitch."

Still, (the early part of) last year's tournament did not disappoint. The group stage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil featured a slew of stunning goals (Robin van Persie's "superman" header against 2010 champions Spain), surprising results (Spain knocked out) and great individual performances (Lionel Messi vs Iran and Bosnia).

But as in most World Cups, the goals dried up in the knockout stages and teams played more conservatively as the tournament advanced. To make matters worse, nationalistic fervor inevitably seeped into the competition's later rounds.

The meaningless old rivalries and ethnic/racial/national stereotypes of yesteryear dominated the mainstream narrative of the World Cup, making for hackneyed "analysis" and punditry. Even worse, those without a team to represent their real (or adopted) homeland in the later stages often found little solace in supporting the remaining countries.

While fair-weather fans, sporadic viewers and rabid supporters alike wait for 2018, European club football followers are like kids in a candystore year-after-year. Here are five reasons why the UEFA Champions League is superior to the FIFA World Cup...


1. The Champions League has better teams and more parity. 

With a three-month-long group stage and two legs per knockout round, the Champions League forces teams to prove their mettle at home and away.

The Champions League has also featured some of the greatest squads ever assembled. Whether its this year's Barcelona team, the 2009 version, Milan 1989, Ajax 1995, Real Madrid 2002 or Manchester United 2008, its difficult to argue that Europe's top club teams are vastly superior to almost all national teams.

After all, the best clubs are comprised of the world's best players, and not just the country's best. Whats more, professional footballers spend so much more time with their clubs than they do with their national teams, which leads to greater cohesion and fluid gameplay.

Real Madrid's Zinedine Zidane volleys past Bayer Leverkusen's Lucio, right, and goalkeeper Jorg Butt, to score his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Final on Wednesday, May 15, 2002 at Hampden Park stadium in Glasgow, Scotland. (AP Photo/Denis Doyle)

It's great to see smaller countries, such as last year's Costa Rica team, hang on and battle the big boys in the World Cup. But surely we all know from experience that the smaller nations will never win the whole thing. No team outside of South America or Europe has ever had a realistic shot at winning the World Cup and that doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.

Conversely, remember when Porto shocked the world in 2003 to defeat Monaco in the final? Or when Liverpool came back from three goals down in the second-half of the 2005 final to stun AC Milan? How about when Cypriot minnows APOEL Nicosia made it all the way to the quarterfinals in 2012? Or when unfancied Borussia Dortmund throttled Real Madrid in 2013 to make it to the final?

The Champions League somehow simultaneously features the best teams and the unexpected.

2. The Champions league is just as meaningful as the World Cup

On a superficial level, the World Cup means more than the Champions League. After all, a World Cup pits nations against each other. And what can be more glorious than being the world's best?

Yet many football fans love their clubs as much, if not more, than their national teams (i.e. Barcelona and its ties to Catalan identity).

Without condoning hooliganism, it is rare to see the same passion and fervor among supporters of national teams as one sees in the ends, among barras bravas, torcidas and their equivalents across Europe.

Moreso than national teams, clubs have truly global followings. With supporters groups, pubs, stores, blogs and other publications all over the world, one can find a fellow Barcelona or Juventus supporter in almost any corner of the globe.


3. The Champions League has better matches and better goals

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was notable for its dearth of well-played matches or great goals. Many blamed the unpredictable ball, but seasoned followers know that all-around conservative tactics and stifled game-play lent itself to a bore of a tournament. Even the 2006 World Cup only had two or three entertaining matches.

The Champions League, on the other hand, always has great match-ups and astonishing goals. This year, Barcelona and Bayern Munich met in a slugfest of a semifinal with the Blaugrana's Lionel Messi figuratively breaking Bayern's Jerome Boateng's ankles before chipping the world's best keeper, Manuel Neuer, en route to a majestic tie-sealing goal.


With the likes of Messi, Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, Chelsea's Eden Hazard, PSG's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, not to mention Bayern's Arjen Robben in the competition year-after-year, viewers can always expect the cream of the crop. While many of these same players grace the World Cup, the difference is the quality of the players surrounding them at club level. That quality makes for these kinds of moments.

4. The Champions League has a better theme song

For every Waka-Waka (2010 World Cup), there's an equally forgettable J.Lo and Pitbull duet (2014 World Cup). For every Hips Don't Lie (2006 World Cup), there's an equally cheesey Ricky Martin song (La Copa de La Vida--1998 World Cup). The Champions League has a classy, mighty, rousing and inspirational theme that will never change.


5. No FIFA meddling = No corruption to stain the competition

Nothing close to the latest FIFA corruption/bribery/money-laundering/complicity in human rights violations/what-the-hell-else can they dig up next?--has ever come close to sullying UEFA or the Champions League.

Whatsmore, UEFA has attempted to increase parity in Europe's domestic club competitions by regulating overspending and debt through its Fair Play Regulation.

The Champions League is UEFA's biggest cash cow, just as the World Cup is FIFA's. The difference is that UEFA hasn't been implicated in bribery, scandal or been complicit in the deaths of countless migrant workers to ensure that things go swimmingly year-after-year.

With all of that in mind, here's hoping for a memorable final between Juventus and Barcelona. May the goals reign, may the stars shine and may the UEFA Champions League continue to be what it has always been: The greatest international sports competition of them all.

Juventus players warm up during a training session on Friday, June 5, 2015, at the Olympic stadium in Berlin on the eve of the UEFA Champions League final between Juventus Turin and Barcelona on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

15 May 2015

The redemption of Gianluigi Buffon

To watch Gianluigi "Gigi" Buffon play football is to witness the art of goalkeeping. Everything he does on the pitch is textbook.

He positions himself flawlessly. He exudes control. He reads matches with a measured, almost computerized rhythm.

He reacts like a feline, making the seemingly impossible saves a repeated reality. He commands the penalty box powerfully. He distributes the ball accurately.

He approaches penalties with the demeanor of someone who always knows where the taker will shoot. And he's made stops that would astonish even the Soviet great Lev Yashin.

In short, he's the prototype of the modern goalkeeper. Don't believe me? Watch this:

His qualities, his consistency and the accomplishments they've led to separate Buffon from his peers, and even from his predecessors. Many consider the tall Tuscan "Superman" the greatest goalkeeper of all-time.

But on June 6, in the same stadium where he won the 2006 World Cup with Italy, the legendary Juventus shot-stopper will seek the ultimate redemption.

Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon makes a save during the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal between Real Madrid and Juventus on Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.
Daniel Ochoa de Olza/The Associated Press)

Redemption for Gigi?

Why would a World Cup winner, eight-time Serie A champion and owner of 34 individual honors (including the International Federation of Football History & Statistics' Best Goalkeeper of the Last 25 Years and 21st Century awards) require any measure of sporting redemption?

The short of it: It's the classic story of the one that got away. He's never won the UEFA Champions League.

The long of it: Juventus has had a checkered history in "the aughts." Since winning the Champions League in 1996, the team has been marred by heartbreak and scandal. In other words, it's taken much longer than it should have for Juventus and its 37-year-old shot-stopper to return to the pantheon of European club football. 

The beginning of heartbreak 

In 2003, Buffon's second year at the club, Juventus met Italian rivals AC Milan in the Champions League Final at Old Trafford in Manchester, England. The match went to penalties.

Buffon faced five well-struck shots and stopped two—his first save a thunderous, gravity-defying, double-fisted punch at full stretch of a low, rasping strike by Clarence Seedorf.

Unfortunately for Buffon, his teammates missed three. That was the last time Juventus came close to winning the Champions League.

A scandal erupts   

Shortly after the 2006 World Cup, Juventus was relegated to Serie B for its part in the Calciopoli scandal. Along with four other teams, the Old Lady (La Vecchia Signora) of Italian football was deemed to have rigged matches through a thick network of managers and referee organizations by selecting favorable referees.

As a result, the 31-time league champions were relegated to Italy's second division (Serie B), exiled from the Champions League for a season and stripped of their 2005 and 2006 Serie A titles. Many of Juve's top players, such as Lillian Thuram, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Fabio Cannavaro and Patrick Viera, immediately jumped ship.

But the then-28-year-old Buffon and captain Alessandro Del Piero stayed on to help the team back into the top flight.

In 2006, Juventus was relegated to Serie B for its role in the Calciopoli scandal. Despite an exodus of top names, Buffon stayed with Juventus to help them win promotion back to Serie B.

Climbing back to the top

After a string of decent league finishes (third in Serie A in 2007-08, second in 2008-09), Buffon's next few years were blighted by back injures and the team finished seventh in consecutive seasons.

Despite winning Serie A from 2011-2014, Juventus never advanced past the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Through bad luck or possibly fate, Buffon has been made to wait for another crack at a trophy that has eluded him throughout his career. Until Wednesday.

Buffon celebrates after his teammate Alvaro Morata scores the go-ahead goal during the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.
Andres Kudacki/The Associated Press)

Against Real Madrid in the second-leg of their semifinal matchup, the keeper was impervious. A Cristiano Ronaldo penalty aside, Buffon was as commanding as ever.

A sprawling one-handed stop of a swerving 25-yard Gareth Bale missile and an improvised near-post lunge to keep out a left-footed whack from Kareem Benzema kept Juventus in the match and allowed the team to advance to its first final in 12 years.

Even his counterpart, the great Iker Casillas of Madrid, showered the Italian with praise before their semifinal tie. "For somebody like me who's dreamt of being a goalkeeper, he represented a figure we could only hope of one day being able to be showcased with," Casillas said.

"Da Berlino alla B.....dalla B a Berlino!!!!! questa e la vita!!" 
("From Berlin to Serie B.....From Serie B to Berlin!!!!! That's life!!" —Tweet from Gianluigi Buffon)

Now Buffon has a chance, perhaps a final chance, to redeem the lost years of disappointment, injury and scandal.

On June 6 at Berlin's Olympiastadion, in his 533rd appearance for Juventus, Buffon can add a pesky piece of coveted silverware to his astonishing trophy haul. Standing in his way is a Barcelona side featuring possibly the greatest attacking trident of all-time in Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar ("MSN" for short).

The odds heavily favor the Catalans, but the odds favored Madrid in the semifinal, as well. The real mark of a legend is an ability to defy the odds and rise to the occasion. Now, few would dismiss Juventus' chances. And none should begrudge the great Buffon if he finds his final redemption.