Tuesday, August 15, 2006

hungry for football, A PRETTY MOVE gathers for a double feature

Yes! Over a fine vegan spread (thank you, Lynda! I love being humored in my quest to eat only eyeless things, particularly by brilliant cooks) we sat down to enjoy a double whammy: the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final (underdog Internacional v. superpower Sao Paolo) followed by the greatly anticipated Barca v. Club America friendly played to a sold-out crowd in Houston.

The whistle blew and Internacionale hit the pitch with elbows and cleats flying, really with such enthusiastic violence that even Sao Paolo were taken aback. It wasn't long, though, before the champs in white started giving back as good (or bad) as they got, and by the close of the first half we (football romantics that we are) were so disheartened that we turned the channel. From the glances we took later it seemed the second half picked up speed with two goals by Inter's Rafael Sobis, a blond wunderkind likened unto our own Lionel Messi by the announcer, but closer kin to Cristiano Ronaldo, I think. Fast and fancy-footed, both become weirdly top-heavy upon stepping into the penalty area,--is gravity stronger there?--so much so that it is only the counterweight of the ball at their feet which keeps them upright and if it is spirited away they topple instantly to the turf. An inner ear condition, I suspect. Messi, I proudly aver, entertains no such impairment.

In any case, the score was 2-1 in Internacionale's favor last we checked, but to this day I don't know who won.

But then there was Barca! Like a reunion with old friends (OK: friends who don't know who you are or anything). We didn't get to see half enough of Messi in the World Cup, and Samuel Eto'o spent the summer melancholy in unqualified Cameroon. Most of the old faces were back, although Puyol sat this one out (to our great disappointment. What is a Barca match without the Armored Saint?) and it was bad news that Maxi Lopez has been loaned out to Real Mallorca. He never played, but he brought a certain dufus surfer-boy quality to the Barca bench of which we all became very fond. Van Bronckhorst, having no doubt had it up to here with being mixed up with Van Bommel, has rechristened himself "Gio", a male supermodel name if I ever saw one. And Rijkaard tried out some fresh faces: Eidur Gudjohnsen is an exciting new force in front, straight off a year on the bench for Chelsea, and Santiago Ezquerro, while not new to the squad, is new enough to the opening lineup. Valdez even sat down at the half to let backup keeper Albert Jorquera have a go.

It was a nail-biter from the first. Club America, a damn good Mexican team, played quickly and well, with an iron-tight defense and one fellow up front (Nelson Cuevas. Remember that name) who jumped through holes in the (admittedly slipshod) Barca defense to score a first-half hat-trick. Fantastic! I think it made poor Derek physically ill, but it was wonderfully exciting. The score at the half was 3-1 (Marquez headed one in early, an unpretentious goal without a celebration).

In the second half the big guns came out: Ronaldinho, Messi, Deco, plus Motta, with an even worse haircut than last year, and Oliguer, who promptly scored an own-goal, poor sod. It was beautiful to hear the crowd roar with sheer happiness whenever Ronaldinho touched the ball. As much guff as he's taken this summer, however deserved or not it may be, I am among those who are still enamored. I do wonder if he is not losing his trademark childlike joy. It seems inevitable. I suppose it IS inevitable, and I see evidence of it, yet I am loathe to let that old Ronaldinho go. In any case, he seemed revivified to be back amongst the Catalans, and it did my heart good to see it.

So it was 4-1 until about the 80th minute when the able Argentine Saviola tapped one into the net off a truly brilliant feinting run by Ronaldinho. 4-2, and not much time left. What does a great leader do? Draw a penalty! The announcers decided Ronaldinho was greatly exaggerating the foul, but it was physical; I'd have called it. So 4-3 and the minutes wore thin. We heartened ourselves with the thought that now our loss would be at least respectable, that our boys were fighting back well, and Derek said, "I want Eto'o to score."

No sooner spoken than performed! Eto'o, looking bulked up and healthy and with brand new hair, got a simple, graceful equaliser at the very last minute. We all cheered ourselves raw-throated, and sounded like raspy old smokers for the rest of the night. And isn't that the true acid-test of a great football experience?

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