|Alessandro Del Piero waves to the fans after his last home game in the black and white stripes.|
May has been an incredible month for soccer. The seasons of the major leagues around Europe have concluded. Each country’s respective Cup competition has been decided. The Champions League final has come and gone. This past month has been great not just for fans of particular teams, but for fans of the beautiful game as a whole. Below the jump, I’ll recount some of the major happenings in the footballing world, and examine how my loyalties as a fan shifted during the course of some of these matches.
Match 1: Atalanta vs. Juventus: Alessandro Del Piero’s Final Home Game
Alessandro Del Piero has been my favorite player since I started closely following soccer again 7 years ago. I loved the way he approaches the game. He has never been the tallest, or strongest, or fastest. There was an intelligence and grace to his game that I always enjoyed watching. I admired the passion and loyalty he demonstrated to Juventus during his 19-year career with them, especially when he stayed with the club after they were demoted to a lower league. Del Piero epitomized what it was to be a Juventino in each of the last three decades.
Sunday, May 13th was his last game at Juventus Stadium in Turin. Juve had clinched the league title the previous week, so this game ended up being a celebration of a successful season and a farewell to Del Piero. The only thing at stake was the preservation of Juve’s undefeated season. They won 3-1, with Del Piero fittingly scoring in the 28th minute. He left the game in the 58th minute, giving way to substitute Simone Pepe. Following his substitution, Del Piero embarked on a farewell lap around the playing field, much to the delight of the fans. Doing something like this, while the game was still going on, may have been seen as brash and self-serving had it been any other player than Del Piero--and had Juventus not already wrapped up the league title.
At 37 years old, the management at Juventus must not see a regular spot for Del Piero in the starting lineup. They’re letting him become a free agent at the end of June, allowing him to find a new team that will give him significant playing time for a few years. When he does eventually retire, there will most certainly be a spot for him either as a coach, or a board member, at Juventus. Personally, I’m excited to see which team he ends up with, and to follow his and his team’s progress next season.
|Sergio Aguero scores the league-winning goal for Man City late into injury time|
Match 2: Manchester City vs. Queens Park Rangers: Battle for the Premiership Title
Following the end of the Juventus game, I switched over to the Man City-QPR match. Coming into this match, City were even on points with their cross-town rival, 19-time English Premier League champions Manchester United. City had the edge over United as they had the better goal difference, but City had to get the job done and win that day if they wanted to finish the season with the title.
When I flipped the game on, minnows QPR were leading 2-1 over the Abu Dhabi-funded, big-money spending Manchester City. My first instinct in seeing this was to begin rooting for Queens Park Rangers, and to revel in the schadenfreude of a small-market team spoiling the title-winning dreams of the powerhouse. But as I watched, I began to consider other mitigating factors. I learned that QPR were playing with 10 men after Joey Barton got sent off with a red card for being a hothead and trying to start fights (not the kind of behavior I appreciate from the teams I support). I remembered that if City lost, United would win the title, which would have been their fifth in six years. I learned that City hadn’t won the title in 44 years, and as a Minnesotan, I could relate with Man City’s fans as they saw their best chance at glory in recent memory slip through their fingers.
That’s why, when Manchester City impossibly scored two goals in the five minutes of injury time to win 3-2, I celebrated. I saw a long-suffering fanbase get the title for which they’d waited 44 years. I saw the looks of disbelief on the faces of Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United players, as they had the title ripped from their grasp. I celebrated as a fan of soccer, having witnessed the most dramatic end to a season in any sport ever.
|Bayern Munich players are stunned after Chelsea converted the winning penalty kick.|
Match 3: Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea: Champions League Final
A week after the dramatics in England, Bayern Munich became the first team to ever play a Champions League final in their home stadium when they hosted Chelsea. Now, I have to admit, I don’t like Chelsea. I don’t like that they were bought by an oil billionaire and then turned into league champions. I don’t like any of their players, either (I’m looking at you, Didier Drogba and John Terry). I was, however, kinda rooting for them in their semifinal against Barcelona. Barcelona’s an easy team to root for, as they put the beauty back in the beautiful game. Lionel Messi is a once-in-a-generation player, and Ricky Rubio played on their basketball team. Hell, they were the last team to not have a sponsor on the front of their jersey, and when they finally got one, it was UNICEF. You can’t not like that team.
Barcelona’s been blessed with a lot of recent success, though, and while a Barcelona-Real Madrid final would have been epic, I really wanted to see Bayern Munich win the title on their home field. I also believed that Chelsea would have been the easier opponent for Munich to face, rather than Barcelona. The lesson here, I guess, is to be careful what you wish for, as Chelsea went on to beat Bayern Munich 4-3 in a penalty shootout.
Soccer is unique in that it allows us to examine our values as fans. Most of the time here in America, sports fans identify themselves with the hometown teams (some even start websites to talk about them). Soccer isn’t popular here in the U.S. of A., and, to be honest, the quality in our stateside soccer league just doesn’t match up with the quality of the Europeans. As fans of the sport, we want to see it played at the highest level, and so naturally we look to Europe for teams to support. As a result, we don’t have that ‘hometown team’ benchmark to rely on, so we support teams based on other values. Whether it’s the team of that one player that you really enjoy watching, a team from that beautiful city you enjoyed visiting, a team’s style of play that you admire, or if it’s just the color of their jersey, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you made that team your team.