This past February, one of the most monumental decisions in the history of televising the world's game was made. The UEFA Champions League Final would be broadcast in HD live this Saturday not on lowly Fox Soccer Channel, or even FX, but network television on Fox itself. The past few years, the Champions League has grown in ratings over on ESPN and established a niche community for those few footy fans in the States. Subsequently, Rupert Murdock's company noticed an opportunity and picked up the television rights to the tournament.
This coming Saturday will certainly result in angry letters from all the fans that care about baseball in May (all three of you). However, many Americans will tune into a tournament which seems confusing to any Yank. Hopefully, by explaining this tournament in American terms, as well as giving some easy player comparisons, a better American perspective can be made of the European version of the Superbowl.
Imagine if the NFL was separated into hundreds of different divisions: Instead of AFC North, NFC East, NFC South, AFC West, etc; there is AFC Maine, NFC California and so forth. Each division plays in their own particular state divisions from Fall until Spring in the hopes of achieving state glory. In each of these states, there are several tiers of leagues where teams can ascend to the top or are punished and lowered to the bottom.
At the end of the "state" seasons, the state champions (and sometimes second place through fourth place depending on the strength of the league) qualify for a tournament which will be played in the following year for the true American champion of Football. First the lower ranked teams from the smaller states must "earn their way" towards the larger tournament and face off against the second, third and fourth place teams from the larger states to join the stronger teams in their larger states leagues. The final 32 then battle over 16 Knockout stage spots in the form of 8 groups where the top 2 teams advanced. The final 16 are then drawn together and face off over the next 3 rounds in a home-home format where aggregate score determines who advances.
When there are 2 teams remaining after this complicated process, they face off at a nuetral site in one game where a tie means Extra Time and Penalties. Change states to domestic league (England, Spain, Italy, etc), change football to...well, football and you have the Champions League Tournament!
After a year of tournament, the final two left standing for this coming Saturday are German champions Bayern Munich and Italian champions, Internazionale Milan (you can call them Inter for short). Some of these teams will be talked about this coming Saturday as a route to the finals for both. To better understand what teams they will be talking about that did not make this final, here are the teams who fell short:
1. Chelsea -Cleveland (insert any Cleveland Team here) Eliminated by Inter in the final 16, the West Londoners have seen themselves make it to the final four in four of the last six years. Despite being champions of England, this team simply cannot achieve glory on the highest stage, continually put into situations of bad refereeing and poor slip-ups (literally..see Terry, John 2008). Chelsea will be frequently discussed Saturday, as former Chelsea super manager Jose Mourinho will lead the Inter charge. A history of curses and an inability to win the big game means the Londoners will certainly be welcomed in Cleveland some day.
2. Arsenal- Utah Jazz - Arsenal are the third (or fourth) best team in England. Every year, the North Londoners make this tournament and, every year, we know how far they'll get before losing to a better team. Just like the Jazz at point guard, they'll consistently have a play-maker in midfield while also incorporating a strong forward. Just as they did a few years ago, Barcelona dispatched the North Londoners in the Quarterfinals stages.
3. Barcelona -Indianapolis Colts - Barcelona are arguably the best team in the world right now, continually winning at the domestic level. However, at times, they simply cannot put it together in the European playoffs. This is because their defense is oftentimes lax, since all of their defenders are arguably offensive players in the wrong position. Inter just suffocated their attacking style of play in the semifinals, forcing them home for the tournament. Finally, both teams have the best footballer in the world (Peyton Manning and Lionel Messi) cementing this comparison.
4. A.C. Milan -Washington Redskins - A.C. Milan is the team of the tournament you often forget exists. They've won a few titles, they make a lot of money and they are consistently 2nd in their own domestic league. However, just like the Washington Redskins, they are often forgotten in the scheme of things simply because they play a very boring style of football. Historically A.C. Milan plays an Italian style of diving and defensive football, just like the Redskins history as a grind-it-out type team. A.C. Milan were eliminated by Manchester United in the first round of the knockout phase and very few were upset by it.
5. Manchester United -Dallas Cowboys - Manchester United continually win win win in the English domestic league while incorporating some European glory (including stealing a Champions league final from Chelsea just two years ago). A star at Manchester United, whether it be David Beckham or Christiano Ronaldo, is made a world superstar overnight because of penetration into international markets around the globe by the Mancs. Bayern eliminated Manchester United in the quarterfinals, as the loss of Ronaldo proved too much for the Red Devils in this particular tournament. The fact that most of the world was happy they were eliminated accents the comparison to Dallas.
6. FC Porto- Portland Trailblazers - Porto is that team that qualifies every year out of a weak league and falls out in the knockout stages annually. They actually won in 2004 under Inter's current coach Mourinho, defeating teams such as Manchester United along the way. Porto's strong fan base creates an environment where it is claimed to be difficult to win there. However just as Arsenal proved to it this year in the Round of 16, Porto continually gets destroyed on the road. Portland not only holds part of the namesake of the club, they also have a strong home court and will never win a championship in their future.
7. Liverpool - San Francisco 49ers - Liverpool has won more domestic and European titles than anyone else in England, meaning they have a strong historical winning culture. However, their recent falloff resulted in removal from the group stages and ending the English season without even qualifying for next year's Champions League. Even its 2005 Champions League season was won on nothing short of a miracle, with the team coming back from 3-nil down in the final and not even qualifying for the Champions League initially. The current 49ers seems like a perfect comparison for this "past glory, weak recent results" club.
8. Real Madrid -Montreal Canadians - Real Madrid are the best team in European history, reaching European glory nine times while also winning the Spanish league 31 times. However, the team has failed to qualify out of the knockout round since the controversial move to pick up David Beckham and has not won a European final since 2002. This past season Real Madrid were eliminated by French minnows Lyon in the first knockout round. Similarly, the best team in hockey simply cannot break through its current 20 year jinx, continually collapsing in clutch playoff situations. Both teams retain their strong reputations, however both are shells of what they once were.
This Saturday you'll be able to make your own judgments about the teams on the field. I hope this guide helps you better understand how these teams got here and who they faced along the way.