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After months of anticipation, the UEFA Champions League produced a dazzling final between two of the best professional soccer teams in the world – Barcelona FC and Manchester United. About 300 million people watched it. I was not one. My granddaughter had other ideas, and it ended up a memorable lesson in priorities.
I have written several blogs about the UEFA Champions League and have followed the tournament closely, especially the Round of 16. It’s a terrific format – the winners of Europe’s best professional leagues come together for an eight-month super tournament. Since it draws the best players from around the world, the quality is very high and the pressure higher. It culminated Saturday with a one-game final in London’s Wembley Stadium, featuring two of the most popular teams in the world and drawing a far bigger global broadcast audience than the Super Bowl.
I was hugely looking forward to kicking back and soaking in the spectacle. In addition, I could watch it at our Northern California cabin. Though my wife and I had planned to take two grandchildren to the mountains for the weekend, I figured they’d understand my need to watch this one game.
Unfortunately, one child got Chickenpox, so my wife remained behind. I went ahead and took my 10-year-old granddaughter, Kaya. I mean, how tough could it be to persuade one little girl to let me watch one game? Besides, she played soccer and should want to watch the world’s best players, right? In retrospect, I guess her hot pink soccer shoes should have been a tipoff – or the in-depth conversation about world religions on our drive up. Obviously this girls is way smarter (and cuter) than the average 10-year-old.
So about the time Wayne Rooney of United scored to make it 1-1 and I was jumping off the couch, Kaya was losing interest. I turned and asked what she thought of the goal. She said:
“Can we please go hiking, grandpa?”
Kaya didn’t care about the Champions League; she wanted me to be her champion.
Dozens of excuses shot through my mind. It was unseasonably cold, cloudy with occasional showers, the dog would get muddy, and … well, you get the picture. I glanced at Kaya smiling at me, looked up at United celebrating on TV, and came to one of those humbling life lessons on what really matters.
No offense to Wayne Rooney, but he won’t be top-of-mind on my deathbed. Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t managing my life, just Manchester United. Lionel Messi may be the best world football player, but he’s not my child’s child.
I looked down at Kaya, turned off the TV and said, “Yeah, let’s go hiking.”
So about the time Messi was putting Barca ahead, 2-1, with an amazing left-footed shot just outside the penalty box, Kaya and I were walking along a beautiful recreation lake booting pine cones. About the time David Villa brilliantly looped one into the top right corner for a commanding 3-1 Barca lead, we were sitting on a bench eating a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich her mom made for us. And about the time Barcelona’s players were hoisting the UEFA championship trophy, she was explaining to me the nuances of “The Bachelorette” TV show along a tree-lined trail.
Later that night, I laid in bed thinking about choices. For years I was a sports writer and editor at several U.S. newspapers, but went into corporate communications to spend more time with my family. Even getting into sports was a big deal for me, since I started as a news writer and still think of myself as a journalist more than fan. Heck, my son knows more stats than I do these days.
It’s easy to pay attention when making major decisions, because they demand your consideration. But when it comes to life choices, the little ones often make the biggest difference.
Lionel Messi is a special, talented and driven competitor.* But compared with Kaya, he was just another TV athlete this Saturday. Why? Because instead of watching Messi break down United’s defense, I got to watch Kaya get past mine. The result was a wonderful afternoon hiking along a mountain lake with a very interesting young woman.
Now about that Bachelorette format…
* Messi has been named FIFA’s World Player of the Year and World Pro Player of the Year twice. In addition, he was named the top player in the two most prestigious tournaments the past year – the FIFA World Cup (for national team Argentina) and UEFA Champions League. Oh, and he’s only 23…
Occasionally an athlete comes along with a quality and depth that transcends their sport. I’ve interviewed some – Ali, Musial, Pele, Jordan, Staubach and other memorable human beings. But it’s hard to top English soccer legend Ryan Giggs of Manchester United. In fact, it’s hard to find a comparison in pro sports.
Giggs has been a productive leader on the same world-class team from age 17 to his current 37 – and may be playing his best now. Even more, he was a good goal-scorer on a great squad early in his career, then changed positions and became a star playmaker later. That’s like Brett Favre playing 10 years as a wide receiver and shifting to quarterback for 10. Giggs is a serious yoga practitioner, husband and father, and a UNICEF representative who launched a campaign in 2002 to prevent landmines from killing children. Yep, he’s the real deal.
That’s why you can’t help but root for him, and why he continues to respond. Giggs is a key reason Manchester United this week earned a berth in the semifinals of the incredibly popular and talent-laden UEFA Champions League tournament. United will face German club Schalke 04 in one semifinal, while Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid face off in the other semi. The title game on May 28 in London’s Wembley Stadium will be seen by more people worldwide than the Super Bowl.
Don’t be surprised if Giggs is there. He’s one of those rare athletes who performs best in the biggest games. Case in point: this year. After winning UEFA group play, United beat French team Marseille in the round of 16 and cross-town rival Chelsea in the quarterfinals. In those four games, United sccored five goals; Giggs had the assist on four of them. In each case, he collapsed the defense with amazing displays of speed and dribbling skills followed by a perfect (and unselfish) pass to an open teammate.
That kind of big-stage success – plus a blue-collar work ethic – has endeared Giggs to several generations of United faithful. In fact, Giggs recently was voted the best all-time player for Manchester United by fans above better-known names such as David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton – by a wide margin. And yet the day after winning the award, there was Giggs in his 20th season a key factor as his team rallied from an 0-2 hole in the final 20 minutes to win an important league game.
“Last year, I thought that was the best he had ever played, but this year he’s been even better,” said Charlton after Giggs broke his longstanding United record for English Premier League appearances last month (Giggs passed his record for overall appearances in 2008). “I don’t know what he’s putting in his tea, but he’s been at his peak again this season. He’s a great, great professional footballer, and I’m ever so proud of him for what he’s done, what he’s still doing and what hopefully he’ll continue to do.”
Giggs credits two things for his longevity – his yoga regime (see his video), and his decision in 2007 to retire from international soccer (to the dismay of fans in his native Wales). He played his first 10 years as a high-scoring left winger with a reputation for clutch performances. As the game of soccer changed, Giggs adapted and found a spot as one of the most prolific and creative midfielders in Premier League history.
He made his first appearance for the club during the 1990–91 season and holds the United record for competitive appearance (870 and climbing) and team trophies won by a player (23). All that came while playing on a very good team in a top league.
“I get asked about Ryan all the time and I always find myself talking about the same attributes — the way he’s looked after his physique, the way he constantly strives to better himself and the way he applies himself to make sure he succeeds,” long-time United manager Sir Alex Ferguson told Goal.com. “He’s a fantastic role-model for young players. Ryan is a model of how to carry yourself, both as a footballer and a human being. He’s shown by sacrifice what can be achieved.”
The 5-foot-11, 157-pound Giggs played in his first UEFA competition in June 1991. But his finest UEFA performances arguably have been this year. In the quarterfinals, Giggs assisted teammate Wayne Rooney’s winner in the first game, then set up Javier Hernández and Park Ji-Sung in the clincher. Giggs was predictably modest about his contribution:
“I am enjoying it,” Giggs said. “I was fortunate to make the two goals tonight and I am in the position where I put it in the right areas. You’ve got players like Hernández who are just born goal-scorers and they are going to be there.”
Teammates feel the same way about Giggs. He has been there for 20 years. Don’t be surprised if he’s there on 28 May.
— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)
Bottom line: Since 1992, Giggs has collected 11 Premier League winner’s medals and five second-place finishes. He also has four FA Cup winner’s medals, three League Cup winner’s medals and two Champions League winner’s medals. In addition, he has runner-up medals from the Champions League, three FA Cup finals and two League Cup finals.
What if this year’s Super Bowl finalists qualified for broader multi-country tournament – paring the top teams from pro football leagues around the world? Football has no such reach; but futbol does. Unfortunately, this year’s UEFA Champions League is the best event most Americans will miss.
In 2009, a soccer game became the first single sporting event to surpass the Super Bowl in terms of viewership. About 109 million people watched Barcelona (Spain) beat Manchester United (England) 2-0 in the 2009 UEFA final. The next title game of the every-two-year UEFA Champions League is on May 28 in London’s Wembley Stadium. The Round of 16 is under way and hits a critical point this week. Far more people will watch the UEFA championship game than the 111 million for Super Bowl 45. To add drama, both the 2009 finalists are in danger of being upset in the quarterfinals being held this week.
Why should UEFA matter to Americans? First, you must understand the importance of European club soccer to the sport and world. FIFA, the world’s governing body, is divided into six continental confederations. By far the biggest and strongest in terms of club-level wealth and influence is the Union of European Football Associations, almost called by its French acronym, UEFA (pronounced ew-AY-fa).
Most of the top players spend time in European leagues because of the salaries available from the world’s wealthiest football clubs, especially in England, Spain, Germany and Italy. And since UEFA oversees most of the national soccer associations of Europe, its Champions League series draws huge interest globally.
The genius of the Champions League is matching professional clubs instead of national teams, as in the every-four-year FIFA World Cup. Since any club in any country can bid on any player in the world, you hugely internationalize the appeal – and marketing reach – of UEFA teams beyond their geographic borders. It’s even called the “transfer” market instead of “free agents.” Think of it as talent on loan from the soccer gods.
A few examples from the UEFA Round of 16:
- Cameroon’s star striker is the tournament’s leading scorer, playing for Italian club Inter Milan.
- An Argentine superstar is leading defending champion Barcelona of Spain.
- England’s Manchester United is anchored by a standout Serbian defender.
- A Swedish striker is the top scorer for Italian club AC Milan.
- French team Lyon is led by a Brazilian midfielder.
- Portugal’s national team captain is a key player for Spain’s Real Madrid.
- Spanish midfielders are leading German club Shalke 04 and English club Arsenal.
- You get the picture.
Because of the broad global interest, an entire cottage industry has arisen around speculating and analyzing soccer’s transfer market. Think Carmelo Anthony going to the New York Knicks in America’s National Basketball Association was a big deal? England’s Chelsea signed Spanish star Fernando Torres to a record contract worth about $80 million just before the UEFA deadline. Speculation is still rampant on who won and lost in the pre-UEFA maneuvering. The positive side of additional coverage, of course, is we also get stories on player “WAGS” (wives and girlfriends), with lots of bikini photos. The British tabloids get it right on some things.
Of all the team sports, soccer has most successfully marketed its products internationally. Certainly a number of individual sports have cultivated global appeal, in particular golf and tennis. And semi-pro sports festivals like the Olympics always have wide interest. But soccer provides a level playing field for professional player development, allowing even small countries such as Paraguay and The Netherlands to field competitive national teams.
With that kind of solid fan base, you can guarantee broad viewership by attracting the top athletes in soccer. The UEFA Champions League has done that in spectacular fashion. Quite simply, you have some of the best athletes in any sport going head-to-head for very high stakes – including the defending finalists both on the ropes this week. What’s not to like, America?
Who knows, I may even learn a team song before it’s over…
— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)
Imagine if “Rudy” Ruettiger had actually been an outstanding athlete at Notre Dame, but blew out a knee after his senior year. Now imagine Rudy as an undrafted practice-squad project for an NFL team. Any doubt how it would end? Meet Danario Alexander, a feel-good story with Hollywood potential.
Alexander, a talented rookie wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams, went undrafted out of Missouri after injuring his left knee practicing for last year’s Senior Bowl. But he showed he still has legs on Sunday. Alexander had his breakout game for the Rams against the San Francisco 49ers when it mattered most – at home with a playoff berth at stake. He caught six passes from Sam Bradford for 99 yards, including three key first-down receptions – one a sensational 46-yarder to the 49ers’ 3-yard-line that set up the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter (photo to right).
Don’t be surprised if a lot more people are talking about “D.X.” after this Sunday night’s NFC West winner-take-all finale at Seattle. Why? Everyone but the Rams gave up on Alexander, and that’s when Danario became the next Rudy.
My interest in Alexander’s story began September 2009, early in his senior season. I had attended Mizzou (School of Journalism) and later covered college and pro football for years, so I went to see the Tigers play against Nevada in Reno. It wasn’t a gimme-game for Mizzou. The Wolfpack played them tough (the nation saw the quality of the program this season in their upset of Boise State). The Tigers needed some big plays to escape with a win, and Alexander was the difference. He had nine receptions for 170 yards and two touchdowns – one a 72-yarder.
After watching him play, I came away convinced Alexander had all the ingredients to be a top-tier pro player. First, he has good height (6-foot-5) for a receiver, an important advantage against cornerbacks in the NFL, especially on red-zone fade routes. He also had good speed even for the NFL – a much faster game than college. And coaches loved his work ethic. I also saw two other strong qualities – he caught the ball with his hands instead of body and was willing to block downfield for teammates. He simply was a complete player. The result:
- As a senior, Alexander led the nation in receiving with 1,781 yards – averaging 15.8 yards per catch and 137 yards per game. He finished with 113 receptions and 14 touchdowns, shattering most Missouri receiving records along the way.
- He was named a 2009 first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated among many other awards.
- He was picked to the Senior Bowl roster, but in practice the week before the all-star game he suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury. That’s when Alexander showed he had more than great skills, but also great heart.
Alexander had surgery on the knee in February 2010, leaving him unable to work out for pro scouts at the NFL Combine or his pro day at Mizzou. Because of that, no team was willing to risk a draft pick on him. However, the Rams signed him to a free-agent contract on Aug. 22 – after the first two exhibition games. Three weeks later they cut him from the active roster, but then signed him to their practice squad.
At the time, St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney said the team was taking on Alexander as a long-term project, not rushing his progress on the chance the long-term payoff would be worth it. While on the practice squad, he worked hard to strengthen his knee. After five surgeries, the lingering problem became muscle atrophy around his left knee – raising fears he would re-injure himself compensating. Some folks even suggested he take a year off.
“He’s moving around well, we just want to make sure that you don’t put him in a position where he’s going to injure something else,” Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in October.
However, Alexander’s determination and the team’s playoff hunt have accelerated his progress. Measurements in October showed the left leg had caught up, and he was looking better each week on the field. When starter Mark Clayton went down with an injury, the Rams finally signed Alexander to their active roster on Oct. 11. The results: Alexander has been a major factor in three of the Rams’ victories:
- In Alexander’s first pro game, his 38-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Sam Bradford helped the Rams beat San Diego, 20-17. He had four catches for 72 yards.
- Against Denver, he had four catches for 95 yards – including a 45-yard reception that led to a touchdown.
- In Sunday’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers, he had his best pro game when the stakes were highest. Using a four-receiver formation, the Rams were able to match Alexander in the slot against much shorter defenders – and took advantage. His leaping 46-yard reception was the difference.
“It was an awesome catch by Danario,” Bradford told Yahoo! Sports. “I think he always has great body position, seems like he can adjust to the ball wherever it’s thrown. He just keeps himself in good position and ends up getting the ball somehow.”
Though Alexander still looks stiff running routes compared with his college days, he loosened up as the game progressed and was able to get separation from defenders. The league is paying attention as the playoffs near. By beating the 49ers last week, the Rams put themselves in position to win the NFC West with a victory at Seattle. Don’t be surprised if No. 84 is a big part of the game plan on Sunday. And don’t be surprised if a lot of people are talking about him on Monday. This undrafted rookie could help the Rams make the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season – after going 1-15 last year.
That’s when everyone will learn Danario Alexander is Rudy in disguise.
PS: An interesting side story involves Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who told Spagnuolo in early December he thought Alexander deserved more playing time. “He said, ‘put in some plays for Danario,’ ” Spagnuolo told the Post-Dispatch. “They’re going in now. They’re definitely going in. He’s got a lot of pull.” Alexander responded by pulling in passes.
New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)