Friday, May 9, 2008

Real Madrid's title recipe: Fewer Egos, Better Quality, More Desire

By Jonah, Freedman, Original Article is here

MADRID, Spain -- I've lost count of how many times I've heard friends and family whine to me about how foreign a sport soccer is. It's futile to get defensive because they're wrong and right at the same time.

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As a sport, sure, soccer's got subtleties, nuances -- and yes, low-scoring contests -- that the Yank often doesn't get. It has neither the stat-nerd appeal nor Americana tradition of baseball, nor the high-scoring, immediate-payoff draw of basketball nor the unmistakably red-blooded feel of American football.

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But when it comes to pure athleticism, star power and the chills you get when you're in a huge stadium filled with feverish, screaming fans, really, it's all the same thing.

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I saw the perfect example on Wednesday night at the Estadio Bernabéu, where Real Madrid celebrated its 31st Spanish league title with a 4-1 drubbing of FC Barcelona, completing a rare season sweep of its perennial archrival. To explain the significance of that, it's worth drawing an analogy to American sports.

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Real Madrid is easily the New York Yankees of Spanish soccer: 31 titles, a rich history of success and tradition, a roster filled with high-priced superstars and a reputation as the most imperial team in the game. (Across town, there's even another team, Atlético Madrid, that has experienced limited success but is more of a sentimental favorite for Madrileños -- very similar to the Mets.)

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Barcelona, on the other hand, is Spain's second-most storied team: a lot fewer titles, but a long history of chasing Real and a team that has spent so much time in its rival's shadows that it has been, at many times, the iconoclastic favorite of millions of other fans if for no other reason than to see the bigger guys lose. Spain's super-rivalry is pretty close in scope and stature to Yankees-Red Sox.
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Now for the foreign part. Imagine if, immediately following a Game 6 pennant-clinching win by the Yanks, the American League forced the two teams to play a meaningless seventh game. Say it was set at Yankee Stadium, and the Boston players had to literally form a guard of honor to welcome the champs out of the dugout and onto the diamond.
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Not exactly sportsmanlike, is it? But that's exactly what happens in soccer when a team wins a championship with a few games left to play in the regular season: They're welcomed as champions at their next home game, and whoever their opponent is has to form the guard of honor.
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Of course, this would never happen in America. Most soccer leagues crown their champion during the regular season, since they don't have playoffs; the American sports model puts a huge emphasis on the postseason. The idea of playing meaningless regular-season games after the champion has already been crowned is totally foreign. It's almost like making the home team play out the bottom of the ninth inning after it has mathematically won the game.
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But this situation in Spain's capital city dripped with significance. It was totally apropos that it had to be a downtrodden Barcelona team to welcome the recently crowned Real players onto their own field. And probably one of the biggest in-your-face moments you'll find in world sports.
As usual, Barça had chased Real for much of this past season, but collapsed under its own star power. The super-charged quartet of Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry -- dubbed "The Fantastic Four" -- was assembled to win a title in stylish fashion and win adorers the world over. But team chemistry dissolved into a disastrous finish, far short of the title. (I've often compared the scenario of the 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers, whose power quartet of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton similarly collapsed under the weight of egos.)
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The funny thing is that that strategy is usually the domain of Real Madrid. And the champs failed hard the last time they tried it. Not long ago, former club president Florentino Pérez collected the biggest stars he could find, bringing David Beckham, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Luís Figo and Roberto Carlos to the Bernabéu.
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The resplendent collection of celebrities was called Los Galácticos, and was assembled as much to sell jerseys all over the world as much as it was to collect trophies. But during a painful three-season span, they couldn't win a thing either. It was only after it was apparent that all four were finished with Real that Beckham, almost by himself, willed the team to win the title last season before jetting off to Major League Soccer.
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Ironic, then, that the squad that won Real the title this season contains virtually no world superstars (save for perhaps captain Raúl and brilliant goalkeeper Iker Casillas). Sure, guys like Robinho, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Italian World Cup hero and '06 FIFA World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro are universally recognized as studs of the game, but they don't captivate the world with human highlight films the way the Galácticos did.
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They're simply Los Blancos -- the guys in the white uniforms. And perhaps that's why they won the title. Fewer egos, better-quality soccer and more of a desire to win. Even when they weren't at their best, they found a way to get the necessary goals and the needed victories, even if it required winning ugly. And especially when their pursuers had opportunities to close the gap in the standings.
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So maybe that's the lesson. Collect superstars to wow the fans, as Real did in years past and as Barcelona did this year, it all ends up in shambles. Start with more modest players who have the hunger and willingness to work together, and championships happen.
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Not such a crazy idea, is it? Still, even thousands of miles from home, I can't help but think of the Yankees. With a payroll of $209 million and an All-Star collection of players, their dynasty ended almost nine years ago. Yet they're still leaning on guys like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and Jason Giambi. In the meantime, five teams with less than half their payroll have won the World Series since New York's last title in 2000.
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Seems like Real Madrid might be a great role model for America's most decorated sports franchise. The Yanks are just lucky they don't have to welcome the world champion Red Sox onto the field at Fenway Park. Now that would be a truly foreign spectacle.

by Jonah Freedman for CNNSI.com

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