The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Archive for the ‘Champions League’ Category

Dynamo Kiev moves on

Posted by steigs on September 17, 2008

Awhile back, I wrote of the legend of Dynamo Kiev’s Valeriy Lobanovsky, the coach who built what may have been Eastern Europe’s best team.  Lobanovsky is gone now, passing away in 2002, and Dynamo has struggled to match its previous success without him, a string of disciples failing to meet expectations while Shaktar Donetsk has regularly won the league. 

On the eve of Arsenal’s trip to Kiev to meet Dynamo, Eastern bloc soccer ace Jonathan Wilson checks in with a Guardian piece on the team’s latest coach, one who might be getting it right:

Eight months ago, they made the controversial appointment of a Russian, Yury Semin, who immediately set about clearing away the old guard and imposing his own vision. Much of it is nothing more than a return to the sort of discipline that underpinned Lobanovskyi’s success. “We put up a list of sanctions over each player’s bed,” explained the club president, Ihor Surkis. “If you came late, you had to pay. If there was a smell of alcohol on your breath, you had to pay. After that all the problems fell away themselves. No exceptions or appeals. Before we used to make a big drama out of it but now all is very simple.”

Team spirit and self-discipline are the buzz-words. “After the game the lads gather on the third floor of the stadium and share their impressions from the game,” Surkis went on. “If they really want to, they have a glass of beer right in front of the head coach. Nobody goes for the second one though, nor straight to the bars and nightclubs as it used to be before. I believe that the team administration should enforce a strict regimen on the players, that’s how it used to be under Lobanovskyi. However now we live in a different country. Now we cannot knock on a footballer’s door after 11pm and ask him what is he doing. Nonetheless, the lads have got to have some responsibility themselves for their actions and that is what Mr Semin is working to achieve right now.”

Semin has also brought about significant changes in personnel. The Brazilian centre-back Betao has impressed since his arrival from Corinthians, as has the Croatian midfielder Ognjen Vukojevic, who signed from Dinamo Zagreb. It is the departures, though, that have been the real talking points. “Mr Semin sent Rincon, Rodrigo and Kleber back to Brazil – and they were once our leading players,” said Surkis. “But the team moves on, keeps on notching one success after another. A sporting director from Lyon, Brazilian himself, told me once that two Brazilians in a team is very good, three is a catastrophe and four is a tragedy. That was exactly our situation.”

Maybe it’s not quite exactly the style of Lobanovsky on the field but it’s good to hear one of the grand names of European soccer is on the upswing.  Perhaps they’ll even mount another challenge for the knockout rounds of the Champions League, just like they did in the late ’90s under the old man.


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Welcome the “Big Lady” and the tractor factory!

Posted by steigs on August 28, 2008

Today saw the draw for the group stage of the Champions League.   Lots of familiar characters.  Soccer fans are familiar with the “Old Lady” — Juventus of Serie A, who are back in the competition after a couple of seasons on the sidelines due to that little match-fixing indiscretion.  Well, it’s time to meet the “Big Lady,” first-time participants Anorthosis Famagusta of Cyprus.  A true minnow, this team, which qualified by knocking off Olympiakos of Greece, a regular group stage participant, if usually as an also-ran:

Thousands of jubilant fans lined the streets outside Cyprus’s Larnaca airport on Thursday to welcome the team flying back from Athens.

Not exactly how they behave in Liverpool or Madrid when the local side reaches the group stage of the Champions League, is it?  Aside from being small, Cyprus has significant political issues, with the island effectively divided between Turkish and Greek zones.  As a result:

It has effectively been playing in exile since 1974, since its home base of Famagusta was seized by Turkish forces in an invasion triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. The island has been divided since.

Now they’re in a group with Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, and Panathinaikos.  Bet when he took over Inter that Jose Mourinho didn’t expect to taking the team to play in Cyprus!  And if Anorthosis could beat one Greek team, maybe they’ll even be able to take points off of Panathinaikos.

There’s another really interesting minnow in this year’s group stage — BATE Borisov of Belarus.  BATE would stand for “Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electrical,” which sounds a bit like a Soviet Little League team.  Jonthan Wilson, the UK’s reigning expert on Eastern bloc soccer, describes them in the Guardian:

BATE are a club who have been growing ever since they were refounded in 1996. Based originally on the Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electrical Equipment factory, they were promoted in 1998, won the league for the first time in 1999, and have finished outside the top three only once since, winning the title on three further occasions.

They enjoy greater resources than the majority of their domestic rivals – MTZ-RIPO (the team of the Minsk Tractor Factory and youth movement) perhaps excepted – but such things are relative. Their annual budget is only around £1.2m, and their success has been rooted in their focus on youth development. Most notably, BATE’s academy has produced the FK Moskva goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov, the Parma forward Vitali Kutuzov, who is on loan at Pisa, and Alexander Hleb.

And now they’re in a group with both Real Madrid and Juventus (along with the potentially more familiar Zenit St. Petersburg)!  I imagine Real Madrid hasn’t played too many other teams of late with a such a recent heritage involving a tractor factory.  Given the unpleasant authoritarian regime ruling Belarus these days, I hope the BATE fans get a chance to really enjoy the visit of the latest edition of the Galacticos.

The other rookie is Cluj of Romania (in the group with Chelsea and Roma).  Aalborg of Denmark (in the group with Manchester United and Celtic) is hardly a regular as well. 

I know people love the Champions League for the big match-ups, such as Real Madrid-Juventus or Chelsea-Roma.  But I’m a sucker for the lesser-known sides, the ones that aren’t so familiar, especially before the knock-out rounds when we all are pretty certain that Real Madrid and Juventus, to name two, are going to qualify.  Give me a minnow looking for that one great day, especially one that I’ve never seen play before.  So…welcome the big lady and the tractor factory!

The fun starts on September 16th when Anorthosis heads up to Bremen and on the 17th when BATE get to take on Real Madrid in Madrid.  Welcome to the big stage, kids, and good luck!

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Riding the Pink Train

Posted by steigs on June 6, 2008

Euro 2008 kicks off tomorrow.  Alas, I won’t be there.  I haven’t managed to arrange my life so that I can jaunt off to the tourney for a week like I pulled off in 2004.  But awhile back I did catch a game at the stadium that will host the final in Vienna on June 29th:

I’ve gotten to soccer games in a variety of ways — subways, driving my car, the bus, hiking up a hill.  This, I conclude, is undoubtedly the coolest.  M. and I are riding a mini-train — the “liliputbahn” — to the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna.  And, to make it even better, the train is pink. 


We are bound for an important Austria Wien game — Wien being German for Vienna — against Olympique de Marseille.  It is the first leg of a two-game playoff for a slot in the lucrative Champions League group stage.  The kid-sized train is rolling along through the Prater park, packed with men chugging beers and reliving their childhoods.  Woo-woo! 

Want to hear more about that, along with a quick trip through Austrian soccer history?  (Really, they used to be good, despite the current national team being so pathetic as to generate a petition to withdraw them from Euro 2008 to avoid embarrassment.)  Read on! Read the rest of this entry »

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Falling for the Westfalen

Posted by steigs on April 24, 2008

This weekend I was disappointed to see that Bayern Munich won the German Cup, with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund.  The Dortmunders have had a rough few years, due largely to financial problems, and could have used a cup win to cheer up their massive fanbase. 

Dortmund is in the industrial Ruhr region, a center of…brewing (mmm), among other industries.  I’d never heard of the place before I started paying attention to the Bundesliga and certainly wouldn’t have spent a day there if it weren’t for soccer.  But I’m glad I did and I’d like to get back to the Westfalen for another game one of these days — it’s one of the biggest and most enjoyable stadiums in European soccer.  I was there during better days for Borussia Dortmund, as you will see if you read on after the jump, and also got to see two Czech stars who would later torment the US at the 2006 World Cup.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Champions League, Germany, Ukraine | 1 Comment »

Wish I was there

Posted by steigs on February 23, 2008

These days, an American soccer fan can actually watch as much — if not more — soccer than the average European fan.  On television, at least.  If you’ve got digital cable or satellite tv.  And don’t mind taping games that are on during your time at the office….

One thing it remains difficult to do — and getting more difficult with the dollar growing weaker by the day — is actually attending the games in person.  I like to drop stories here about times I’ve been lucky enough to make the trek to places like the Nou Camp and Anfield etc.  The atmosphere can be incredible.  It’s something that you just can’t capture at home or even at a lively bar.

I follow several teams in different European leagues.  The Champions League can provide challenges to my fandom, such as the Celtic-Barcelona match-up in the round of 16.  Which of my favorites to I root for?  DC United is my first team.  But Celtic and Barca are my next two favorites.  When they play…I root for Celtic.  That was reaffirmed this week watching the first leg.

Damn, I wish I’d been able to get to Glasgow for the game — or even to watch in a Celtic-friendly pub in Scotland.  Keving of Lord of the Wing was there — let him describe it

The scene that met me was awe-inspiring. Thousands of green, white and yellow flags were being waved, the “Welcome To Paradise” banner draped over the top tier along wie various other CSC banners. The end was singing, swaying and belting out “Hail Hail” drowning oot the PA.Went down the front of Area 412. The Green Brigade had hung a banner over to the main lads in the section below. The section below was a sea of waving flags, including a Catalonia flag, the banner stated wie impressive intent “Roar Like Lions”. Now, I could see the whole stadium was energetic.

A look across to the “away end” and I was impressed wie the numbers of travelling. 2000 Cules were bouncing, singing and waving their colourful flags and instead of standing a gawping in wonder at the noise coming from the rest of the arena they were adding to it.

YNWA, started and as I stood looking all around I wondered if there was any better place in Europe. The displays were anarchic, spontaneous European, colourful and messes, which is great. Much better than the holding up the cards, spelling out a message type ones. These displays were on a par wie anything I have seen in Europe and were carried off wie as much passion as any Turk, Greek, Italian or Spaniard.

Posted in Barca, Celtic, Champions League | Leave a Comment »

Maldini hits 1000

Posted by steigs on February 20, 2008

As I Dislike Your Favorite Team reminded me, Paulo Maldini just played game number 1000.  I missed the Parma game this weekend when he hit the mark but Big Blue Monkey reports:

I watched his 1000th game against Parma, and the game undeniably changed when he stepped on the pitch as a second half substitute. There was Maldini, making overlapping runs, and serving dangerous crosses into the box. By all rights, he should have had two assists in his 15 minutes of play.

Sure, he’s been one of the all-time great defenders.  As if that weren’t enough, he’s also looks like he should be on the cover of a romance novel.  I, for one, have heard my wife sigh about his “eyes” on more than one occasion as we watch AC Milan.  Hence his featured role in AC Milan’s recent calendar with Dolce & Gabbana.  Like this one.  The story goes that when Giorgio Armani visited the 1994 Italian World Cup team, as part of providing their travelling suits, he proclaimed that he’d love to have Maldini on the runway for his collections.

Maldini reportedly has a home in Miami but, aside from the fact that Miami no longer has an MLS team, don’t get your hopes about him doing a cameo desginated player year or two over here as some Italian Beckham.  He’s a one club guy — AC Milan from his teenage playing days until his upcoming retirement.

All the more reason I consider myself lucky to have seen him play in person back in late 2000 at the San Siro, during a Champions League match-up with Galatasaray.   Here’s what I wrote about it back then.  Watch him while you can!

As the second half wears on, I become fascinated with the play of the AC Milan left back, Paulo Maldini, who is positioned directly in front of me.  Maldini is a legend, a regular on the Italian national team for more than a decade, often described as the best at his position in the world.  It seems to me that Galatasaray should simply give up attacking on Maldini=s side of the field, the way NFL teams sometimes don=t throw passes in the direction of all-star cornerbacks.  They cannot get the ball past him.  If a player dribbles forward towards him, Maldini deftly takes it from him.  If they try a pass in his area, then he intercepts it.  As if such peerless defensive technique is not enough, Maldini is graceful with ball too.  At one point he brings it upfield, fakes out two Galatasaray players with ease, before making a long pass to a forward.  Late in the first half he had bounced a shot off the bar.

Posted in Champions League, Italy | 1 Comment »

Roma Holiday

Posted by steigs on February 19, 2008

The Champions League is starting again with the good stuff — the knock-out rounds.  One team I’m rooting for is Roma.  Partly this is because they’re matched with Real Madrid.  (Boo!  Hiss!)  But it’s also because I’ve developed a fondness for Totti and the boys from Rome.  They have taken advantage of the nuclear penalty on Juventus (down you go!) to become regulars in the Champions League and often play an attractive game. 

 Oh, and M. and I had a great time when we went to see them in Rome a few years back, even if the game was on the dull side.  To learn more about Roma, the cult of Totti, the “flying donkeys,” and what it’s like to watch a game at an old Olympic stadium with a tribute to Mussolini out front, read on after the jump… Read the rest of this entry »

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Slavia Do Toho!

Posted by steigs on January 11, 2008

Long-time bridesmaids Slavia Prague are having a year to remember.  Leading the Czech league at the break.  Getting a new stadium in March.  Made it to the group stage of the Champions League for the first time.  Maybe they were embarrassed 7-0 at Arsenal but they held the Gunners to a scoreless draw in Prague.  And they beat Steaua Bucharest to earn third place in the group — so they’ll face Tottenham in the UEFA Cup when the European Cups resume. 

I was lucky enough to catch a Slavia game in ’03 — one of the better (and cheaper) European soccer experiences I’ve had.  For more on Slavia, the wonderful city of Prague, and the meaning of the post’s title, read on after the jump…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Champions League, Czech | 1 Comment »

Figures that Rangers gets the GREEN team…

Posted by steigs on December 21, 2007

The draw for the Champions League round of 16 and the UEFA cup round of 32 was today, telling us what tasty big-stakes matches will be able to watch in February and March.

Most of the headlines are about the eye-catching match-ups like Arsenal-AC Milan and Real Madrid-Roma.  Me, I’ll be watching Barcelona take out Celtic.  Sigh.  Why do my two favorite Euro teams always have to get drawn together?  (Celtic did manage to upset the Catalans in the 2004 UEFA Cup but lost at home to Barca in the group stages of the following Champions League campaign in ’04-’05.)  I suppose I should be happy that one of my teams will be in the quarter-finals for sure — or that Barca got an easy draw, given the current state of the Hoops.

Meanwhile, the now Beasley-less Rangers drew one of the traditional big two of the Greek league, Panathinaikos.  Not only do they wear green — their crest is a shamrock!  Judging from the team’s Wikipedia entry, though, there’s no sign that it was founded by Irish Catholic immigrants, which should reduce the potential for crowd trouble.

This seems a good time to tell you about my trip to see Rangers.  Want to read more about seeing a game at Ibrox, where they have banners celebrating Queen Elizabeth and bands play “The Great Escape” theme?  Read on after the jump!  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Barca, Celtic, Champions League, Scotland | Leave a Comment »

An Easy Day’s Night

Posted by steigs on December 11, 2007

So Liverpool faced a must win game tonight in Marseille.  Win on the road or risk failing to make the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

Eleven minutes in and the game was pretty much over.  An almost instant Gerrard goal on a saved penalty and a gem from Fernando Torres, who danced through the Marseille defenders like they were orange traffic cones.  2-0 to Liverpool before I’d gotten halfway through my dinner as I watched the replay on Tivo.  It was 4-0 by the end.

I must confess to rooting for Liverpool, even though they were the “big” team.  I have a soft spot for “the Reds,” my second choice among England’s “big four”.  (Arsenal is my EPL side but that’s a story for another day.)  They liven up the knock-out rounds, even if they don’t seem capable of challenging for the EPL title (yet).  Why?  Well, I’m sure part of it has something to do with Liverpool’s most famous export.  Read on for a story about my trip to Anfield and why one “never walks alone” as a Liverpool fan…

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Posted in Champions League, England | Leave a Comment »