It is April 22, 2014 and we are a couple hours from the kickoff of one of the biggest sporting matches in the world today. Today, Atletico Madrid of Spain will face Chelsea of England in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Semi-Final.
Here in the United States, we are in the throes of early round Hockey and Basketball playoffs. Baseball has just started back up along with the MLS. Football only makes an appearance in the form of college spring games. Across the Atlantic however, the biggest sport in the world is drawing towards another riveting close for this season as domestic leagues and titles are being contested down to the last two or three games of the season.
In some places, the battle is already won but in others competition is still tight. In Germany, Bayern Munich wrapped up the number one spot weeks ago after a dominating season under Pep Guardiola where they only lost 2 games. In France, Paris St. Germain is seven points clear in Ligue 1 and just secured a 2-1 victory this past Saturday against Olympique Lyonnais. In England, Liverpool look to have their first Premier League victory in 24 years and in Spain, Atletico Madrid and their dream season is continuing with a 4 point lead at the top of the table along with a semi-finals appearance in the biggest club football spectacle in the world: The UEFA Champions League.
The UEFA Champions League, for the uninitiated, is a yearlong competition that runs along the same timeframe as the European domestic season (August to May). It takes the 2-4 best teams from each country in the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) and pits them against each other in a tournament style competition with knockouts and two games per round. One game each at each home stadium except for the final, which takes place at a pre-determined venue and is a winner take all match. The Champions League competition features the best teams, with the best players, fighting to take home the trophy. Quite simply, it is the best football in the world.
1. The best teams make the most money.
This is because teams get a ton of money just for appearing in the Champions League. A losing team can receive as much as $800k and winning teams get a couple million dollars a game. This, along with their fan base, shirt sales and sponsorship deals keep the richest teams staying that way. With the biggest players in the world like Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid getting $24.5 million a year, these teams need the big bucks to attract the big talent. They can spend the money on big name players as well as great squad depth, allowing players to rest during league games against smaller opponents which allows the top tier teams to play the 50 games or so they play per season without much issue.
2. Club soccer features the most coordinated, experienced teams in the world.
Some might argue that the best soccer is played in international competitions like the World Cup or The European Championships. What many people don’t realize about those competitions is how little time those players get to spend with each other. Unless you happen to be the Spanish National Team, where 10 of the 11 starting players are from the top two teams, national teams are fragmented. If you’ve ever played team sports, you know the value of training together for an extended period of time and getting to know the habits and patterns of your teammates. For professional footballers, they spend more time with their club team than they do anyone else. This makes the togetherness and simpatico of club football outclass that of national teams who spend maybe 3-4 weeks together in chunks during the year. These players do not have the understanding that they do with their club counterparts. It takes an incredible amount of time and training to display the hive mind of a team like Chelsea or the athletic brilliance and togetherness of a team like Real Madrid. The full extents of these talents are on display in the semi-final matchups.
3. Two games to showcase their brand of football: The two legged nature of the matchups allows teams to take risks and play truly open, attacking football.
A 1-0 or 2-1 result can be overturned in the other leg which allows teams to not be so careful and to flex their muscles. In contrast to the Champions League final, which is one game, players and managers can be open with their tactics which leads to the most brilliant attacking football in the world. In today’s game for example, the creative talents of Chelsea versus the power and tenacity of Atletico will make for a stunning first leg. If these two teams were to play in the final, their styles would be much more conservative leading to slower stretches of the game.
4. The biggest audience in the world.
In America we are no strangers to the concept of the 12th man, and nowhere is this more on display than in soccer, where there are millions of people around the world watching the game. The late stages of the Champions League are broadcast in more than 150 countries with over 250 million viewers. The atmosphere is unlike anything else in the world.
If you can, tune in to today and tomorrow for the games even if you’ve never watched a game of soccer in your life. If you love sports in any way, discover for yourself why Soccer truly is the world’s beautiful game.