You know how folks have a list of people in history who they'd most want to share a table with at a dinner party? I've got a few of those lists, but one that I really do hope to enjoy someday is this: Dinner with Ray Hudson and Dick Vitale. They're two of the most passionate announcers I know for the sports I love -- soccer and college basketball -- and they both happen to live in Florida, Hudson in the Fort Lauderdale area and Vitale in Sarasota.
In fact, sometimes I think that Florida (for all its outsized Florida-ness) cannot possibly contain both Ray Hudson and Dick Vitale.
Hudson, as you probably know, is the flamboyant analyst for GolTV's broadcasts of La Liga, and he'll be front and center for Spain's game of the year this Saturday between Barcelona and Real Madrid (2 p.m. ET, GolTV, ESPN3/Deportes). Hudson's priceless descriptions -- Lionel Messi as "the Koh-i-Noor diamond in Aladdin's cave," Mesut Özil as "avatar eyes" -- are too numerous to mention here, but you can follow them on the Live Ray Hudson Twitter feed.
On Tuesday, I had a thoroughly enjoyable half-hour conversation with Hudson about the latest edition of the Clásico, which may now be the best rivalry in sports. Here's what he had to say:
SI.com: Barcelona has cut Real Madrid's lead in La Liga from 10 points to four. Now Barça can cut it to one. What do you expect to see on Saturday?
Hudson: You know what you're going to get from Barcelona. Kids playing in the park know that, as well as the great tacticians around the world. The intrigue will be: What is going to be in [José] Mourinho's hand? The only time he's tried to attack this team they got whitewashed 5-0. They tried to beat Barça at their own game and got killed. I think he's learned from that, and they'll play their usual warp-speed football against them. It'll be the same stuff: Patience against warp speed, court composers against that gangster swagger of Real Madrid, the choir boys against the glamour boys.
But thank the stars that this season has given us these cataclysmic games, all these subplots and glorious history. This is Real Madrid's tournament, what they have built their great heritage around. They've got the great alchemist now. Is he going to do it again? But I'll tell you this, man: This Barcelona team has proved to be so astonishingly successful and admirable, I think they've got it in them to pull out the ridiculous yet again and claw La Liga back and also win the Champions League. [Éric] Abidal is a huge loss, as is [David] Villa, but they keep defying every conceivable notion you've got of the game.
I remember how it felt when they played against Manchester United in Rome [in the '09 Champions League final]. I thought that Man United team were lethal, and Ronaldo was so great going into the game. And then against Man United at Wembley [in the '11 final], everything was heading in the right direction for Man U, and they embarrassed Man United! They dig into this well of reserves, and the way they do it leaves the world agog.
It's not beyond them to pull off this impossible situation. Ten points behind Real Madrid? I mean, five is an enormous amount in La Liga. They've whittled that down to where they could be within a point of them. That in itself is miraculous. It goes back to the thing: Will it be a bad year for Barça if they don't win La Liga and the Champions League? Well, they've already won three trophies this year. They're world [club] champions. It's not a bad season. They're in a [Copa del Rey] final and within a point of Real Madrid should they do the business. It's beyond intrigue, these games.
SI.com: What is the week before a Clásico like for you? Does your adrenaline get going a few days in advance?
Hudson: What do you think? You can hear me. I'm wound up as tight as a violin string (laughs). This is the most special game in the world. I've been to La Bombonera [in Buenos Aires] and saw River against Boca. That's the closest. And yet that pales in significance with the social and political stuff that's going on in Spain when these two meet. And now around the world because of the wonderful age we live in, everybody gets it now.
Leading up to the game, it's like I'm in a final myself. I'm naturally that way. I'm just so in love with the game, in love with this wonderful league and the players on both sides of the table. The Real Madrid setup as well. There is anxiety to get the game going, and then we've got this situation midweek: The Champions League semifinals are the warmup games for the Clásico! It's the absolute apex of world football.
The stakes are enormous on Saturday. Can Real Madrid really go in there and pull off what would be Mourinho's greatest scalp? To put the league out of reach in their place? I wouldn't put a dime on the game, and I'm a gambling man. I picked Real Madrid to win the league [before the season]. I know what this guy is capable of, and their superstar [Cristiano Ronaldo], what he's capable of. Özil and [Xabi] Alonso are capable. And yet it's priming for another statement. Between these two teams, Barcelona has always succeeded. Can they do it again? It seems that everything is in place for them to pull within a point. It's astonishing.
SI.com: At what point did you start following the Spanish league closely? Did you ever think when you were younger that Spain would become such a big thing for you?
Hudson: The first footballing pennant that I ever got as a kid was a Real Madrid pennant. It was from my father, who saw the Real Madrid-Eintracht Frankfurt game in Hampden Park [a 7-3 Real Madrid victory in the 1960 European Cup final before 127,621 fans]. He brought back this wonderful white silk pennant. I've still got it. He told me when he came back from Scotland it was like he had seen people from a different planet. He'd tell me about them over dinners and breakfasts, about [Ferenc] Puskas and [Francisco] Gento. That was his favorite. He went on about Gento, what a footballer!
Real Madrid are beautiful, but I had no knowledge of them since there was no TV coverage of Real Madrid. The cup finals were rarely on the television, so there wasn't any great exposure. For me it truly did begin with GolTV [in 2004-05]. Before that I had some interest in them obviously with Barcelona's team with [Hristo] Stoitchkov, the Dream Team. I'd seen Real Madrid play, but it never had the greatest panache that it enjoys now.
SI.com: Are we ever going to get you on Twitter?
Hudson: Ah! Grant, you can't imagine what that would be like. Phil [Schoen, his GolTV broadcast partner] has been trying to get me to do that stuff for years, but I couldn't. I'd be a shell come gametime. I'd be the guy in Rain Man, totally used up by then. I'd rather stay away from it. It's wonderful, and I'm fascinated by it, but I couldn't go into that territory.
SI.com: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Ray. It's always fun.
Hudson: It's no effort at all to talk about this league and these two teams and these fabulous footballers, man. I regard it as an absolute pleasure and a genuine honor. I'm loving the way it has built toward these continuous Armageddons every year. It's like I'm living in a beautiful big kaleidoscope every time I see them play. You can't get enough of it, can you?
• Last week's column on the top 15 seasons by U.S. internationals in Europe got a good response from everyone, and enjoying the bar-room debate was a big part of the idea behind it. The best point made by readers was this: Why eliminate performances that took place in non-top-flight leagues? Well, at first I thought if I did it that way the volume of candidates would be too unwieldy. But if I could do the column again I wouldn't insert that restriction. Two seasons in particular would thus be included in the top 15: Eric Wynalda's 1993-94 campaign at Saarbrücken, where he scored 14 goals and was the German second tier's player of the year; and Jay DeMerit's 2005-06 season at Watford, where he was a stalwart on the back line and scored the decisive goal in the promotion playoff that vaulted his team to the English Premier League.
• Give a lot of credit to Chelsea and Bayern Munich for building one-goal advantages in their Champions League semifinals against favored Barcelona and Real Madrid. The combined unexpected results mean there will be huge anticipation for the return legs in Spain next week. At the same time, it's hard to envision Chelsea duplicating its Stamford Bridge performance at the Camp Nou. Barça was unlucky not to score, and my sense is the law of averages will be in Barcelona's favor over the next 90 minutes. I think Bayern has a better chance of going through to the final than Chelsea, not least because Bayern won't feel like it has to completely pack it in against Real Madrid.
• Kansas City, which won 3-1 at Vancouver Wednesday night to run its record to a league-best 7-0, keeps answering our questions. After a 4-0 start we wondered if K.C.'s schedule had been soft, but then Sporting beat Los Angeles and Salt Lake in successive weeks. And when it seemed fortunate that those two games had taken place at home, K.C. went out to Vancouver and dominated the Whitecaps on Wednesday. Now we'll get to see how Peter Vermes' team responds when it has a quick turnaround before another road game this Saturday at Portland. The Timbers have the league's most vocal home atmosphere, but they're also desperate for a win after four straight losses (two of them at home). If Kansas City can do it again and move to 8-0, the team will get a deserved week off -- and not have to answer any more questions for a while.
• A story to follow: renowned FOX NFL voice Gus Johnson called a soccer game for, of all things, the San Jose Earthquakes radio broadcast last week against New York. An MLS official said that Johnson would also be calling the Philadelphia-San Jose game on KLIV radio on April 28. What's going on here? Well, Johnson tweeted last week that he "about to try something new" that "could change the direction of my career, life," and referred to the BG (beautiful game). He has also has posted pictures of himself at a recent Milan-Barcelona game and wearing a Chelsea warmup top. Pure speculation for now, but with FOX winning the rights to broadcast World Cups '18 and '22, I wouldn't be surprised if the network is grooming Johnson to do big-time soccer.