An overseas trip, including a visit to Barcelona’s temple of soccer, provokes some thoughts on fùtbol, football and the geniuses in the games we love
Hope you’ve been enjoying the early reports from OTAs and this quiet NFL period. Peter King’s MMQB column this week got me thinking: If you’re a rabid NFL fan, now is probably a healthy to take a break from football and clear your mind. Get outside. Watch some other sports. Go on vacation maybe. That’s what I did. I took the last two weeks, went to Europe with my mother and brother, and bounced around Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and Seville. I just returned on Sunday and am still getting my wits about me, so please excuse me if I ease into this column with a few non-football notes.
Actually, I think, this may interest you. When we got to Barcelona, we were lucky enough to snag tickets for the Barcelona-Eibar game at Camp Nou, in the final game of the Spanish season. Even though we don’t follow European soccer religiously, this felt like a sort of religious experience. The stadium itself is a sight to behold. On the outside, it doesn’t seem like much—just a giant, drab bowl. But once inside, you appreciate its size. Camp Nou holds about 100,000 people and is considered the largest soccer stadium in Europe. Sitting in the stands, I think (1) Camp Nou felt similar to Michigan Stadium, which holds about 110,000 people and is the largest stadium in America, in that it makes you feel small. You look around— left, right, up, down—and there’s an ongoing sea of people singing and chanting and cheering.
The main difference: The Spanish seemed less drunk. (Only non-alcoholic beer is served at Camp Nou.)
Barcelona was a big favorite, obviously, because who is Eibar, anyway? And Barcelona had three of the best players in the world on its team—Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. We paid about $100 for our tickets, and we should’ve paid three times that, it was that entertaining watching these three men on the same field, on the same team, in their primes. They are each so talented, and they each have such a different and distinct style. Throughout the game, there would be these moments when the ball found one of them and they took center stage and took their turn showing off their distinct style. I think (2) it was like going to a concert and having Kanye, Bono and Adele take turns at the mic. Neymar’s game is based on skill and finesse. Suarez is a powerful brute who muscles his way past defenders. And Messi is just … brilliant. I don’t know how to explain it. I was talking to a friend and soccer fan, Michael Fensom, about this the other day. The way he put it: Messi is skilled like the other two, yes, but he’s also very intentional and direct about everything that he does. There is no wasted movement.
Barcelona won, 4-2, as Suarez scored once and Messi twice. On his second goal, he gathered the ball near midfield, sprinted and deked his way through the entire opposing team, and then beat the goalie with a rocket of a shot. All in about five seconds. I think (3) you should read this Jere Longman story from 2011 and see how beautifully he describes Messi, with the ball at his feet. I wonder if people described Barry Sanders like that, the way he ran in the open field. Football is such a physical game, it’s harder to find the poetry in it.
The last few days, I’ve been trying to think of the NFL equivalent of what Barcelona has—three of the best players in the world, on the attack. I think (4) it would be like having three of the best wide receivers in the league on the same team. Like: Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. Every time one of them got the ball, you’d hold your breath.
One last vacation note. When we went to Seville, we visited Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza—which, according to our tour guide there, is the second-oldest bullfighting ring in the world. They started building the ring in 1749! And, the tour guide said, it’s still operational! There was another bullfight there this past Sunday! I think (5) it’s amazing that, in the Year of our Lord 2017, there are still places in the world where a bull is brought out in front of a crowd, and a young man waves a red cape and then stabs the bull to death.
I think (6) the best way to honor and remember the late Frank Deford is to read his writing. Sports Illustrated did a great job compiling some of his classics, but the one story I think you need to read is “The Boxer and the Blonde.” Deford has said that, of all the stories he wrote in his decades with Sports Illustrated, this was the best thing he ever wrote. On the surface the story is about how Billy Conn, an Irish fighter from Pittsburgh, fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship in 1941. But it’s also a love story and a story about Pittsburgh in the 1940s. Deford only spent three days reporting in Pittsburgh, in 1985, and reading this story, you feel as if you’re transported back into Pittsburgh in 1941.
You may have already seen this quote circulating social media, but I think (7) something Deford once said is worth repeating here: “Choose your friends in inverse proportion to how seriously they pay attention to the NFL draft.”
I think (8) it’ll be interesting if the Seahawks sign Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson gets off to a slow start. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham wrote a great story last week explaining the friction in the Seahawks locker room and how some members of the Seattle defense feel as though Wilson is not held accountable enough. They feel as though the offense has not played up to the same level as the defense. If the Seahawks sign Kaepernick and this trend continues, it’s not hard to imagine members of the defense calling for Kaepernick to replace Wilson. What a scene that would be, though now Pat Kirwin reports that he does not expect the Seahawks to sign Kaepernick.
Adam Vinatieri recently made comments to the Colts team website indicating that he hasn’t thought about retiring. Vinatieri turns 45 in December. With the advancement in modern medicine, I think (9) Vinatieri he has a chance to be the first person to play into his 50s.
I think (10) that photo of Bryce Harper punching Hunter Strickland in the face is going to stay with Strickland for the rest of his career. First, Strickland plunks Bryce Harper, basically for hitting home runs off him. Then, he takes a right hook to the face. Not a good look, Hunter.
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