Barca, Juve, and Father Time: Digesting the Champions League Final
After a thrilling Champions League Final, the biggest story line is still the passage of time.
Time is a bastard, isn't it? Consider Patrice Evra. A year ago, the Juventus left back was a player many—including the management at his former team, Manchester United—thought was past his prime. Last season, United, after failing to even qualify for the Champions League, sold him to Juventus, and tonight Evra nearly won club soccer's most coveted prize. It was his 5th Champions League final appearance with his third club (the others are Manchester United and Monaco). But at 34, this was likely his last shot.
He's not alone. At 36 and 37, respectively, Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon—two of the best Italian players of all time—are in mid swan song. The two are irreplaceable. One of the things that viewers don't see while watching the game at home is what happens off the ball, and these two were the most active. I don't mean physically—although Pirlo ran his cleats off—but organizationally: supporting, re-focusing, encouraging.
In the first half, after picking up an early yellow card, Arturo Vidal, Juve's tenacious, Chilean midfielder, committed several fouls. He was perhaps lucky not to see a red card after his most blatant offense, when he pulled down Dani Alves after the Brazilian nutmegged him along the touchline. Vidal was indignant. Pirlo talked him down.
And Buffon's sportsmanship didn't even end with his own teammates. When Suarez failed to get his head on an otherwise open header in the 43rd minute, Suarez stood for several moments in disbelief. With the ball back in play, the Juventus captain reached over and touched Suarez ever so lightly on the back of the head. It was almost a hug. Nice try, dude.
Time, of course, was a factor with Barcelona as well. Last season, the club went out of the tournament in the quarterfinals—a relative whimper by Barca's standards. At the beginning of this season, the international press talked about Barcelona as a team in crisis. In January, the biggest sports website in the United States ran a 3000-word story about the mess at Barca. Tonight, just six months later, Barca won its third trophy this season. It's only the second time the club has achieved this feat. This team is, without a doubt, one of the best club teams to ever play the game. What more evidence do you need?
And then there's Xavi Hernandez. For all the talk of Messi, Xavi is perhaps the most important player to ever pull on the club's jersey. For almost 20 years, Barcelona's heart beat through him. But his influence extends even beyond the club. Stylistically, he has done more to influence the game during his tenure than any other player—perhaps anyone since the Dutch great Johan Cruyff in the 1970s.
Tonight, Xavi played his last game for Barcelona, the team he joined as an 11-year-old. When he approached the touch line to check in in the 78th minute, applause rang out around the stadium. When Andres Iniesta pulled of his armband and handed it to Xavi, the club's captain, the stadium erupted in deafening cheers. It was difficult to hear, but I think the Juventus supporters even joined in. And in front of me, in the press box, a long line of journalists stood, one by one, and applauded.