valentine’s day

we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to talk about soccer

It’s always nice to include relevant information in the title of a blog post. In this case, the relevant info lies in the word “soccer,” which scares away most readers, but leaves the rest of us able to chat about something we like.

For the last two World Cups, I’ve devoted an entirely separate blog to that tournament. It is arguably the greatest sporting event on the planet. But I spend a lot of time on that blog complaining about the quality of the matches. There is no real mystery. You have most of the best players in the world, participating in the best competition in the world … but the players are on teams thrown together for the moment. National teams don’t play that many games a year, and so they don’t have time to get their players used to each other or for those players to adapt to new styles of play. This wouldn’t matter in, say, baseball, where teamwork is a less-important aspect of the game on the field. But it matters a lot in soccer, as it does in football or basketball … all-star games in those sports are always sloppy, if at times entertaining, affairs, because there is no time to make a team as opposed to throwing a bunch of stars out there.

The most recent World Cup speaks to this. Spain won the tournament using 7 players from Barcelona, playing a style similar to that used by Barça. All but 3 of their players spent their club time in Spain, as well. The result was a squad that was as close as possible to a coherent club squad, and it showed in their matches.

What I’m leading up to is that the best soccer in the world is played at the club level, not the international level. The best clubs play in Europe, for the most part. This is due almost entirely to money … no one denies that Brazil and Argentina offer players as good as any in the world, but the richest clubs are all in Europe, so, to use the most obvious example, the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, is from Argentina but plays his club soccer at Barcelona.

The result of all of the above is that the best tournament for soccer played at the highest level isn’t the World Cup, but the annual club championship for teams from Europe. And that tournament, known at this point as the Champions League, begins its knockout phase today. Sixteen teams remain in the tournament.

I mention this for the casual fan. Not the person who quit reading as soon as they saw the word “soccer” in the title, but those who watch the World Cup every four years and occasionally wonder if there’s a good match they should be watching. Now is your chance. Among the remaining participants, you’ve got Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United from England, Valencia, Barcelona, and Real Madrid from Spain, Schalke 04 and Bayern Munich from Germany, Milan, Roma and Inter Milan from Italy, and more.

The marquee matchup for this round is Barcelona vs. Arsenal. It will be on Fox Soccer Channel in the U.S.