Monday, December 22, 2008

The Night The Unbelievable Nearly Happened (United's Difficult Victory in the World Club Cup) - Beyond the Pale

Underestimating your adversary is a poor strategy in any competition.

Last night in Yokohama, where they were contesting the final of the World Club Cup, Manchester United came dangerously close to doing that. Their opponent, Copa Libertadores champion Liga de Quito of Ecuador, put up a courageous fight. Proving themselves a far more formidable opponent than expected, at the end a talented and experienced Liga side had mighty United on the back foot. When in the 90th minute a fully extended Edwin Van der Sar managed to tip Damián Manso's blazing strike from distance just over the bar, the quiet sigh of relief in the United camp was almost audible. Manso had terrorized Van der Sar earlier, coming wickedly close with a 25-yard bolt in the 62nd minute; that had been Liga's first shot on goal, but it marked a turning point in this match--the last third of which saw United on the defensive, all its holding skills required to deal with the surprising threat on the wings from Liga's speedy and mercurial Luis Bolanos and from--above all--the aggressive, confident Argentine veteran Manso, whose sure touch, excellent delivery and rampaging forward motion appeared to catch the European champions entirely off guard.

But perhaps United should be forgiven for failing to anticipate the threat represented by Manso and Bolanos. The very useful Goal.Com rating system for world players ranks Manso third and Bolanos fifteenth among all midfielders. (To put this in perspective, Xavi ranks fifth, Cesc Fabregas sixth, Kaka ninth--and the highest ranked Englishman, Frank Lampard, no higher than 18th.)

Certainly the English media were caught unawares. Both Barry Glendenning of the Guardian and Chris Bevan of the BBC, in their match reports, referred repeatedly to Damián Manso as Alejandro Manso. (Andy Hunter, in his followup piece in the Guardian, repeated his colleague's mistake.) No doubt their error was the result of limited research--but again, they too might be forgiven, since the sponsoring wisdom of FIFA, as evidenced in their website and publicity releases (which Barry and Chris must have been following, how else explain their common laziness), equally failed to include the correct first name for this wonderful player, who is renowned throughout South America but obviously unknown to the xenophobic sages of European football.

Certainly the twenty-nine-year-old veteran Damián "Piojo" Manso is well known in Argentina, where he played brilliantly for Newell's Old Boys of Rosario in 1996-2001 and 2002-2005. His teammates at Newell's in those years included the likes of Maxi Rodriguez, Gabriel Heinze and Gabriel Batistuta; among those behind him in the side was a Newell's youth team player and local Rosario lad named Lionel Messi.

And indeed Damián Manso did finally earn the attention--and respect--not only of the twice-challenged Van der Sar but of United captain Rio Ferdinand, arguably the finest central defender in what is generally considered the most powerful football league on the planet. Not that Rio had gone so far as to be able to put a name on the number of the man who had been such an irritant all night. "That little left footed front man, number 21, is a fantastic footballer," Ferdinand fairly conceded to a Japanese interviewer after the match.

At least Rio Ferdinand had sorted out the numbers. The Guardian's Glendenning, whose strongest assertion all night had been his stated wish that the match would end in 90 minutes so that he could get back to London to complete his holiday preparations ("I've got lots to do to clear the decks before heading home to my mammy in Ireland for Christmas"), computed Manso's laserlike stroke-of-90-minutes near-miss as coming three minutes before that--and, most curiously, credited the shot not to the man who had taken it but to another Liga player, Claudio Bieler.

Ah well, why bother to get things right in a game everyone in the English media had treated all along as the culmination of a ridiculous folly of a tournament?

United took the match--1-0 on a splendid 73rd minute Wayne Rooney goal--and won the Cup. Without much celebration, as it had been a somewhat harrowing contest. And there was that long flight home. And the prospect of Stoke City to contend with on Boxing Day.

But then United know what to expect from a hapless Stoke side, having punished them without much mercy in an easy 5-0 win last month at Old Trafford.

Stoke unlike Liga have proven themselves worthy of no more than limited respect. Of course we've heard endlessly of the threat posed by the epic throw-ins of Stoke's Rory Delap. Delap is by now a name everyone in the wide world of football knows. Still, it seems that not even after he scared United half to death last night is anyone in the charmed kingdom of Premier League triumphalism able to get Damián Manso's name right.

Why is this? Is xenophobia an English virtue?

Coming into this final, contributors on English websites, eager to demonstrate their cultural provincialism, consistently disparaged the Ecuadoran side. Liga de Quito would provide--it was thought--no more than a straw foe for might United to easily bowl over. One particularly confident blogging dummy referred to them as "LDU Quinto". Why bother to know who you're playing when you don't even expect a serious game?

The odd thing is, there are parts of the world where Liga de Quito is taken very seriously indeed. Brazil, for example, where, rumour has it, people know a bit about football. In order to qualify for the World Club Cup, Liga had to come out on top in the grueling Copa Libertadores competitition, the highest club-level prize available to sides from South America and Mexico.

Getting to the July final of the Libertadores--the decisive second leg was an unforgettably intense, emotional match played before 90,000 highly-involved Brazilian fans in the mammoth Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro--took six months of hard labor on Liga's part. There was no fluke in their victory. Up 4-2 over Fluminense after the first leg at home in Ecuador, they found themselves brought level at 5-5 aggregate after two spectacular goals from Flu's marvelous Thiago Nieves (another brilliant South American player as yet virtually unknown in Europe). Amidst the rocking euphoria of the Maracana, however, Liga held on. In a penalty shootout their great 37-year-old keeper Jose Francisco Cevallos, the final's most valuable player, saved three kicks--and perhaps also the life of Liga manager Edgardo Bauza, whose isolated agony during the fraught shootout, caught by television images, provides one of the more interesting emotional dramas in recent football history.

You can see the riveting highlights of that memorable final here:
first leg (ida)
return leg (vuelta)

After the Libertadores victory Liga returned to their own league, where, like United, they have had their own struggles. In the recently concluded Ecuadoran Apertura, they finished second to local rivals Deportivo Quito. Their title-deciding end-of-November clasico against Deportivo was a magnificent affair, closely-contested, every ball fought for with great feeling; it was a match that will be remembered in Ecuador for many years. But don't take my word for it, look for yourself.

As of course will many in South America--if not in Europe-- remember this 2008 World Club Club final, a match that was regarded, in the run-up, with little more than ridicule and annoyance by the fans and press corps of the English champions. But just ask Rio Ferdinand if this was an easy night for United. Defeating the second-best side in Ecuador required every bit of energy left in United's tank. You can bet that Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo had not anticipated being on the pitch a full 90 minutes, as in the event they were.

Liga stood brave and tall in defeat, though at the end the desolated keeper Cevallos sat gutted between his posts, watching the big screen at the other end of the stadium as though it might miraculously show a different outcome on a night when the unbelievable had nearly happened.

10 comments:

donwendyagain said...

Would you like some salt & vinegar to go with your chips?

beyond the pale said...

Don--I don't know you my friend, and you don't me, and perhaps we both ought to be happy to leave things that way.

But I will say this. I've been a writer for fifty years, and in that time I've discovered only two reasons to be doing it. One is for pay, and I've done that, but am not doing it now. Two is to find readers and provide them something interesting and diverting. So, since with my last two posts here my readership has evidently consisted entirely of you, I suppose I should be extending you a debt of thanks and telling you that you're making my life worth living.

So now that's done. And happy Christmas to you, Don!

How may i make your holidays better? By telling you I think Man U is a stronger side that Liga de Quito? Done!

But I've also been guessing (perhaps I should say hoping?) you might be able to join me in seeing
sporting affairs in the somewhat larger perspective of life. Seen in that perspective, the titanic-lilliputian clash between the corporate-branded mega-giant Man U and the little unheard-of Ecuadoran club would take on some of the aspects of a David v. Goliath struggle. I'd hope one would be able to credit David for using whatever wit or nous he had at his disposal. And frankly, winning appeals to me a lot less than does intelligence and heart. I thought Liga de Quito honorably and honestly displayed those things, just as United displayed a bit of their undisputed and quite spectacular world-class skill. And in the end Liga was one Van der Sar fingertip away from coming out of this one with a draw.

But if you're a true football fan, and not just another xenophobic and provincial sheep riding on the easy United bandwagon, perhaps you might do to look into things a bit further, including a look at the view from the other side.

Liga is the South American champion, but their rather astonishing victory in the Copa
Libertadores (their ticket to Yokohama) ironically cost them something, as that competition showcased their brilliant key man Joffre Guerron; Guerron then left for Spain, and too the industrious midfielder Enrique Vera went to America of Mexico City. Tactics then dictated a defensive approach against United, which, together with the great work of Cevallos, almost but not quite saved the day for Liga. We all know that that conservative style of play is not as entertaining as the kind of open game United can play–and which Liga also showed themselves capable of in that wonderfully exciting Libertadores final against Flu, which saw ten great goals scored over the two legs. I hope some will look at the clips of those games and see what that smallish, unheard-of-in-Europe club could do when playing on its own continent against relatively comparable opposition (though again, Liga was the "mouse" and Fluminense the "lion" in that battle, making their victory all the more remarkable).

But I'm afraid it's finally a losing cause to expect any sort of fair consideration or respect out of "fans" who simply have their minds shut against anything they are not preconditioned to admire.

Then again, Don, since as I say you're my sole reader, I think it would be quite ungrateful of me to include you in that sorry lot, don't you?

Atahualpa Greengrass said...

Beyond the Pale,
now you have two readers - and you deserve far more, with this excellent writing!
Perhaps the ever-awake Lord Wrigley should sell Cristiano to the City Scrapyard or (spits) Real Madrid for 150 million quid and buy Manso.
I know very little about South American footy - Marcela MyA and other Pseuds have taught me that little - but you'd have to be blind not to see the talent that has oozed forth since I, a child, hissed at Rattin.
Keep it coming!

offside yupanqui said...

That's three readers, three! And probably a few more who don't have time, in this busy season, to read, dissect and comment in a way that is worthy of this excellent series on Latin American futbol.

I'll echo my brother atahualpa's cry for more, and wish you all a Feliz Navidad.

beyond the pale said...

Ata G.--Excellent to bring a voice from beyond the Andes into this. A fine suggestion you've offered, too. On the night in question Manso showed himself a better player than C-Ron--that is, unless you count pointless stepovers as the measure of quality. (Funny thing about that--when United was on the ropes in the final seconds and clearly trying to hold up the ball so as to kill off the tie, Ronnie the pouter executed a couple of those highlight-reel stepovers at the touchline, and was summarily dispossessed of the ball by the Liga defender Campos--just as he would have been by any selfrespecting South American defender. That show-pony business goes over a lot better against the somewhat heavier-footed likes of West Brom or Stoke.)

mac millings said...

BtP,

I, too, have been reading with enjoyment, but also with two small children requesting my attention, so I have had to delay commenting on your passionate, knowledgeable writing - it's a lot of fun to come on here and read about things that I wouldn't find in most other places.

My only negative is that I think you were a little harsh on Glendenning. Writing an MBM can be a hectic affair, I'm sure, and cases of mistaken identity are bound to happen. And it would be nice if Euro-journos knew all about South American football (or their American counterparts knew all about East Asian baseball - I don't count you among that number, because you're probably up-to-speed in that department!), but that smacks of specialization, and that doesn't, alas, seem to be the way sports journalism (in the UK, at least) is going - more's the pity. One would hope it'd be otherwise, what with The Long Tail and all, but there it is.

I'll echo gg and offside - I'm glad you come here and leave gifts; please bring more.

beyond the pale said...

Mac--Yes it was a bit small of me to pick on Glendenning, whose match reports are always fair and entertaining. And certainly he wasn't the only one who didn't bother to do his advance homework to size up the non-English side in the fixture. This "non-specialization," as you so kindly call it, is quite common in English sports journalism. When it comes to coverage of South America, though, the BBC's Tim Vickery is an outstanding exception; but then Tim is based in Rio de Janeiro. And then too there's the Guardian's wonderful Marcela Mora y Araujo; but of course she's Argentine.

In truth I regard English football writers (as opposed to English football players) to be about the best on the planet, and the Guardian's to be the best of those (Kevin McCarra the tops, for my money). Still, that said, it's also true that writers in South America (I do enjoy reading them too) are quite cognizant of the virtues and weaknesses of European sides; also, I'd be surprised if one of them would call Rooney "Paul" or Gerrard
"Nigel"--and in South America, the veteran Argentine player Manso is a figure of that stature. So there does exist a certain bias factor, which obviously is much easier for English readers to forgive since for the most part they share the same bias. An extreme example of this, perhaps, was the coverage of the Scotland/Argentina friendly, in the run-up to which, with Maradona's daughter hospitalized just as he was about to step in for his first match as manager of the national team, Terry Butcher told the assembled press corps of the British Isles that he would "never forgive" DM for the "hand of God" incident. Such petty retentive xenophobia deserved to be called out for what it was, but I didn't notice anything in the British press to indicate Butcher had been out of line.


But really Mac, all this is neither here nor there. I thank you for commenting and am always the better for having read what you have to say. The fact you bothered to say anything at all, on Christmas, with two little ones to look after, is quite moving to me--just as moving, say, as the bravery of that earnest side from Ecuador. (Though then again, perhaps we should be crediting the bravery of United--after all, for the fourth-best side in England to overcome the second-best side in Ecuador represents quite an impressive triumph when you think about it!)

mimi said...

beyond and mac - loads of people read your stuff, so don't be so feeble!
Anyway, I don't do football - I support Liverpool (!), but it was interesting today listening to the radio about Man U and their wee trippy abroad. Cos they've kind of lost nothing. No-one else has been winning except for Villa.

So it's kind of all square as we go into the new year games.

I'm finding myself very supporting of Villa. Strange, it's very strange.

donwendyagain said...

BTP, I hope you get a sense of humour for Christmas.

guitou said...

Beyond

may be a little risky for my reputation to be in such bad company with the baddest dudes in Pseuds as gg or offie , what a cast of characters! but I won't mind to be added on your list too.
It's a privilège to read you-
Btw Sense of humor is somebody else problem

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