Saturday, December 20, 2008

FIFA World Club Championship: A Longer Look - Beyond the Pale

For argument: The problem with approaching any non-European competition as an a priori supporter of English or other European leagues or clubs is that one tends to be blinded by one's predispositions and miss what virtues there may be in such competitons. Take the currently ongoing FIFA World Club Championship tournament in Japan. While in general agreement with the commonly held disparaging view of many of the chintzier elements of this tournament, I also fear the conventionally-wise disdain teeters over in some cases into easy and outright scorn, rather unfairly given the quality of some of the actual play; and that this imbalanced and perhaps prejudicial treatment calls for a bit of redressing.

The Eurocentric prejudice against less familiar manifestations of world football I'm here addressing holds true especially in the case of Latin American competitions, and tends also to extend into a general disregard for the contributions of Latin American clubs in international competitions in general. Granted Latin American football doesn't much resemble European football--it boasts less raw power, and probably also less pace than one might expect from the EPL, if not also from La Liga, and perhaps even from Serie A (though has anyone ever sincerely accused Serie A of being the least bit pacy?)--it also offers relative virtues of its own: more touches, more finesse, more grace, and, in this writer's modest view, more true fighting spirit.

The present Japan world club tournament is no exception. The sometimes farcical nature of the set-up and proceedings may well have caused many to see this as a shambolic clown show to be laughed at and ignored in anticipation of the ultimate appearance of the semi-divine grandees from Manchester, who have pretty much been accorded the championship before even venturing out of the hotel mass-autograph-sessions to bother to touch stud to pitch.

But in the quarter-finals we did--as has unfortunately not been much reported outside the "hinterlands" (semi-wildernesses?) of Latin America and North Africa--see one wonderful match. Al Ahly, the skilled and brave Egyptian club here representing Africa, looked indomitable for most of the night against Mexican CONCACAF representative Pachuca; but in the second half Pachuca came roaring back, tied the match at 2-2 late-on with a goal by Argentine forward Christian "Chaco" Gimenez, working an adroit 1-2 with his fellow Argentine Bruno Marioni, then scored twice again in extra time--the ultimate winner put in by another of Pachuca's experienced and talented Argentine contingent, Damian "El Chilendrino" Alvarez, with an insurance goal coming on Gimenez's second of the night. Marvelous and utterly exciting game, in short, whichever side you may have been rooting for.

Then, after enduring the intervening descent into admittedly dull matches involving the pretty ordinary Oceanian and Asian representatives--never more than straw opponents anyway, vying in futility for the anticipated dubious honour of being knocked out by imperious United in the semis--came the semifinal between Pachuca and Copa Libertadores winner Liga de Quito of Ecuador, representing the South American continent.

You may not have heard of the latter club unless you're enough of a football fan to have looked in on their recent victorious Libertadores campaign, crowned by a fantastic conquest away to Fluminense in the caldron of Maracana in Rio de Janeiro; but if you were lucky enough to see any of that, you'll know that Liga represents no straw opponent for anybody. This is a wicked-good football club.

As I might have expected unreason got the better of me and I ended up, after three nights up working on a piece on the unbelievably exciting Mexican gran final, not sleeping again, opting instead for tuning in at 2.30 a.m. to the Pachuca/Liga semi-final in Japan.

And the game I thought was bad/good, with the good winning out on balance. The weather conditions and crowd apathy: very bad. Reminded me of 2002 Copa Mundial and why I hate watching games played in Far East: unless local teams are involved (in which case we observe mass robotic beehive-culture fanatic brainless crowd support), nobody in the stadium understands or cares what's happening save the few loyal traveling supporters. Thus here, a few dozen Pachuca fans made more noise than the "neutral" crowd.

But the football they saw, despite awful conditions, had some real quality I thought. The ultimate winners from Ecuador sported in their starting eleven the nucleus of the same wonderful Liga club aficionados of Latin football know from the Libertadores–the night's two scorers Bieler and Bolanos, plus Manso, Riesgo, Cevallos, all the key players from last year save the excellent, now-departed winger Guerron. Once behind 2-0, in a nasty cold rain, Pachuca had an impossibly slippery hill to climb.

But this was the same veteran club that had fought back so courageously to defeat Al Ahly a few nights earlier, and you could see they believed in the possibility of doing the same here–si se puede! Were I a Pachuca loyalist, I'd have been disappointed on the night yet nonetheless would have felt no shame in holding my head high afterward, given the battling performance of my defeated club. And were I an Argentine (instead of merely a foolish old norteamericano) I'd be entirely proud of the fighting spirit shown, pretty much for pride's sake, by the venerable Pachuca all-Argentine front line of Gimenez-Alvarez-Marioni… luchando, peleando till the end. Pachuca must have outshot Liga by 20-8 or so, dominated possession by something like an 80/20 ratio, made many great late chances, while never quite managing to llegar--get there in the end--but left all their hearts on the pitch nonetheless.

So: I had little trouble extracting more than a bit of the good (excellent competitive football of a pleasantly high quality) from the otherwise bad (the rest of the tournament, i.e. games not involving the three clubs from Africa and Latin America). Mixed views on the tournament so far, then--but please let's not entirely dismiss it as merely another convenient stage for the prancing glories of United, as some have done.

You can probably tell from all this that in my heart I had really wished for a Pachuca/United final. And as it is, I expect LDU to give United a run for their money. Anyone else feel likewise?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tears of Joy (Mexican League Apertura Final 2008) - Beyond the Pale

If you can't remember the last time you watched thousands of mature adults, on a day of deep blue skies and blindingly bright high altitude winter sunshine, all weeping and singing at the same time, then you're like me. And while you like me have probably read in the news lately that happiness has been discovered to be contagious, but only when shared in person, a case might be made for the belief that every now and then you can pick up a bit of contact emotion--including sheer joy--over distances of thousands of miles.

That's what happened to this grateful scribe, observing from afar Sunday's return leg of the championship final of the Mexican fall torneo.

The match was played in Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Diez (nicknamed La Caldera, and for visiting clubs traditionally about as comfortable as the crater of an erupting volcano), and won by Toluca over Cruz Azul by a final global or aggregate count of 2(7)--2(6). But mere numbers do not do justice to such a day. This was an intense, exhausting affair full of wonderfully competitive football--much of it beautiful, passionate, skillful, and some of it brutal; there were thirteen yellow cards, a red card, and more hard knocks than could be counted, yet without a single C-Ron-esque display of wounded theatrics. This was real war, not the opera: one player, the defender Jose Manuel Cruz Alta of Toluca, ended up staying on the pitch all the way to the end with one side of his face blue and swollen twice the size of the other--and he'd been the one who'd got the better of things in a violent clash with the excellent young Cruz Azul midfielder Cesar Villaluz; Villaluz went into convulsions, apparently stopped breathing and when last seen was on oxygen being stretchered off to the hospital (as his side had run out of substitutions, they had to fare the rest of the way--and coming from behind at that-- with ten men).

This was an unrelenting affair which took nearly three hours. Ninety minutes of furious action followed by two periods of leg-heavy extra time followed by an energy-draining round of thirteen penalties, the first twelve all made. When the unlucky-for-the-visitors thirteenth was saved by Toluca's 39-year-old Argentine keeper Hernan Cristante, an infernal ocean of dammed-up feeling broke loose and turned to pure heavenly joy among the red-clad sections of the crowd.

Andres Cantor, the great Mexican announcer, made the contest a stage upon which to build with his astonishing voice the roller coasters of emotion that always make these finals so thrilling--none more so than this one. This was a match that finally wrung every last drop of emotion out of everyone: not only the sincerely committed, enormously valiant players and coaches, but the masses of absolutely involved spectators. There was not a quiet moment all day, the small lagoon of Cruz Azul blue-shirts standing up continuously to sing bravely in the face of the far louder, brighter sea of Toluca red shirts and pennants and banners that surrounded and finally overwhelmed them.

Coming in to this return leg, or vuelta, down 2-0 after a flat and dispirited performance before their disappointed home fans on a bone-chillingly cold night back in the capital, Cruz Azul appeared to have little chance to dig themselves out of the hole they were in. They faced not only perhaps the most difficult of all Mexican away venues, but also the most difficult of defenses; Cristante, indeed, was coming off a recent stretch of nine consecutive games without surrendering so much as a single goal. He'd already won four championships in goal for Toluca, and it appeared now as though a fifth was inevitable.

And indeed, as the gran final now began to unfold, it looked very much like a repeat performance. Once again Toluca was orderly, precise, serene, dominant; as they had in Mexico City three nights earlier, they were playing with energy, discipline, confidence and flair. But then something mysterious occurred. After half-time Cruz Azul coach Benjamin Galindo tossed caution to the winds, made three substitutions, opted to attack at any cost and sent his players out chasing for all they were worth a forlorn hope--what now appeared to be a mission-impossible fightback.

It was as if Galindo had instilled in his team the understanding that to lose by six was no worse than to lose by one or two. And then suddenly, back they came. There was a Cruz Azul score: a lovely centering pass from the gifted joven Villaluz, flicked by the heel of Paraguayan forward Pablo Zeballos (a classic taquito) into the path of Alejandro Vela to turn home. Tienen la esperanza! exclaimed Andres Cantor. They've got a look-in! And then, with twelve minutes left, blue-shirted defender Julio Caesar "Cata" Domingues headed in a corner from Jaime Lozano, and Cantor's famous Gooooooooaaallll! echoed all across the intently listening Republic.

The aggregate stood now at 2-2: and the real drama was at that point only beginning.

The Mexican final--since 1997 three have been two every year, the Apertura in the Fall and the Clausura in the Spring--is a sort of national fiesta, and as such a pretty tough ticket at the best of times. But when, as has happened quite often in recent years (the past two winners before Toluca, Atlante and Santos, were also smaller clubs), the final migrates away from the big stadiums of Mexico City and Guadalajara, it can be all but impossible to buy your way in through honest means.This aspect of things always adds a little extra publicity spice to the run-up, and this year, interviews with ticket-hungry Toluca followers dominated the sports news in advance of the deciding leg.

And so that much anticipated match finally took place on Sunday: in the thin air of this small-to-mid-size provincial market and industrial city--the city located at the highest altitude of any in the Republic, at 2680 metres, high enough indeed to land itself and its earnest, proud little club within fallout range of the Brazilian clubs' longstanding efforts to restrict high-altitude competition in Copa Libertadores competition (a campaign frustrated at one point by the brilliant PR ploy of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who invited reporters to come watch him have a kickabout in the snows of the high reaches of his Andean nation, to suggest that even if pacy Brazilian fullbacks might get winded trying to bomb forward at such altitudes, he himself was hardly daunted by the task.)

Toluca, a small club in a bright red kit--they're sometimes called the Diablos Rojos, Red Devils, and sometimes los choriceros, hot red peppers--has for some time sported a refreshing, intelligent, engaging, highly entertaining style of play, with amazing success considering their low-echelon status in a league perennially dominated by a few big clubs. In overcoming the giant club Cruz Azul--Cruz Azul's shirts bear the blue cross emblem of a huge cement company, and they are accordingly called La Maquina Cementera, and are historically the club of the employed industrial working classes; that is, those with actual jobs, not including peasants--this overachieving minnow Toluca has now won its ninth championship, thus surpassing Cruz Azul's total of eight. (Though always a power, the maquina have been underachieving and won nothing for the past decade.) The only clubs to have won more titles are Chivas of Guadalajara with eleven and America of Mexico City with ten; but neither Chivas, the unofficial national club (they employ only Mexican players, and thus in effect represent everybody, that is, Mexicans of all classes and political persuasions), nor America, owned by the national television-monopoly conglomerate known as Televisa (Americanistas tend to represent the middle class and the political center), have been doing very well of late, and indeed neither of them even managed to quality for the eight-team liguilla from which Toluca now justifiably emerges as campeon.

And so how did that intense long day in the bright high sun finally close? Two relatively slow-motion extra-time periods. Then a period of lie-down in dappled sun-and-shade, and a regathering finally around the managers, Cruz Azul's Galindo and Toluca's Jose Manuel "Chepo" De la Torre (a decade before, the two had been teammates on a championship Chivas team); De la Torre could be seen absent-mindedly stroking the wounded head of his battered defender Cruz Alta, much as a mother strokes the head of a child, as he explained the strategy for kicks to be taken. And then those excruciating penalties, with not a miss through the first dozen, the whole building sequence narrated so wonderfully by Andres Cantor that if you don't enjoy this two-part set of clips of that full narration, you probably don't like football--or high drama:

That second clip also provides, at the end, just a taste of the emotion I mentioned coming in--the heady elixir in the air of an unforgettable day of football, celebration, excitement, pain, and tears of sorrow and joy. You'll see Hernan Cristante, in tears, saluting the home fans, and the wonderfully skilled Brazilian-born midfielder Sinha, holding his child, in quiet tears as he's interviewed; these are battle-hardened international veterans mind you, for the moment totally and quite movingly at one under the bright sun with the equally overjoyed, weeping supporters in their adopted footballing homeland. And then there's an interview with Toluca coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, also in tears. Two years before to the day, De la Torre was celebrating another championship won by a team under his direction. That day it was Chivas. But as you will see, for De la Torre as for almost everybody fortunate enough to have been there (as well as for many of us who weren't), this day it was totally Toluca.

(For the curious, here are two additional highlights clips, one for the first leg and one for the second leg of the final, up to ninety minutes; alas, on these two the announcer is perfectly fine, but is not the great Andres Cantor):

First leg (ida)

Second leg (vuelta)

Monday, December 15, 2008

For the Love of the Game by Mouth of the Mersey

Football fans profess love for their clubs, tennis and golf fans may profess love for a player (say Roger or Tiger) and rugby union fans may profess love for the culture of the game. But cricket fans regularly profess love for the game qua game, not even as ex-recreational players, but simply as spectators.

On completion of the extraordinary First Test between India and England played in the aftermath of the Mumbai outrage, this love for the game was evident all over the blogosphere, possibly best captured by Silverflash from whom I quote at length and to whom I am indebted.

Maybe this game had India playing in a daze for 3 days, and England snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but in the end analysis, this was so much more than just a match.

Today, I saw an old warrior battle it out at the site of one of his biggest personal defeats, when he came so close only to see victory slip away. I saw him shepherd a young turk through his impetuous moments, never letting him lose sight of the ultimate goal. I saw one of the best batsmen ever to play the game shackle every attacking instinct and apply himself to a task at hand, rejecting the natural for the necessary.

Before today, I had dismissed this series as too frivolously planned to make any sense. I dismissed any chance of England coming here and playing with all their heart. I called the entire exercise pointless. How wrong I was. Today I learnt that a team of sportsmen, shown the way by a charismatic leader, can raise what they do beyond just being a sporting spectacle, and make it mirror so much that all of life stands for, or should. The pursuit of excellence, the chase of a dream, perseverance in the face of adversity, the pain of loss, grace even in humbling defeat. Over five days, England stood shoulder to shoulder with my countrymen by fighting tooth and nail against them.

In the wake of what happened in Mumbai, I dismissed the return of the England team, forgetting what a Test match, played right, could mean.

Today, England and India have reminded me why it was so important that the game was played. That it ended the way it did - with the young turk giving the grizzled warrior the chance to reach his personal milestone while burying the demons of the past and the horrors of the present - made me remember why this is the king of all sports.

Amen to every word Sir.

My questions to pseuds are as follows. Why does Test cricket provoke such confessions of love? Does any other sport provoke such views (maybe baseball?) Does any other activity provoke such love (maybe opera?)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

No pain, no game? - Ringo37

“I felt I was good enough to deal with the bowlers without using a helmet.”
Sir Viv Richards

A hockey ball weighs 5½ ounces, the same weight as a cricket ball. Hard, white, muddied in those days, and studded with the milk-teeth of unready goalkeepers... I was eleven years old and I wasn’t nearly good enough to deal with this.

This was my first club game: I’d been shanghaied into filling in as goalie for the under-14s. No-one else’d seemed to fancy it, and, quivering in the Bradford rain with nothing between me and hurtling white death but a bent stick and a pair of cast-off cricket pads, I slowly and horribly began to realise why.

When I was 12 the club gave me a pair of hobnailed leather ‘kickers’: reinforced boots for hoofing the ball to safety. At 13 I got my first chest-pad, and my first helmet. Armguards arrived at age 17 and by the time I turned 18 I was kitted out like all the goalies you see nowadays: a shambling golem of styrofoam and velcro.

I think about the innumerable times I could’ve been hurt – and the innumerable ways in which it could’ve happened – and I wonder: why do I miss those days? Why do I hate Cipriani’s scrum-cap? Why, when the F1 commentator says “Of course, with these new cars, it’s practically impossible for a driver to be seriously hurt”, does it always seem to be in a tone of regret?

I don’t think it’s about I’m-no-sissy machismo. And I don’t think it’s simple Luddism, either.

I think it’s about engagement with the fundamentals of a sport. Sport in general forces us to acquaint ourselves with the strengths and limitations of our own bodies; ball-games, for instance, are generally a question of how well we engage with the interacting realities of opponent, ball, grass and gravity. In some sports, danger – indeed, death – becomes a fundamental.

Every time we step away from these fundamentals, the appeal of the sport – to me, at least – is diminished. A padded-up hockey goalie is hopelessly compromised in terms of vision and mobility; a helmeted cricketer is insulated from certain realities of speeding ball and human skull.

I don’t wear a helmet when I ride my bike. In part, that’s because it’s what I’ve always done. In part – a particularly stupid part – it’s because I’m worried about looking like a tit. But mostly it’s because cycling’s meant to be just me, and the bike, and the hills – and anything more would feel like an intrusion.

It’s a faintly uncomfortable sort of position. I don’t want anybody to get hurt playing sport – but then, in a weird way, I miss the days when there was a better-than-evens chance that somebody would.

Sportswriting About Sportswriting About...--or, Is the Champions League A Bore? by Beyond the Pale

Duly noted that we Pseuds--Ringo37, Beyond, and our several brilliant commentators--have lately involved ourselves in involving ourselves with involving ourselves in....what am I saying? Sportswriting about Sportswriting about Sportswriting?

Back in the hoary days of yesteryear (just so we're clear, this is not product-placement, as the product no longer exists) there was a cleaning substance sold in the U.S. called Dutch Cleanser. On the label one saw a little Dutch girl--cleaning, naturally. Behind her, on the wall of the inevitably spotless interior, there was a mirror. In the mirror, one saw the little Dutch girl cleaning the same spotless interior, on the wall of which one saw a mirror...and so on, into endlessly receding mirror images. Or if not endlessly, then diminishing until...

Or as offsideinthemirror has so thoughtfully put it, putting a fine point upon all this by applying the same sort of image to our lively discussions here:

"Writing about sports is sportswriting, fine. Writing about sportswriting is something we probably need a new name for. But commenting about writing on sportswriting is a kind of writing that leaves me entirely baffled as to what it should be called."

And the esteemed Ebren, obviously with nothing but the naked truth in mind, has helpfully responded:

"Dog above Offie-- let's hope no one replies to your comment. The consequences don't bare [sic--sorry, Ebren!] thinking about."

To which the indomitable Offside, never one to say die, whether bare or clothed--remember, it's always as warm as a fine day in Paradise here on our enchanted isle--comes back:

"Dunno, sounds like a perfectly valid avenue of discussion to me. I wish I had more resources at the Pakalolo Institute so that it could properly investigated. 'sigh'. "

(Beg pardon Offie for a wee spelling edit there, courtesy of the proofreading staff at the Institute.)

"Language disguises thought," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, respectfully paraphrasing our Ebren, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. "So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes."

Which brings me back to our little Dutch girl discussion about sportswriting about sportswriting about...for what else, indeed, is a sports blog but an extension of the little Dutch girl model? We may feel silly about our mirror-staring, in short, but that doesn't stop us doing it.

"The world is all that is the case," opined Senor Wittgenstein, that kindly feeder of birds. "The world is the totality of facts, not of things... The facts in logical space are the world."

E.g., a recent popular post on the Guardian sports blog--a site frequented, the Institute has determined, by many if not most of us Pseuds--is this one by Scott Murray (a writer indeed nominated by some of our commentators as belonging in the great tradition of colorful nonselfconscious sportswriting--as if such a thing ever existed):

"The state of the European Cup: discuss. Though, unlike the competition in its modern guise, let's get straight down to the nitty gritty so we don't waste anybody's precious time: the Champions League group stage has become such a tiresome, irrelevant farce that it is threatening to bring this once-great competition to its knees..."

MouthoftheMersey, a dedicated regular here, offers the first response to the Murray post, and I quote in full:


"A thought is a proposition with a sense," that tireless old blogger Ludwig once declared. "The totality of propositions is language."

Last time I checked, 205 posts had followed MotM's on that particular Guardian thread. Many of the posters happen also to be familiar Pseuds: Ringo37, Private Dic, DonWendyAgain, et al. Here's Beyond's post, which came at the bottom of the comment chain initiated (as cited above) by MouthoftheMersey--and Beyond, like a good little Dutch girl, is citing a fellow commentator, Jimathon--

"Agree in principle with Mr. Murray's premise--the group stages are a total bore, unless one somehow actually enjoys seeing the haves beat up on the havenots--but fear it doesn't go far enough. For my money the current configuration of the UEFA Champions League is all about their money. Corporate business is in essence not sporting. Football is a world language, thus its world popularity among not only the rich but the poor. There was a time when the twain could meet on these grounds. That time is no more. Thus I feel that Jimathon's comment--

'For heavens sake! Whats [sic] wrong with people nowadays?! Always going on about the good ol[sic] days. Everything was always better back then wasnt [sic] it? Sepia tinted glasses anyone?'

--is blind to the true history of this matter. Without sepia glasses but with clear eyes one may view the 1968 Bert Haanstra film Return Ticket to Madrid and view from an intimate perspective--that is, the fans' as well as the players', as the Ajax team is given a private tactical preparatory talk by trainer Rinus Michaels, and then the matches unfold --the first-round fixtures that year between between Ajax and Real Madrid. It is thrilling stuff indeed. It is not mere nostalgia but simple objective judgment that's required to see how much has been changed by the ramping up on money and hype around the tournament since that time. What was once a glorious competition has now dwindled to tiresome pimping designed, and quite successfully, to extract the maximum money from the maximum number of gullible fools. I believe that if Mr. Murray's premise is logically applied and extended to include the entirety of the tournament in its present state, this conclusion is sadly unavoidable."

Pseuds will note that Beyond made sure to reference a Dutch film about a Dutch football team so that the little Dutch girl model might subliminally haunt the minds of thread followers. (All this at no charge, mind you.)

But to get back to offsideinthemirror's original telling objection--which now begins to seem as though perhaps it shows more than it tells: once again, for refreshment:

"Writing about sports is sportswriting, fine. Writing about sportswriting is something we probably need a new name for. But commenting about writing on sportswriting is a kind of writing that leaves me entirely baffled as to what it should be called."

"The world and life are one," Wittgenstein interjects at this point, the strands of his grass skirt lapping at his knobbly kneecaps as the fresh breezes of the isle flow gently as zephyrs through the Institute's air-circulation unit. "I and my world are one. There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas."

There is something, it seems, about the Pakololan climate that either encourages or discourages thought--exactly which, it remains to be decided by our analysts.

And so I ask our great resident Pseuds scholar emeritus: how, Offie, does one ever truly avoid that horrible self-referential pitfall, the little Dutch girl trap, while blogging? Because a blog without a response stream is like the sound of one hand clapping, is it not? And is not every writer about a previous writing--including our most prolific thread-stitcher at the Institute, the redoubtable, never-at-a-loss-for-a-reply Offie himself-- thus forever writing about writing? Where does this all end? When the dikes finally give way and the sea of words floods in and washes over everything and leaves only silence and a cow floating past on a clump of dirt and grass (another wonderful Bert Haanstra image, drawn naturally from the abundant Institute archives)?

And compared to the wonders of all our minds, is not the Champions League truly a great bore after all? Or is saying this a matter of saying the unthinkable?

"We cannot think what we cannot think," suggests Wittgenstein in his grand Tractatus--indeed, merely confirming a discovery made some time ago by a highly-qualified team of researchers at the Institute--"so what we cannot think we cannot say either."

And how pleasant must it not have been, indeed, back in Paradise before the Fall, when that charming little Dutch girl Eve and her rather foolish but well-meaning consort Adam could communicate with the trees and flowers and birds and other animals without using language at all, as the Bible tells? Is there a single Pseud out there who supposes they'd ever have bothered to attempt to discuss whether or not United was going to draw Real Madrid in the first knockout stage?

For, compared to the wonders of our minds, is not the Champions League a great bore after all?

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