September rocks. It’s my favorite month of the year. Two months after I sweat through July (https://johnhendersontravel.com/2015/07/09/july-is-worst-time-to-be-in-rome-or-anywhere-else/), Mother Nature’s cruel joke on mankind, I am in bliss. And I always have been. Here in Rome it’s when
most of the backpackers have gone home, the weather has cooled, all the restaurants have re-opened and, for the 38th straight year, I am reminded I am no longer in school.
However, the biggest reason is one of my favorite sports events of the world kicks off. The Champions League soccer tournament has replaced college football as my fall passion. I covered college football for 19 years. No other sport in the world has more riding on each game. Twelve games. Twelve games to bid for a national or conference title and more money than most South American countries’ military budgets. And one loss to blow it all. Coaches have been fired, non-revenue sports have been cut, on one missed field goal.
But the Champions League takes it one better. It’s Europe’s annual soccer club championship. The best 32 teams, all based on where they finished in their leagues the previous season, square off in eight groups of four. Each team plays a home and home with the other three in their group. The top two in each group advance to a 16-team knockout stage. The final is May 28 in Milan.
This is arguably the toughest soccer tournament in the world. Yes, it’s even tougher than the World Cup. There is no North Korea in this tournament; no Australia, either. The clubs have no citizenship limitations, no salary caps. Despite annual player movement that rivals Major League Baseball, the core of the European powers remain year after year after year. How tough is this tournament?
In the 22 years since it changed its name from the European Cup, no team has defended its title.
This year, the Champions League schedule is marked all over my cell phone calendar. In red. Why? My beloved A.S. Roma is in it. This isn’t news. This is the 19th year it has made it but it has never gone past the quarterfinals. But this season, Roma is the best it has been in years, possibly as good as the team that won the last of its three national “Serie A” titles in 2001. I sense it. The city senses it. So does my neighborhood, Testaccio, the former gritty, working-class “quartiere” where the team was formed in 1927. When Roma won its Serie A title, known as the “Scudetto,” fans poured into Testaccio and partied for a week. Juventus, the four-time defending Serie A champion from Turin, lost three of its best players, all aging, is not the same, hasn’t won in three games and already lost to Roma last month, 2-1.
This is Roma’s season. In my refrigerator, chilling well, is a large bottle of Prosecco.
The Champions League, however, is what draws attention from the entire world. And on Wednesday night, the world’s soccer fans bored their collective eye on Rome’s Olympic Stadium. It was the opening game of the Champions League group stage and in town was the greatest team in the world, the defending champion, boasting the best player in the world.
Barcelona, or “Barca” as fans and headline writers call it, is the most famous sports team on the planet. Please tell all the American sports talk show hosts who say it’s the New York Yankees to get a passport and a life. No one in Africa, in South America south of Colombia or Asia outside Japan, South Korea and Taiwan know or give two grains of rice about the New York Yankees. Yes, people in Europe were Yankees caps. It’s a fashion statement. Derek Jeter never wore a Yankees cap that was pink. I once asked a woman in Rome what the “NY” on the cap meant.
“New York,” she said.
“But do you know what the cap represents?”
“The New York Yankees.”
Ask anyone in Africa, Asia or South America what F.C. Barcelona is and you won’t get “Who?”
I get a press pass for the game and my bus reaches Olympic Stadium plenty early. Built for the 1960 Rome Olympics, it’s on its last legs. A new $340 million stadium is planned south of me and is only a corrupt city government and a few greased palms away from the first shovelful of dirt being overturned. Still, I love to walk past the marble Roman statues that line the path from the Foro Italico tennis complex, home of the Italian Open, and “Stadio Olimpico.” The classic stadium roof is lit up from above. Beautiful women in tight jeans and red and yellow Roma jerseys walk to the gates in heels totally inappropriate for a sports event but totally appropriate for Rome.
I went early to catch warmups. I wanted to see what the world’s best player acts like when the cameras aren’t on him. Lionel Messi looks about as much as a world-class athlete as I look Italian. I saw him walk onto the field and from the press tribune he looks, even at 28, like one of the little boys who holds players’ hands on their way onto the field. He’s 5-foot-7 and his boyish, round, clean-shaven face is topped with a bad, short haircut cropped close on the side. His small eyes look like buttons. He walks with short, quick steps as if his legs aren’t long enough to go fast. The only thing that makes him look older is his right arm. It is covered in tattoos, including one of a lotus and Jesus’ face. With his left arm clean, he looks as if he’s wearing a shirt with one long, multi-colored sleeve. Frankly, he looks like a moron. But it’s hard to throw the moron tag on maybe the greatest player in the biggest sport in the world.
In January this unimposing Argentine will likely win his fifth FIFA Ballon d’Or, given to the best player in the world. He’s already the only player to win three. He has scored 77 goals in 100 Champions League games and has a record 287 goals in 318 games of Spain’s La Liga and a record 50 in 37 games in 2011-12. Many already call him the best who ever lived and if he ever leads Argentina to a World Cup title, don’t ever bring up the debate in any bar from Barcelona to Brisbane.
And right now, Leo Messi is practicing free kicks right below me.
This is the biggest game to come to Rome in years and Italy’s manic press is all over it. “SENZA PAURA” (WITHOUT FEAR) screams the banner headline on the front page of Wednesday’s Corriere dello Sport. My best friend, Alessandro Castellani, is covering the game for ANSA, Italy’s wire service. I ask him about Roma’s chances.
“I don’t like them,” he says without going into detail. No need. When Roma has stepped up in class in the Champions League, it is the sacking of Rome revisited. Last season it lost, 7-1, to Bayern Munich — at home. It lost at Manchester United 7-1 in 2007, when I got heckled out of Denver’s British Bulldog pub by frontrunning American ManU fans who don’t even know what country Manchester is in. Barcelona has the same team that won last season’s treble: the Champions League, la liga and Copa del Rey, Spain’s national competition including all divisions.
Despite the strong start in Serie A — Rome is 2-0-1 — the buzz around the stadium isn’t one expecting an upset. Roma fans look at their team as they look at their economy. They hope for the best but expect the worst. Either way, there’s a bottle of Montepulciano waiting for them.
However, the game illustrates how far Roma has improved and may be foreshadowing of a season for the books. In front of a TV audience from 142 countries, Roma is taking it to the defending champions. Mohamed Salah, Roma’s new Egyptian striker on loan from Chelsea, has two breakaways and can’t do anything with either one of them. Two more breakaways wind up kicked away by Barca’s desperately retreating defense.
But Messi isn’t sharp. He is curiously left unmarked much of the first half and his shots are flying high. He’s like Michael Jordan who can’t find his jump shot. Then in the 21st minute a long Barca pass is sent toward Roma’s 18-meter box and Roma defender Lucas Digne falls backing up on Messi. The ball falls to the right of the goal. Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic makes a pretty soft pass just over new Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and right to the waiting head of Barca striker Luis Suarez. He scores easily. Barca 1, Roma 0.
It strikes an extra blow to the heart of the packed Olympic Stadium crowd of 57,836. Suarez was Uruguay’s thug who bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in last summer’s World Cup. FIFA suspended and he left Liverpool for Barcelona this season on a $106 million deal. He was booed every time he touched the ball. He was booed every time he tried helping up a Roma player. He is being booed now, as you read this, by somebody.
The game turns. Barcelona uses its trademark short, beautiful passing game to drive Roma nuts and put the stadium to sleep. At game’s end, Barca would dominate the time of possession with 72 percent. But it was one possession in the 31st minute that cost it. On an innocent run up the right side, Roma defender Alessandro Florenzi dribbles past midfield and just before it goes out of bounds, he looks up briefly. He launches a prayer, a shot from 48 meters. It’s the equivalent of a basketball player throwing up a shot from halfcourt midway through the first half.
However, this shot catches Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen way out in front of the goal. All he could do was look up at it like a kid watching a kite. The ball floats with eyes right into the left crossbar and into the net. Tie game. In all the games in all the world, this is likely the best goal in the world this year. It was certainly the best I’ve ever seen. And it holds up.
Messi can’t find the mark even after Suarez lived up to his rep two minutes into the second half and stepped on Szczesny’s fingers, forcing in Morgan De Sanctis, last year’s oft-embattled starter. But De Sanctis played like the best goalie in Europe stopping shot after shot. Rarely as a tie produced such an applause at game’s end.
Afterward, European’s soccer inane soccer public relations kicks in. I go to the mixed zone with a mob of Italian and Spanish reporters waiting for players to come out. They all do — and keep right on walking. Only one player for either team talks. Even De Sanctis made a sharp left out of sight. No wonder the Italian press never quotes players. No one talks.
“UEFA (European soccer’s governing body) doesn’t care about the press,” Castellani tells me later over a beer. “They only care about TV. They want players to speak to TV. The press? Fuck you!”
The Champions League is a long, tense haul. Also in Roma’s group is Bate, the Belarus champion, which hosts Roma on the 29th. Then there’s Bayern Munich, again, waiting for Roma in Bavaria Oct. 20. I hear Colorado, the college football team I covered for seven years, plays Colorado State today. I wouldn’t know.
I’m gearing up for Roma’s home Serie A match Sunday with Sassuolo. Nope, I’m no longer in school.