DORTMUND, Germany —
A few weeks ago, the Bundesliga invited FOX Sports to a two-night stay in the heart of Germany ahead of the German Super Cup. Having already booked my vacation in Germany for August just days earlier, I “sacrificed” myself for the good of the team. “Fine, boss, I’ll extend my stay in the country of my birth for two extra weeks. You totally owe me.”
After a brisk 14-hour journey from Los Angeles to Dusseldorf, I was greeted by our soon-to-be partners from the Bundesliga at the Hyatt Regency, a fancy hotel right on the Rhine. A couple hours later, we crossed a bridge over the Rhine for a nice dinner with former Germany internationals Jens Lehmann and Christoph Metzelder. Both played for Borussia Dortmund for several years and won a championship together in 2002, and here they were chatting with us for several hours over life lessons, cuisine and football.
Naturally, Lehmann commanded most of the table’s attention. He discussed at length the performance of goalkeepers at the World Cup and what made Manuel Neuer “the only truly world-class goalie today.” “The very best keepers,” he said, “they act, instead of react.” Anyone who saw Neuer play in Brazil this summer will know what Lehmann meant by this.
When I asked him to rate Tim Howard’s performance, Lehmann lauded the United States No. 1 for his record night against Belgium, but also said he was poor against Germany, blaming him for the lone goal of the match. Howard parried the shot straight to Thomas Muller — who buried the rebound — than out and to the side, he remembered. Tough critic, that man. Unsurprisingly, he’s an analyst right now for German television
Lehmann also gladly recounted tales of his days with Arsenal’s “The Invincibles.” He did not, mind you, care to discuss the night he received a straight red card against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Final in 2006 with me, his perfect record in penalty shootouts, or Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to drop Oliver Kahn in favor of him just weeks before the 2006 World Cup. “[Kahn] did not talk to me for four or five days after that,” Lehmann admitted with a sheepish smile.
And the fun didn’t stop there.
On Wednesday, I had an opportunity to meet, Christian Seifert, the longtime CEO of the Bundesliga, for a thorough presentation on what has made the German game so successful since the new millennium.
Seifert, as you would expect of a man in his position, was a remarkable speaker, with his heavy, amusing German accent shining through at times. Next to him on either side were the Bundesliga trophy — the “ugly salad bowl — and the FIFA World Cup. The real deals, in all their glory.
There were three main components to Seifert’s presentation; the Bundesliga’s ascendancy on the pitch, the economic stability of its clubs, and the extraordinary fan support and passion. They all combine to make the league as strong as it is today, he said.
Several statistics jumped out at that may surprise some folks who don’t follow the league too much. For one, the Bundesliga’s recorded profit of €264 million in the 2012-13 season almost tripled that of the Premier League, which spends more than twice as much money on player salaries. A reason for this is German clubs rely much more on younger and cheaper homegrown talent — all part of the common strategy the clubs share with the German national team.
With an average attendance of over 43,500 fans per match, the Bundesliga is also the second-most attended sports league in the world, only behind the National Football League. And with 3.16 goals per game, it’s tops among the big five soccer leagues in Europe. These last two figures, specifically, explain why Seifert is so optimistic over the continued growth of his brand. With FOX Sports securing its rights starting next season, there’s mutual excitement and an eagerness to work together to bring the Bundesliga to the mainstream American media.
After Seifert (and the trophies) posed for pictures, we were on to our next appointment. There was no time to waste as we had only several hours before the Wednesday’s German Super Cup final.
First, we stopped off at the BVB “Fan Welt,” a new, giant fan shop outside the stadium that we were told is “like the Amazon.com for Borussia Dormtund fans.” You could literally get everything there in black and yellow, including your own, personal BVB lawnmower. Yep.
We then stopped by the BVB youth academy a couple of miles away, where club legend Lars Ricken greeted us. Ricken, who famously scored in Dortmund’s 1997 Champions League victory over Juventus on his very first touch of the bench, gave us a tour of the facilities, which included the revolutionary “Footbonaut,” a robot used to test player’s reaction time and pass accuracy.
Ricken demonstrated the amazing training tool for us. The robot itself is a cage consisting of several dozen squares and ball machines on all sides. Much like a pitching machine, balls are spit out at random and the player has only a split second to gather the ball and hit it at the square that lights up, also completely at random.
Finally, we made our way back to Signal Iduna Park to watch the German Super Cup between Dortmund and Bayern. We know how the match went by now — the hosts won the preseason fixture for a second year running by completely overpowering a Bayern Munich side that was still noticeably lacking in conditioning and pretty much every other department on the day. The Yellow Wall did it’s job, too. Chants of “Zieht den Bayern die Lederhosen aus!” (translation: Strip Bayern of their lederhosen) rang through the night, as well as the orchestra of whistles that serenaded Mario Goetze when he was substituted on in the second half.
After the match, our whole group returned back to the bus, exhausted but mostly thankful for such an incredible experience and two days of fun-filled events in the hotbed of German soccer.
Images provided by Thomas Hautmann / FOXSports.com
While Real Madrid were at the campus at UCLA preparing for the International Champions Cup this week, NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony stopped by a training session.
Melo juggled a ball around (with some surprising skill, actually!), took a few headers and had a turn in goal before a photo session with players:
What stood out most in the video, though, was just how simply towering the 6-foot-8 Anthony is. Anthony’s sheer size makes the defending European champions look like a youth squad.
Given the United States men’s national team’s recent exit from the World Cup, the mind can’t help but wonder how awesome it’d be to have athletes of Carmelo’s caliber roaming around the field.
With that height and a 30+ inch vertical leap, it’d be seemingly impossible for him not to score! Or, perhaps his massive wingspan would be better served in between the posts.
With a little practice, maybe he’d be willing to serve in a Tim Krul-like role for the national team. Good luck trying to slot a penalty past that!
Then again, Anthony just inked a contract with the New York Knicks worth upward of $122 million. We’ll continue to dream on!
Images from Real Madrid’s Facebook page.
Real Madrid - 2014 Champions League winners
The winds have been blowing hard into Lisbon this week, whipping off the river Tagus and through the winding alleys of Chiado. It’s added a wrinkle to Saturday’s big match as the memories of the last big blow through here remains fresh.
This February, big hunks of the roof of the Estadio da Luz plummeted to the turf before the Lisbon derby, glass and padding shattering on the surface below. Portugal was lucky: the incident happened in advance of the game, so no one was hurt, but the debris continued to cascade down, causing some angst among UEFA officials. Happily, the damage was repaired, the game went on, and here we are.
No one expects a repeat of that here on Saturday, but it’s a bit apt considering that the winds of change are sweeping through the game.
This is Spain’s time. Regardless of who wins on Saturday night, Spain will hold four of the five major trophies in the world sport. (The final one, the Copa America, they not eligible for). Sevilla upset Benfica ten days ago in the Europa League; Spain are also the defending European and World Cup champions. A Madrid team will hold the European Cup on Saturday. The only blemish on this recent run, if you can call it that, is the national team’s second-place finish at the distinctly second-tier Confederations Cup. This moment, right here, could stand as a capstone for a remarkable era in world football, a period of dominance not seen since West Germany’s reign over world football in 1975 (Only one trophy in 1975, the now-defunct Cup Winner’s Cup, was outside of German hands).
The Spanish fans who packed the Metro this afternoon to overflowing are rightfully giddy, even if their presence has been met with some chagrin. There is no statue of Neptune here, but the fans have been clambering up anything stone in Rossio Square, with scarves and flags since the sun came up, and Real fans have simply taken over two whole plazas in a sort of Occupy Lisbon movement. You cannot walk on the platform at Marques de Pombal without tripping over a red and white flag. And good luck getting a seat at any café in Chiado as they’re all taken by guys in orange, purple or white. Benfica’s treble? Forgot by all but A Bola, the local sports paper that somewhat grudgingly gave space to the final on their cover on Saturday (Yesterday’s cover? A take-out on Jan Oblak, Benfica’s goalkeeper).
It’s a friendly crowd as well, with packs passing each other on the streets or the trams, trading cheers and tuneless songs — but without a shred of menace. Some of that is due to the historic achievement gap between these two, but some of it has to be the fact that this is Spain’s time in the sun.
How long this lasts is open to debate. Atletico have been overachievers in the extreme, low-cost Davids who have ejected a series of clubs backed by sugar daddies and petrodollars. Real Madrid and Barcelona have money to burn, but the latter is on the slide and seems to be entering a rebuilding period. And Spain, while a favorite in Brazil, are not the favorites to win the whole thing.
Fans of Spanish football should enjoy it while it lasts.
LISBON — The red and white scarves have been stowed for the season, the plaza at City Hall last night was being swept up of the cups and flags. Over at Restauradores, the only rally was for graduating university students – something to do with big wooden spoons and lots of beer, by the looks of it. A Bola is still gleefully printing pictures of Benfica players holding up three fingers but the rest of the city has moved on towards the big game on Saturday. The headline in Record read: “The world is watching.”
But until then, there’s not much to do, soccer-wise. The teams are training in Spain, the fans have yet to trickle in, and Lisbon, the oldest city in Western Europe is glorious. So, why not see it?
Now, I have a weakness for trains. I believe they are the only civilized way to travel, and I have been known to walk miles between train stops rather than take a bus. I once refused a plane trip from Berlin to Warsaw on the grounds that I could take a sleeper car there overnight. The fact that it turned out to be a Soviet-style bed car, complete with hissing steam, did not teach me any lesson whatsoever. On the contrary, I am of the belief that it made me stronger, much as the journeys from Leuchars to Dundee on the sublimely discomfiting Fife Rail trains of the early 1970s, all plaid and burr.
Much to my glee (and my partner’s despair) Lisbon has had an urban train system for nearly 130 years. Yesterday, I decided to ride all of them, going from the ancient basilica on the west side of the city out to the giant flea market that occupies Alfama just west of the castle. The points are connected by an ancient tram line, the “28,” which runs through the winding roads along the harbor line. The “28” started out as a horse carriage line (I pity the poor beasts on these hills and cobblestones) but switched to overhead electric in 1901.
What universal qualities must a team have to make a Champions League final?
Good coaching, a dependable goalkeeper, star power on offense, and a little bit of luck are probably the minimum requirements. But most importantly, the team needs to have balls. Preferably big balls.
At least, that’s what Atletico manager Diego Simeone would reason.
After his side reached its first Champions League/European Cup final in 40 years with a 3-1 win at Chelsea on Wednesday, Simeone thanked his players’ mothers for equipping them with large “cojones.”
Simeone on his team: “I want to thank their mothers for giving birth to players with balls this big [gestures to show substantial size]”— AS English (@English_AS)April 30, 2014
Unfortunately, we don’t have a picture of Simeone gesticulating at his press conference, but we imagine it looked something like this:
Image via RedCafe
See you soon!
Chelsea v Atletico Madrid
Bayern Munich v Real Madrid