I grew up playing soccer and continue to enjoy the game, but my interest as a spectator has waxed and waned over the years. I’ve never been loyal to a particular team in a way that leads one to stay tuned even when times aren’t good, so my attentiveness hinges largely on the quality of the teams I’m able to watch. Two things have helped to rekindle it in recent years. One is television coverage of the English and Italian leagues via Fox Soccer Channel. The other is globalization. The European clubs (see the chart below) with the most money, and to some extent tradition, are able to lure the best players from all over the world — from Argentina to the Ivory Coast. The resulting concentration of talent makes these teams much more attractive to watch than was the case when many had only two or three foreign players. The combinations don’t always work; bloated egos and lack of chemistry sometimes get in the way. But on the whole, this has been a boon for fans with TV access and no allegiance to a club or country that’s been left behind by this process.
This year has been especially pleasurable, because Barcelona have a delightful team. Their front five — Lionel Messi (Argentina), Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon), Thierry Henry (France), Andrés Iniesta (Spain), and Xavi Hernández (Spain) — are a joy to watch. Messi has more skill on the ball than anyone since Diego Maradona and is probably the world’s best player at the moment. Eto’o, lightening quick with excellent touch around the goal, has scored 125 goals for Barcelona in the last five seasons. Henry has been one of the world’s top three forwards over the past decade; he’s slightly past his peak form, but still very good. Xavi and Iniesta are exquisite dribblers and passers whose talents and personalities seem ideally suited to bringing out the best in Messi, Eto’o, and Henry.
As one indicator this Barça team’s quality, here’s their goal difference — average goals scored minus goals allowed — this year compared to that of the nine other clubs that dominate European and world club soccer. (Since 1990, these teams have won 14 of the 19 Champions League tournaments, including 10 of the last 11. One of them will win it again this year, as all four semifinalists are among this group.) I’ve included both regular league and Champions League matches.
If you’ve been tempted by soccer but found it boring, consider watching Barcelona play in the Champions League semifinals this Tuesday and next Wednesday (April 28 and May 6). The matches will be shown on ESPN2 at 2:45pm eastern time. I can’t guarantee it’ll be worth your time; at this stage of major competitions (the Champions League is soccer’s biggest aside from the World Cup), teams often play cautiously. But I’d advise against waiting. The style and flair of this team come along very rarely, and all it takes is a juicy offer from another club or an injury to one of the key players to destroy it.
I should say that I wouldn’t bet on Barcelona winning the Champions League this season. They’re a bit suspect defensively, and in any case in soccer, as in many sports, the most attractive team doesn’t always come out on top. But for at least some fans, the outcome is a secondary consideration when you’re able to see what Pelé once called “the beautiful game” played so beautifully.