IF we were to choose one place where all the important aspects of global soccer will be covered in the coming year, that place would be Barcelona and its Spanish league team.
The club pays a million dollars each season to the chi
ldren’s charity Unicef. It commits to a flowing style of performance that means more than winning matches to accumulate trophies. It represents Catalonian ideology, and its slogan is “Barça: more than just a club.”
All very ambitious. All extremely taxing, when 2008, like many a year, places a heavy burden on the modern superstars. The better the player, the more he is wanted in more than one place at a time. This is the legacy of Fifa, the game’s world governing body, which has failed to deliver its promise of unifying the soccer calendar across four continents.
Fixture congestion, and conflicts of interest, kick off in January with the African Nations Cup in Ghana. Africa, like South America, is now a supplier of raw, exciting talents lured to rich European clubs like bees to honey. Africa provides the skills, Europe has the money.
In October, a Barcelona official suggested that Samuel Eto’o and Yaya Toure give up their aspirations to play for their homelands, Cameroon and Ivory Coast. Eto’o was asked to remember that he had missed the first half of the Spanish league season through injury, and it would be “strange” if he were to absent himself so soon after being declared fit for action.
Toure, whose brother Kolo plays for Arsenal, only arrived in Barcelona last summer and was still developing in his role in midfield.
Neither excuse washed, not least because the players yearned to represent their countries. Important as they are, Eto’o and Toure are just two of more than 300 Africans playing abroad.
Chelsea has four, including the Ghanaian midfield powerhouse Michael Essien and the dynamic scorer Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast. Another English team, Portsmouth, is built around five big, strong, willing Africans—among them Zimbabwe Benjani Mwaruwari—who, under Fifa regulations, must answer the call to their countries from January 20 to February 10.
The clubs complain that Africa’s tournament hits Europe during midseason, and is out of kilter with the calendar. Africans might argue that Europe is the land of plenty and that Africans need a time to play when the sun is not too debilitating on their continent and when Europe or South America are not cornering the TV market.
In any case, the clubs know that they are Africans when they sign them. Barcelona is exceptionally stocked with gifted youngsters, notably Bojan Krkic, 17, and Giovani dos Santos, 18 who can step up to first-team duty. Both are the offspring of former professional players – Bojan’s father is from Serbia, and Giovani is the son of a Brazilian, Zizinho.
So at Barcelona, the boys are ready to step into the shoes of men, even those of the likes of Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho.
Messi is injured at the turn of the year, and Ronaldinho is trying to recapture the zest that made him the most entertaining player on earth two seasons ago. Barça can reinvigorate him, or it could sell him and let the boys grow.
We should know by the spring, and maybe then we will be told if Frank Rijkaard, the Dutchman who coaches Barcelona, has the energy and authority to stay. He says he will, and Barça must know that few proven coaches could take on his mantle and continue such flowing style. Maybe Arsène Wenger could do it, but Wenger belongs to Arsenal.
Yet there is a loose cannon out there seeking a big job. José Mourinho, paid to leave Chelsea, encourages speculation that he would take Barça, AC Milan, Inter Milan or Real Madrid if asked. He is a predator in the jungle, inviting the top clubs in Europe to make a vacancy for him. If one should be tempted, the coaching merry-go-round will swing.
Barcelona would expect Rijkaard’s team to be chasing a Spanish league and Champions League double by May; if not, it might consider replacing him.
May offers it a pivotal game at the Bernabeu, the stadium of Barcelona’s rival Real Madrid, and possibly a Champions League final in Moscow. By then, European players will have in mind Euro 2008, which runs June 7 to 29.
For Barcelona, that means more mileage for its Spanish contingent – Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Carles Puyol. Spain expects, as always, some hard evidence that the national team is capable of a major honor. Win or lose Euro 2008, the Summer Olympics then loom in Beijing.
Messi, if he so chooses, could star for Argentina in that event, which is reserved for players up to 23 years old. But Brazil has never been Olympic champion, the one jewel missing in its crown of the world’s most decorated nation. So Carlos Dunga has vowed to double up his national team coaching duties with the Olympic job – and he is calling on extraordinary youngsters like AC Milan’s Alexandre Pato and the Corinthians’ Lulinha.
The Olympics are August 6 to 23. By then, Barcelona, along with other leading European clubs, will be on preseason tours in Asia or the United States, tours that increase the clubs’ brands overseas and make the money to pay the stars.
The host clubs and countries, like Japan or Hong Kong, will pay millions of dollars, but demand in return at least token appearances of the big-name players. — International Herald Tribune.