Monday, June 6, 2011

"Don't Listen To Him; He's Just The Trainer"

Okay, TigerBlog will state it publicly. He likes Lady Gaga.

Her music, that is. Not the whole Lady Gaga show.

TigerBlog has long suspected that Lady Gaga is toying with everyone around her with the overplayed excess that is her persona. And then he watched "60 Minutes" last night, where Anderson Cooper fawned all over her during a profile piece that was quite interesting.

In short, Lady Gaga - "call me Gaga," she told the star-struck Cooper at one point - basically was up front with the fact that she'd studied fame, and specifically why some performers sustain it and others don't. And her No. 1 conclusion is that the most important aspect is to get everyone focused on what you want them focused on and away from what you don't want them focused on.

Ultimately, she came across as, well, nice. And funny. And down-to-Earth. Of course, she was wearing 10-inch heels and a skin-colored body suit with makeup that was a tad flashy, but hey, that's the act.

And so with that public announcement about the fact that someone raised on Springsteen and Bon Jovi and Southside Johnny - not to mention The Beatles, the Stones, the Who - actually likes Lady Gaga, TigerBlog has nothing else to say today.

Instead, he turns the floor over to Princeton athletic trainer Russ Steves, who was recently in London for the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United:

Some people have all the luck. In this case, I was one of them. This is what ran through my head when I was sitting in Wembley Stadium last Saturday night watching the Champions League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United.

On top of that, my day started sitting in the lobby of one of London’s posh hotels sipping tea with members of the Manchester United team. They had just returned from a walk about to get out of the hotel for a bit and had espressos. I was the stuffy American who thought you’re supposed to be drinking tea when lounging around a hotel lobby in London. It was very nice to catch up with my buddies the equipment manager, the masseurs, Ryan Giggs, Sir Alex Ferguson and some of his assistant coaches. They were all very generous to explain the strategy behind winning the game later that day. Play fast, run like crazy, and when you win the ball from Barcelona, get it out from the middle of the field as quickly as you can. Barcelona closes you down very quickly after a turnover. If you lose it to them at that point, you are very vulnerable to a dangerous counterattack.

Well, now I was armed with the critical points of strategy for the game and wanted to leave them to get focused on the task ahead. I was just saying so long to them since they’ll be back in the USA this summer for their preseason tour. I’ll have plenty of time to revisit them again then.

So at this point you might be wondering, how does a guy who Bob Bradley ‘80 once instructed an opposing coach, “don’t listen to him; he’s just the trainer” get a seat at this great world event and hang out with one of the participants? Well, working as the athletic trainer for the Princeton men’s soccer team has provided some perks. For one, a former Princeton player and coach, Charlie Stillitano ’81, works as a promoter to bring professional soccer clubs from Europe over to tour the US. Since 2003 I’ve been able to help him with that. This means that I’ve been able to make some pretty cool connections in world soccer. Cool enough to get me a ticket to this big game and get past security at the Manchester United team hotel.

Now back to London. My game day then involves checking out the sites around Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. Generally, just wandering around London waiting for when it’s time to head out to the game. Man, was it jam-packed with fans, mostly Barcelona fans. There were thousands of them, all with their blue and red shirts and singing Barcelona team songs, and having a grand old time. I was thinking, how were all these Barcelona fans going to get into the game? Surely, there were many more of them than the allotment of tickets. It turns out that most of them didn’t have tickets to the game. They were just hopping the best flight they could find so that they could be as close as possible to the stadium and support their team. That’s being a fan!

Finally, it’s time to take the London Underground out to the stadium. My friends and I hopped aboard the Bakerloo Line at Piccadilly Circus and rode the 12 stops out to Wembley. The ride took about 45 minutes but we were completely entertained by the back and forth on the train between the Manchester fans and Barcelona fans. Fortunately, there was no violence, but lots of singing and team chants. Not very much of this was understandable to me or repeatable on this PG-rated blog. I think there may have been just a touch of alcohol involved. Even so, we made it to our stop ready for the spectacle.

Wembley Stadium is magnificent. They’ve been playing soccer on this site since 1923. The original stadium was torn down in 2000 with this new arena reopened in 2007. It is the home of “football” in England, hosting FA Cups, European Cups, World Cups and Champions League finals. I was never in the old stadium, but this new one is fantastic.

It is different from most European stadiums in that it has concourses that allow you to walk around once inside the building. Most soccer stadiums in Europe have it so that your entrance gate is just for your section. There’s little or no chance to walk to a concession area or restroom. I think they do this to prevent the interaction of opposing fans. Wembley has much more of the American-style stadium feel. Nonetheless, I noticed that it was very much not like our stadiums in that there’s almost no parking. I saw about one-quarter of the space allotted for parking at Wembley and that was for buses. They make the majority of spectators arrive at the stadium by mass transit, predominantly the “Tube” (subway). I didn’t mind. It gave me the chance to bond with my new singing and chanting friends.

My friends and I arrived in plenty of time to walk around, take some pictures, and buy some memorabilia. I have to admit this didn’t work out too well for me. The vendors had run out of all the decent looking shirts with both teams’ logos on them (nice planning UEFA) and the official game program I bought got lost by my travel companion. Here’s a tip: never give your program to someone who chronically mislays things. In my defense, I learned about my friend’s malady after the fact. Nonetheless, it’s was now time to get to our seats.

Not a bad view, especially since this is the end that saw three of the four goals in the game (Rooney for Man. Utd., Messi, and David Villa for Barcelona). A photo was taken by a renowned photographer (at least in my own mind) just before kickoff as the teams were lined up at midfield. We’re down in the Barcelona fans end and you can see them holding up cards in the team’s colors. The far end shows the Man Utd fans holding up cards invoking the “Spirit of ‘68” when Man United defeated Benfica of Portugal in Wembley. Unfortunately, that charm didn’t work as Barcelona won by a resounding 3-1.

The game itself was very entertaining even though my friends from Manchester came out on the losing end. They tried to take it to Barcelona in the beginning of the game. After about 15 minutes though, Barcelona began to take possession of the ball and the game. Their ability to control the ball, move with deception and speed, along with having such creative ideas of how to get dangerous in attach make them too much to handle for very long. The first goal seemed inevitable, but I was heartened to see Manchester United fight back and tie the score at the half. Unfortunately, the second half began with Man United looking very tired and slow. After Barcelona scored twice in front of me, I was pretty sure that my evening was going to end in tears.

I have to admit that Barcelona is extremely good. They exemplify what people talk about as the “Beautiful Game”. They are so skillful, creative, and fast that you must give them a lot of credit for the way they attack. With that said, I think what makes them special now and an unbeatable force is how they defend. They use that same quickness and determination to give the opposition very little time or space to get offensive. It’s remarkable to watch such talented offensive players apply the same ability to defending. I can only hope they get old or unmotivated in a hurry.

I spent almost two days in London after Saturday’s match. This was just to satisfy my sightseeing part of the journey. Much of the talk on TV and in newspapers discussed whether this Barcelona team was the greatest club team of all time. I have trouble conceding that because of my fondness for my friends at Manchester United. But I don’t have any hesitation admitting how lucky I was to witness them demonstrate how good they are in person and to watch some really great soccer.

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