Nostalgia: Champions League Style

By David Shams

The first time I saw a Champions League Final was in 1995. To be honest, I had no idea what I was watching, but at the end I knew I wanted more.

Ajax’s young guns, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Saar, well basically their entire starting lineup, faced off against AC Milan, a squad that could only be described as the old guard, remnants left over from one of the more dominate footballing sides of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they had met in the group stages with Ajax taking both matches 2-0. But, it just like a changing of the guards. Even though we didn’t get access to much club soccer on television, we did get a handful of soccer magazines. And from those sources my brother and I knew that AC Milan was powerhouse, they were the pinnacle, they were the Yankees.

It was the 85th minute before 19-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s first touch from a Frank Rijkaard pass took him 1v1 with the goalkeeper. And with two defenders closing, while losing his own balance, Kluivert slotted the ball past an on-rushing goalkeeper.

The game winner.

An addiction to the beautiful game and arguably its most exciting competition took hold.

Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I was already addicted. My brother and I would watch tapes of old games from the 1990 and 1994 editions of the World Cup. (I still have those tapes by the way) This was pre-MLS and pre-EPL being televised regularly where we grew up.

But there was something about that game that drove that hook even deeper. Like the first time you taste a craft beer after years of stale macro brews. Or when you get that first sip of 12-year Balvenie after growing up on bourbon. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

They made it to the finals the next season and could have been back to back champions if not for a silly defensive error. But to be honest, Juventus had one of their own that let Ajax back into the game. The final had to be settled in a shootout with the club from Turin hoisting the title. And by summer Ajax’s finest products in a generation had been shipped off to distant corners of the continent—mainly Spain and Italy.

I would be lying if I said seeing Ajax making a deep run in this year’s Champions League didn’t have me overcome with nostalgia. And not just for that spring afternoon 24 years ago in May. But for every Champions League campaign after that.

Rushing home from school to catch the last half of what ever game between whichever teams. Begging our soccer coach to delay practice so that we can catch a glimpse of our heros play each other. Jamming in a VHS cassette (I had to look that up because I had forgotten the terminology) and recording over the 1992 slam dunk contest, even if it’s only for the last 30 minutes of the game. Getting to see FC Bayern beat Glasgow Celtic at the Olympic Stadium on the opening match day of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Seeing Ajax in the semifinals does that to me. I’m not even an Ajax fan. Not in the same way, I’m a Liverpool fan, at least. But seeing them do well, seeing them make a deep run, against better funded, superstar filled squads, makes all those memories come flooding back.

And while this team may not be as dominant as the Ajax teams of the past, as, year-on-year, it’s far more difficult to keep up with the big spending Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, they’ve nonetheless made a strong case for keeping their club’s spot in the pantheon of footballing royalty.

A healthy mix of young and old has Ajax two games away from a Champions League Final. But undoubtedly, though, this summer will, just like in the summer of ‘96, see all those bright young superstars in Amsterdam headed off for new challenges—La Liga, The Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga. They’ll be Ajax’s missionaries, plying their trade and talent across the continent.

In a way it’s heartbreaking. Imagine what this side could do if they stuck together. (It should be noted that the club made it to the 2017 Europa League Finals with some of the players from this year’s team.)

But that’s the modern game. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, nostalgia-inducing.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC.

The Croatian Dream Continues, as England Falters

Wednesday semifinal started auspiciously for the Three Lions. An early free kick goal from surprising standout Kieran Trippier with just five minutes gone gave the impression football might actually be coming home. 

For the next half hour and some change, the Croatians looked shell-shocked. But to be fair, they've been down early before--giving up a goal to Denmark in the first minute of their Round of 16 match. 

But on the stroke of halftime, it seemed the Croatians had settled. The tiny nation may just have had enough fight left to challenge England's youthful side. 

After not putting up much of a rebuttal in the first 45, the Luca Modric led side hammered England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with seven shots in the first 15 minutes of the second half. 

Just past the hour mark, Ivan Perišić took a late run into the box and got his boot, above a diving Kyle Walker, to Šime Vrsaljko's cross from the right side. Pickford was helpless to prevent the goal.

And facing a bit of shell-shock themselves, the England side almost conceded a second a few minutes later. Perišic's shot hit the inside of the post and Ante Rebic's rebound fell comfortably right into the hands of a panicked Pickford.

Ninety minutes wouldn't be enough, however. And for the third time in three games Croatia would have to play an extra 30 minutes. Curiously, both teams had most of their subs remaining--Croatia with all four and England three. Entering extra time, teams are allowed a fourth substitute.

The first 15 almost came and went without much fan fare. But, in the final minute of the first extra period, Mario Mandžukić latched on to a cross at the near post with pressure from Pickford forcing his shot wide.

The dagger came just three minutes into the second frame. A headed ball from the left by Perišic combined with a momentary switch off by England's defense, allowed Mandžukic to sneak in and finish first time past the diving keeper from Everton. 

England had to finish down a man as Kieren Trippier was helped off with a groin injury. But even if he had stayed on, able to finish, it seemed a bridge too far. The Croatians had outlasted an England side that had so inspired the country and even the rest of the globe. 

As the Croatians celebrated and the Three Lions players stood dejected, one thing was certain England will be back.

The core of this team will eventually bring football home. And the rest of Europe and the World should be very afraid. 

 

Is Messi Crashing Out?

After Argentina's 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Croatia, it seems likely Messi and Co are headed towards an early exit from the 2018 edition of the the World Cup. 

It's certainly true the Albicelestes rely heavily on Messi's to get them through rough patches. After a dismal qualifying campaign and on the brink of being left out of the festivities in Russia, Messi single handedly helped Argentina punch their ticket with a masterful display against Ecuador. 

But so far in Russia, Messi has failed to find the spark needed to overcome whatever is ailing the Argentine side. Against Iceland's resolute defending, Messi seemed unable to breakdown his opponents. He even, uncharacteristically, missed a penalty kick. 

And then came today's match up with Croatia. Outside of an early chance, there seemed to be little creativity coming from the Barcelona player. Without his innovation in the attacking third, Argentina looked lost at sea. It was truly difficult to watch. 

In order to make it to the next round, Argentina will need Messi to channel whatever it was that brought him that performance last fall. Without it, they may be on their way back home much sooner than all of us thought. 

But is it all Messi's fault? Sure, he's the talisman. But it's not like there aren't other superstars on the team. Where have they been? Why haven't they taken the initiative? Why haven't they picked up some of the slack?

Messi deserves more from his teammates. If they don't step up, Tuesday may be the last time we see Messi in an Argentina jersey.