Soccer in Europe is the only sport practiced all year round. Just ask Euro 2008 Most Valuable Player, Xavi Hernandez and his FC Barcelona teammates Carles Puyol and Andrés Iniesta. Three weeks after the trio lifted the European championship trophy, they were back with their club in St. Andrews. And they did not travel to Scotland last week to play golf. They were there to start Barça’s 2008 preseason.
The schedule is very busy for all European elite clubs. After a 38-week league season and the respective Cup and Champions League tournaments –some, like Manchester United this year will also take part in the Clubs World Championship- the key players join their national squads for the summer to participate in the Euro Cup, the America’s Cup or the World Cup.
The Champions League is a great tournament. We all agree on that. But since some countries qualify up to four clubs, the preview rounds are played in the middle of the summer, which means that some teams must start competing in late July or early August. This has demoted the importance of the once prestigious exhibition summer tournaments each club used to host.
This year, the clubs have an added “enemy”: the Olympic Games.
Argentina wants to repeat as Gold Medal winner, and has put together a great squad. Real Madrid has already let their defensive midfielder Gago leave, but Barcelona is not happy about doing the same with star forward Leo Messi.
Barça should have emulated archrival Madrid. The Spanish champion documented an injury to Brazilian star Robinho, which kept him away from Beijing.
FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter got in the middle of Barcelona and Argentina’s discussions saying that every club must allow players under 23 to attend the Olympic Games.
“An obstacle to the participation of players younger than 23 years could be seen as an act against the Olympic spirit, because these players form the nucleus of the soccer tournament”, said Blatter in a letter sent to all the local federations. Blatter also stated that clubs are obligated to let their younger talents attend the Olympic Games.
FC Barcelona responded with, no matter what FIFA says, Messi will do the preseason with his club and will play in the Champions League preview. But, at the time, Barça is in the US for some exhibition games, and Messi is in Asia preparing for the Olympic Games. Barça’s president Joan Laporta has appealed FIFA’s ruling, but things do not look good for the Catalan club.
FC Barcelona needs Messi this summer more than ever. Having finished third in La Liga last season, behind Real Madrid and Villarreal, the Catalan squad must play the Champions League preview. Having Messi is greatly important, because Barça has yet to sign a forward to take Ronaldinho’s place. If Barça is eliminated from the Champions League before the group stage, Laporta’s tenure as the team’s president could be terminated.
Barcelona’s frenetic activity is just an example of what happens to all the big European clubs now a day. The players have almost no vacation, and the executives have even less time to rest.
Barça’s technical director Txiki Begiristain has been one of the busiest men in Spain this summer. While most of the country takes one month off, Begiristain has not stepped away from his office.
He actively negotiated with his former Barça’s 90’s “Dream Team” teammate Josep Guardiola, who is now appointed as Frank Rijkaard’s successor to direct the Barcelona bench.
Subsequently, Begiristain had to look for teams interested in purchasing the expensive transfer fees attached to Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o. The first two have already left the club. Deco was sold at a very cheap price to Chelsea, where he joined Brazilian manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached the Portuguese National Team during the last five years. In a huge marketing move, Ronaldinho ended up in A.C. Milan. He will wear a number that looks more like a wide receiver than a soccer forward, 80.
Begiristain has not been able to find a team that would pay for Eto’o’s salary and transfer fee. Nobody questions the skill level and speed of Cameroon’s great striker, but the money is just too much. Meanwhile, Eto’o is still wearing Barça’s uniform. He had a good first preseason week at Scotland, showing that he could be an important player for Guardiola.
And more teams are experiencing this rush of non-stop activity.
Despite not having to play the Champions League preview, Real Madrid’s stars are already at work. The Whites started its training camp last week at Austria. Real has not signed any big-name players, but still has been quite active. President Ramón Calderón lobbied at every European sporting event to acquire Cristiano Ronaldo from United. Calderón also renewed German manager Bern Schuster, who will become the best paid coach in Spain at 3 million net Euros per year.
Outside Spain the big powerhouses have not stopped either.
Chelsea started its preseason in Asia on a tour that Ivory Coast’s striker Didier Drogba skipped with a knee injury. Chelsea’s goal for the season is the Champions League. A couple of months ago, the Blues were a penalty away from winning it all, and Russian owner Roman Abramovich wants to wrap it up this season. He signed Scolari to do it, and did not hesitate to bring two more Portuguese: Deco and right defender Jose Bosingwa. To make room for them Chelsea dropped veteran French midfielder Claude Makelele, who signed last week with Paris Saint-Germain.
No rest for Liverpool either. Robbie Keane was signed from Tottenham to add another star to an already numerous group of forwards.
In France, apparently seven league titles in a row are not enough for Olympique Lyon. The French champion signed Claude Puel from Lille to take Alain Perrin’s spot. With Puel leading the team, Olympique hopes to finally reach the Champions League final four.
Current UEFA champion Zenit has been moving as well, although Russia’s sensational club activity has been more directed to keep forward star Andrei Arshavin instead of adding more players to its solid group. Zenit was impressive winning the UEFA’s 2007-08 title, eliminating Bayern Munich on the way and defeating Glasgow Rangers in the final. This year the team coached by Dutch Dick Advocaat will target the Champions League. If Arshavin leaves, the chances for Zenit are zero.
The Italian champion Inter has also made some interesting moves. Winning a third consecutive scudetto was not enough for Roberto Mancini to keep his place as Inter’s manager. President Massimo Moratti opted for bringing controversial Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho, targeting, like Olympique, a Champions League in which Inter has failed year after year. Mourinho wants to add Frank Lampard to his roster. He likes the English midfielder as he had him at Chelsea. The London club does not want to let him go, but the transfer window has not closed yet…
Technical directors are working 100-hour weeks even during the players’ vacation periods. And soccer followers love it. European soccer breaths 365 days every year (366 in 2008) and that can’t get any better for a true sports fan.