The increasing foray of top international soccer onto the U.S. sports landscape — as we are hosting in Miami this week — makes the world feel smaller, a good thing.
Common ground is not hard to find, and so what have seen in the buildup to Wednesday’s 3-2 Juventus victory over vs. Paris Saint-Germain and Saturday’s Barcelona-Real Madrid El Clasico has seemed somehow familiar.
We didn’t invent drama, after all!
What passes for an American summer sports soap opera, such as the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving discord that is entangling the Cleveland Cavaliers in turmoil — we have seen something of the futbol equivalent related to the International Champions Cup power-doubleheader at Hard Rock Stadium. It has added intrigue and anxiety. Oh, and perspective, too, because this drama involves a couple of stars who are bigger, globally, than even LeBron.
Is rising superstar Neymar leaving Barcelona? And it is because he wants out of king Lionel Messi’s shadow just as Kyrie does from LeBron?
Oh, and will Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, keeping us in suspense, deign to join us on Saturday?
Against this backdrop there was more drama Wednesday — the on-field variety — as Italy’s premier club team Juventus won a last-minute victory over France’s top club Paris Saint-Germain on the very patch of land Joe Robbie so brilliantly conceived with international soccer in mind 30 years ago for his Dolphins stadium, an ideal to which Stephen Ross was true in his redesign. Juve-PSG would top most marquees in this sport.
Nothing in all of club football tops El Clasico, of course, but, Wednesday, as appetizers go, Juve-PSG, each a top European power, was a lobster cocktail garnished with caviar.
El Clasico would do well to clear the bar set Wednesday in terms of entertaining, lively futbol full of aggressive attacking.
Juventus, La Vecchia Signora, enjoyed most of the support from the buoyant crowd of 44,444, and had the slightly better of the match overall, the men in those iconic vertical black-and-white stripes dominating in chances early. And why not? Juve is the most successful, popular, decorated club in Italy and was 2017 Champions League runner-up.
The Italian side made it 1-0 Wednesday a moment before the first half expired when French-born striker Gonzalo Higuain — El Pipito — turned a Michelangelo of a pass from Paulo Dybala into a chip finish, a dozen minutes after an apparent PSG goal was disallowed by offside. Juve was up 2-1 in the 62nd minute on a Claudio Marchisio bullet and netted the winning shot in the dire 89th minute on a justly given penalty kick that Marchisio converted into the dead-center of the net.
Paris Saint-Germain only was founded in 1970 but plays with the Eiffel Tower on its crest and runs with the heart of France. A PSG merchandise store on the famed Champs-Elysee is the size of an American supermarket. In canary yellow Wednesday, the Paris club equalized at 1-1 early in the second half when Goncalo Guedes tapped in a short pass through a defensive breakdown, and drew even at 2-2 on a Javier Pastore header. PSG reminded it remains formidable but still is trying to recover completely from the departure of scoring star Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Enter Neymar. Maybe.
Barcelona’s rising star, 25, has commanded a record quarter-of-a-billion-dollar transfer bid from deep-pocketed PSG, which has given the one-named goal-getting monster until next week to decide.
There was a small possibility Neymar might even have turned up in yellow Wednesday, making his historic debut for the Paris side.
Instead, he could be playing his historic final game Saturday for Barcelona, his last alongside the marvelous Messi.
What week for soccer in America, by the way. On Wednesday alone, in addition to the big match in Miami, there were ICC games with Barcelona vs. Manchester United in Landover, Maryland, and Real Madrid vs. Manchester City in Los Angeles; plus the United States vs. Jamaica for the CONCACAF Gold Cup championship in Santa Clara, California — all drawing huge crowds, all televised.
I remember when international soccer was closer to a hidden treasure for aficionados in the States. Maybe you’d locate a 9 a.m. Liverpool match at some little English pub in town. It took a World Cup once every four years to make most Americans pay any attention.
Now it is omnipresent. You could argue there are now more soccer fans in America passionately following their team, wherever it might be, than there are fans of any sports expect football, baseball and basketball. And Barca-Real in Miami on Saturday — those rivals’ historic first match ever in the United States — is this country’s symbolic soccer “baptism,” says Ray Hudson, the mellifluous broadcaster and former heydays Fort Lauderdale Striker.
Swirling about Miami this week, Neymar has a decision to make as his team-for-now, Barcelona, arrives in town Thursday.
But so does Ronaldo have a decision to make. He could skip Miami because he’s tired from leading Portugal in this summer’s Confederations Cup in Russia, followed by a sponsor obligation in China, followed by becoming the father of twins. There is also the matter of his facing tax-fraud charges in a Spanish court two days after Saturday’s match.
Neymar’s decision is the biggest in soccer right now — in Spain, in France and globally.
But Ronaldo’s decision — that would be foremost on Miami’s mind.