Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Paradox of Choice

So what do you do when your two favorite football teams play each other in the first Champions League knockout stage? Tonight at 8:45 CEST (that's Central European Standard Time, for those keeping score), Barça will march onto the pitch at Parkhead to face the Celtic Football Club. Let's face it; I'm torn.

It's like I'll be happy regardless of the result, but I'll be happier if Barcelona wins, by the slightest of margins. Barça and Celtic both had high expectations going into this season, but for different reasons.

Barça had the Fantastic Four, who have played a whopping one game together. People thought they could contend for the treble (a triple-championship of sorts where you win your domestic league, the domestic league cup, and the Champions League) but now sit five big points adrift of league leaders and blood-rivals Real Madrid. They have a realistic shot at the Copa del Rey, especially with Madrid (#1), Espanyol (#5), and Villareal (#3) now booted from the competition. Also, Barça hold the mark for most Copas with 24.

A 25th would be nice, but if you asked Joe Barça fan (or Josep Barça Fan, as it would be here), he might flip Champions League and La Liga as priorities, but the Copa would come in third. Plus a Champions League title would cut into Los Merengues' 9-2 advantage. Madrid once won five Champions Cups* in a row (1956-60); only two other teams have won five (AC Milan and Liverpool). I blame Franco.

Celtic, on the other hand, have high expectations for different reasons, but sit four points off the pace set by (again) league leaders and blood-rivals Rangers. However, due to the vagaries of the Scottish Premier League schedule, which makes about as much sense as the Democrats' Texas delegate allocation rules, those four points are much more manageable than Barça's five point gap. The pressure comes from the fact that Celtic are two time defending champions and the fact that they played like crap for a couple weeks early in the season (see their 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Rangers at Ibrox).

So why should I root for Celtic? This season is the 40th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions, the first British and only Scottish team to win the European Championship.* Besides being the only Scottish champions (take that, Gers), and besides fielding an all Scottish side (a rarity then and downright impossible today), every member of the team was born and raised within eight miles of Celtic Park. Celtic fans are understandably proud. Nothing would would put an exclamation point on their anniversary celebration like another European title.

Good reasons, all. But who to root for...

I'll be rooting for Barça, but if they get knocked out, it won't be the end of the world. I'll just watch Celtic win at the Celtic Cross on Diagonal, instead of the Italian bar.

*European Championship, Champions Cup, and Champions League are basically interchangable terms. The Champions League's structure (group stage followed by knockout rounds) is a fairly recent invention. Before that, it was called the European Champions' Cup and was a home and home knockout tournament contested exclusively by domestic league champions, rather than the champions and first couple runners up as it is today. Championships won under the old framework are considered equal, rather than a separate competition.

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