Enter the Lyon's den
If I could be any player in the world, I'd be Juninho
Posted: Tuesday February 20, 2007 11:59AM; Updated: Tuesday February 20, 2007 1:50PM
For me, ski trips are vastly important. Riding chairlifts affords me the time to solve today's universal riddles:
Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? When will our government get serious about climate change? How did Lionel Richie get away with stalking his blind student in the video for Hello?
And eventually, these life-or-death questions give way to something even more serious: soccer.
Now my ski buddies are not afflicted with my soccer-itis, but they've got a decent amount of knowledge. They know who Landon Donovan is, think Barcelona will win La Liga, and one of them is actually a diehard Reading fan to the point that he skipped skiing on Saturday to watch the Man U-Reading FA Cup game on some Chinese stream on his laptop. Maybe he's got a mild case.
So, the chairlift question of the weekend was this: If you could be any current player in the world, who would you be?
The usual skill-masters flew out as chaotically as Shaun White launching off a half-pipe wall: Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho, Steven Gerrard, Henry again. Someone scoffed at the skillful guys and declared he would be David Beckham, smart-aleckly paraphrasing Winston Churchill, "You guys may have skills today, but tomorrow I'll still have $250 million."
I chuckled at that one. For me, it's about quiet genius and grace and passion and winning. So when the boys looked over at me like I was the Oracle of Delphi, I stared at them with my eyes blazing in socceritic euphoria and said:
Silence. Everyone cast about for something to look at. Some skier on the run below. The trees on the slope. More silence. Awkward silence.
Finally, Reading boy spoke for everyone: "Who?"
Exactly, I thought. Who? How come none of these guys knew who Juninho is? How can a Brazilian creative genius with five top European league championships escape household-name status? How is it that Reading boy can expound about the above-average abilities of Steve Sidwell, but has no clue of the primo artistry of Olympique Lyonnais' leader?
Juninho's first problem is that he plays for Lyon. Unlike French players, French clubs are about as popular as French bistros in Jackson, Miss. There are no billion-dollar satellite deals for Ligue 1's rights. Only once has a French club won the Champions League: Marseille in 1993.
But over the past few years, after a French friend took me to a tres cool Paris soccer bar to watch Lyon with a roomful of mad Lyonnais, I've become a rabid fan of les Gones. Recently, they've seen unprecedented success: five Ligue 1 championships in a row. This season they're running away with another trophy, 13 points ahead of second-place Lens, having scored 44 goals in 25 games.
What I like most about OL is how success seems stitched into the club's jerseys. They can lose significant players like Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra and not miss a beat.
The common thread through it all is Juninho, le capitain, who joined OL in '01 from Vasco de Gama. He arrived just in time to lead the club on its triumphant run. He's got it all, deft touch, speed of thought and that unteachable je ne sais quoi that all great captains possess. And he can put it all together to create art in motion.
That's why I want to be him, to experience, just once, the feeling of conjuring something magical from the soccer elements. To have total control over what is almost by definition an uncontrollable moment -- and to win doing it. Sure, I'm a romantic and fiscally irresponsible fool, but that would be better than $250 million.
The knock on OL is it has always fallen short in the Champions League, which explains why Juninho isn't a household name worldwide. Since Ligue 1 is not on par with the Premiership or La Liga -- and not as wonderfully messed up as Serie A -- Lyon must win in Europe to garner the kind of love it deserves. Call me crazy, but I think this might be the year.
First, on Wednesday, they take on Roma in the first leg of the knockout stages. Roma's a team much like Lyon a few years ago: on the verge, but not quite there. This is going to be an epic series in the midfield, though, because you've got two of the best central midfielders in the world going at it face to face.
After Roma, it only gets harder. But with Juninho running the show, I fully expect my Gones to meet Inter Milan in the finals in Athens in May. Then, Juninho's name will not be greeted by silence on the chairlift but with cheers and knowing nods. And my ski buddies and I can go back to contemplating Lionel Richie.