Jaffe: Learning to love the tie

April 25, 2012, 1:30 a.m.

Yesterday I watched one of the most intense games I’ve ever seen. It kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish and made me nervous innumerable times throughout. There was as much drama in this game as any game I can remember. And yes, it was a soccer game.

In fact, it was a soccer game that finished in a tie. And I know most people, even most sports fans, in America would simply stop right there and just complain about how boring soccer is. I’ve heard it all: it’s too slow, there aren’t enough goals, the players flop all the time, nothing happens, it’s not American enough. And there is some truth to that. Compared to a sport like football, where people crash into each other on every play, slight nicks of the heel in soccer seem less interesting. Compared to basketball, where players score every 20 or 30 seconds, the hour-long goal droughts in soccer can appear boring.

If you can get past that, though, and really watch the intricacies of the game, you can see why billions of people are captivated by soccer. Yesterday’s Champions League semifinal between Barcelona and Chelsea was a perfect example of everything soccer can give you. There were high stakes: the winner gets to advance to the final of the most important club tournament in the world. There were talented players: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is the best player in the world and one of the best to ever play the game, and his team is basically a worldwide all-star team, while Chelsea is one of the richest and most talented clubs in the world as well.

There was an incredible atmosphere: even soccer haters have to acknowledge that the passion of fan bases for top soccer clubs is impressive. Heck, even soccer-challenged America can produce goosebump-inducing moments like the Portland Timbers fans singing the national anthem. The Barcelona fans were so raucous and formidable that they were seemingly able to get Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakir to show a yellow card to Chelsea whenever they wanted.

Accordingly, there was also controversy: Chelsea captain John Terry was shown a red card when he kneed Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez in the back away from the ball. Çakir did not even see the play and only gave the red after being alerted by his assistant and then seeing a magnificent flop from Sanchez. This came when the match was tied 1-1 on aggregate, and, combined with the Barcelona goal just six minutes later, appeared to seal the deal in favor of Barcelona. As the best club in the world and the reigning champion at home with a man advantage and the lead, Barcelona had the game in the bag.

But that’s why they play the game. Chelsea shocked Barcelona with a quick break right before halftime, and a perfect through-ball from Frank Lampard to Ramires left the latter in open space. Ramires calmly chipped the ball over Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes with incredible skill to give Chelsea the first away goal of the semi, which left the visitors clinging to an aggregate lead at halftime (the tiebreaker is away goals.)

The second half was one of the most nerve-racking experiences I’ve had in a long time. As a somewhat new follower of soccer, I have been a fan of Chelsea for the past few years, and my support was even stronger in this game given Chelsea’s underdog status. I could hardly breathe for the entire second half as Barcelona camped around the 18-yard box, threatening to score virtually every minute. Hope appeared lost when Messi, who had never scored against Chelsea, stepped up for a penalty kick in the second half. The soccer gods finally gave Chelsea a break, though, as Messi hit the crossbar, and later the post, to keep Chelsea in front.

The capper came in stoppage time when possibly the most maligned player in the world, Fernando Torres, broke past the Barcelona defense and stepped around Valdes to score the dagger.

It was truly incredible. Soccer is not really a game of stats, but being a stats lover I have to point out the ridiculous nature of this semifinal. Over the two legs, Barcelona outshot Chelsea 46-12 and held possession 72 percent of the time. Chelsea only managed to get four shots on goal in three hours on the field, and one of them was a prayer from Chelsea’s own side of the field. It was enough, though, as the other three shots on target found the back of the net, leading the underdogs to an improbable 3-2 win and a trip to the final.

I know soccer isn’t for everyone. Some people cannot get past the different pace and the lack of scoring, and most won’t give it a chance. But if you consider yourself a real sports fan, give soccer a shot. You might just find yourself captivated for good.

Jacob Jaffe knows one thing for sure: he doesn’t want to go back to that dark, ignorant world where he was without “the beautiful game.” Share your moments of soccer epiphany with him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

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