I’m sitting in an airport bar at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, sleep-deprived, avoiding the crushing amount of work I have to do when I get back to campus and taking advantage of my 30 minutes of free airport WiFi to watch the Madrid derby in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals.
I’ve always had a casual interest in Atletico Madrid, Spain’s snarling, hard-tackling, perpetual third team behind crosstown rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona. Diego Simeone, its manager, looks more like a “Reservoir Dogs” understudy than a football coach, and no one’s ever mistaken his teams for exciting—a more apt comparison would be a boa constrictor, capable of striking with lethal efficiency on the counter, then strangling the life out of a match with compact blocks of four in midfield and defense.
The two sides have met each of the three previous seasons in the Champions League with Real winning all three meetings en route to two European titles. Perhaps solely to spite my delusions that this would finally be the year for Atletico Madrid to get over the hump (and conveniently, just as my free WiFi runs out), Cristiano Ronaldo bangs in the first of his three goals in a 3-0 Real romp. I shut my computer and curse Ronaldo once again.
For this final iteration of probably the least-read biweekly column in Orient history, I thought it would be fitting to put down some of my hopes, both serious and not-so, for soccer’s near future. To start, I hope Ronaldo never stops scoring goals. Let me preface that by saying I loath Ronaldo. I loath his stupid posed celebrations after scoring big goals, the fact that he’s stolen spotlight and accolades from Messi, that he won a major international tournament at Euro 2016 despite being largely invisible. Despite all that, I hope he plays until he’s 40 and immobile à la Francesco Totti at Roma. In my mind, he’s the ultimate antagonist and football needs more villains. La Liga and “El Clasicos” are infinitely more fun when Barca and Madrid are in full flight, and Ronaldo is still a huge piece of that. Plus it’ll be that much sweeter when Atletico Madrid vanquishes a Real side in the Champions League with Cristiano in the team.
Next, I hope Major League Soccer and its fans can get over their inferiority complexes. Many MLS fans act offended when American “Eurosnob” soccer fans belittle MLS, or when important figures like Jurgen Klinsmann say that young American players should go to Europe to develop. At the same time, it’s true that the soccer on the pitch isn’t at as high a level (yet) as the Premier League, Bundesliga and so on—I say that as someone who loves MLS. I love watching a boring DC United side grind out results, then underperform in the playoffs. I love watching Sebastian Giovinco score transcendent goals. Hell, I even love it when teams and supporters mimic European traditions and conventions. It’s true though, that MLS still lags behind major European leagues. Does that make it any less entertaining? If you’re an MLS supporter, probably not. So, I hope that MLS fans who still harbor insecurities about their fandom can find peace. Enjoy the product for what it is, support your club, wear the scarves and help MLS reach that next level.
Moving on, I hope that the end of St. Totteringham’s Day, that hallowed day in the red part of North London where Arsenal is guaranteed to finish above Tottenham in the table, brings about real change at Arsenal. With Spurs’ 2-0 thrashing of listless Arsenal in last weekend’s North London Derby, Tottenham officially called off the celebrations for the first time in 22 years. Regular Relegation Zone readers will know that Arsene Wenger and Arsenal have looked lost for quite some time now, and, as an unabashed Arsenal supporter, hopefully a capitulation to the hated rivals is the impetus for him to end his reign after the season. Knowing Arsene’s stubbornness, it won’t change a thing, but here’s to hoping.
Finally, I hope that in 2022, Christian Pulisic picks up his second or third consecutive Ballon d’Or trophy as the world’s best player and then wills the U.S. Men’s National Team to a World Cup title. I realize the Soccer Gods are fickle, so 2018 might be too big of an ask, but 2022 seems reasonable.
Like Sunderland always managing to escape the actual relegation trapdoor—except this year, enjoy the Championship next season, Sunderland fans—the Relegation Zone has been the 800 words that you wonder how they continue to get published every other week. Mercifully for readers, I’m graduating and metaphorically relegating this column from the Orient pages. So regardless of who you support, go enjoy some football this weekend.