Against All Odds: Atleti in the Camp Nou

Anthony Lopopolo was at the Camp Nou, camera in hand, to capture some of the scenes over the weekend.

A few seconds after Alexis Sanchez scored that first goal for Barcelona, an Atletico Madrid fan tucked underneath an overhang in Camp Nou held his head in his hands and couldn’t control the tears. He thought it was over.

Both Diego Costa and Arda Turan had gone off with injuries. It looked like Atletico were going to lose the league in the final game at Camp Nou. Then Diego Godin scored off a header, and the fan leapt. He was leading chants the rest of the game, a small section of Atletico supporters in the bottom corner of the stadium.

After the final whistle, signaling a the title-clinching draw for Atletico, a Barca fan turned around and shook his rival’s hands. Those remaining applauded Atletico. They know what it takes to win.

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No challenge too big for Clarence Seedorf

By Anthony Lopopolo

In the gym was Clarence Seedorf, arms still bulging, abs still firm, and yet old enough to be the father of the kids around him. Just off Rio de Janeiro, his favourite city, the 37-year-old would teach the things he learned over the course of his 22-year career. He’d ask them questions. He encouraged them to think for themselves. It was a two-way conversation off the field; orders and lectures saved for the field. They’d talk about positioning, footwork, little details, shaping the body to receive the ball, opening up, preparing for it, moving this way instead of that. 

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Luis Suarez: Newsmaker of the year 

By Anthony Lopopolo

A villain makes a story, and Luis Suarez made a lot of them this year. He bit a player on the field – not for the first time! – and months later he travelled to London to accept an award. He got suspended for 10 matches and he still scored more goals than any other player in the Premier League. He thought he could leave Liverpool, only to sign a new contract with them worth £200,000 a week. He is a paradox and he is flawed, and may Luis Suarez never change.

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Brazil awaits for Balotelli and Gli Azzurri

By Anthony Lopopolo, writing from Torino

Think of the madness that is Mario Balotelli – the hair, the cars, the racism. But when he takes a penalty kick, he’s ice-cold. Everything stops. For that moment, no matter its weight, he is serene. So this time, against the Czech Republic’s Petr Cech, Balotelli stepped up to the spot and scored. It was the winning goal, the second of a comeback, but no different than the rest he has taken. It was the goal that won Italy a ticket to Brazil two games ahead of time. It was perfect in an imperfect game.

This is what the kids came to see. They came to see the Azzurri, of course, and they came to see Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both honoured on Tuesday evening for the record-breaking amount of appearances they have made for the national team. Even on their night, the journalists asked them questions about Balotelli. Another game was his.

All the way at the top of Juventus Stadium, just below the rafters, children no older than 12 or 13 jumped and caroled for the AC Milan striker before the game. In the hymn of the famous French nursery rhyme, Alouette, they sang: “Se saltelli, segna Balotelli! Se saltelli, segna Balotelli!” Meaning, “If you jump, Balotelli scores.” These kids wore the colours of Torino, the burgundy track suits, and the shades of Juventus, white and black. It didn’t mean a thing. No matter the colour of their skin or jersey, Balotelli speaks to the youth of Italy unlike any other athlete.

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When the Swedes invaded (and embraced) Dublin

By Anthony Lopopolo, writing from Dublin

The Swedes were everywhere. You could hardly tell that this was Dublin, not Stockholm. They wore the blue and yellow, but they also wore green. The pubs here flew Swedish flags, beacons for the weary travelers looking for a pint. The reason for the occasion, the World Cup qualifier, was always big: Ireland had to win the game against Sweden.

But the people of these two countries greeted each other before the match like old friends, not adversaries. One country simply stood in the way of the other. This wasn’t Bucharest, where riot police had to use tear gas before the game between Hungary and Romania. This wasn’t Belgrade, where Serbia and Croatia played against each other after years of fighting against one another. No, this was celebratory. This was fun.

Some looked upset: About 5,000 Swedes took over the city, after all, and only after the work day ended did the Irish truly reclaim their city. They were hospitable, but the time did come to shut the visitors up.

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What did we learn from Brazil’s dress rehearsal for the World Cup?

By Anthony Lopopolo

The player of the tournament was Neymar, but the smell of tear gas was just as unmistakable. Even though the actual gas did not pass into the stadium, one person wore a mask and real FIFA officials at the start of the Confederations Cup final scrambled for cover. These are the reports.

The damn thing stung the eyes, all the way over there, hundreds of yards away from the ring of small chaos around the Maracana where thousands of protesters clashed with police once more. There, Brazil beat Spain – the greatest team of its era – so convincingly that we all thought the era was coming to an end, and the parties outlasted the protests deep into the night on Sunday.

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Italy: The team that was lost and then found

By Anthony Lopopolo. Photo: Ryu Voelkel

There was Leonardo Bonucci, sitting down on the ground, hands over his knees, wondering. It was his ball that didn’t go in, and only his. His teammates didn’t yell at him. No one really could. After Bonucci booted the ball into the sky from the penalty spot, where this semi-final of the Confederations Cup was decided, Jesus Navas scored the one that won the game for Spain.

Before Bonucci, 12 players came and scored their penalties, all taken well, low and high. It’s not the he cracked under the pressure – after all, Bonucci once punched a petty thief at gunpoint – but that he was the only one who wasn’t perfect. So his teammates tried to console the inconsolable. They gave him a hand and rubbed his head and tried to get him up. “But there are no words that can make a difference in these moments,” Giorgio Chiellini, a teammate and friend, told Rai Sport.

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David Beckham, conquerer of nations, retires

By Anthony Lopopolo

For once, David Beckham had nowhere to go. There was nothing left to conquer. Winning in four different countries, this 38-year-old, though still capable, got the chance to depart the game as a winner, on his own terms.

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An early exit after 27 years: Sir Alex steps down in his own style

By Anthony Lopopolo

The numbers pop out of his resume like eyes out of a cartoon character: he won 27 major trophies with United over the same number of years; he outlasted 116 managers on seven major European clubs; and he’s won 75% of his home games at Old Trafford. Nothing satisfied his hunger for success, and his diet never consisted of anything but winning. He’s always the first man at Carrington, the team’s training facility in Greater Manchester, there before staff and players as early as 5 a.m. He’s said over and over that he has trouble envisioning life without football. Retirement was something he wasn’t exactly ready for. "Nobody’s getting rid of me," Sir Alex Ferguson told The Guardian in March.

Nobody – not the media, not the club, not his body – but himself did.

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