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Top teams battle in Rome while Newcastle faces demotion — an emotional blow to fans.
The European soccer season comes to a climax on Wednesday in Rome when Europe crowns a champion. And after a season of odd bounces and iffy officiating, fans have a dream final between two teams capable of transcendent soccer — English champion Manchester United and Spanish champion Barcelona.
But yesterday, the final Sunday of Premier League play, transcendence was hardly the focal point. Rather survival was.
The top of the league has been settled for a while, with the big four — Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal — once again securing the four English spots in the Champions League.
The drama, however, was most compelling at the bottom of the standings.
Newcastle United, a Premier League power early in the decade, has declined steadily in recent years. This season, one final loss and it would be relegated to the English League Championship, which is fancy Brit talk for the minor leagues.
For a team already in deep financial trouble, this would mean a huge loss — namely, some million dollars a week in TV revenues that accrue to the 20 teams in the elite division. But to the passionate Newcastle fans, it threatened something even worse — an emotional blow equivalent to the economic devastation that has been visited upon the northeast region of England.
Early last month, recognizing this potential denouement, Newcastle turned to a local hero, Alan Shearer, who as a player had rescued the team innumerable times over the space of a decade. A Newcastle native and former captain of the English side, Shearer — dressed in the black and white — made the Newcastle goal as celebrated as the Newcastle coal. His 260 scores, first with Blackburn then with Newcastle, stand as a Premier League record — a whopping 73 more than any other player in league history.
But at 38 and three years retired following a serious knee injury, Shearer is no longer capable of helping the team as a player. Newcastle’s last hope was that just having Shearer on the sidelines as coach would inspire the team to compete with — if not the same level of skill — the same grit and ferocity, and so help salvage the season.
There is an American sports maxim, mostly heard in baseball, that great players don’t make great coaches and managers. The notion is that the game came easier to them and thus they can’t relate to the struggles of the average player and may not be quite as attentive to strategic detail as those less gifted.
Soccer has produced some notable exceptions. But, of late, the maxim has been dead on. Bayern Munich fired Juergen Klinsmann, the great German striker, as its manager after the team faltered in the Bundesliga and suffered an embarrassing exit from Champions League. (His successor, Louis van Gaal, rallied Bayern Munich but the team still fell short, finishing second behind upstart Wolfsburg.)