By Charles Boehm
The FIFA World Cup is the quadrennial soccer event that brings the whole world together for nearly a month of international soccer fever. But the UEFA Champions League, the semifinals of which are playing out this week, has gradually grown into an annual ritual for hundreds of millions in its own right, captivating fans across the globe with Europe’s – and the world’s – best club soccer.
After English side Chelsea FC upset FC Barcelona in one semifinal on Tuesday, earning a 2-2 away draw against the defending European and Spanish champions to advance 3-2 on aggregate in their two-game series, viewers will tune in again on Wednesday afternoon to see if German powerhouse Bayern Munich can maintain its slim 2-1 aggregate lead over Real Madrid in leg two, which will take place at the Spaniards’ Estadio Bernabeu home.
The winner of that series will face Chelsea in the season-long tournament’s championships final, scheduled for Saturday, May 19 at Allianz Arena, Bayern’s home stadium in Munich. Like the Super Bowl, the Champions League final venue is scheduled months in advance, but the Bavarian club hopes to vanquish Madrid and compete for their fifth European championship on home turf.
With its money, glamor and bountiful world-class playing and coaching talent, the Champions League has become must-see TV – even in the United States, where its midday kickoff times have encouraged soccer lovers to schedule long lunches, sneak glances of computer broadcasts and find myriad other ways to catch the action during working hours.
All this has taken place despite the fact that few American players play for Champions League-caliber clubs, with only a select few U.S. internationals having ever appeared in the competition.
As the Sporting News’ Brian Straus noted last week, the success of the Champions League has not been lost on Major League Soccer executives, who have taken a number of cues from the European event and hope that their league can piggy-back off its growth in the U.S.
“The Champions League is a foreign competition played by foreign clubs featuring foreign players,” wrote Straus. “Yet, it’s slowly becoming an American event.
“Last May, Fox broadcast the final between Barcelona and Manchester United and attracted 4.2 million viewers (2.6 million on the network and another 1.6 million on Fox Deportes).”