NEW YORK — I’m at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, which is kind of a big deal, and Wednesday’s afternoon session featured Jim Boeheim whining (no news there) about how awful Greensboro is as a host city (some news there, although Boeheim’s contention was patently untrue). Then Duke played, and that’s never a small deal. But enough about basketball.
Atlanta is now a soccer city, and the biggest sporting news made anywhere in the world on Wednesday happened in the Camp Nou in Barcelona. The host team had lost the first leg of a Champions Leg tie — meaning a home-and-home set — to Paris Saint-Germain 4-nil. That meant Barcelona had to win 5-nil at home to advance. The best team in the world almost never beats another good team 5-nil.
The fallout from Barcelona’s loss at PSG was so intense — Barca is never supposed to lose; ask Atlanta United coach Tata Martino, who lasted one year there — that manager Luis Enrique announced would step down at season’s end because he needed to rest. (Luis Enrique is 46 and runs marathons.) Then he sounded a lame-duck rallying cry: “If they could score four games, we can score six.”
For the record, no team had ever overridden a four-goal deficit in the second leg of a Champions League tie. Lo and behold, Barca get Goal No. 1 not three minutes in, the serial biter Luis Suarez doing the deed. Then PSG provides an own goal. Five minutes after halftime, Lionel Messi converts a penalty. (This was a good call, though Barca does tend to get the benefit of every doubt, especially at home. More about this later.) Now it’s 3-nil on the day and 3-4 on aggregate, and suddenly all things are possible.
Then, boats against the current, PSG scores. That should do it. It’s 3-5 on aggregate, and even if it ends 5-all Barcelona will lose. (PSG would advance because of its just-netted away goal.) Having scored three goals, Barca still needs three more.
In the 88th minute, the Brazilian Neymar converts a free kick to make it 4-5 on aggregate. Then, in the first of five minutes of stoppage time, he banks a penalty. This, it must be said, appeared the dodgiest of decisions. Suarez took a dive in the penalty area and, him being a Barca player, was rewarded. (If the PSG defender Marquinhos made any contact, it was as slight as a summer breeze. Suarez hurled himself to the ground and flung his arms, as soccer players invariably do. Sometimes it works.)
OK. Now it’s 5-5 in stoppage time and Barca needs one more. After a foul against Barca goalkeeper Ter Stegen, who has joined his mates in attack, it gets a last free kick in the very last minute. It’s taken short to Neymar, who clears space for himself to deliver a weighted pass to a breaking Sergi Roberto, who pokes the ball into the net. (For the record, he was clearly onside.) Barcelona wins.
Here was the reaction in the studios of BT Sport, which carries the Champions League in England. From left to right, these jaded analysts are Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen. All are Brits. Lineker played for three years at Barcelona. The one seen running around the set is Owen, who spent a year with Real Madrid, Barca’s hated rival.
At first blush, this seemed the greatest comeback in the history of global sport — 4-nil behind when the game began, still in need of three goals with seven minutes left. (And here I thought I’d never see anything to top Manchester United over Bayern Munich in the same Camp Nou in the 1999 Champions League final.) But then the Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who’s Croatian, went and said this: “We saw it in the Super Bowl what is possible in sport.”
We’re now a soccer city, but we’re still a football city. And that really hurt.