It might be off-season in Telluride, but the UEFA Champions League is very much in full swing. Just ask any one of a cadre of passionate fans of European soccer who may be found around lunchtime on any given Tuesday or Wednesday, glued to one of the big screens at places like Brown Dog, the Cornerhouse, Smugglers or Esperanza’s, or subtly following the games on their phone.
First, though, some Champions League 101. A prestigious, season-long soccer tournament, Champions League sees the top teams of the various domestic leagues of Europe square off against each other. It starts in August each year and runs intermittently throughout the season with a final in May or very early June that is routinely watched by over 350 million people and broadcast in every country in the world.
The biggest teams in Europe figure prominently in the competition, names that might sound familiar to even the most uninterested of Americans: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris St. Germain, Bayern Munich, Juventus and England’s Big Six, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.
So, Champions League is a pretty big deal, huh?
Absolutely, according to Santi Hernandez, a local who is himself a talented soccer player and a fan of Barcelona and Italian club Juventus.
“The World Cup is the international one and people everywhere watch it,” he said. “But for me, Champions League is the best tournament. All the top clubs and all the best players get to meet and play. That’s what makes it interesting.”
Josh Borof, whose team is Arsenal FC of the English Premier League (EPL), echoed this. “It pits the most talented players in the world against each other. The truly classic matches between the truly classic teams are inevitably in the Champions League. It’s special.”
Keith Hill agreed. “With Champions League, it’s the best teams from all the countries of Europe and you’re fighting to be the greatest team on Planet Earth, basically. Europe has the best teams and they attract the best players.”
Hill added that he is a Newcastle United fan, much to the dismay of his dad, Mick Hill, Englishman, long-time local and lifelong Leeds United supporter. Newcastle didn’t finish in the top four of last season’s English Premier League and so did not qualify for this season’s Champions League, but like many soccer fanatics, Hill has adopted a second team that he is rooting for in the competition, Liverpool.
Borof, too, has adopted Liverpool in place of his beloved Arsenal, who likewise aren’t in Champions League this season, although he confesses that “more than rooting for a team, I have a far larger host of teams that I vehemently root against. I mean I would like to see Liverpool win, but Real [Madrid] could absolutely not win again.”
For some local fans, the timing of the games — kick-off is at 9 p.m. Central European Time, 1 p.m. MST — means trying to watch on their lunch break or quietly following the action on the job.
“If I’m working, I’m going to try to watch it or I’ll keep checking the results on my phone,” Hernandez said.
He added that if he gets a chance to watch the game at a local bar or restaurant, he opts for “Brown Dog definitely and my second place to go is Esperanza’s.”
Hill said that if he isn’t working, Champions League is a chance to watch with his dad and his sister, Toni, at home or at Brown Dog or Oak. For Liverpool’s match earlier this week, Hill was working, so he listened online to London-based radio station TalkSport and revelled in the English commentary.
According to Borof, watching Champions League requires careful planning.
“You have to totally rearrange your schedule on Champions League days,” he said. “My standard move is to catch the first half at Brown Dog and then watch the second half at home on tape-delay. You have to try to social-media insulate yourself to get to the end of the day. It’s an incredible challenge. Don’t look up when you pass the Buck, if Moussa has the TV on in there. You can’t look in the windows of Brown Dog. Can’t go to the Cornerhouse. And you can’t look at Facebook.”
At press time, the quarter-final stage was partly complete with Ajax, Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Porto and Tottenham all still in it. Next week will see the second leg of the quarters, with the semi-finals to follow two weeks later. This year’s final will take place on June 1 in Madrid, Spain.
Any predictions for the winner?
Said Borof, “Anyone but Real. Go Liverpool!”
Hernandez explained that it was a tricky year to predict the results, with early favorites Paris St. Germain already out of the tournament and giant-slayers Ajax, of Holland, ousting last year’s champions, Real Madrid, in the last round.
“It’s a tough one, this time,” he said. “I would say, in my opinion, I think it’ll be Juventus and Barcelona in the final and Barcelona will win it.”
Hill echoed Hernandez that the competition was topsy-turvy this year, saying “Oh my God, I don’t even think I can get into that. I guess I just want an English team to win, specifically Liverpool. I have so much respect for how insane this game is that I’m not going to make a prediction.”