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Soccer drama set to begin in Europe

August 15, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

The long months of waiting are over.

Now it's time for some real, honest-to-goodness, mud-slinging, in-your-face dust-ups.

Europe's 2008-2009 soccer season got under way this week with France's Ligue 1 kicking off over the weekend.

Today, the Bundesliga season starts in Germany and on Saturday the English Premier League begins play.

In a couple of weeks, Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A will be up and running, and the planet's most popular single-sport club competition, the European Champions League, will begin attracting the kind of global viewing numbers that the NFL and NBA can only dream about.

The stars in the European soccer drama are not only such players as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, John Terry and Fernando Torres who take home upward of $250,000 a week, they are the coaches of the high-profile clubs, men whose names are known worldwide and whose public spats provide daily tabloid fodder.

This season is going to be more intriguing than ever, what with the return to the sideline of outspoken Jose Mourinho, the former Chelsea coach who earns a reported $13 million a year at Inter Milan, making him the world's highest-paid soccer coach.

Then there is 2002 World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari, the fiery Brazilian who gave up the Portuguese national team to take charge at Chelsea and challenge Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Rafael Benitez at Liverpool for the English title.

Scolari, who reportedly earns $11.7 million a year, has made it clear he doesn't appreciate comparisons with Mourinho. "I am not Jose Mourinho, so why compare me with him?" he said. "Mourinho says, 'I will win 10 championships,' but I am more modest than that."

In Germany, Bayern Munich swept all before it in 2008, winning everything but the coveted Champions League, which Manchester United won by defeating Chelsea in May. New Bayern Coach Jurgen Klinsmann's task is to bring European honors back to Germany.

Klinsmann has taken a novel approach to things. Instead of loading up on new players, the former Newport Beach resident who led Germany to third place in the 2006 World Cup has changed the environment at the Bavarian club, creating a $6-million training center where as much emphasis is placed on mental well-being as physical. Buddha statues, yoga and language classes, relaxation areas and eight-hour days are now de rigueur.

"Winning matches is all in the head," he told FIFA.com. "If I fail to offer mental training, I can't see how I'm helping the players."

There also has been a huge shake-up at Barcelona, prompted after bitter rival Real Madrid won the last two Spanish titles. The house-cleaning has included replacing coach Frank Rijkaard with former Barcelona player Josep "Pep" Guardiola, who promptly got rid of Ronaldinho for $33.6 million to AC Milan.

Ronaldinho's move was the most newsworthy of the player transfers, but was overshadowed by the ongoing saga involving Ronaldo's much-desired move to Real Madrid and Manchester United's equally firm insistence that he honor his contract in England. So far, he's staying.

The global economic slowdown made soccer clubs wary of big expenditures, but there were multimillion-dollar moves nonetheless, most notably Irish striker Robbie Keane's $40-million switch from Tottenham Hotspur to Liverpool.

Tottenham has been buying, not just selling. They landed Croatian midfielder Luka Modric from Dynamo Zagreb for $31.3 million and English winger (and David Beckham heir apparent) David Bentley from Blackburn Rovers for $32.5 million.

Among others on the move were Ghana midfielder Sulley Muntari from Portsmouth to Inter Milan for $22 million; Portuguese defender Jose Bosingwa from FC Porto to Chelsea for $20 million; Brazilian winger Alessandro Mancini from AS Roma to Inter Milan for $19 million, and Italian defender Gianluca Zambrotta from Barcelona to AC Milan for $13.3 million.

As a global sport, soccer has to have a nerve center, and Europe is it.

In a study released Thursday, it was revealed that 42.4% of the players in the top five leagues -- England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France -- are foreign, with the English Premier League leading the way at 59.5%.

Why so many? Because the talent from South America and Africa gets the job done near the goal. Foreigners accounted for 51.9% of the goals scored in the top five leagues, according to the study.

The coaches have also been setting the stage with some sizzling early season disputes.

Manchester United's Ferguson has fired a shot across Chelsea's bows, suggesting the club had peaked when it finished second to his own team in England and in Europe last season and that its players were perhaps too old.

"I'm not saying necessarily that they're old because, with modern-day training, you should be playing in your thirties," Ferguson said. "What I am saying is that I don't see outstanding progress in a team that's in their thirties."

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