Starry and heaven-sent

KEITH BRADFORD -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:14 AM ET

Star-spangled soccer returned to our screens last night.

The heavyweights of the game began duking it out as one of the best lineups ever seen in the champions league hit the knockout phase.

At a time when baseball is suffering from a steroid scandal, NBA stars are doing their best impressions of brawling egomaniacs and hockey is, well ... nowhere to be seen, soccer revels in the spotlight.

TV revenue has turned the champions league into a monster - creating a huge gulf between the clubs that make it into the competition and those that don't.

But it makes for pure fantasy soccer: Chelsea against Barcelona, AC Milan against Manchester United and Arsenal against Bayern Munich.

When the games are this good and you're still a long way from the final, you know you're on to a good thing.

But if baseball and hockey are anything to go by, you've got to wonder when the bubble will burst.

It probably won't be steroids, salary caps or crowd violence that brings the game to its knees.

THE YEARS TO COME

Instead, in the years to come, we'll likely be marvelling at the collection of stars we once saw on show in the champions league - in the same way they're now talking about steroid-inspired home runs.

Soccer has become star-spangled - and damned exciting to watch - on the back of the kind of underhand dealing you'd expect to see in Goodfellas.

You just don't get that many stars on one team with money alone because most of the world's top clubs don't want or need to part with their top players.

Teams and players are tapped up, cajoled and bullied into the kind of blockbuster deals that make agents rich.

And we all just look the other way.

When Aston Villa coach David O'Leary was recently found guilty of making an illegal approach for striker James Beattie, he got off with a warning. He wasn't even fined.

"For me to be on a charge for this when I see what goes on in the game is an absolute disgrace,'' O'Leary told the BBC.

Which really says it all.

The issue was thrust back into the spotlight again last week when Arsenal striker Jose Reyes was the victim of a radio prank.

A caller pretending to be Real Madrid legend Emilio Butragueno told him he was wanted by them.

"I wish I was playing for Real Madrid,'' Reyes is reported to have replied.

"If I'm not (playing for Real) I'm going to have to carry on playing with some bad people. I'm sure there are none in the Real dressing room.''

FRAILTY OF THE RULES

The prank exposed the frailty of rules preventing potential suitors from speaking to players without their club's permission.

And it showed how easy it is to unsettle a player and his position on a team.

With a betting scandal also in full swing in Germany, the effects of all the money that has poured into soccer are starting to show.

That doesn't make Chelsea vs. Barcelona any less thrilling. It just means we need to enjoy it while it lasts.


Videos

Photos