It's probably accurate to say that the final score of Friday's World Football Challenge match between Chelsea Football Club and AC Milan at M&T; Bank Stadium wasn't particularly important. At least not nearly as important as the selling of "the beautiful game" to American fans, both those in attendance and those watching on television.
Officially, Chelsea walked away a 2-1 winner in the exhibition, primarily thanks to a well-struck blast by striker newcomer Yuri Zhirkov in the 69th minute. Zhirkov, the Player of the Year in Russia's Premier League in 2008, was making his debut for the club after signing a three year, $29 million contract this month.
But the sellout crowd of 71,203 just as likely walked away dazzled by a number of balletic plays by Milan striker Ronaldinho or the acrobatic play in the net by Chelsea goalie Petr Cech. On a night when organizers fretted about the weather, the traffic and the prospect of a scoreless tie, Chelsea and Milan delivered a spirited and at times intense contest that featured several flashes of the kind of play-making that has made soccer the most popular sport in the world.
It was not perfect. Not by any means. But if watching Ronaldinho execute a bicycle kick that just misses or seeing him bend a free kick that deflects off the crossbar doesn't get you hooked on soccer, probably nothing will. So in that sense, the event was a success.
"We have many thanks for all the fans in the USA because the atmosphere was beautiful," Chelsea coach Carlo Ancelotti said. "Both teams played well, and it was a good match."
Said Milan coach Leonardo: "I think it was very exciting for the future of America and for soccer. It was very good for us to be here, and I think football here is very, very important. People play soccer and want to know about soccer here in America. To see them follow us is very good."
Fans didn't have to wait long to see why the teams are regarded as two of the best in the world.
In the seventh minute, Chelsea forward Didier Drogba gathered a pass from captain John Terry, and with a motion a fluid as a hammer striking a nail, he drilled a shot in the far corner of the goal - the upper 90 - past the outstretched arms of Milan keeper Zeljko Kalac for a 1-0 lead.
Drogba, who was nearly 35 yards from the net when he launched his right-footed blast, ran to midfield and was engulfed by his teammates as the crowd roared in appreciation.
Moments later, it was Ronaldinho's turn to dazzle the spectators. Although once regarded as perhaps the world's best player, famous for his golden shoes, pony tail and entertaining Nike television commercials, Ronaldinho, 29, suffered through something of a disappointing season last year with Milan. That led to questions about the Brazilian superstar's age and his commitment to the game.
But against Chelsea, he looked like the player of old. Although Ronaldinho didn't find the net during the match, he delivered flair and excitement nearly ever time he touched the ball, including the most exciting near-miss of the game. Cech had just stopped a hard shot from Milan forward Andrea Pirlo when Ronaldinho hammered a bicycle kick back at him. The ball struck the back of teammate Marco Boriello's left shoulder, though, and Chelsea was able to clear.
In the 38th minute, Ronaldinho did help get his team on the board, leaving a beautiful touch pass for his teammate Clarence Seedorf in front of the box, and Seedorf ripped a shot that sneaked just under the crossbar to tie the score at 1.
It was an beautiful example of Ronaldinho's soft touch in traffic. He left Seedorf with just enough space to gather himself and boot the ball without breaking stride. Ronaldinho didn't stop to speak with reporters after the game, but it was clear he was pleased with his play. Fans of both Milan and Chelsea rose to their feet to offer appreciation when he was removed from the game in the 79th minute.
"I'm really happy for our performance because we stayed in the match for 90 minutes," Leonardo said. "We created a lot of situations, a lot of chances on goal. I'm real happy, not with the score, because we lost, but with our performance."
Chelsea's attack, however, was a bit too much for Milan in the end. Zhirkov's goal came on a deflected shot after Chelsea forward Andriy Shevchenko made a nice spin move to get open on the right side of Milan's defense, forcing Kalac to make a dramatic save. The ball ping-ponged around in front of the net until Zhirkov one-timed a low line drive that Kalac couldn't reach.
"He is a very good player," Ancelotti said. "It was not surprising [to see him score so quickly]."
Shevchenko's handful of nice plays were a bit of a surprise considering he didn't start, didn't enter the game until the 64th minute and is rumored to be on his way out of West London. The Ukrainian was once regarded as one of the world's best strikers, and he is still the fourth-highest scorer in the history of European club soccer. When he played for Milan from 1999 to 2006, he was highly coveted by Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who bought Chelsea FC in 2003 and vowed to spare no expense to make it the best club in the world.
But Shevchenko's time with Chelsea has been a massive disappointment, to the point where the club lent him to Milan for most of last season. Zhirkov was signed in part to replace the firepower Shevchenko failed to provide.
Milan defender Oguchi Onyewu, who grew up in Silver Spring and attended Sherwood High in Olney, didn't start in front of his family and friends. But he did enter the match in the 67th minute and nearly tied it during injury time with a header on a corner kick. His attempt sailed just wide of the goal, but it earned him a noticeable roar from the crowd and some post-match kudos from his coach. He's a sign that American soccer is gaining credibility with the rest of the world.
"I think that football is more and more international," Leonardo said when asked about Onyewu. "If he's a good player, like 'Gooch' showed today, with a good style, it would be very good to have him. [Onyewu] is a very nice guy, a smart guy. If we find a guy like him, we try to sign him."