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Labor Day has officially come and gone. There's a bright nexus of the sports world as September rolls around. A meeting of the traditional and non-traditional, if you will. TheMagpie... meet duck. Duck... meet magpie. Vuelta a Espana sees cyclists racing along the last grand-tour route of the peloton's season even as college football already discusses its first week of play while the NFL anticipates its own kickoff. The Olympics are barely passed, the few remnants of clear sunlight already getting inevitably choked out of the air as factories upwind of Beijing come back online and motorists take back the highways and byways of the city, and now the stretch drive in baseball competes with action from the U.S. Open and Champions League qualifying and the start of soccer calendars all throughout Europe. This is the time of year when allegiances domestic come face to face with allegiances foreign. Ducks and Badgers and Cowboys compete with Magpies and CSC and the Nerazzurri for my convoluted attention...

 

 

One minute all I can think about is the ongoing race in Spain. While most Americans will gladly offer at least the pretense of attention to the Tour de France as it winds its annual refrain around the Alps and Pyrenees, cycling sentiments often go dormant once the race concludes in Paris. This year, the Olympics kept the sport fresh in the public's mind... but perhaps the most compelling duel of the season is taking place not on French but Spanish roads. With the Astana team of 2007 Tour champion Alberto Contador kept out of this year's Leipheimer may lead, but he still knows who leads his team...race by ASO, CSC was able to take control of the peloton and guide its own Spaniard, Carlos Sastre, to the maillot jaune. In Spain, Astana returns to grand-tour action after dominating the 2008 Giro d'Italia. Currently, Contador has the upper hand in the battle of former Spanish champions of the Tour de France as they compete for domestic spoils, sitting in fifth -- forty-seven seconds behind teammate and race leader Levi Leipheimer and forty seconds ahead of Sastre in seventh.

 

Leipheimer, after his bronze finish in the Olympic time trial, took the stage five time trial in the Vuelta to vault into the leader's gilded jersey. He could indeed prove the spoiler if Astana decides to ride for him instead of Contador... but as much as American fans would love the opportunity to watch one of their compatriots become the first of their number to win the Spanish grand tour, Johan Bruyneel and Astana will doubtless look to put the two-time tour winner in the jersey as the roads turn upward. Contador proved in the 2007 Tour the most resilient climber in the peloton, hurting even Michael Rasmussen as he held simultaneous grip on the polka dots and the yellow... 

 

 

... and then the next minute my mind wanders off, back to its present location in Eugene, as all the buzz around town centers around which quarterback will start next game at Autzen against visiting Utah State. With projected starter Nate Costa going down to another knee blowout before his season could begin, Oregon turned to Justin Roper, here of last year's SunIf only the quarterback quandary were still this easy to solve for Oregon... Bowl rout of South Florida... who promptly left the season opener against Washington with a concussion. Jeremiah Masoli, he of the junior-college national champion City College of San Francisco only last season, came on to guide the team the rest of the way to a 44-10 rout. But everyone is paranoid -- the revolving-door reality that has become the quarterback situation for the Ducks is a powder keg which could blow smithereens of any Pac-10 aspirations at any moment.

 

Oh, how the days of Dennis Dixon seem such a distant memory! Chip Kelly has deftly navigated the tempestuous waters that signify Oregon's quarterback position this season, much more so than he did when the Heisman hopeful crumpled on a busted ACL on a Thursday-night national broadcast in Arizona and the Ducks went into a tailspin from their number-two ranking. In Masoli and freshman Chris Harper -- and even with Roper both last year and after Costa's injury this season -- the Ducks have demonstrated that their talent pipeline is both fruitful and plentiful...

 

 

... but it is not just Oregon who looks ahead toward their next opponent. Hell, for that matter it isn't merely football teams which anticipate the next contest. The groups have been set for Frustrations have boiled to a fever pitch at the San Siro... how much longer will we see Crespo in this kit?this year's UEFA Champions League, and the one that immediately catches the eye is Group G. FC Porto and Arsenal have to appear the early favorites, but keep your eyes open for Fenerbahce. Last season they surprised many people by reaching the quarterfinals and giving Chelsea a major scare by winning their home opener of their knockout series. On the heels of the Turkish national side reaching the semifinals of Euro 2008, Fenerbahce appears poised to create yet another surprise story. The other clubs in Group G will no doubt have to be on their highest alert when Luis Aragones and the side from Istanbul come to town lest they retire to their beds three points lighter than expected.

 

Teams like Inter Milan and Manchester United and Barcelona, meanwhile, appear to have much easier roads to the next phase of the annual tournament... so easy, in fact, that Inter felt a guy like Hernan Crespo disposable from their European roster. All the powerhouse appear poised to make long runs through the draw. Which among them will be the inevitable one to fall from grace this season? That remains to be seen, with the first match day less than two weeks away...

 

 

And just as soon, there I go wandering off yet again. One thing that apparently rings true across all sports boundaries is a perverse need to prove one's favorite leagues and conferences as preeminent in a particular sport. The same conversation can effectively be had whether one is extolling the virtues of the English Premier League or the Big Ten Conference. An SEC fan is as adamant about his or her conference's dominance as an Italian tifosi going off about Serie A. It can be fun to banter on in such a manner, which must be why fans can find such conversations as easily in Perugia as in Piscataway. 

 

One thing I inherently have a hard time abiding, though, is the surplus of fans who are willing to support RIVAL teams simply because it makes a preferred league or conference look better. Can a Newcastle supporter root for Chelsea or Liverpool to win the Champions League with an unburdened heart simply because it makes the English Premiership look better byHere's ONE guy who rooted AGAINST the Bears in XLI... keep it real, folks... comparison? Can a Badger pray for a Nittany Lion victory without a stain on his conscience? How about a Duck jumping for joy at a Trojan victory? Is any of this possible... or more aptly, DO WE WANT IT TO BE?!

 

It seems absurd, but then I'm predisposed to eyeballing the absurd and ferreting it out for all to see. True fandom for me inherently cannot support such inanity. A true fan is not a fan of a conference... he or she is a fan of a team. One is not a Pac-10 supporter -- he is a Beaver or a Cardinal or a Bruin or a Sun Devil. One does not root for the SEC... he or she pulls for Auburn OR Alabama, LSU OR Florida, Georgia OR South Carolina. It would be insane and anathema to the spirit of fandom were I to start applauding UCLA's upset over Tennessee simply because it makes the Pac-10 look better. I cannot abide the paradox of hating a team for an entire season only to root for their success when the final games come to be played.

 

You like English soccer? Great... then support YOUR team. You like college football? Great... then support YOUR team. Please, for the love of your fandom, don't go straddling the fence once the late rounds of UEFA tournaments or the BCS man come a-callin' for your avowed rivals. Here's to hoping this year's competitions -- whether the race for the top honors in the NCAA or UEFA or some other in this wide universe of diverse athletic diversions -- sees fans staying true to their teams. In any language, selling out to a wider pursuit is tantamount to grabbing for false idols... 

 

 

... but then the next song kicks in and the first beer of the morning takes hold and the ranting takes me elsewhere yet again. The day is young, a cross-town move is imminent, and I think I might finally cook something for MYSELF for a change. I could use a break from all these disparate thoughts tracing me across the cerebral vortex of the internet and along the skin of the globe. We'll see what the day holds yet. There's time to spare, and plenty of sports to watch. I can't keep myself away for too long. So you all keep yourselves fascinated as September pulls at your sports-fan consciousness from all directions, no matter which pursuit of excellence it might be that's keeping you captivated at that moment...

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