The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Somewhere in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, I don’t remember which one, and I don’t have them here, and there’s a chance it was actually the Infocom computer game based on the books, and there’s also chance that I’m an athletic and socially desirable person who doesn’t know what any of these references mean, there’s a bit about a freak wormhole that opens in the fabric of space-time and carries an unfortunate remark made by one of the characters to the deck of a battle cruiser in a faraway star system, where a warlike alien race is about to fight the last battle of a terrifying war. By an incredible coincidence, the remark is, in the alien language, the foulest insult imaginable, and so the warring commanders resolve their differences and forge an alliance devoted to destroying the source of the insult: Earth. Combining their awful forces into a fearsome interstellar fleet, they embark on the thousand-year journey to our solar system hellbent on disintegrating the entire human race. Then they arrive and, due to an appalling miscalculation of scale, are eaten by a dog.
There’s also this passage from Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
Which one of these is Barcelona? For most of the season, they’ve been regarded by almost every observer, including, and enthusiastically, me, as something like the abstract spirit of beauty, realizing atemporal immortality by their perfect football forms. The nature of the fundamental connection between poetry and soccer has been, to this point, largely intuitive and obscure, but I’d venture to guess that if you approached any Match of the Day pundit with the question, “Which European club team plays most like clouds in starlight widely spread, like memory of music fled, like aught that for its grace may be dear, and yet dearer for its mystery?” every single one of them would know exactly who you meant.
At the same time, there’s a contrarian case to be made against them, even from an aesthetic perspective, and before we knight them with Excalibur it’s worth seeing how they stand up to it. I’m serious about this, and I’m not just out to be negative: if we’re going to decide that they’re one of the greatest and most beautiful sides in the history of the game, and those words mean something to us, then we have an obligation to hear the opposing case. I’m going to present this in stronger terms than I would use in a neutral moment, so understand that I’m using hundred-percent language but really only contesting the last seven percent of the truth. But then, I have a feeling that anyone who saw the Chelsea game will already know what most of this is about.
The contra case is this: That there are forms of beauty not represented on the team, and they are precisely the forms that are most capable of succeeding in the modern game. It’s not at all a stretch to view them as a team designed to annihilate Getafe but struggle against better competition. They break down weak teams like an enzyme, especially in the slow-paced Spanish league, but against strong teams they sometimes seem to play a crinkly, precious, finicky, miniature game, hoarding the ball jealously but surprisingly easy to stifle at the last moment. This isn’t quite the same criticism that’s been directed at Arsenal over the last few seasons, for instance via the charge that they want to “pass the ball into the back of the net.” For Arsenal, the problem was supposed to be that they were too committed to beauty, that they were so determined to achieve the ideal goal that they lost interest in the actual goal in front of them. For Barcelona, who don’t seem to epitomize “beauty” to themselves so much as “exhilarating success,” the problem is one of incapability, which could be described in style terms as a misplaced emphasis: they’re so committed to their patient midfield play and see it so fundamentally as the basis for their attack that when the goals don’t come they run the risk of imploding on themselves, collapsing into a sort of gentle six-yard pass between Xavi and Iniesta while the world races by around them.
Their build-up play can be absolutely wonderful to watch. The refinement of technique, the conception of complex space, the devastatingly subtle ball control utterly surpass any other team’s attainments in these areas. But then, it’s easy to be refined when you’re playing at walking pace, and La Liga is so slow that it in some ways it’s a marvel that they’re as far ahead as they are. It’s easy to be intricate if the referees always protect you, and if La Liga isn’t exactly delicate, Messi is amply rewarded for the beating that he takes. And the players clearly know that this is the case; no one seems to point this out, but in their league games Barça complain to the officials as much as any recent vintage of Chelsea.
What they lack, assuming that beauty in the modern game isn’t exclusively the province of wizened elves and saturnine exquisites, is the kind of fleet, powerful presence that Essien or Drogba usually provide (though not, oddly, against Barça) for Chelsea: the kind of player for whom the joy lies in flying rather than lockpicking, who can burn through the defense like a comet rather than undermining it with tiny jots of math. That is, for all the greatness in their lineup, there’s a dimension their game is missing, a sense of final speed and scale. Their representative player is not Yaya Touré, who’s almost capable of providing it, but Xavi, whom I love dearly, yet who seems to play the game at a constant temperature of about two degrees above zero. That’s obviously the source of his genius, but would you argue that his game represents every possibility for beauty in contemporary football?
You could see this, some of it, in the Chelsea game, which Barça ruthlessly dominated, yet which also saw them rather easily frustrated by a group of tall, strong defenders who didn’t seem to be playing the game so much as standing implacably still between the Barcelona midfield and the goal. Petr Čech, whose form has been deteriorating all season, looked brilliant tonight. Henry was intermittent, Eto’o was useless, Messi was swallowed up. They looked, at times, like an awesome space fleet that, for all its firepower, was suddenly being revealed as microscopic. And yet it wasn’t any kind of inspired performance by Chelsea, just a competent away game by a team that happens to be one of the few really good sides Barça have played all year. Again, speaking aesthetically, none of the elements of the beauty of Barcelona’s game was missing, yet a long time before the game ended—certainly by the middle of the second half—the endless build-up play looked futile rather than beautiful, and felt boring rather than thrilling. Without going into the (very interesting) question of the relationship between style and efficacy, this was surely not what the rhapsodes were waiting for, and I know, because at the best of times I’m one of them.
How much do Barça have riding on the away leg at Chelsea now, not just in terms of their season but (what undoubtedly counts less with them, but maybe counts more with us) in terms of their legacy and their claim on a historic degree of belovedness?
by Brian Phillips · April 28, 2009