Chelsea 1 – 1 Barcelona: Opaque Like Thin Air
by Brian Phillips · May 7, 2009
A day later, I’m almost grateful for the conspiracy theories. It’s meaningless, but at least Øvrebø on the grassy knoll gives us something to find our position by. We all know the coordinates of lunacy plus bad refereeing; just about everything else related to this game left us in a murky latitude where the stars and our star-charts don’t match.
What are we supposed to take from this? I’m not even sure on the most obvious and, you’d think, most unmistakable level, the level of visceral emotion. On the one hand, it was thrilling, because it ended with a shocking goal in stoppage time that rewrote the history of the season and led to a mass nervous breakdown on the pitch. On the other hand, the previous 91 minutes had been torture by monotonous design, alleviated only by the random brilliance of the Essien goal and a couple of Chelsea breakaways. One way or another, we wound up with the kind of cataclysmic, camera-shaking drama that nothing seems to produce as reliably as Chelsea’s wounded righteousness: those scenes of Ballack driving himself mad by forcing himself not to kill the referee, and of Drogba melting down directly into the camera, were codas to an awesome tragedy, but it was an explosion of mayhem that seemed to come from somewhere other than the game itself. It was a strange case of the final result obliterating the match that preceded it.
Looking back at that match, at the actual play, I’m tempted to say there was something uninterpretable about it. It was easy enough to describe, but completely ambiguous in its relation to the larger narratives that have been circulating all week. It clearly couldn’t, as Giovanna pointed out in a comment, be seen as a triumph for the Barça approach, or as the statement of transcendent, defense-blinding genius Barcelona’s season had seemed to promise and that I’d said was their angle to paradise. Chelsea dominated the match with an ease that was almost contemptuous: they just did not care if Barça had two-thirds of the possession, because they could contain them so effortlessly and hurt them so consistently on the counter. On the other hand, Barça never changed their approach, built their attacks the way they always do, barely seemed to panic after Abidal was sent off, and got the winning goal through Iniesta, who’d been one of their worst players on the night. (I’m taking Alves for a given, and I’m trying not to say anything about Eto’o and Messi, and I may have been less impressed with Touré as a centerback than anyone else on earth.) So it can’t exactly be seen as a refutation of the Barça style or some kind of vindication for the long-ball game, either.
Someone in the last comments thread challenged the whole discourse of desert that always follows matches like this; but personally, I think the application of that discourse, in its sheer ambivalence, is itself the best way to think about this match. In a clash-of-personalities sense, Chelsea clearly “deserved” to win, because their execution of their game plan gave the match its character and because the balance of the referee’s mistakes favored Barcelona (if not nearly to the extent that the English-speaking media seems to have agreed on). But in a justice-of-causes sense, Barcelona “deserved” to win, because their style meant more to more people and because, unlike Chelsea, they didn’t resort to hacking their opponents down or negating the flow of the match. Chelsea played better, but Barça played better. Like a few other people this morning, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Guus Hiddink not sent out his trillion-pound squad of outrageously gifted superstars to play like Bolton under Sam Allardyce, so that we could have seen what talent and intent might have made of this matchup. (Does Avram Grant deserve an apology now?) But with the unbalanced evidence we have, the whole question of desert seems impossible. The purpose of a football match is to give us access to a certain kind of knowledge, but if anything, this game actually seemed to erase answers rather than offer them.
And yes, the referee was a part of that, but not to the extent of overriding all mythologies and emerging as the only truth. So in a way, I’m grateful for the conspiracy theories, because at least I know for sure that no one should believe Øvrebø rigged the game for Barcelona when he gave one of their players a straight red card for a nonexistent foul while they were trailing deep in the second half. I’m also grateful that this wasn’t the final. The conflict that’s been floating behind this tie from the beginning—the whole layout of the semifinal made it unavoidable—is Barcelona v. England, the most riveting team in Europe v. the world’s dominant league. In that conflict, Chelsea could only be a surrogate for the real incarnation of the Premier League, a pale outrider for the team that runs English football and happens to be the defending champion in this tournament. So now that I know what I don’t know, I’m trying to be hopeful. Maybe in Rome, in a single game, on a neutral pitch, Barcelona and Manchester United will be able to settle some of the questions that this match left in the air.
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