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.
What goes on behind the scenes of the beautiful game is rarely beautiful. Often, the experience of watching a beautfiul goal or combination on the pitch requires forgetting the transfer-gossip nonsense and arglebargles that allowed it to happen, or at least thinking that they are substantively less important to our experience of a match than they may actually be. For a popular example of this kind of thinking, just read Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, which suggests that breathtaking goals and legendary players are timeless components of the sport, whereas money and sponsorships unnecessarily pollute what happens on the pitch. In Galeano’s view—and in the mind of many soccer fans—the game itself is pure, but all that surrounds it corrupts our communion with the soul within.
The reality is of course much more complicated. As Brian has said before, transfer buzz and tabloid rumors cannot help but inflect how we watch a match—they’re such a big part of the soccer press that they become an unavoidable context for team selection and which players do and don’t work well together. The games are still the most meaningful part of fandom, but that meaning is decided increasingly more often by events that happen outside of the stadium.
Nowhere has that become more clear than in the Barcelona transfer brouhaha of this summer. A club that for decades has represented everything right with European football has suddenly become one of the continent’s chief villains, a squad bubbling over with supposedly ill-gotten talent and all the seeming arrogance and entitlement that comes with it. After their remarkably simple transfer for David Villa (arguably the best striker in the world), their relatively easy move for Javier Mascherano (arguably the best holding midfielder in the world), and their dogged, potentially disgraceful pursuit of one-time youth product Cesc Fàbregas, FC Barcelona, once “more than a club,” now seem on par with such paragons of soulless capitalism as Chelsea and Real Madrid, except those two at least act like what they are instead of pretending to be untouchable. You know you’ve reached the land of confusion when Ronaldo, Kaká, and Mourinho can be viewed as scrappy underdogs.
The question, though, is why this reaction to Barcelona has come now instead of years ago. This isn’t the first time they’ve worked behind the scenes in less-than-diplomatic fashion to find a new star, and it’s not the only time they’ve appeared streets ahead of their closest competition with an air of superiority. Just two seasons ago, they blitzed the rest of La Liga with the help of Dani Alves, then the highest-paid fullback in the history of the sport and a man who plays like an ornery hobgoblin. He was that squad’s third-best player for most of the year—and at one point was suggested by Sid Lowe to be the second-best player in the world—yet by most standards he could only be liked by his agent, or perhaps the wolves that raised him. Still, Barcelona could do no wrong. On this site, they were even discussed as the team that could save football.
Perhaps this newfound hatred is mostly tied up in the Fàbregas mess, a case in which his Barcelona friends (from the Spanish national team and not) have acted so shamefully with their shirt “pranks” and in comments to the press that the entire reputation of Barcelona has been sullied. The English press can certainly go overboard with their contempt (and praise, naturally); this could be an example of their nationalistic anger changing the fans’ view of the situation, too.
Yet the English press hardly holds sway over North American fans to the same degree, and the righteous anger seems to have come to our shores, as well. Richard Whittall has already declared war on the club this season, even going so far as to proclaim Dr. Lowe a shill for the blaugrana. Clearly, this is about more than just England. And if you’re going to criticize Barcelona for their tactics with regards to Fàbregas, you must also recognize the fact that Cesc has repeatedly said he wants to join the club. It’s not as if they have attempted to steal Arsenal’s captain against his will.
Maybe the “more than a club” identity has been revealed as a facade of history rather than a lived fact. While Barcelona’s history as a symbol and locus of anti-fascist and Catalan pride is unfuckwitable and continues to be an important part of their relationship to the region, the club’s international identity is defined more by the broader concepts of political liberalism and altruism than the specific realities of it. The Unicef alliance and sponsorship helps children in need, but it also allows Barcelona to appear above their bwin.com-aligned rivals. Never mind that Barcelona’s relationship with Nike holds just as much importance to the club as any amount of charitable work. If you doubt their commitment to commerce over cause, just check out these ambivalent comments from current president Sandro Rosell in March, when he was already a prime candidate to replace Joan Laporta at the top.
But these contradictions have been the status quo for a long time, even if they’ve never overtaken the joyous aura of the club entirely. When I first became a serious soccer fan, my first jacket purchase was an obvious one, in part because Barcelona represented something beyond several glass cases full of silverware. They were, in comparison to their fellow titans of UEFA, moral stalwarts. I’m just not sure how much that morality has to do with their political ties.
Instead, it seems more an issue of style. In the modern game, the most successful clubs appear pragmatic at the expense of identity. With the exception of squads with managers like Mourinho whose systems become extensions of their egos, top European clubs play particular styles and formations just because they work, not because they hold them up as the best way to play or an opportunity to show fans something they’ve never seen before. That which is effective becomes attractive, even if it’s not fun to watch.
Barcelona has chosen another path, one in which the proactivity of their 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1, if you want to get all Jonathan Wilson about it) stands out against the in-vogue stylings of supposedly pragmatic reactivity. They are certainly not the only quality attacking side, but their enormous success over the last few seasons places them above the fray, as if they show that beauty is the true best path to the earthly paradise of sticker and history books.
That commitment to stylish play has stood out in part because it appears difficult to do well; the precision and skill require refinement and practice that aren’t immediately visible in the more negative tactics of the age. To put it more bluntly, the Barcelona style registered as a choice of beauty over function. The fact that the club also believes that style produces more victories is immaterial—what matters is that it’s the road less traveled, one that’s supposed to lead to glorious failures rather than lasting greatness. That Barcelona have proven that thinking wrong is a sign of their superiority. Barcelona likely wouldn’t play better as a negative side—just imagine Xavi in a series of midfield scrambles and Messi consistently tracking back to deal with onrushing fullbacks—but their stylistic decisions still register as noble. They prove that there’s another way.
But what happens when that style no longer looks like a choice? In their current form, Barcelona are a super team of world-class talents at nearly every position. With this kind of attacking prowess, in a situation where even Gerard Piqué looks like he could be a top striker in many high-end leagues, where exactly is the noble sacrifice? Why wouldn’t one of the best groups of talent ever assembled play a proactive attacking style?
Barcelona has always had great players, of course, but never with a first eleven like this. Even two years ago, the dominant treble-winning squad threw out such non-incandescent talents as Víctor Valdés, Seydou Keita, Yaya Touré (before he was a sheikh-anointed superstar), Eric Abidal, the young Sergio Busquets, and the presumably over-the-hill Thierry Henry. That was a great team, but one with potential weaknesses. You could exploit certain areas of the pitch, if you had the skill to do so.
Where exactly are those same holes now? Valdés might not be world-class, but he improves with every season and would start in international play for most top national teams. Maxwell is no star, but he’s a solid attacking left back with experience at more than one top-level club. Pedro is young, but he played a big part in Spain’s World Cup win. Busquets is not on the level of Xavi or Iniesta, but he’s massively underrated and becoming one of the best holding midfielders in the world. Of course, with the arrival of Mascherano, he might not even start many matches.
This squad no longer honorably plays the beautiful game—they’re just really fucking good. And when a team amasses that much talent on paper, they become criticized for things that most top clubs practice as daily habits. For an analogy in America, look at LeBron James and the Miami Heat, who are regularly pilloried for arrogant Twitter comments that could come from the online mouthpiece of any player in the league. These reactions aren’t just about knocking champions off their pedestals; they’re more closely related to the feeling that massively talented sides have circumvented the hard work of winning championships and simply created a winner before the season even starts. When Barça suffered that shocking loss to Hércules last weekend, soccer fans didn’t discuss the match in terms of negative tactics defeating an ideal of beauty—they acted like a valiant underdog had overthrown a hated bully. It seems like the same reaction will meet every Barça failure to grab three points, even when their opponent is an Atlético Madrid or Villareal. That Barcelona have created this explosive squad after years of glory and haven’t added near-certain catch Fàbregas yet makes their assumed greatness sting even more. They’re only going to become more of a powerhouse.
In this context, what they do on the pitch hardly even matters. If greatness lies in surprise—of playing the role of comedian, as it were—then Barcelona now appear to be stand-up comics who never change their routines. We know it’ll be The Beautiful Game and can safely assume, Hércules or no Hércules, that they will succeed in the standings.
Sadly, this attitude roundly dismisses the fact that Barcelona is going to be absolutely amazing this year in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time, perhaps ever. Maybe they’ll hoist all manner of trophies with few hiccups along the way. But even if they don’t struggle, the exact form of their victories remains to be seen, and it is the forthcoming specifics of this team that make them such an exciting prospect in 2010-11 and beyond.
We’ve seen Villa partner with these midfielders before, but how amazing will their combinations be with Messi involved, as well? We know that Xavi and Iniesta form a great partnership, but will they be even greater with Mascherano as wrecking ball? Will Fàbregas’s introduction next season spark new tactical moves to accomodate him?
Whatever the case, we’re going to see something we’ve never seen before. And while this version of Barcelona may not carry moral significance or surprising results, they promise one hell of a journey. They’re appointment television until proven otherwise, and no amount of transfer foolishness can change that. Maybe Galeano was right after all.
Eric Freeman is a writer and editor from San Francisco. He is a regular contributor to FreeDarko, one of the authors of its Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, and the former lead blogger for SportingNews.com’s now-defunct NBA blog The Baseline. Read his basketball thoughts at Early Termination Option.
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by Eric Freeman · September 15, 2010