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Barcelona as Slime Mold

Poor Sergio Ramos — not to excuse or justify him, of course, but he’s an elite athlete, accustomed from childhood to running circles around other people, and now, before an enormous world-wide audience, to have people running circles around him — and so evidently enjoying it — well, that’s an insult not to be borne, I suppose. Everyone gets beaten sometimes: even Messi was dispossessed a couple of times yesterday. But to be humiliated for ninety minutes almost without respite, as Real Madrid’s players were yesterday . . . that doesn’t happen very often at that level of sport.

There’s something fey abut how Barça plays when they’re at their best, as though they’re engaged in some odd game of their own and are not even aware of what observers (including, or especially, the other team on the pitch) think about it. Real played an extremely high defensive line yesterday, and for minutes on end Barça seemed content to pass the ball around at midfield — and then there would be some sudden, inexplicable drive forward and the ball would be in the net and everyone would be thinking, Wait, what just happened there? Commentators talk about 22-pass build-ups, but that’s not really how Barça does things: more like 20 exercises in midfield tiki-taka and then a two-pass attack. (Think of the first and third goals yesterday especially.) When they move forward, they do so fiercely and without a millisecond’s hesitation.

All this sends writers to the metaphor box: we turn over everything in it looking for some reasonably valid descriptor, usually with no success. But I’ll venture this: Barcelona plays like slime mold. Slime mold is sort of an organism and sort of a collection of organisms: it combines or divides according to circumstance and need. Sometimes it will assemble itself into one vast colony, sometimes split into hundreds of them. Its intelligence is not directed but collective and emergent, swarming; there’s no one player or coach making the crucial decisions, those decisions just happen. Take a video of a slime mold, speed it up appropriately, and trust me, soon you’ll be saying “Is that Camp Nou?

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Barcelona as Slime Mold

by Alan Jacobs · November 30, 2010

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