by Maxwell Kuhl · April 16, 2011
Despite overtures to delicacy, Barcelona FC has become an unwieldy force, a football leviathan. Coinciding with the city’s international debut in the ’92 Olympics, the club began two decades of furious attack on Real Madrid’s hegemony over Spanish football with championships in La Liga and the Champions League, with Super Copas and thrashings at the Bernabéu. Their popularity among passing fans and football writers has swelled and their influence seems ubiquitous: it’s a small step from the club’s success to the success of the Spanish side in the 2008 Euro Cup and 2010 World Cup; their mind-boggling sextuplet of championships in 2009 persuaded Real to spend record amounts assembling a team dubbed “galactic.” In even greater evidence of their ubiquity they now attract football tourism: at a bar for the second leg of the Barça-Arsenal Champions League match I was asked by a neighbor in a Messi blaugrana what “aggregate” meant.
They’re becoming a football equivalent of War and Peace: massive; overwhelming; intermittently gorgeous and brooding; the sort of thing that you’re aware of unintentionally. Like Tolstoy’s book, which displays some epically meandering storytelling and sweeping dialogue, and which culminates in a hundred-page treatise on the calculus of history, Barça seeks to extend far beyond their medium. They are already, by their own account, més que un club. I take this not as a claim about nationalism, or really any other -ism: if anyone makes that sort of claim it’s Real Sociedad who, following thousands of years blending culture and capitalism, hire only Basques, Basque raised players and foreign nationals for their side. Rather, Barça seems to embody the uniquely Catalan ability to excel while constantly in transition, and in turn to do one thing that seems like something else entirely.
Take, for example, their style of play. It’s a possession game defined more by goal scoring than by keeping the ball: a possession game permanently leaning forward. They seem, even in their overabundance of passes, constantly on the attack. One of the most famous passages in War and Peace presents Natasha, the daughter of a count, dancing to a peasant song. It’s the yearning and promise of a whole country to define itself, elegantly wrapped in a single image. Take an equally ambitious image from the year of Barça’s sweep through Europe: Messi’s header over Edwin van der Sar in the second half of the 2009 Champions League final. Manchester’s posture, and their bullish defense, immediately began to wither after an improbably early goal. Barça pressed hard, disrupting every plan United had relied on throughout the tournament. Early in the second half, on a long, bending cross from Xavi, Messi leaned back and skipped a header over van der Sar, a man who stands a full foot above him, and into the corner of the net. Watch the Manchester defense stiffen after the goal, like marble at the hands of Michelangelo: chiseled, chipped, trapped.
Barcelona would likely have won without the second goal. The rhythm of the game held unwaveringly in their favor. But without it, without Messi’s unmatched flourish, they might have, for a moment, ceased to be themselves. In Barcelona (1992), Robert Hughes gives a description of the city’s urban planning history that incidentally speaks to that sense of self:
The first thing to be reinvented was the city itself, and no European capital in recent years has made such a point of reinventing itself as has Barcelona. However the bill is eventually paid, the scale of the work is pharaonic . . . Each time Barcelona made a convulsive leap of growth after a long period of urban neglect and repression. Each time, it had to start from the ground up.
Hughes’ words draw an eerily close parallel with the club: the transience, the relentless search for meaning, the effortless overreaching.
As I was writing this the current Barça side ripped through Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, stretching their leaning possession game forward, nearly falling over the edge of the pitch. Iniesta scored as he ran out of bounds past the goal and then sent Dani Alves a long ball so aggressive that Alves, after a short touch, found himself behind the keeper to tap the ball in the back of the net. While Barecelona is famous for playing tiki-taka football, the tika-taka-mania seems a distraction from the their otherworldly and arresting goal scoring. Richard Williams’ concise description outlines tiki-taka as “a game of patient accumulation in which the ball is coaxed towards the opposition’s goal while barely touching the feet of players who are constantly in fluid motion. At all times aware of each other’s changing positions, they take opponents out of the game through deftness and movement rather than muscularity.”
Frankly, Barça never looks patient to me, and their long passes, of which they are many, are anything but “coaxing.” Any possession game is frustrating to opponents, but the real, deep wrenching comes from conceding goals. Barça, instead of patiently settling like other possession-based clubs, scores in spades. It would be more accurate to call it “tiki-taka-goal”. There is something utterly unique about Barcelona—their craftsman-like work ethic, their belligerent, almost litigious style of play—but it’s not what’s commonly discussed because it’s both all about football and all about something else.
Maxwell Kuhl posts poetry, photography and reviews at http://loomings.wordpress.com.
Real pulled in perhaps the three best play makers and goal scorers at the time in their respective English, French and Italian leagues—at once.
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