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The End of Barcelona

I have a new piece in Slate about the Champions League final and whether we’re about to see the end of Barcelona’s magical run of the last few seasons. Of course, no sooner had I ventured this possibility in a draft than I went down with a sudden, bad case of food poisoning; most of this was written while I was clinging to the edge of the bed, sustained by nothing but Gatorade and rice. So take that into account, if you believe the universe avenges its chosen children.

The point of the piece is that compared with a lot of other good teams, Barcelona are what we might call metaphysically high-maintenance. Manchester United can grind out wins by any means possible and still hold on to their identity, but for Barcelona, a lot of really improbable stuff has to go right in every game for them to live up to the ideal that they’ve come to represent. Up to now, all that stuff has gone right—that’s the miracle of this team—but even a little slip here or there could bring them closer to earth. Over the next few months, if more stuff happens like the Busquets slur allegations, the backlash against diving, the struggles against a resurgent Madrid—basically, if the last few weeks turn out to be a preview of what’s ahead for them as Xavi enters the tail end of his career—a little slip would be more likely, and they could be left as just another very good team.

The comparison here, for me, is Roger Federer rather than Tiger Woods. It’s not that I’m predicting a sudden, shattering collapse. It’s that, like the Federer of a few years ago, they’ve spent several years on the inside of an utterly golden aura, to the point that, even though they occasionally lost, you never really believed anyone could beat them. The Inter upset last year was so incredible because it seemed to fly in the face of everything you knew to be true about this team—but then they regrouped this year, beat Madrid 5-0, and rolled more or less immaculately along.

But as with Federer, it’s possible to imagine them losing a step, diminishing a little, without falling out of the ranks of the elite. And as we’ve seen with Federer, the loss of that air of invulnerability would be almost a bigger deal than a real collapse—sadder, anyway, from a certain standpoint. When a defining star or team comes to mean as much as Barça has over the last few seasons, watching it decline, watching the deflation of the ideal, is unsettling. (There’s something weirdly, impossibly pitiable about Federer these days.) I’d guess that that’s especially true when the team has managed to change the way you think about the game, even if only for a little while.

And maybe it won’t happen. As one of the commenters has already pointed out, Thiago is wonderful, and Barça has some time to find a replacement for Xavi before anyone needs to worry. I could be getting ahead of myself (partly because I’m not convinced that the entire history of the game has produced a viable replacement for Xavi). I just see some ominous signs, and frankly I doubt whether it’s possible to keep as many things spinning in the air as Barça has, for so long, for much longer. If that makes me a cynic, please believe that I would love to be wrong.

The question that I didn’t have room to explore in the Slate piece is what this all means for Spain. They’ve been the dominant international team for almost exactly the same period that Barcelona has had the dominant club team, and face some of the same issues. Xavi will be even harder to replace on the international level. If the Barça-Madrid rivalry gets nastier, as I think it will, next season, then the unlikely warring-states chemistry the national team has forged could be in jeopardy. I’ve loved the Spanish team for a long time, and I’m not rooting for this, but it won’t surprise me if 2012 sees a new European champion.


The End of Barcelona

by Brian Phillips · May 25, 2011

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