Grace Has Its Moments
by Brian Phillips · May 29, 2011
On the other hand, who says they can’t keep doing this forever?
Seriously, that cheered me up, and I don’t just mean about Barcelona’s future. This season had been…not terrible, by any means, but sort of saggy at the top, like a failed cake. In a lot of places on a lot of tables, the math was more exciting than anything that actually happened. Doomsday calculators kept not turning into wars. And that’s not to dismiss the total raving acid meltdown of the last day in the Premier League, which was tremendous fun, and crazy, but which saw all that hysterical drama knocking around some really pretty mediocre soccer. I have nothing but respect for people who love smaller teams, relegation fights, anti-commercial alternatives, or the total picture of a table; myself, I’m a hopeless slave of championships, ultimate stakes, and world-ending clashes of talent. And if you’re built that way, there’s something anticlimactic about a champagne celebration that follows finishing the year with a loss. This season felt like it got its storylines mixed up.
And yet. That was a good game yesterday, no? If you can look beyond the omnipresent question of “narrative” for a second—what it is, how it’s constructed, how it’s manipulated—you can see that how you remember a season, the color of the glow it takes on afterwards in your mind, is something separate and arguably simpler. Yes, it can turn on a force-fed media narrative, but it can also turn on an event (say, Donovan’s goal against Algeria) or on one game. If the narrative of this season was Barcelona staking out their place among the greatest, then how we’re going to remember that is not as a halftime oration by some pundit on a couch, but as a surreally great performance in a positive match against a strong, credible, and totally overmatched opponent. That is, to the extent that something as meta as “officially proving that you’re one of the best club teams ever” can really happen, it really happened yesterday, and in the best way possible. As I stammered on Twitter in the minutes after the match, sometimes the game just gets it right.
Think about how right it got things yesterday. It was just a fast, fierce, exhilarating game. No refereeing controversies, no egregious diving, no full-team aggro-mobbing a side judge, no stamping, no winking, no red cards, no penalties, no injuries. There was some hard fouling—Valencia was arguably lucky to stick around—but Manchester United didn’t do a Chelsea-at-the-Camp-Nou by any stretch of the imagination. All things considered, and in vivid contrast to a lot of teams who’ve gone down to Barcelona over the last three years, I thought United were legitimately heroic in defeat yesterday. Yes, they let themselves get overrun in midfield, but they also tried to score, got forward when they could, and played without the angry, overawed terror that you sometimes see from Madrid. In all likelihood turtling up and sawing at Messi’s legs would have been just as futile as playing boldly. So why not show some boldness? To sound like a Victorian war buff for a second, it was the sort of loss you can live with, even smile about later, because you got outscored but didn’t give in. As someone whose feelings about Man Utd have been mixed at best this season, I was proud of them last night.
Barcelona’s performance in the second half is going to be talked about in hushed tones for a while, and deservedly so. The most impressive thing, to me, was that they won by doing exactly what they wanted. Matches at this level tend to be decided, if not by penalties, then by lucky bounces (Xabi Alsono getting his penalty rebound in ’05, Inzaghi deflecting Pirlo’s free kick in ’07), sudden breakthroughs (Iniesta in the World Cup final), goals squeezed in after a scramble in the box. Yesterday, though, each of Barcelona’s forwards scored from open play, with each of their midfielders contributing an assist. They had 63% of the possession and 12 shots on target (to one for Man Utd—Rooney’s goal). Messi scored in England, even if it was in London on a Saturday night. Valdes didn’t have to make a save. They played exactly their game, and their game worked exactly the way it’s supposed to, and the second-or-third-best team in the world was basically powerless to frustrate them. If soccer is about realizing a collective intention against the limitations imposed by the game and the resistance imposed by the opponent, then Barcelona epitomized soccer yesterday. Forget the backlash, your anti-mass-media skepticism, conspiracy theories, blog rage, and Heineken. If you love sports you were lucky to watch that.
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