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.

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The Dwarf and Giant Parallels

Looking back, I think what frustrated me about the Premier League season that’s just ended wasn’t that it was bad, or that it was boring, or that it was lacking in skyey intensities. It’s that, compared to the season before, it was like the same tune on smaller instruments, or a building that’s been reduced to an architectural plan. That may be a record of how good 2007-08 was more than anything. But it’s still the case that, for every breath-stealing Fernando Torres goal or Tyneside comitragedy, this season spun out a storyline that ran like a minor echo of something that happened last year.

That’s true at the very top, and it’s true at the very bottom. Last season, the sharp end of the league, the best player on the best team, was Cristiano Ronaldo in the full cry of his shining, vapid, godlike un-significance, and he blazed through the league to the point that his superficiality itself became some kind of decryption key for modern soccer. This season, he scored 13 fewer league goals and was arguably surpassed by a 35-year-old substitute as Manchester United’s best player. At the other end of the league, last season gave us Derby County, who set records for self-immolation, finished with 11 points from 38 games, and left their own fans celebrating their relegation, because at least the humiliation would stop. This season, West Brom finished with three times as many points, and fought out an utterly unexciting relegation battle in which all the teams managed to be very bad without ever quite losing their respectability.

One of those relegated teams, Newcastle United, gave us a “Geordie messiah returns” story both last year and this year. Last year we got Kevin Keegan, a cryptic fax, giddy recollections of “I’ll love it if we beat them!” and a catastrophic endgame involving something called the “Cockney mafia.” This season we got Alan Shearer, who was calculating where Keegan was crazed, who hedged on his dramatic promise, then failed to keep it, then waffled on whether to stick around. At the other end of the league, Chelsea went through two managers both this season and last season. Last season we had the sensational firing of Mourinho and Avram Grant’s furious quest to retain his job; this season we had the meek exit of Phil Scolari and Guus Hiddink’s tidy, faux-modest bowing-out.

Most of the league’s best teams were slightly weaker than the season before (Liverpool were the exceptions); the champions, who ran people off the pitch last year, survived this year on a ration of 1-0 wins that led to a lot of bogus stories about the greatness of Edwin van der Sar. Last season we had a title race that was genuinely somewhat exciting; this season we had a more or less pretend title race that the media was able to play up only because the teams involved in it hadn’t played the same number of games. Last season had genuine surprises in the cups (Tottenham and Portsmouth); this season we had Manchester United and Chelsea.

Even the compulsory “Harry Redknapp, miracle-worker” story (Portsmouth’s FA Cup run; the turnaround at Spurs) and the obligatory “Steven Gerrard in weird trouble” story (running over a small boy with his Bentley and then holding his hand in the street till the ambulance came; attacking a club DJ for refusing to play a song) seemed brighter and less cynical last year.

This season did offer a plucky overachiever of note (Fulham) and a better upstart run in the big four than anything we saw last year (Aston Villa’s, though it turned out to be anticlimactic). I’m optimistic about next season. In some ways, it feels like we spent nine months watching the pieces slowly move to a combination of squares that can finally make the game interesting: Liverpool’s ongoing metamorphosis into a plausible football team, Chelsea’s entrance into a dark pact with Carlo Ancelotti, Arsenal’s no longer deniable arrival at a no longer deniable crisis point, Manchester United’s gradual hourglass slide. It could be that everything’s coming to a head in a way that will make this year feel like a necessary prologue. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to turn the page.

But this is supposed to be a farewell to the season, and this season didn’t belong to the Premier League. It belonged to Barcelona. Barcelona weren’t just the letters-of-fire masters of Europe this year (right down to Chelsea’s sense of violated spleen), they were a force so powerful that the drama of their own self-fulfillment became more compelling than their actual games. Before the Champions League final, the symbolic underpinning of the tournament seemed like Barcelona v. the Premier League, and so it was, to the extent that that kind of conflict can ever really exist. But rather than the Man Utd game offering us a chance to see that opposition crystallized, it instead went to prove that anyone Barça played, even the rulers of the by-default Greatest League on Earth and the defending champion of Europe, would be turned into generic antagonists. What mattered was always whether Barcelona’s greatness would be sanctioned, or whether, like so many other beautiful teams in the lore, they’d be pushed to one side by the tyranny of the result.

At the moment, I’m less concerned about the meaning of their style or what influence it will have on other teams than about the question of raw legacy: where will they rank among history’s greatest teams? That’s a crass, unsubtle topic, but it matters, not for the taxonomy or the future Sun slideshow, but because how those questions are answered shapes the way we think about the history of the sport. Cruyff’s Ajax, the Magical Magyars, Real Madrid under Puskás/Di Stéfano, Brazil under Pele/Garrincha, and so on, all the way back to Preston North End in the 1880s, play an interpretive role in the chronicles, like features of the landscape that help us orient ourselves.

I’m not sure if one season is ever enough to establish a team on that level, and it’s impossible to predict what will look meaningful to observers in 50 years. But Barça set a task for themselves that was almost impossible to fulfill—they had to be amazing, consistently and mercilessly, or they were nothing—and they fulfilled it. At the very least they deserve to be considered. And I’d rather have this era remembered with them as the highlight than with whatever Man Utd/39th game/Asian markets/”recession-proof!” alloy would have been inescapable had Barça not won that game.

In any case, looking ahead to the close season, we’ve got some exciting stuff lined up, including actual, live (nonfictional!) reports from the Confederations Cup, some design changes, and the return of Dr. Chesapeake Marchpane. New posts may be a bit scarce at times, but Pro Vercelli updates will appear as usual. And as always, the only transfer gossip we publish will be that which is first converted into poetry-grenade form. Count on that.

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The Dwarf and Giant Parallels

by Brian Phillips · June 1, 2009

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