It’s March and Kansas is winning, which means I have little time for Barça-related thoughts (as you’ll note by the end of this). That should come as little surprise to those who have seen the Jayhawks flame out over the last couple of years to the likes of Northern Iowa and Virginia Commonwealth (average seed for Kansas in those matchups: 1; average seed of opponent: 10) and still I gamely trudge through the rest of the tournament, wondering what if, what if, what if…
With Barça, the what if’s are fewer and farther between at the moment. The year I started watching Barcelona, in 2001, Kansas was eliminated by an Illinois team coached by Bill Self. Illinois was a truly good squad and Kansas, good as they were and good as that team would prove themselves to be with 2 consecutive Final Four runs, was no match. Barça was a relief both in terms of a new sport that I was fast becoming addicted to and a savior from what had become perennial disappointment in teams I saw as talented enough to rise above the fray. Funny then that Barcelona finished 4th in 2000-01 and 2001-02, 6th in 2002-03, and finally came in second to Valencia in 2003-04. It wasn’t until 2004-05 that the team’s first title came to pass for me. Yet there I was, addicted anyway; perhaps I became addicted because of it.
To understand that, perhaps a bit of history: as someone who grew up a Kansas fan in the 1990s (I was 5 in 1988 and have no memory of that trophy win), we were always good and always watchable, but rarely did we do anything other than choke ourselves to death early in the NCAA tournament (example: versus Rhode Island in 1998). Then we made that magical run in 2003, eventually losing in the final to Syracuse and their massive barrage of 3s in the first half that had us down 20 at the break. KU eventually lost by 3 when Michael Lee’s shot was blocked by Hakim Warrick. I hate that play, but it was beautiful. Lee should have pump faked. Then Roy Williams left for UNC and Bill Self, moving from Illinois, rebuilt the Kansas program around his different-style offense. Now we’ve had 8 straight conference titles, 5 conference tournament titles (including 3 straight at one point), and a national championship title. We’re in the Final Four for the 14th time in school history and the 2nd time in the last 9 years.
The comparison to Barça is pretty good: 3 straight La Liga titles, 2 Champions League titles in 3 years (along with a semifinal), and a Copa del Rey title as well as another final appearance. Since 2003 the number of league titles is 5 and the number of Champions League titles is 3. The question then, is whether or not I should feel entitled to having a good team? No, certainly not, but am I accustomed to having a good team? For sure. In both college basketball and football (soccer), I’m used to having a team that goes deep into tournaments and puts up gaudy numbers against most opponents. But the important thing is that each time they win, each time those stats are posted, I devour them with the same zeal I did when I was 12, when winning a game made me giggle and losing made me tear up a bit, if not outright cry. Now, fortunately, losing only makes me curse and go to bed; winning still makes me a giddy child bouncing off the walls (see me Sunday night, a bundle of stupid nerves gone all haywire).
Perhaps I’m simply outside the Kansas-centric media circus. I don’t know what most KU fans think of the team given that I live some 1,200 miles from Lawrence and haven’t read any KU blogs this season, but when Barça started winning everything in sight, the Catalan media became a one-way street of expectation and delusion. Kansas doesn’t compete with North Carolina, Duke, or Kentucky so much as with Kansas State and Missouri, so it’s against them that we view ourselves. Losing to those rivalry schools is the unacceptable thing, but the tournament rarely (if ever) offers up the opportunity to play out those kinds of grudge matches (which is what makes the Kentucky-Louisville game on Saturday all the more interesting).
Barça-Madrid, on the other hand, is happening with the kind of frequency that tears the universe apart simply because of the heavyweight nature of the encounters. This season’s “Border War” games with Missouri—referred to by me as the hick clásico in an attempt to explain their significance to a futbol fan–had major implications for both the conference title and the tournament seeding—Missouri was, in my opinion, screwed out of a deserved 1 seed based largely on their regular season losses to Kansas State, but that is neither here nor there, especially given that they lost to a 15 seed in the opening round—and because of that there was a lot more gnashing of teeth and lighting strikes attributed to the other side. Were Kansas and Missouri to face each other 4 times in the span of 2 weeks, I believe we would all find ourselves face-to-face with the End of Days. Especially if it took place at the same time as a clásico 4-bagger.
Without that marathon against Madrid, those 4 matches in what I think was 3 days (given that I think I existed solely during those matches, perhaps it was only 7 consecutive hours of insanity), it would be a different world. Instead, we are engaged in a Cold War-style competition where every mistake is not a mistake, but rather an advantage given to a rival cast in the role of depraved war monger. That tenor, that “we must kill to survive” attitude, is slowly gutting everyone associated with the club and everything the club stands for. I’m never going to claim that I’m completely innocent of it—see my Clasico Week insanity—but the season-long pressure on us all to care more and more, scream louder and louder, eventually leads to some sort of line being crossed and the fan base turning from cheering crowd to zombie attack horde. That, in turn, leads to expectation that if the fans are consuming as much opponent flesh as possible, so too should the team that is being “supported” via Internet flame wars (not guilty) and constant harassment of local bars via unruly chanting and guttural cursing (definitely guilty).
All of that is why I’ve tried to be more “team-centered” in my last few writings. It doesn’t matter what Jose Mourinho does [inside his evil lair of doom!], it matters what Pep Guardiola [and his shiny knights!] creates on the field. It matters whether the team is playing beautifully and sticking to the principles our philosopher-in-chief has laid out. The results are important, of course, because that’s why we play the game, but the form matters as much as the substance. It’s not just on the field, however, that that is true: it is true of us fans as well. Our substance, our form, our approach to the game is important and to cast our lot with the dark side just to beat Madrid in the short term is a fairly short-sighted goal. Yes, we all want to win the league, but at what cost? Some will say at any cost, but those who go that route are as shameful as the Bernabeu boo birds, as cowardly in a lot of ways as the current Madrid technical and playing staff with their vaya atracos and ¿por qués?
To enjoy this group of stars at the Camp Nou, to watch them and feel happy is, actually, the point of the whole thing. To worry about an opponent is to mistake the game’s rivalry for an actual rivalry on the ground. We are not fighting duels with madridistas, as much as some of you would claim to want to; we are playing a game against them on a field. If Mourinho wins a title in Spain, Franco will not rise from his grave and anoint him Regent of Cataluña any more than a Guardiola-led victory will result in the Free State of Catalunya breaking from the coast of Spain and sailing through the Mediterranean on a Voyage of the Dawn Treader type mission.
In fact, we are not playing against them on a field. We are sitting in bars, on our couches, at our absolute closest we are in the stands waving silly banners about trading smooches for Messi’s shirt. I believe in this club, I bought into the UNICEF logo and mes que un club even though it was a marketing scheme because, well, I like UNICEF and the idea that my sports teams can do more than just play a game on a field. They can make the world a better place.
Kansas was, and is, a way of communicating. It was the way I talked to my father throughout my adolescence, in those awkward father-son relationship days when “Did you see the stats from yesterday’s game?” meant “I love you.” I am now mature enough to simply say the latter instead of the former, but the former still brings quiet joy to my life. Barça too is a way of communicating: I spoke of Messi, Ronaldinho, Xavi, and Eto’o throughout my travels in Latin America and while forging friendships in the US. Barça also happens to play the way that brings back memories of children strutting with a ball in the Congo, joy in their expressions, the name of Diego Maradona always on their lips when they pulled off a fancy move. It was 1991, after all. While that is certainly a romanticized version of their lives—and mine—in an impoverished region of the world subjugated by a brutal dictator, the simple pleasure of playing a game and speaking through it to millions of others is too wonderful, too good, to ever let go of.
The expectations of a single season are dwarfed by the brilliance of the whole history. The failure in one part is the shade beneath the mountain of success in another part. To forget that Barcelona is playing at a level you will never see again is to look the gift horse directly in the mouth. And then punch it. To watch simply for the trophies, to best another team, for the fulfillment of expectations, is, I think, a shadow of what can be achieved through sport. The club itself is full of diversity and that is exactly as it should be. Trophies are, as I have said, the purpose of the team, but they are not, I don’t think, the purpose of the fan.
It is fun and a worthy intellectual pursuit to dissect and discuss the tactical innovations, the transfers, and the results throughout the season and over the long, long offseason (it looks so short on a calendar!), yet it is an altogether different thing to forget to put that away on game day. It is fun to be right and frustrating to be wrong about what Pep should do with the team, but the cold negativity of those who aren’t handed manitas on a plate is, frankly, disturbing. The number of scornful attacks from FCB’s quarters has risen sharply as Mourinho has become the focal point of a negativity campaign he is no doubt chuckling about. How the mighty Barça has fallen to the depths of its neighbors, he must be saying through his grins.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to have my over-the-top screamfests when it suits my moods, but perhaps its the perspective that maybe none of this matters enough to burst a blood vessel in my head that has calmed me down of late. Or maybe it’s the age, the frequency of posting, the introspective nature of this whole gig. I don’t know, but more and more I wonder why I should bother being a fan of anything that doesn’t bring me complete joy. And more and more, I think that blowouts are boring unless they’re against rivals. The Sporting match was elevating, in a sense, as was the tough-it-out of Mallorca. And certainly Kansas’ win over North Carolina on Sunday was anything but an easy victory that had me over the moon.
Mainly I want to remember the Guardiola years, however much longer they last, celebrating the simple fun of watching the team play. I don’t want to screech about referees or opposition players incapable of remaining within the laws of the game (that latter part is where RFEF has failed miserably to deal with things). I don’t want to end up rocking back and forth in a corner when we’ve got another 4 clasicos to live through. I don’t want to hate Madrid, I don’t want to get angry, I don’t want to feel insulted; I want to watch this game because it’s brilliant and enjoyable. I want to smile and have a good time with my friends.