Barca 1, Evil Empire 2, aka “Winning, losing, pride and states of grace”

Once upon a time, years ago, I was a newbie bicycle racer who was just getting his legs underneath him. I finished a race in third place, and I was thrilled. My coach, however, said “That just means that you’re second among the losers.”

Charles Barkley never won a title in the National Basketball Association. Neither did Patrick Ewing. Fran Tarkenton, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play American football, went 0-for-3 in Super Bowls. And then there’s Joop Zoetemelk. Old Joe Sweetmilk finished second in the Tour de France six times. When he won one, in 1980, the mind boggles at how he must have felt, paralleling as he did, the careers of three of the greatest racing cyclists to ever turn pedals, Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. Every time one would go away, another one would pop up.

“Son of a bitch,” Old Joe must have thought. “What the hell do I have to do to catch a break?”

Winning is an extraordinary, spectacular thing, a state of grace that precious few people in any field of endeavor get to experience. What’s funny is that you don’t even realize how special it is when it happens. You think, if you can do it once, you can do it again. As my cycling coach said, to win a race you need to do 1,000 things correctly. Do 999 right, and you finish second.

Winning.

In the few years since Pep Guardiola assumed the reins of our beloved club, it has won 3 Liga titles, 2 Champions League titles, SuperCopas, Copas, World Club Cups, you name it. It has won 13 of 16 trophies, a staggering record of achievement that, if you were to really think about it and what it required, would make you light-headed to fully consider such a thing. And it was all done with players who, in addition to their club duties also had international obligations: World Cups, Euros, CONCACAF and more friendlies than you can shake a stick at.

And those players, that coach, that team won almost everything that it saw, a spectacular state of grace tantamount to walking on water. Winning is the single greatest thing that an athlete can accomplish. Years ago, athletes were asked if they could take a pill that would make them an Olympic champion but shorten their life would they do it, a frightening percentage of them said “You bet. Where do I sign up.” Winning is remarkable. An athlete would do anything to do it, have that feeling that says “I am the best. My team is the best. This is it.”

The other side of winning, of course, is losing. There is only one winner, but there are many, many losers. For the past four seasons, losing has happened 19 times in all competitions. That’s barely 5 losses per season, and doesn’t even count the ones that didn’t matter, like meaningless Champions League group stage matches in which the kids get a runout. This team has really lost only a few Matches That Matter, against Inter in Champions League, Sevilla in the Copa del Rey (dependent upon how you feel about the Copa), EE in the Copa final. That’s it. The numbers are, in four seasons, 175-45-19.

Today, the club and its coach, its supporters and people for whom this collection of personalities is a part of their hearts, lost another Match That Mattered, in our house, a place that is supposed to be an impregnable fortress. It lost in rather unlikely ways, a clearance that never happened, in part because we just don’t hoof the ball out so a valiant warrior tried to play it and just couldn’t manage it; a lightning counterattack that couldn’t help but make you wonder how it would have been had our French Greyhound been on station.

People say that we were badly outplayed, even if the evidence wasn’t on the scoreboard, because somehow, from a dearth of chances, this club managed to bundle in a goal that gave us hope that this wouldn’t be one of those rare things, that losing business. But then, as quickly as that, the counterattack happened, and that was that.

Losing is a strange sensation. Losing to that club is an even stranger one, because that happens even more rarely than losing in general and yet, there it is.

For many fans who came to this club during its most recent glory years, it’s difficult to know what to do when normalcy suddenly goes away. There has been an expectation of greatness attendant to this club, because winning everything will do that to fans, players and everyone associated with the program. You win so much that you forget how extraordinary, how spectacular winning truly is.

If there is one value in losing, that is it. We have all screwed something up in our lives that we cared about: a job, a lover, a friend, a relative. There’s regret, as you suddenly realize that you’ve screwed up something amazing, and you wish that you could have done more with it, more to savor it, cherished each and every moment before it all went bad.

This club has now lost two matches in a row to hated rivals. In one case, it was just plain bad luck but more than that, it was a lack of the concentration necessary, the mental steel that has always defined this club. It never loses Games That Matter. Even after that, we consoled ourselves, saying that game didn’t really Matter. We will win the ones that do, starting Saturday. And then, that didn’t happen.

Frank Rijkaard was fired as our coach after not winning silver for two seasons. Yes, the club won matches, but it didn’t win silver. And at our level, that’s the measuring stick, the Thing. So Rijkaard was fired, and the man who made winning ordinary took over the reins. But winning is never, ever ordinary.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, how other fans of other clubs feel, clubs that don’t win anything, ever. And not even the relegation-threatened entities, but the Valencias, Sevillas, Athletic Bilbaos and ATMs of the world. They spend real money, have real stadiums with tens of thousands of fans, and they lose. Trophy celebrations are an absurd notion. The best they hope for is to qualify for European competition, as winning, real winning, just isn’t in the cards.

Newer cules can’t imagine what that’s like. Old-school cules can. It’s a numbing sensation of inevitability. It isn’t that the players aren’t good enough, it’s just certain things happen, then they happen again and before you know it, you aren’t winning anything. Again.

Losing is there to remind us of how amazing, how remarkable winning is. I watched today’s match, and Tweeted that cules should watch this one til the end, remember how it feels to not win, remember the ache, the seeming sense of betrayal by Fate, the sheer abnormality of looking up and not seeing Barca with a higher number next to its name than its opponent.

The LiveBlog thread has made me and others so proud of the people here, commenters who, like the players, didn’t know that they knew how to lose until suddenly, it happened. Congratulations, style and grace were the order of the day, just like our club. We still don’t understand losing. It’s still too new, too weird. And the club is too good to make losing a habit, so don’t even think of that one. And in a strange way, we have won by losing, have shown the world that the same qualities that make it possible to win with grace enable champions to lose with class and dignity.

We can congratulate the victors, but we can do something else: No blame, no recriminations, no so and so did this or that wrong. We saw the match, we saw what happened. And that’s that. There is another season-defining match on Tuesday, a few days for the players to pick themselves up, recharge and get ready for battle. I am confident that they have our unreserved support, just as they will if things don’t turn out the way that we have all become so accustomed. Because in achieving its state of grace, this team strove in a way that few teams have before, in a way that makes it more than a team, but a definition of excellence.

Injuries, throat surgery, cancer are but a few of the things that tested this club this season. It was also tested by an historic rival who knew that it had to be better than it had ever been, to beat the best club in the world, even if that club wasn’t at its absolute best. And, on this night, it has done that.

But now, because love isn’t a finite or even quantifiable thing, we should reach down in our hearts and souls, as if our love for this club can help, give them strength against another strong opponent who has raised its game, and love this club. Because love forgives. We didn’t win today, and that’s okay. Because losing is part of winning. As someone very smart once said, disappointment is part of life. Discouragement is a choice.

Visca!

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

119 Comments

  1. barca96
    April 23, 2012

    via the great Barcastuff;

    Pique, who didn’t play last five games because of injury and tactical choices, will return to the starting line-up against Chelsea. [sport]

    I am not saying he could’ve prevented the goals vs. Chelsea or EE but he could’ve definitely helped Messi in attack. He always creates chaos whenever he joins the attack. Love him when he does that!

  2. Gogah
    April 23, 2012

    nzm pointed out before the clasico that pep has something up his sleeves. What a terrible prediction that was.
    tello starting, alves up front, where he sucks, no pedro / sanchez / cesc / pique, a sub par xavi, etc etc. He got his squad terribly wrong for the game, and almost felt like he was deliberately putting out a squad not designed to win comfortably.
    hopefully he won’t over analyse things and put out a weird team on tuesday. thats the key. He needs to play it cool and do what he does best.
    motivate the guys, don’t tinker around too damn much and put out a full strength team.
    visca barca, watch out chelsea!

    • nzm
      April 23, 2012

      It’s not over, Gogah.

      Winning the league was a longshot, and would put terrible physical and mental pressure on the Barca players for the next few weeks. Now they only have to concentrate on tomorrow night to win.

      To play properly against that Madrid defensive lineup, (often with 5 in the backline and a very close row of 3 in front of them), on Saturday night would have meant that the Barca players would have expended huge amounts of energy to break through to score – energy that is much needed for the Chelsea match.

      If something had to be sacrificed, I would rather it was the Liga over Champions League. Some key players were rested for the clasico and, like the first leg of CL, the players on the pitch on Saturday night did as little they could to waste energy.

      Whether they are actually that exhausted, or not, remains to be seen tomorrow night.

      Heads were low as they came off the pitch, but not as low as I saw them when they were defeated by Getafe and Osasuna.
      It’s like they played over Oct/Nov last year, when nothing was going right. It just doesn’t make sense that suddenly Messi, Busquets, Xavi, Alves and Iniesta can’t play properly – all at once.

      Think about this – if we win tomorrow night, and Madrid wins on Wednesday, there’s the mother of all clasicos to happen in Munich on a bigger world stage than Liga clasicos. I would rather see the right lineup (fresher because of some rest) at this point. The team has the chance to win back-to-back CL titles AND beat RM to do so.

      It’s all “if” and “maybes”, but I’d take that possibility of CL glory over a Liga win that will be forgotten by most of the world when the next season starts.

      And if it all goes wrong for this season anyway, Barca will be back next season with a full strength and healthy lineup (insh’allah) and it will be game-on again.

      • Huckleberry
        April 23, 2012

        Player rested for the first CL Semi. At that defeat they rested for the clasico. Now they restet at the clasico for the return match of the CL Semi…
        Hope the don’t rest tomorrow for the Copa del rei final…

        Nobody was rested. The players are just not available, not fit enough or out of form.

      • nzm
        April 23, 2012

        What?

    • Gogah
      April 23, 2012

      Not convinced.

      Pep is slightly starting to waver from principles that made him such a ruthless winner.

      not going to say anything now. hope you’re right. We’ll speak after tomorrow.

      • nzm
        April 23, 2012

        What you gonna do – sue me if I’m wrong?

        It’s just an opinion.

        Hope you go pick on all the people who predicted that it was going to be an easy win for Barca in the clasico as well.

      • April 23, 2012

        It kinda staggers me that someone could allege that Guardiola is starting to waver from any principles. As I note below, he knows his players, he takes a shot. What made him such a ruthless winner was in part an unprecedented streak of good health on the part of key players, or staggered injuries when they came.

        This season, Tito Vilanova has had throat surgery, Abidal had a liver transplant due to cancer (which had to affect his play), Villa broke his leg, Afellay and Fontas blew out knees, Xavi’s achilles tendon is hurt, Puyol was recovering from knee surgery, Pique, Iniesta, Sanchez, Fabregas and Pedro all have had various stints on the injury rolls.

        Despite all that, this club was in with a shot at the treble. Whoa, right? That this club was a couple of clunky conceded goals away from making it a 1-point race in the Liga was remarkable. Truly, truly remarkable.

        Pep Guardiola is a man of principle. That’s why he is where he is. People are saying we have a short squad. Had fate not intervened, it wouldn’t have been short. It would have been deep with world-class talent, and rocking. And I bet it would have done the treble again.

        Whether that’s luck, fate or the happenstance of athletes doing things with their bodies that we mere mortals wouldn’t dare consider, I don’t know. But in the aftermath of that perfect storm of chaos, it should be noted that this has been an extraordinary season, led by a coach whose principles are intact, trying to make magic with a bruised, battered team, both mentally and physically. And this will be true whatEVER happens tomorrow.

      • blitzen
        April 23, 2012

        I’ll just add to that, this quote from Pep’s post-match presser:

        “They have been working since August. You ask for the same as ever but there are times when, after playing for everything for four years, it’s hard.”

        (Quote blatantly stolen from Sid Lowe’s Guardian piece.)

      • nzm
        April 23, 2012

        Thanks Kevin – your eloquence just calmed me down again.

        I was writing a longer piece in Pep’s defence, (not that he needs any), but you’ve said it for me.

      • tiaali
        April 23, 2012

        Hear, hear, Kxevin!. What could one possibly add to this?? Absolutely NADA!

      • Gogah
        April 23, 2012

        It seems like saying anything in this forum without a lengthy justification (which i didnt have the time or energy to do) is like throwing candy into a room full of fat kids.

        firstly, nzm, always love your comments.

        As for Pep, I consider myself his biggest fan.
        I have my reasons which made me say what I did. I may not be a full time journalist like the author of this post. Sometimes I want to articulate myself, other times I just express what I feel.

        But since there are people who seem to KNOW pep way more and what sort of a man he is, I’ll refrain from commenting anything negative.

  3. April 23, 2012

    Pep Guardiola has forgotten more about coaching than I will ever even be able to comprehend. I will assume that his lineup was based on realistic evaluations of the available talent, and leave it at that.

    And it almost worked. Tello had a fine match. As nzm notes, you have to pick your nattles. I’m sure one big reason fir the European pre season is the havoc that jetting about to hoover up money wreaked on the side.

    But it’s also fatigue, mental more than physical. If you consider the strain that our players have been under for FOUR SEASONS, it’s a wonder they aren’t all institutionalized by now. Look at what has physically happened to Guardiola in the brief time span he has been coaching. People don’t age that much in a decade. Now imagine the players, and what they must be going through, the knocks, various aches and pains that athletes strive to play through.

    If this season has a face, it is in part Xavi’s mask of frustration and anger. No matter how much you want it, sometimes it isn’t there.

    And don’t underestimate the cumulative effects of the absences of Villa and Abidal, particularly the latter. Suddenly without that gazelle back there, Puyol and Mascherano

    • April 23, 2012

      …have to run more, cover more ground. That effect is immense, particularly for a player who has never been renowned for his pace.

      Up front, the absence of a legitimate threat places so much syrain on Messi, Argentina-like NT strain. Pedro, Tello, Cuenca you can play when they get the ball. Villa demands a defender at all times. Huge difference.

      Stuff happens. Now there is tomorrow. And we see.

    • nzm
      April 23, 2012

      Yup.

      Listing our squad and those who have been injured at some time during the season:

      VV – none
      Alves – yes
      Pique – yes
      Cesc – yes
      Puyol – yes
      Xavi – yes – a few weeks ago, he was put on a special training program in an attempt to keep him healthy until the end of season
      Villa – yes – long term
      Iniesta – yes
      Sanchez – yes – more than once
      Messi – no – well certainly nothing that kept him off the pitch
      Thiago – yes
      Pinto – none
      Mascherano – none
      Keita – yes
      Busquets – yes
      Pedro – yes
      Maxwell – yes and then he was gone
      Afellay – yes – long term
      Adriano – yes – more than once
      Abidal – yes – damnit, in the worst possible way
      Cuenca – no
      Fontas – yes – long term

      5 out of 22 players has not been injured this season – and 2 of those are goal-keepers.

      That’s just the physical side because, as Kevin’s pointed out, look at the psychological side of this season. As well as dealing with the pressure of 4 years at the top and the demand to win trophies, they’ve had to cope with:
      ~ Tito’s illness
      ~ Abidal’s illness and drawn out renewal process
      ~ Villa’s bad injury
      ~ Pep’s as-of-now still unresolved renewal process

      I’d be a quivering wreck curled up on the floor by now.

      Pep is one helluva man.

      • April 23, 2012

        Crikey. That’s crazy.

      • April 23, 2012

        The muscle injuries which Barca are sustaining are the type you acquire when you don’t have a proper pre-season.

        Barca are paying the price for a stupid pre-season tour.

        It’s no surprise that the club have already announced that this pre-season will be spent in Europe.

        http://www.chalkontheboots.wordpress.com

      • BarcaOwl
        April 23, 2012

        When you put it like that, it sure puts things into perspective.

  4. Gogah
    April 23, 2012

    Summoning the good vibes, Prediction time!

    Barca vs Chelsea :
    4 – 1 (wishful thinking)
    3 – 1 (what will probably happen)

    EE vs Bayern :
    1 – 1 (wishful thinking)
    3 – 1 (what will probably happen)

  5. blitzen
    April 23, 2012

    This would be a good time for a SoMa post…

  6. April 23, 2012

    Pique in his presser today, was excellent. A few choice tidbits:

    “We’re living such a beautiful period that we often don’t realize the value of what we have. We must give it our all”

    “Being on the bench is a new experience for me, it’s a technical choice and I have to respect it.”

    “We, the team, have won a lot and we deserve more credit.”

  7. Josep
    April 23, 2012

    i miss samu

    • Blau-Grenade
      April 23, 2012

      I miss Eto’o too.

      • Jim
        April 23, 2012

        I miss Pique….

  8. April 23, 2012

    I thought Pep’s line up vs. Madrid made a great deal of sense given the context of where the team is and it’s health.

    And tactically it made a great deal of sense. You could see exactly what he was thinking and there was a real logic to it.

    Ultimately the execution was just missing.

    But given the context of the injuries and players being off form there really wasn’t much flexibility.

    Don’t think anyone is as focused on winning as Pep and this group of players.

  9. April 23, 2012

    so in terms of the cl, assuming we go through (huge assumption, not taking anything for granted) am I the only one who wants another shot at EE?

    • April 23, 2012

      No, particularly with that R&R break before the Final.

  10. April 23, 2012

    Henry at training today in a surprise visit to the club.

  11. messifan
    April 23, 2012

    I love Pique’s presser today. So eloquent and thoughtful; he should do that more often.

    We will win and advance tomorrow. I’m usually wrong with my predictions because I tend to waver a lot. BUT tomorrow’s game is one of the few times I firmly believe in.

    I know what this team is capable of doing. My favorite games this season are those when they have to dig deep to get results. I’m talking about the Sporting game at the Camp Nou where Messi didn’t play and we were down to ten men early in the second half. Somehow we won 3-1. Yes, Sporting were not great but I loved that game. Another game that I truly enjoyed was the Athletic game at the Camp Nou. Two teams going at it, leaving nothing behind. It was beautiful and satisfying.

    At this point, it’s less about our physical state, and more about our mental toughness. This team can and will win tomorrow.

  12. April 23, 2012

    I hope we win on Tuesday. As much as I love La Liga, we’ve been slowly losing it over the past months. Crashing out of the CL will be a much bigger blow (to me, at least) than losing this weekend to RM was.

  13. April 23, 2012

    Read some comments about Barca conceding poor goals.

    They have been doing that each season under Pep. The only real difference being that when it happened, the strikers would always bail the defence out.

    That is not happening anymore.

    Pedro is out of form after returning from injury, Sanchez’ first season disrupted by injury too (although he has been very good) and Villa out long term, it leaves Messi to score. With Xavi tiring, Messi drops deeper and there is nobody up front.

    The current problems revolve around the top of the pitch.

    Fit strikers mean chances are taken and, most importantly, opponents are closed down quickly.

    Lack of pressing allows opponents to put more pressure on the defence.

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