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.
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.