Time is an amazing thing.
It rips at us, it nags us, it slips away from us, it’s one of the few things in life that you can, in no way shape or form, get more of. Time spawns regret, rueful “If onlys” that fuel nights of introspection, in which you waste more time worrying about the time you wasted. Time sneaks up on you.
I think of a wonderful song lyric by Bonnie Raitt, that goes Life gets mighty precious/When there’s less of it to waste. That’s time. They say that sometimes, you have to be older to appreciate things, that young people feel they have all the time in the world but when life puts some time on your bones, then you realize how pretty those roses smell.
I dunno. What I do know is this: I have never, ever seen a sporting entity do what this football club does.
I have watched the 6-time champion Chicago Bulls, I have watched the 1985 Super Bowl Chicago Bears. I have watched Patriots, and Celtics, and teams that shaped and redefined expectations. But there was a moment today, when the match was functionally over. It was 4-0, substitutions had been made, it was only a question of when the final whistle would blow. An Espanyol player got the ball, and Barça players converged on him to press as though it was minute 1 and the issue was still in doubt.
A football match is 90 minutes long. In that time, a great many things can happen. What has been happening for me of late, is a realization that I will never in my lifetime see anything in a sporting realm that is this good. Ever. I don’t really know if people realize it, though. If they watch that absurd, should-be-illegal pass that Busquets dropped at Pedro’s feet from about the parking lot, and think “Hmph! About time Pedro scored a damn goal!”
Or if, like me, they just don’t say anything because what can you say, really? Sure, you can whoop and cheer at the goal but really, what is there to be said? Today’s match had moment after moment after moment like that, where I realized how astonishing this all is. Day by day, match by match, this incredible moment slips away, and we shouldn’t let it go anywhere unappreciated.
I’m 51, and have a wife. We don’t fight. Because that time that you spend being a jackass is time you can’t get back. I tell her that I love her every day, because what it I can’t tomorrow? Life is filled with moments, little slivers of time that vex and bedazzle, awe and amaze. This is what I find myself thinking about, more and more, as I watch FC Barcelona play football these days. Time and beauty reduce us to hoarding. So you watch the match, then you watch it again. Then you watch the highlights on the evening football show. Then someone nifty like Allas makes a video, and you watch that — because you want everything that you can get. You don’t know why you want it, even as you do: It’s amazing.
Tito Vilanova was back on the bench today, in charge of the wrecking machine that he has refined. He came out with his best team, of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi and Pedro. And that team was fit. Fully fit. And just back from a holiday break to face an Espanyol side fresh off taking points from our bitterest rivals, and spoiling for a fight in the Catalan Derby.
And that side was destroyed. Espanyol didn’t have a chance in this match, so much so that afterward, its coach, Javier Aguirre, said, “It’s a privilege to play in the same league as this Barcelona and to watch them in action from nearby.”
This is a special team.
Yes, there are people who hate the club, its supporters and the obnoxious, spoiled way in which too many of them comport themselves. The Gaspart years were more than a decade ago. More time. The two Rijkaard silverless seasons, my most bitter memories as a cule because of the waste, the inexcusable waste of talent and magic and joy, seem so far away that people forget — the Guardiola era began in 2008, just five years ago. Winning Time seems to go on forever, but in fact it’s only a second. A wee sliver of time in which your club is the best club that anybody has ever seen. Four years and counting? Sure. Time doesn’t care about that. Four years is nothing.
Someone asked me how the players can remain, sustain and keep the concentration and the hunger. And again, for me it came down to time. I said what I thought, which is that players are aware of their time, and how short periods of excellence are. And they feel like they are wasting time when they aren’t winning, performing to the ultimate maximum of their potential.
At today’s post-match presser, Vilanova said “The players trained well during the holidays. Most even lost weight, it shows they’ve taken it seriously.”
Tick …. tick …. tick …. tick
What about David Villa, why isn’t Sanchez scoring more goals, what about Pedro, when will we stop giving up silly goals? I don’t know, and I don’t really care all that much because I don’t want to be adjusting my blanket at the observation point when the comet comes by.
As Barça was laying waste to its crosstown rival, it wasn’t with anger, that scowl that you see some teams playing with, as if something is needed — a goad to excellence. The faces had a concentration, a businesslike stare that seemed all too acutely aware of how fleeing excellence is as they focused on not wasting a second of it.
One day my wife and I were walking home, and this squirrel was bounding along, barely touching the pavement between hops. “I wonder why it’s doing that,” I said. My wife replied, “Wouldn’t you, if you could?” Yep. So, at 4-0 up, Pedro, of the brace that shoulda been a hat trick, ran at the keeper as if that dude owed him money, ran at him so fast and so aggressively that a leisurely clearance became an almost goal. It was effort, energy and desire.
Conor Williams noted on Twitter that divine talent is an illusion about this Barça, that its success is rooted in effort and desire. This is true. When you think about it, really, really think about it, yes, we have extremely talented players. But how often do they have the opportunity to show off that talent? We all hear the stories that in practice, things happen that would boggle our minds. But the match is about execution of the simple tasks, the fundamentals of the rondo, the short, simple passing and movement that when stitched together become a quilt of the most unfathomable beauty. It’s work, work by athletes who have somewhere to be, and time is running out for them to get there.
On Saturday, Ryan Giggs flicked a honey of a pass to Robin Van Persie, who slotted home from an angle. I noted on Twitter that perhaps this club has spoiled me, because that moment was, for the average cule, something you see in match after match. I also noted that we have a left/right back who can score goals like that. And it was only after someone said “See, that’s why people hate cules” that I realized a simple statement of fact could be taken the wrong way. But it’s true. And that’s just one more moment that makes you realize you are seeing something truly, truly special in this edition of Barça.
Look at today’s first goal, a stitched-together wonder of a thing that was started and ended, improbably, by Xavi. If you really, really think about it, you just don’t see goals like that, even as they have become almost routine for cules. We cheer, because that’s what you do even as, if you were to really stop and think about it, some part of you would want to stare at the screen and weep with joy at having seen something rare and beautiful.
The Treble-winning club was wonderful, but this club brings me more joy in ways that are hard to explain, but are rooted in time. In 2008 there was a system, but there was also staggering attacking brilliance in that murderers’ row of Henry/Messi/Eto’o. There was no real adversity, just amazement that in one season, the guy who many cules considered a bad choice as the club’s coach, won everything in sight.
This Barça has seen everything: injuries routine, nagging and horrific, and cancer taking a swing at its left back and coach. And it has run that gantlet only to come out on the other side with an 11 and 16 point lead over the second and third placed clubs in the table, as the club with the best start ever in Liga history, having dropped only two points in 18 matches, a side that plays with joy rather than malice, even as it sometimes spawns malicious intent.
It should be noted about today’s match that for me, Messi played his best match in a long time. The joy was back in his game, a delight probably rooted in the fact that he doesn’t have to be The Man. Xavi is scoring goals, making the runs of a forward to slot home crosses. Pedro had his brace by the half. The goals are coming, and they’re coming from others. As this happens, you can see Messi expanding his range. Today he was a defensive demon as well as an offensive one. When he plays that way, he makes the club unbeatable.
Is Pedro back? Good question. His work rate and dedication have always been there, but he seemed magnetized to the ball today in a way not seen since his breakout season.
Everyone was a delight to watch, from Iniesta seeming to dematerialize when confronted by a wall of Espanyol defenders, to Busquets demonstrating the vertical passing gifts that he has been adding to his game. Valdes preserved the clean sheet, coming up with a brilliant 1-v-1 save in a match in which he could be forgiven for losing focus.
Espanyol is in the relegation zone, we shouldn’t forget. And they were having a four-match run of success under new coach Aguirre. I was worried about this fixture, just as I will be worried about Malaga, and all the rest of them. The ingredients for failure were there: holiday break, resurgent opponent with something to play for, rust.
What I neglected to factor into my worrying is that this is a club that is racing to keep an appointment. Who knows if it will? None of us can. What I do know is that something remarkable is happening, and we’d all better be paying attention because I honestly don’t believe that we will ever see its like again.