So, there was this lumberjack named Paul Bunyan, and what a lumberjack he was. When he came into the world, it took not one, but five storks to bring him home. His hand claps and laughter broke windows and he was sawing legs off beds even though he could barely walk. He made a mountain, though he didn’t really know he was doing so, simply by piling rocks to put out his Bunyan-sized campfire.
Mes que un lumberjack Bunyan is described as being “64 axe handles high,” which by the 18-inch measurement of the average axe handle, makes him about 95 feet tall. And he traveled with the only blue ox in the history of mankind, Babe, who was sized to the same colossal scale as Paul Bunyan.
Obviously, there was no Paul Bunyan. There might have been a logger by the name of Paul Bunjean, who battled the British during a rebellion. But there was no ox, and he sure as heck wasn’t almost 95 feet tall. But as legends go, it’s difficult for even Paul Bunyan to match the legend of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
The Treble season came and went, and everyone knew that team was going to be great, followed it every step of the way as it made history. Everyone was there, remembering where they were when X or Y event happened. It was magic, the stuff of real-life legend, which makes it even cooler than the folklore tales of a giant lumberjack.
Except, as with legends, exes and great meals, people always lay on an extra layer of rose-colored paint.
The reality of the Treble season was lots of doubt, so much so that the phrase “In Pep We Trust,” punctuation moving from question mark to exclamation point, came to be coined by less-querrulous supporters. The club whomped on folks and was celebrated, even as nobody really believed it was going to win a whole lot of much of anything until the 2-6 hammering of RM that put paid to notions that they were going to be able to catch that remarkable team. Then came the Champions League and everything else, and the legend grew, to the point that it is now impossible for any subsequent lumberjacks to even go near a tree without the capacity to suffer fools.
Martino, in the post-match press conference, defended his decision to substitute Alex Song from idiots who somehow conflate the “wrong” player with a failure of some sort. And for Iniesta, no less! For shame! First Barça are outpossessed, and now this? Really? Martino said he would do it again, a contention that he had to make because of the Legend of Pep Guardiola.
In that Legend, these wondrous little people would keep a ball the whole match, and won every match 327-0. And it was wonderful. And the world cheered.
In fact, the team was at times erratic, and so capricious was Guardiola with his tactics and lineups that it became a pre-match guessing game, as he shifted players to match up with teams and potential situations. One of his favorite players was Seydou Keita, a player who, like Song, culers have a difficult time with. Because myth has even made Keita into a brilliant midfielder, a favorite of the Man of Legend, who was brilliant. Therefore …
Let’s be clear: Guardiola was a delight of a coach who did wonderful things for the club that I love so much. And it isn’t his fault that people have made his tenure into a Bunyanesque myth. Much respect for what he did.
And if Guardiola was still coaching this club, or asked truly what he thought, I rather imagine that he would call those culers, pundits and other tongue-waggers, fools.
Euler and I were chatting about this myth on Twitter, and he phrased it in a rather elegant way:
To me the heart of the issue is that there was no single “Guardiola model.” People are creating cultural countermemories now. Guardiola’s gift to Barca was to enact a framework of principles that were coupled w/ a drive to experiment, adapt & change.
Every season he enacted a major experiment in the model. There was no 1 stable “way to play.” People are extracting a kind of caricature & calling that history. But then that happens so often in creative endeavors. Guardiola was a genius. But he didn’t erect a prison. He built cathedrals. And like so many cathedrals they were never designed to be finished. … It’s equally important to accurately remember what he did do. He set the framework for what Barca should be. But those were tools to use. Not pillars of a temple.
And yet, the Myth demands that Martino be questioned. Fabio Capello said that “Tata deals with the same as myself when I took over from the legendary Arrigo Sacchi, who had won everything, at Milan” Except in our case, Martino is dealing with a Myth.
Further, UNlike Guardiola, who had two trophyless seasons as the crumbling foundation for the trust he acquired, Martino has a Legend. It’s like people have forgotten that in Guardiola’s last season, the club won the Copa. They have apparently eliminated Vilanova from history, like last year never happened. As with Vilanova, Martino is taking over from Guardiola. If another coach, not of Legend won only a Copa, culers would be calling for his head. But through those rosy spectacles, it’s still Treble time, not time for Guardiola to leave.
Leaving as suddenly as he did just rooted the Legend even more deeply. People blamed Rosell and board disputes, questioned everything except the simple, cold reality that maybe, just maybe, as it was when Guardiola sold Ronaldinho, just that time.
Vilanova came in and improved upon the previous season, winning La Liga with a record points total while battling cancer. But that wasn’t good enough, because of the Legend. Instead, it was “Stupid 100 points record cost us Thiago. He lost 7-0 to Bayern. He should have rotated more.” Because Legend makes people forget that Guardiola’s starting lineups became as predictable as the tika taka style that opponents figured out.
In came Martino, who is doing everything that Guardiola did: tactical variance based on match situations, spot-on substitutions, juggling lineups in a way that makes him unpredictable, and more, including … real rotation. And a player isn’t sitting on the bench. He isn’t even in the squad. Martino is doing everything right, including having just ended a recent record of futility against RM, including avenging last season’s 1-3 loss. He should be getting accolades, as rose petals keep his loafers from striking the pavement.
Instead he is being second-guessed by fools, because of a Legend. One almost imagines that Martino will win a Treble, and people will say “Well, he didn’t win it in the right way, so he still sucks.”
I rather imagine that he doesn’t care, which makes him the perfect man for the job. It’s easy to suffer fools when you don’t really care what they say, as you sit atop the Liga and your Champions League group. You understand legend, and you say things like, when you and the club came across a rebroadcast of the Manita of Legend, “I’d love to play like that …”
And you understand that in a world of teams who have reconfigured themselves to stop exactly what it is that we did as if by rote, playing like that just isn’t that easy in the here and now. As people measure a coach against a Myth, they would do well to remember that, even though they won’t, because Myth finds everything wanting.
I can only speculate that Myth is at the core of the Disgruntled Culer. Everything was so much more magical back then, all Coldplay, “Gladiator” motivational videos and skinny ties. And eleventeen trophies every year. Remember? “Why can’t we play like that again?” The chagrin is too deep for the doubters to realize that we are playing like that again, as Martino innovates with lineup selection and tactics, just as Guardiola did.
Looking back at the 1993 season manita that the Cruijff team laid on RM, and you see times where Barça had a packed midfield and 9 behind the ball, a lone attacker waiting for the long pass to set him loose. You would also see an attack that looked very much like today’s Barça, with short, controlling passes that probed for an opening. There was even (shudder!) a long ball over the top for the third goal. 1+2=3. So does 1-4, or 1.5×2. You can divide 18 by 6, as well.
And in the many ways to get to three points, it seems that all of them these days are inadequate, because of a Myth. It’s a shame, because people, in the blind, Sisyphean quest to make reality live up to myth, are depriving themselves of the singular joy of watching a football team develop into, potentially, something extraordinary.
The land of men
Today, unbidden, Ander Herrera admitted that he took a dive, and apologized. On live TV. Said Herrera, “We moan about the refs, but I tried to con him there. I’m sorry.”
In another manly move, Elche, after a racist incident during a match in which Allan Nyom of Granada, a black player, kicked the ball into the stands at the abusers and refused to continue until the ref acknowledged the abuse, owned up to the incident, and apologized. Yes, Spain’s anti-violence commission is investigating the incident.
For me, this is a tiny, baby step in the right direction. Elche is easy. When monkey chants of the sort I could clearly hear directed at Marcelo on my BeIN Classic feed in the 85th minute (others with different feeds didn’t hear such things, such as the one from Sky Sports), happen in a situation that forces a ref to take notice, and that same committee has to deal with a big club, what then? Some are skeptical, cynical and say that it’s easy to take on Elche. And they are right. All we can do is hope that officials don’t chicken out as the CSKA/Manchester City ref did, and take matters on full bore.
Meanwhile, unlike CSKA who denied that anything took place despite assertions from players and an official complaint filed by City, Elche owned up to the nastiness. “The club expresses its total rejection of the racist behavior of a very small sector of the stands.”
Indeed. At present, Spain lags far behind England in how such matters are dealt with. Here’s hoping that this incident is a step along the right path.