Of Ibra, Identity and the Differing Attitudes towards Sports Stars


Because she doesn’t have a mod’s login any longer, I have to publish this under my name. But this is an absolutely fascinating piece on the psychology of Ibrahimovic, and why he didn’t fit it at Barça, by Kari. It’s lovely to have her voice in these parts again, and let’s hope this isn’t a one-off.

A man sits on a barcalounger, hands folded in his lap as gazes out the window. His therapist listens attentively as he says, “My life right now is really good. I have a wife and two kids, live in a sunny, dream destination town, my co-workers are nice, upstanding guys, the workplace environment is very healthy, and I’m doing really well at my dream job where I make an obscene amount of money.”

The man pauses, scrubs at his face. “But I feel so…empty inside. My confidence is at an all time low, and I don’t feel like myself at all. I’m in this funk, you know, feel really depressed all the time, and I don’t – I don’t understand.”

So an interesting thing happened the other day. We won a Clasico and I was exiled out of the house because people couldn’t stand seeing my smiling mug derping all over the place. Okay, not actually true – I decided to go out myself, but at any rate I ended up going to a local bookstore (complete with comfy chairs and a Starbucks) because that’s what I do for fun.

In said bookstore, I bee lined for the sports section which is like 65% hockey and picked up two books to read that stood out to me. The first was The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, for reasons I will detail below, and the second was a pleasant surprise – I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ibra’s autobiography. I heard a lot about the book obviously, but I hadn’t really expected to find it in a medium sized bookstore (Chapters, for you Canadians) in Ottawa. So I went to a nearby chair, got settled, and cracked it open, curious to read what Ibra had to say.

Let me tell you: it was a humdinger, and I don’t even use that word in casual conversation. I couldn’t put it down.

Ibra was brutally honest, didn’t pull any punches, and the book was better for it. In all honestly, though I didn’t agree with some of his reasoning for his decisions, and I thought he could do with some better advice in his life, I understood them and I can see clearly why he made them. I came into the autobiography not really knowing what to expect and came out with a new found appreciation for Ibra.

The greatest praise I can give it is, he made me think. He reminded me football players, no, athletes in general, are people, just like you and me. And while you think, duh, what were you thinking before, let me just say I mean that at a fundamentally deeper level.

But before I get into that I want you all the get a taste of what kind of background Ibra has, the kind of culture (of prejudice and overcoming them) he grew up in and how it molded him into the person he is.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic grew up in Rosengård, a district in Malmo, Sweden that was home to many immigrants – Somalis, Poles, Serbs, etc – with two siblings, a older sister and a younger brother, a hardworking mother who Ibra says “had no luck with men”, and house full of other family members, including a drug addict half-sister. His father and mother divorced when Ibra was young and it wasn’t until social services separated Ibra and his sister that he found out his dad was an alcoholic that was so messed up by the Balkan War he had to drink away his sorrow. Previously, the ten year old Ibra thought his dad was the “fun weekend father” that bought he and his sister pizza and Coke they could never get otherwise.

He details how he spent a lot of his time at a child care centre, because his mother worked fourteen hours a day, and how he struggled in an environment where he constantly felt like he didn’t belong. He makes a point to say his family was nothing the typical Swedish family that said things like, Darling, please pass the milk, over the table (his family, he notes, would say, Get it yourself, asshole!). One time he fell off the roof as a child and he came to the centre crying, expecting a hug or some form of consoling gesture, only to get smacked upside the head and berated for being on the roof in the first place. Ibra had a speech impairment complete with a lisp that had to be trained out of him as a child.

All throughout his childhood, adolescent and young adult life Ibra was dogged by “bad boy” label, the image that he was nothing but trouble. At school, he gives an anecdote on how he was good at math, could understand numbers easily, but lazy to show his work – and his teacher assumed he was cheating because they didn’t expect a guy like him – rowdy, gets kicked out of class – not to. And as his grades struggled, he was saddled with special one-on-one teacher which Ibra notes really messed him up. It affected his self-worth, his confidence, his perception on how people saw him. Another anecdote he gives is how he mustered up the courage to ask out a girl and then thought he was stood up because she hadn’t come at the scheduled time – he beats himself up, thinking, as if a girl like her would go out
with “the kid with the special teacher following him around at school.” Turned out the girl’s bus was late and she was upset when she didn’t see him there.

For Ibra, his only solace was football. It wasn’t even that he was better than anyone else when he was young, he just kicked around the ball, played with the kids on the streets, because what else did he have to do, really? He got those collectable cards of footballers, like those kids in the US collect baseball cards of their heroes, at stores when he had the money. He’d see Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee on the TV and admired them, particularly Ali.


Even when he played for Malmo FF, his hometown team, he didn’t really think he’d be professional until a guy on trial for them told him, “If you’re not professional in three years, it’s your own fault.”

He’d never gotten that kind of encouragement before – his dad wasn’t like other football fathers who supported their kid at a young age – and he started to think, hey, maybe, I could. Ibra himself used to say he talked big back in the day, like when he shouted back to his Italian teacher once that he’d learn the language when he played in Serie A, but that he didn’t actually believe he could make it.

A pivotal day in his life and his career was when his dad came to the Malmo training ground one day. A visit apropos of nothing (though Ibra would speculate it was because his father had been in a low point in his life, with Ibra’s mom and sister drifting from him a bit, particularly Ibra’s sister who Ibra said was the “apple of my father’s eye.”) his father had come to the ground, cleaned up and spiffy in a grey suit jacket, and looked so proud of Ibra that he felt buoyed by something for the first time in his life.

Since that day, his father followed the team religiously, cut out newspaper clippings about Ibra, and his dad’s suite because a “shrine to him.” In fact Ibra would change the name on the back of his shirt from “Zlatan” to “Ibrahimovic” in honor of his father, who he rediscovered that day and is still close to even now.

From there, Ibra became professional, moved to Ajax where he met van Basten, who he would admire for being “independent” and who gave him the advice that if he knew his own way, he shouldn’t listen to coaches. People still thought Ibra was unbalanced, that he was a time-bomb waiting to explode, and Ibra was getting tired of those thoughts that were never said but always implied – though Ibra did note he was a wild child. A case of ‘ people keep seeing you one way, what’s the difference if you become that way, anyway?’ And Ibra does admit that though he himself wasn’t a bad kid, he and bad friends gravitated to each other, like magnets.

Eventually the idea of “I’ll show them”, of him being against the world, became his philosophy. If he was always seen as an outsider and a loose cannon, then f it all, he was going to embrace it. He was the guy who drove red Ferraris because he loved fast, flashy cars – but more importantly, to show he made it.


Yeah, he was the kid with the special one-on-one teacher, the kid from the broken home, the kid no one expected would be anything other than a criminal, but he’d made it. He was good at what he did. He wouldn’t change himself to fit in anymore, because he stood out regardless, and it was better for him and his self-esteem that he embraced his “otherness” than reject it for people who wouldn’t truly accept him, anyway.

Ibra, in many ways, reminded me of those kids with crippling self-esteem issues who hid their insecurity with bravado and a cocky attitude. In fact, he so much as says it himself. The difference is he channelled all of that into his training, worked harder, ran faster, so that all that hot air would be reality. He wouldn’t just be the guy who talked the talk, but walked it too. Not at all surprising for a guy who heavily admired Muhammad Ali, a man who defied all conventional thought for athletes his day and was as deadly with his words as he was with his fists.

And Ibra succeeded. The misunderstood kid with a chip on his shoulder who fought against the prejudices against him (tabloids constantly derided him for being bad news and he always made headlines for the wrong reasons) became one of the most celebrated players in the world. The kid who wanted to be special and liked for the right reasons now had people chanting, “Zlatan, Zlatan” wherever he goes and he was the idol of the country he felt he was an outsider to.

It was a fascinating biography that I recommend, but it really got me thinking about this other theory I’ve had simmering at the back of my mind but could never really fully articulate. Now, I think I can and it has to do with the different attitudes towards sport.

Remember that Bill Simmons book I talked about earlier? In the end, I didn’t really read it since I was so engrossed with the Ibra bio I hadn’t found the time. But the reason I picked it up was for two reasons: 1) I like basketball and I wanted to read more about it, but more importantly, 2) every time I read a book, or an article by someone from North America, particularly the US, it’s always a jarring experience and I’ll tell you why. It’s something that intrigues me.

The only sport I follow closely is football, particularly football in Spain, specifically Barcelona. The attitude in Barcelona with regards to team dynamics is this: you are subservient to the team. The team is always first. No player is being than the club.

That attitude is exacerbated (so to speak) by the culture of humility that Catalans have. To go into it would be a long tangent, but the gist is it stems from the political environment that Catalunya has in contrast to Madrid. They are the simple, humble people who don’t stand out and give into excess whilst Madrid are the opposite – fast cars, wild fashion statements, grandiose personalities., etc.

At Barça, you don’t stand out, you drive the club car, you’re respectful of your teammates, the coaching staff and the club’s history, you listen to the coaches, you have to give everything and sacrifice anything for the team. Remember, to play for Barcelona is a privilege and you are not bigger than the club. You play for Barça, you respect our values. (At least that’s how I see it. Please, correct me if I’ve said something wrong!)

That works for me. I get it. As a Canadian, that’s pretty much how I’ve been conditioned since forever and my personality is such that I have no problems co-operating with people or deferring to others, anyway. This is not to say we don’t know how to lead or that we’re followers; it’s just that we are polite and like to work well with others and not cause any friction.

So in football when you have more than one “star” player on the side, the (sometimes unspoken) expectation is that these two will work together. The media ask them if they can play together and even if one journalist wants to play devil’s advocate and ask them how it feels to be one of many stars instead of the star, the expectation is – there won’t be any problems, or rather, there shouldn’t be any problems.

These guys will put aside whatever egos they have and play for the team. Otherwise, get out. And this is the kicker: if the team starts to rely inordinately on one player, that’s horrible. The worst. The team will be questioned to all hell and scorn will be poured on them. “One-man team,” the detectors will say in disgust. “Take that player out and they’d be so crap.”

And I think in general most countries have that same attitude to team sports. You can’t have one player carrying the team. That’s just not how it should be. It’s a team sport for a reason – all for one, one for all – that sort of thing.

So when I pick up books like The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons I know I will reading things through the lens of someone who has a diametrically opposite view of team sports.

The North American attitude (actually, I should say American, because Canada for the most part has the same view as Europeans re sport) to sports has always interested me, like the whole idea of a team being “yours” and being The Man and how it’s not seen as a bad thing like in football/Europe, and it’s like it’s expected that these top stars will be arrogant(ish), that they’ll stand out in every way, have this grandeur personality and drive flashy cars, etc. And it seems people who grow up in this ‘culture’ seem to expect the worst from the top stars all the time, like it’s normal, and they bring that attitude with them to football and it’s like seeing a clash of two very different ways people view sports stars.

That’s why it’s always jarring when I read books/articles by American people, whether it’s b-ball or when I hear pundits talk about hockey; this sort of jaded attitude, like this constant imagine of what a (star) athlete should be is constantly perpetuated – this whole big man on campus thing- and it’s really alien to me, like I’ve never seen this mythical arrogant sports star outside the US (even Canadian hockey players are drilled to be humble or whatever) to the point where I can’t help but think the athletes themselves buy into it too; that when they “make it” they think that’s the way they’re supposed to act. Like fans shouldn’t expect loyalty, they’ll leave for more money, they will always put themselves before anyone else, but they will carry the team, “step up”, etc.

It really fascinates me, the cynicism. In Ottawa there was this hockey player, Dany Heatley, who was a big star, I think – why else would people care so much? – and there was this big circus about how he was leaving for more money or something and people were really pissed off, betrayed, but there was this undercurrent of, well, what did you expect? He’s a star athlete.

He’s got swagger and the skill to back it up. Only thinks about himself but it’s expected cos that’s how it goes. I see it in basketball too. As a pal of mine, @Jniceee17 on Twitter, said, “It’s true. LeBron, Kobe, etc. are expected to be THE MAN. There are debates daily on ESPN about how if LeBron doesn’t take the final shot… he’s hiding, and how they have to be selfish at the end of games. It’s pretty incredible.”

You have the story of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant at LA Lakers. While Kobe worked with Shaq and won together, they couldn’t stand each other because they both felt they were the best.

And so you have me who perceives things through the team > all lens, that it’s expected that players will submit to the club, and on my twitter account there’s other people who have that other mindset, that jaded one where they expect the worst of footy players, that they will hold the club hostage for more money in contract negotiations, that there will be friction between star players because they’ve seen it before, with Shaq and Kobe – and it’s really jarring. Not bad, per se. Just different.

Then I read Ibra’s autobiography and I gained new insight into the nature of his departure from Barça.

Ibra in many ways was a player with an American mentality dropped into a team that had a diametrically opposite view to everything that Zlatan felt made him who he was. Ibra had all the tools to succeed at Barça but chose to preserve his own perceived identity instead. If someone told me when he was sold that he’d leave his dream because of that instead of something more shallow like wanting to be The Man, well. I don’t know what I would have thought because that stuff’s significantly deeper than the football fandom is used to.

The reason he liked Mourinho was because Mou gave Ibra extra attention, made him feel special like he was The Man. In his autobiography he says he didn’t know what to think of Mourinho, knew his journey from translator to coach and was intrigued by his story in England, already indentified and sympathized with Mou’s status as the bombastic foreigner with unusual swagger (he was an outsider, a feeling Ibra was intimately acquainted with), but he didn’t know him. Then Mourinho texted him constantly, told Ibra’s partner specifically to take care of Ibra, and Ibra was instantly won over. Mourinho pushed him, fought with him, and Ibra understood him better than any of the coaches he’d had. Because him and Mou – they were cut from the same cloth. They started from the bottom up. They were outsiders who beat the system, so to speak. They were guys driven by their passion; they fight tooth and nail one second, be the best of buddies the next.

At Barça, the club and Guardiola treated Ibra like he was just one of the guys. Who cares if he was the most expensive signing in Barça history; he’s here now and it’s just like everyone else. He doesn’t fly in private jets, he doesn’t drive his Ferraris, he respects his teammates, and listens to the coach unconditionally. He’s polite, humble and a team player. There is no man here, only the team.

And he struggled with that.

“Here everyone did as they were told. I didn’t fit in, not at all. I thought, Just enjoy the opportunity. Don’t confirm their prejudices. So I started to adapt and blend in. I became way too nice. It was mental. [..] I was the second most expensive player in history, and the papers wrote that I was a problem child and had a flawed character, all the rubbish you can imagine, and unfortunately I was feeling the pressure of everything – that here at Barça we don’t make a show and stuff, and I guess I wanted to prove that I could do it too.”

He makes a point to mention Messi coming to Barça at 13, being “raised in that culture”, and you get the feeling he’s thinking, if I adapt here, if I fit in, I’ll be assimilated. I’ll change and I’ll be throwing away the person I am to become the person someone else wants me to be. I’ll be changing for them instead of them accepting me. It’ll be like my life as teen again. He always had that chip on his shoulder, of being the misunderstood outsider, and he used the rage and insecurity he felt and channelled it into his football. Trained harder, thinking, I’ll show them, and when he came to Barça – his teammates were nice, ridiculously talented, accommodating. There was no push and pull, no bite, no bravado or a need to impress. He suffered what essentially read like an identity crisis : a man who built his life bashing through barriers found himself with no obstacles to break though. That constant battle, the passion, was gone, and Ibra felt he had gone with it.

And well, what can you say to that?

“I said what I thought people wanted me to say. It was completely messed up. I drove the club’s Audi and stood there and nodded my head the way I did when I was in school, or rather the way I should have done when I was at school. I hardly even yelled at my teammates any more. I was boring. Zlatan was no longer Zlatan.”

Ibra acknowledges, “I started off the season brilliantly. I scored one goal after another. We won the UEFA Supercup. I was amazing. I dominated the pitch. Yet I was a different person. Something happened – nothing serious, not yet, but still. I grew quiet, and that’s dangerous – believe me. I used to be angry to play well. I used to shout and make noise. Now I was keeping it inside. Maybe it something to do with the press. I dunno. [..] I was still awesome on the pitch. It just wasn’t as much fun anymore.”

He also says: “Mino Raiola, my agent and good friend, said to me, “What’s up with you, Zlatan? I don’t recognize you.” Nobody recognized me – none of my mates, no one at all. I started to feel down, and you have to know that, ever since my days at Malmo FF, I’ve had the same philosophy: I do things my way.

“I don’t give a damn what people think, and I’ve never enjoyed being around uptight people. I like guys who go through red lights, if you know what I mean. Now, though, I wasn’t saying what I wanted to say.”

It’s clear there is a clash of cultures and identity here, but a key difference is that he didn’t begrudge Leo Messi at all. He says: “Lionel Messi is awesome. He’s totally amazing. I don’t know him all that well. We’re very different people. He joined Barça when he was thirteen years old. He’s been brought up in that culture and doesn’t have a problem with that school crap. Within the team, play centres around him, which is entirely natural – he’s brilliant.”

The problem was that Ibra thought he was brilliant too, and didn’t want to be sacrificed by the team. He wanted to be the one the team centred around. I don’t adapt to you, you adapt to me. You brought me here with a record transfer, I’m the star, I earned it, listen to me. He couldn’t understand why the others were so obedient, it was like being in not just another country, but on a different planet entirely.

“To be honest none of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang – they were like schoolboys. The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed, and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous. If the trainers in Italy say, “Jump” the stars will look at them and go, What are they on about? Why should we jump?”

So fundamentally, from a philosophical point of view, Barcelona and Ibra didn’t match at all. So many times when we talk about a transfer in football, we talk about the player’s skill set and remove the background and personality of the player. We think in “cold terms” so to speak. Forget the person, we talk about the player. Only here, the person was completely unsuitable to the team and it blindsided a lot of fans when we sold him. Reading the biography, there was no other option than to sell Ibra, it was inevitable, but from the outside, it was totally baffling. Almost inconceivable that we’d sell the most expensive player in Barça history after a season.

It’s all too easy to see players as fictional characters, because football is a spectacle for our entertainment and their players personal lives is just one more thing to draw some kind of amusement from. By ignoring his background, how he got to where he is, we missed the neon lights that would have told us Ibra and Barça were like oil and water with regardless to their philosophies.

Imagine coming to another country and the people there essentially said, we don’t know where you came from but buy into our, completely different, culture. If you’ve got to leave behind yours, then so be it. Obviously it wasn’t that black and white, but that’s essentially what the issue here is, and it’s about a million times more sympathetic than the ego show journos and fans were trotting out. This is some deep stuff.

Going back to the clash of mentalities between American and non-American sports fans, a pal made a great point in saying that the reason Ibra has been turned into this kind of memetic badass in football fandom – “I am Zlatan! Who are you?” – is the American type of personality he has. We are always talking about something he’s done or in awe of the way he goes, “I’m the best” but that’s done regularly by athletes in US.

Then you have the people who grew up in the American culture of the man, of big swaggering athletes, and they take that mindset and all that baggage with them when they go to footy and view it through that lens. They see Henry and Eto’o and Messi and think it’s only a matter of time before there’s friction or a bust up, because they’ve seen it before Shaq and Kobe, because they think there can only be one.

See the way Dwayne Wade was taking heat (ha!) for essentially ceding The Man status to LeBron, that by saying Miami was LeBron’s team and he was here to help him, Wade’s estimation went down in some fans/media’s eyes. He was a coward, happy to play second fiddle. Now contrast that with Neymar who said Barça was Leo’s team, see the way he was applauded for his humility.

In Spain, Messidependencia – Messi-dependency – is used as a pejorative word but in the US that would be the expectation. So I mentioned how Messi gets bad press for the supposed “dictator” thing, like it’s the worst thing in the footy world, and wondered aloud about how people in the US would react to a once-in-a-lifetime player like Messi and a team like Barça. The answer was the people would expect him to be “the dictator” there; they’d probably criticize him for lack of personality and want him to be more cocky and demonstrative and what not.

I really enjoyed Ibra’s bio and it made me think a lot. About the different sporting mentalities, how Americans view football stars and if they’re worried that The Man culture of individuality over the team will permeate into the football community, and the players/coaches that share Ibra’s kind of personality and background, like Cristiano Ronaldo. Those people who come from tough backgrounds, that fought to get to where they are now. People thought Ibra’d be a criminal but he became a world-wide football idol, supposedly it was the same for Cristiano too, who was derided in his youth (at Sporting Lisbon) for being homesick and a mama’s boy. (Lisbon and CR’s hometown are far apart, I think).

And on the subject of Cristiano, I don’t hate him, obviously, but the football fandom loves their pantomime villains. When Cristiano throw a tantrum on the field or is upset in general, millions take part in some unbridled schadenfreunde, myself included. But I suppose asking a fan to consider athletes and players as people is too much. We kinda mention it, in our serious moments, but mostly, it’s totally hilarious to see Cristiano denied a penalty and cry about it afterwards, and it will probably continue to be.

But sometimes, you read books like this and it makes you pause and think, and isn’t that something?

By Kxevin

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.


  1. Great post Kari! I’ve never quite thought about the difference in how stars are viewed in America & Europe (or the rest of the world), but I think you’re spot on with your analysis.

    You also sold me on getting Ibra’s book. I usually find autobiographies by sports figures to be uninteresting (especially in this day and age where so much is on the internet), but Ibra’s one of those personalities that can’t be explained by anyone but himself.

    Sidenote: ESPN’s fascination with building up stars before tearing them down along with the nonsensical storylines they try to generate (Can Dwade & Lebron coexist? How long before the Durant & Westbrook relationship fractures beyond repair?!) is why I generally don’t watch any basketball “reporting” they do. Thank god for TNT & writers like Zach Lowe.

    1. Ibra’s one of those personalities that can’t be explained by anyone but himself

      Trueski! He’s a real character, Ibra is. Misunderstood, but some of the things that happened to him were kinda his fault too, and he owns up to it, giving us the full account on what happened instead of just glossing over it, even if it makes him look worse lol.

      Glad I convinced you to read the book, it really is worth the time (especially since you and me have the same opinion on ‘bios by sports figures, I thought I’d put this Ibra book down in, like, five minutes haha)

      Ughhh, as someone partial to OKC, the K-Durant and Westbrook thing annoys me so much! I’m lucky in some ways in that Canada’s breadth with regards to basketball is pretty limited to the Raptors, but sometimes they still have enough coverage that they lift some of those “arguments” made on ESPN and “discuss” them. Sucks, man.

      Also, thanks a lot for reading!

    2. I blame Bill Simmons for pushing Durant & Westbrook as Stringer Bell & Avon Barksdale 2.0 (from The Wire). The comparison’s shaped the narrative surrounding the Thunder for so long now.

      Also, I love me some Westbrook, so the constant bashing he gets on ESPN is another reason to avoid it. I can’t figure out what’s more annoying: the hate he gets, or the hate Masch & Alexis get from culers…

      And thank you for the great piece!

    3. I’m very fond of Westbrook too even though I think what are you wearing, Westbrook? with so much regularity it’s pretty much become my mental catchprase, even though I don’t care about player’s fashion choices 99%of the time. Probably because Russell thinks he looks so chic 😆

      But yeah, I think Masche-Alexis hate is a tad more annoying for me since it’s pretty clear Masche has been great for us since he came and Alexis is totally killing it this year.

    1. That they were leading comfortably is probably the main reason it wasn’t given.

      The one against Malaga was actually worse.

  2. Great post.

    One thing that should be pointed out though, is that “individual over team” mentality does not seem to be a universal feature of American sport, and one obvious exception is football/soccer.

    The US has not really produced a single bright individual football star despite having millions of kids playing the game for quite a long time now. And it has always seemed to me that the reason is that individuality gets systematically coached out of them by the system. Almost everywhere else in the world kids begin playing on the street, from an early age, on a small hard-surface field where skill, imagination and speed of thought are at a premium, and only later the best ones get picked up by youth development systems. Then they get a lot of coaching but those early years of free development in an environment that selects for individual skill are what allows for genius to develop. In the US kids get directly shipped to a coach and start playing on the big field, within some sort of a system, which results in tactically disciplined, well drilled players, who, however, simply don’t have the spark of genius that separates the legends of the game from the rest.

    This is a direct result of the physical and social environment of American cities. Around the world kids play on the street, on the playgrounds of the local neighborhood school (which are usually futsal-sized, hard-surface, and anyone can get in and play), or on specially constructed playgrounds (which are again, futsal-sized, hard-surface, because cities are densely built and there is no space). In the US, schools have full-size grass pitches, which are not open to everyone, and the street belongs to cars, plus many neighborhoods are of such low density that there simply aren’t the minimum of 8-10 kids interested in the game within a walking distance of each other to make it possible to have a game.

    In contrast, in the US there is a very large and vibrant street basketball culture, and this is where the cult of the individual in the NBA comes from – street basketball is often not even 5-on-5 (there is, of course, also the fact that one player in a team of 5 can have a lot more influence on the game than one player in a team of 11 on a field that’s 10 times bigger) and the main objective is to assert your dominance over others. Once established there, it has started filtering into other sports (and other areas of society), but I don’t think it is necessarily a universal American feature.

    1. Ahh, thanks for this comment! Bring up a lot of great points, some I hadn’t really thought of it.

      should be pointed out though, is that “individual over team” mentality does not seem to be a universal feature of American sport

      True. I should have been more clear in that I meant specifically American basketball (as it’s the only one where I can say for sure).

      And in retrospect, I probably should have also said “athleticism over team” because nowadays you have players like LeBron (fast like an NFL running back, built like a tank), Melo, etc. that can dominated people physically to the point where teams rely heavily on that than, for example, screening like they used to do in the old days (Jordan era, Bird/Magic era) – which is justified in a sense, because come on; beasts like LeBron are pretty unique.

      But it’s still sad seeing that center position slowly diminishing in importance and the defensive game deteriorating. I suppose it’s the times, but I think Spurs are probably one of the only teams in the NBA that still play like the old days.

      And I should probably stop there before this turns into a whole ‘nother tangent haha.

      And also, good point on it being easier to dominate in a 5 v 5 scenario than 11 v 11. One person can do a lot more damage against 4 or 5 than against a wall of defenders, though I suppose forwards would generally have those one-on-one battle against their respective defender (fullbacks for wingers, centrebacks for center forwards) that could lead to domination – constantly “getting the better of your man’ as the British say.

      Then they get a lot of coaching but those early years of free development in an environment that selects for individual skill are what allows for genius to develop

      Very good point. And I’d like to add generally speaking South America, Europe, Africa, etc. typically only have footy as their main/”first” sport whilst in NA, basketball, hockey, Am. football, baseball in the US are all competing with each other, especially after puberty where players often have to “pick” a sport to focus on. Footy generally loses out.

      The US has not really produced a single bright individual football star

      Yeah, though wasn’t there this big thing about Freddy Adu being that guy back in the day? Well, probably because he was 14 and played in the MLS, haha.

      Once established there, it has started filtering into other sports (and other areas of society), but I don’t think it is necessarily a universal American feature.

      Interesting point and it gives me something to chew on.

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

    2. Another aspect to the US sports culture is the socio-economic status of the players. Soccer, for example, is traditionally an affluent white suburban sport here. It costs so much money to join a league and get noticed. Then if you do get noticed, you have to be able to afford (and get into) the college which noticed you (most mens sports cannot give full scholarships because most scholarships are allocated to football). This locks a lot of kids out of soccer and is why the US National Team is only just beginning to get some non-white American-born players.


      Same thing holds for baseball actually. Most of the non-white players are immigrants rather than kids who grew up in the US.

      So the result of all that is you end up filtering out all the kids with Zlatan’s demographics. And it’s a lot easier to end up with obedient rule-following suburban kids.

    3. I’d known about that aspect – the socio-economic one – because it’s the same with hockey as well. The fees for sticks, skates, etc. are generally only affordable for certain middle-class families or working class ones that can afford to pump that much money into their children. (And probably why billet families are still done here)

      But reading that article makes it more clear to me and it’s more extreme. That’s ridiculous and pretty sinister, like one dude in the article says.

      “Games that in other places in the world are the people’s game – soccer and baseball – have become stratified by economic class.” – from the article

      Sad truth, eh? Didn’t really know it was in the same class as volleyball and gymnastics, but now I guess the lack of interest people have in the sport in US make a lot of sense.

      I’d hope that there are more initiatives by US Soccer to try and open up doors, like they’ve done with the hockey program – which is still by and large a white sport, but there are more players like Iginla filtering in now.

      “And it’s a lot easier to end up with obedient rule-following suburban kids.”


    4. Ooh – great find! So they are trying to work on making footy more accessible. Well done, Bay Area.

    5. Good points. One of the points I was making is also relevant to this – the American suburbs are a uniquely unsuited environment for the production of great football players because of the way they are built and the kind of people that live in them.

      Even in Europe, the players mostly come from lower-income families, and in recent decades from immigrant ones, but still, a lot of middle class families live in high-density neighborhoods with playgrounds within a walking distance of a sufficiently high density of kids with passion for the game, which creates the free and competitive environment that makes it possible for talent to develop. None of this is available in a typical US suburb.

      Where I grew up, about 2000 people lived in an area that would fit maybe 25-30 suburban homes in the US. You can get 50-100 kids playing all day out of 2000 people, but how many can you get out of 25 families in a society in which this is far from the dominant game.

    6. Something else to add because you mentioned Lebron and his physical dominance.

      Football is quite an unique game in that it is one of the very few sports in which you can achieve greatness while being a normal human being. So it happens that our beloved club is the best demonstration of this – players like Xavi and Iniesta can dominate the game despite being small, not very strong and not very fast. The game has been going into a more physical, more athletic direction over the past two decades, but this still remains true – the best player of the 90s generation so far is Neymar and he is also small and not very strong.

      Basketball by its very nature selects for physical freaks. This naturally leads to a more individual-focused culture.

      American football also has that same characteristic, but it’s a very rigid game in terms of formations, so the individual does not have such outsized importance

    7. Unless they’re a quarterback, haha

      Very much agreed on all points really. Though I would add that for a while (before Pep era even) Xavi was concerned that his type of play – small, not very quick, but technically gifted – was a dying breed and slowly being pushed out of the game. When he, Iniesta, and Messi were nominated for the Ballon d’Or at the same time, he hailed it as a “victory for midgets”

      And the kind of player has all but died out in England where athleticism has taken over to the point the English themselves – including players like Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, etc – are starting to bemoan the lack of technically gifted English players available for their NT. (Wilshere and other Arsenal players are proving to be an exception ofc).

      I suppose if Barca and the Spanish NT hadn’t become defining teams of their time, it could’ve painted a different picture re small, technically gifted players. (whilst Neymar is quite skinny, I wouldn’t say he’s small). I suppose Balotelli is an example of a player in the 90s generation that reflects the importance of athleticism.

      Oh – and the Ronaldinho v Kobe/LeBron pt you made below is also well said. The joga bonito ethos is basically what Ronaldinho is all about; skillful, positive attitude, the game is meant to be fun – and that was his draw. He played football like a kid.

  3. Brilliant Post.

    “To be honest none of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang – they were like schoolboys. The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed, and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous. If the trainers in Italy say, “Jump” the stars will look at them and go, What are they on about? Why should we jump?”

    The best part was that you wrote the entire part. We have been seeing bits and pieces of it for sometime and that’s created the impression that Ibra was disrespectful to Iniesta, Messia and Xavi. But that entire para really defines the respect he have for others.

    Everyone will appreciate this post and be sympathetic to Ibra until the next time he make a statement about Barca. Then we will all get back to our best – getting at him. I am afraid that I at that point will take the pain of understanding the context in which the statement is made. We humans are made that way, we love dearly the thing that matter to us.

    1. Yes, I wanted to do as much justice to what Ibra was trying to say as possible. He never struck me as disrespectful to Barca player at all, and I feel he was victim to a lot of misquoting/lots of his words were taken out of context, which is pretty typical, unfortunately.

      Yeah, even with reading his bio, while I’m very sympathetic right now and will probably continue to defend Ibra if I have to, generally speaking I’ll probably poke fun at any player that I feel warrants it when the time comes, irrespective of how I feel about them as a person.

      Gracias for reading. 🙂

  4. Great post Kari! I sympathize with a lot of what you wrote, which is why I always try to give players who rub me the wrong way the benefit of the doubt. Interesting to hear your perspective on American sports culture. As an American, I can see your point, and it rings especially true with basketball and football. Perhaps less so with baseball, as players’ roles are more clearly defined and rigid. Personally, I identify more with the team-first attitudes, which may be partly what drew me to Barca (even with Ronaldinho’s ascension and star-power, Barca’s ethos was first and foremost what I encountered when discovering the club).

    It’s also why I try to give even the “pantomime villains” the benefit of the doubt. Cristiano is the obvious example (and I’ve found it easier in recent years to simply admire his talent–when he isn’t playing my teams, of course). I generally try to avoid hating a club or player, no matter how annoying or infuriating they are. What’s the point? (Unless it’s something that’s wrong outside of the context of footy, like racism).

    1. (even with Ronaldinho’s ascension and star-power, Barca’s ethos was first and foremost what I encountered when discovering the club).

      Ahhh, thank you for bringing up Ronaldinho, because he was really a fascinating case. He had a lot of flair, really shone, and had a bright personality that really stood out – and everyone loved him for it.

      And I think it had a lot to do with the state of the club when he came. It was underachieving, trophyless for a while and Madrid were still up there winning CLs, so in a way, Ronaldohino was a breath of fresh air. Different, but also a way for Barca to come back to prominence in the international stage (and I know they had Rivaldo but I’m talking about that era of the early 2000s when they were Dutch 2.0)

      Think they were okay with Ronaldinho and Deco’s partying ways and Rijkaard’s laissez-faire style to discipline if they still produced on the pitch – which, uh, sadly they didn’t.

      Gracias for reading!

    2. Ronaldinho was a star but he was never the Jordan/Kobe kind of anti-social character, and never displayed the arrogance of LeBron and others.

      He was shining but it was, when he was at this best, an act of self-expression, not so much of asserting your alpha-male dominance over the others. He would do something outrageous, and he would smile. Cristiano will score a goal and will make a “Look how great I am” pose for the cameras. Big difference

    3. Yeah, though to be fair there was a reason why he left when he did. He and Eto’o also had a few spats along the way, which I suspect had to do with their different degrees of professionalism. Yet though Ronnie was that Barca team’s talisman, he still cared about the club and his teammates immensely and was not all about him. One of my favorite Ronaldinho moments to this day is not a goal he scored but his reaction to Messsi’s second goal of his debut clasico.

  5. What an wonderful read. Thanks Kari.

    Actually, my respect for Xavi, Iniesta, Messi et all are just shooting even higher. It is not easy to be world beaters, millionaires and normal at the same time.

    I cant help raise this off topic issue here, in some ways it is related too.
    I dont think Ronaldo did any good with his comments on Blatter. I agree, Blatter should not have said his opinion publicly, but Ronaldo could have used his club or country to protest. Coming out hard against those comments in the way he did, am afraid was not needed. He definitely know how the voting works, doesnt he.
    What you think?

    1. I agree with you. I thought it would backfire but from what I read on the internet, it seems otherwise. I find it really petty for Ronaldo to respond like that. It seemed that he didn’t watch the full clip of Blatter. He probably stopped until the part where Blatter made that horrible impersonation 😆

      This will look bad on Real Madrid too.

    2. Thank you for reading!

      Actually, my respect for Xavi, Iniesta, Messi et all are just shooting even higher. It is not easy to be world beaters, millionaires and normal at the same time

      I didn’t mention it above but – same here. I think while I knew/understood where Ibra was coming from and sympathized, the Barca ethos and the way our players carry themselves is a source of great pride for me. I totally agree with it and I must say I identify and prefer them as people to the other alternative – not that it’s bad, just that I can relate more.

      On the Sepp/Cristiano thing: I think as a dude, Ronaldo is probably a pretty okay guy, not that I know him or anything. He’s definitely not as arrogant and vile as people paint him, maybe as vain as they said but not a bad dude.

      However, the people he surrounds himself with, his entourage or whatever, who give him advice (on what he should do in life, how he should conduct himself, etc) – they are just not very good. How CR could take the Blatter thing as a conspiracy against him – his country and club – for heaven’s sake, is beyond me. It really doesn’t help him and his image at all.

      He’s a great player and probably IS misunderstood, but when he says/implies stuff like conspiracy to explain why he won’t win stuff (instead of, oh, not winning a major trophy (if that is the criteria) or being the best (if that is)) it’s very hard to sympathize with him. His PR team/entourage should know better, but then, the guy has Jorge Mendes (same agent as Mou) so…

    3. I used to think about Cristiano as a normal person and I think he is. A different character may be. What was ‘shocking’ for me was how he decided to be a father, that too at this excellent age and state of his. From then, I do have a different view of him, but I would still think, media exaggerates him as a diva, even if he is enjoying himselves, that anointment.
      It was utter stupid of him to bring out the conspiracy angle. If its his PR team who made it, then what kind of PR team is that, I mean, do they have any idea of the voting process.

      However, like barca96 said, it is strange that nobody is talking about this aspect. Everybody is participating in the Bash Blatter race.

    4. I guess it’s cos Blatter has said and done so many terrible, corrupt things that it’s great to have another avenue to bash him, which is natural for what he’s done, but in this case, it was a silly old man (who is an honorary Madridista remember) making a pretty lame joke.

    5. I’m not sure that the child episode endeared him much to me but I haven’t really been following it closely. Does the child live with him? Was a surrogate mother used ? Who looks after him/ her? It’s difficult to tell from just the media but you get the feeling ours are pretty hands on with the sprogs.

      I do agree he has been very badly advised though. Either that or he hasn’t listened to wiser council.

    6. Cristiano didn’t “decide” to be a father. He knocked up some one-night-stand (whose identity has never been confirmed). After the obligatory DNA test he acknowledged the child as his and paid the mother an unspecified amount of money to give up her parental rights. The child, Cristiano Jr., lives with Cristiano and his mother (and I think maybe his sister?). From what I understand Cristiano is a pretty hands-on dad, although the primary childcare is done by his mother.

  6. I miss Kari’s articles, such a breath of fresh air.
    But this feels exceedingly so because I love Zlatan and enjoyed this piece more. It’s safe to say that Ibra is my favorite player in world football. I know there are several players that are better than him and I enjoy them, like the many players in our team. But the reasons I was drawn to Ibra lie in the many similarities between me and him. Both of us are tall, lazy, audacious and the natural bad boys in our teams.

    When I heard that Zlatan was going to come to the world’s best team in 2009 I was extremely excited even though another favorite in Eto’o would have to make way for him. But this article throws a lot of perspective into why Zlatan behaved the way he did towards the end. It was just a marriage not meant to be, although one can spend hours wondering what an absolute dream of a marriage it would have been, had the attitudes of the two parties gelled. I think it would have made Barca infinitely more powerful and fearsome. Can you imagine a front diamond of Neymar, Lexus, Messi and Ibra. Jeeezus! I’d dare say its as good or better than a Ronnie, Eto’o, Messi & Henry diamond.

    The point about the team and the individual and Europe and America also raises interesting questions.

    1. Oh definitely. Ibra would have kicked so much ass at Barca, man. Was the perfect 9 for us (and skill set wise, still is). Really a shame it didn’t pan out.

      The point about the team and the individual and Europe and America also raises interesting questions.

      Which has thankfully been discussed by some commenters already. Way to go, BFB.

      Thanks a lot for the kind words and for reading. :mrgreen:

  7. -What a Zlat-tastic article. As Ultracule mentioned, it’s a breath of fresh air.

    I love the title of his book, ZLATAN. Usually it’s the media that portrays the players/celebrities like that but Zlatan is definitely like that 🙂

    I never thought Zlatan suited Barcelona. I cringed every time his name was linked to Barca in that summer and anytime before that. I was so opposed to the move that I actually sent Barcelona a couple of emails begging them to not sign Zlatan and to go for Villa instead.

    -Interesting comparison between Ronaldo and Zlatan. But I for some odd reason prefer Zlatan. Perhaps it’s the (real) skills, goals, charisma. I can’t really relate to Ronaldo. Lots of goals, and then what? He offers no excitement to me as a football fan.

    Am I the only one who prefers Zlatan over Ronaldo?

    -On a lighter note since we are on Zlatan topic, I’ll share some Zlatan articles from Dirty Tackle;









    1. Ha, those Dirty Tackle articles…

      in 2009, I was actually in the camp that was on the fence about Ibra. Always liked him at Inter (don’t judge me ok, haha), but he always (correctly now) struck me as larger than life which could cause problems. I was pleasantly surprised about how down-to-earth he was in those first 6 months and even when he was bench. Now that I know the truth though….

      Cheers for taking the time to read and the nice words. 😀

  8. via Barcastuff

    3 of Messi’s 17 Liga hat-tricks include a penalty goal, while 11 of the 18 hat-tricks of Ronaldo include one

    It’s childish and it’s not his fault really for his team to be awarded so many penalties, it’s the referees who are so quick to give them but the name Penaldo is kinda suited with so many penalties scored 😆

  9. I hope you bought those books instead of just reading them at the bookstore! o_0

    This is a terrific read, Kari. I knew a fair bit about Ibra’s background, but you really connected the dots for me about how that affects his self-image and behaviour. Leaving aside his actual football skills, it’s pretty clear that Ibra was never a good fit for Barça psychologically. He started by playing well, but his inability to adapt mentally ended up affecting his physical performance. It really makes you wonder what Pep was thinking, since he was the one who asked for the player to begin with. Did he really think Zlatan was going to be able to change his entire personality? I suppose he’s not a psychological expert, though.

    However. I would like to say that even if I now have a greater understanding of where Ibra is coming from and why he was so unhappy at Barça, that in no way excuses the disrespectful comments he made about Pep, saying he wasn’t a man, ect. Obviously those comments were borne out of his unhappiness and frustration, but he has never apologized or retracted them. He may have had a damaged childhood, but that doesn’t mean he gets a free pass to be a jerk.

    1. Ahh, that whole last paragraph is very, very true. Damn, should have included that. I didn’t mean to paint the picture of this being his Freuden excuse – because a jerkass is a jerkass, yo – but I just wanted to give some perspective.

      He hasn’t apologized or anything, which I guess means he still means them. Guess he’s within his right to, but I don’t agree that he was in the right there, of course.

      Did he really think Zlatan was going to be able to change his entire personality?

      Good question, there. I suppose Pep didn’t really know the full extent of Ibra’s personality when he came. Like the rest of us, probably saw him at Juve, Inter, and thought, “Damn, what a player, he could play well for us.” And probably just assumed he’d fit in.

      I hope you bought those books instead of just reading them at the bookstore! o_0

      Uhhh, *shifty eyes* /runs

  10. Great post.

    I have some quibbles with using the NBA though as an example of all american sports. The NBA, of all the team sports, places the most emphasis on individuals. It’s heavily biased toward one-on-one play and as a result, heavily encourages the bigger-than-the-team personality.

    As you note, hockey isn’t like that. Neither is baseball. And football has a few key positions which are star positions, expected to be filled by primadonnas, and the rest of the team are all role players.

    Baseball’s actually a good example here. The history of the game is filled with characters (from Dick Allen to Manny Ramirez) who play by their own rules and, as a result end up getting exiled from team to team after the piss off management. One of the constant debates in the baseball community is how to balance individual eccentricities with the need to be a team. (That baseball plays for 162 games also means that team cohesion is a bigger deal)

    As for Zlatan. He was mentally a lousy fit for Pep’s Barça. He probably would have been fine on Rijkaard’s Barça.

    1. I have some quibbles with using the NBA though as an example of all american sports.

      Yeah, really should have included the caveat that it’s an outsider’s view to one specific sport, but then how would I get all you Americans to gently set me straight? haha. :mrgreen:

      Admittedly, I know jacksh*t about baseball so thanks for that comment. I hear talk about Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds (tho I think he’s retired now?) David Ortiz and stuff but it’s not really something I’ve paid much attention too. Could also be that the team I’d have to support would be the Blue Jays, whom I’m pretty indifferent to.

      He probably would have been fine on Rijkaard’s Barça.

      Great point! I think so too, now that you mention it. Rijkaard was so laid back in the player management area, it wouldn’t have been such an issue. But Pep knew and espoused Barca values to the T so there was no “legroom” there so to speak.

    2. Yeah, there are a lot of Americans who don’t like the NBA precisely because of the individualist thing (note, some of this starts to cross into thinly-veiled racism but a lot of the complaints are valid). I don’t happen to find a lot of the isolation plays and things appealing myself and much prefer watching good passing and team defense instead.

    3. Yup, same here. That’s what you come for, y’know? The passing, the skill of the defense.

      Even as I was writing I didn’t really want to imply the generalization of Americans when I said “American mentality” but this was originally going to be a blurb posted to twitter so I felt like if I went in depth about that part, it would have veered a little too off track for what I was talking about (Ibra) and turned into something different entirely.

      Not a bad thing, but it would have been like two articles in one, y’know? I love hearing your thoughts on the topic as Americans anyway, and it gives some much needed perspective for me as “people in the inside”.

  11. Great article, Kari.

    Thank you for providing the context for the quotes we have been reading for a while. Zlatan is an amazing player. And, from a football perspective, the perfect fit for us as a CF.

    I always assumed that is was about the character he had and his inability to blend in with our “locker room family”. Many people said that it was Messi’s fault, or rather Pep’s fault for putting the spotlight on Messi. But that was only one part of it. I, like many others here I believe, was more in awe of Messi for the fact that he took a step back from the spotlight in the Clasico and let Neymar shine. Ibra could not make that sacrifice because he felt like he was betraying himself and all that he had worked for so far.

    Maybe the experience with him had me a bit worried about Neymar as well, but the little Brazilian showed me that I had nothing to worry about.

    As blitzen pointed out I cannot excuse his comments about Pep, but I can understand that they come from his deep frustration about not being able to make his dream move work.

    The personal aspect of the players is one that many of us forget to look at. I appreciate the effort the team made last season greatly. They were emotionally crushed, left without the man that was leading them on a slightly new path and still managed to win La Liga with a record number of points and a 15 point difference from second placed EE. Without the unity and the family spirit of the locker room that would not have happened. It’s a real shame that all that is forgotten and everyone always brings up the Bayern & EE games to look at last season as a failure.

    Again, thank you for a great piece.

    1. I, like many others here I believe, was more in awe of Messi for the fact that he took a step back from the spotlight in the Clasico and let Neymar shine.

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing this up. I touched on it, but I didn’t really go into it because once I start talking about Leo Messi, I really don’t stop.

      This, for me, was one of the biggest highlights of the Clasico and what made reading Ibra’s bio after it especially interesting. Leo did what Ibra couldn’t do (although to be fair 1 game vs 6 months is not the same, but the contrast is). Nobody (in the media, anyway) really talked about it and it was just assumed that Messi had a bag game, but, uh, he didn’t. Just wasn’t in the spotlight and trusted the teammates that were to get the job done.

      Maybe the experience with him had me a bit worried about Neymar as well, but the little Brazilian showed me that I had nothing to worry about.

      You know what? A lot of Neymar fans were/are upset at seeing how generous he is being with the ball and feel he’s deferring to the team too much! I think if you scroll down @BrazilStats TL to the Clasico, he complains to a RM fan about it.

      As you mentioned, the stregth of the team during the Tito era has been unbelivably understated. We don’t see players at that level, don’t really bother putting ourself in their shoes, because that’s strange. Why should we? But if we just try to – you can appreciate them a lot more.

      I think when I think about the season in “cold terms” it was a shame that we played our strongest XI all the way to the end even though we won the Liga and I thought it was pretty ridiculous that we’d give a bonus for reaching record Liga points (esp since I felt it was a factor of us losing Thiago – which is a can I won’t reopen again haha). OTOH, if I think of that as a tribute to Tito and how the team/club wanted him to have a place in Liga history…. well.

      Thank you for reading and comment, Diana. :mrgreen:

    2. Thinking about it in “cold terms” you see the mistakes that were made, of course. But the players should get more credit IMO. Piqué at least said something to that effect in interviews: “No other team in our situation could have achieved what we did last year”. But we don’t see them as just regular people. Because of the money and the fame and everything else.

  12. Very nice post, Kari.

    Around the time we bought Ibra I remember thinking/saying/commenting that IF he had gotten more mature he would be a great acquisition, and that, the personality/attitude factor has always been the heart of the matter. It was always a risky move for that very reason.

    Those of us who knew him from when he played in Holland (barca96 will know what I’m talking about) naturally had our doubts. He behaved like an absolute jerk at Ajax. I heard similar stories from Serie A followers.

    It is a shame it didn’t work out for Zlatan at Barcelona (I don’t believe he is a bad person). Maybe if Pep/Txiki had done their homework they would have realized this problem beforehand.

    I still don’t think there is any excuse for selling him for so little, though!

    1. You know, I think I found his time at Ajax one of the most interesting parts of the book, since Ibra seems to kinda regret? cringe? at a lot of the stuff he did then. His row with Rafa van der Vaart was really shocking (that Rafa thought Ibra injured him deliberately, the whole meeting in the director’s office, actually the whole thing in general).

      And yeah, I do actually remember you saying that. I felt the same re Ibra – that he was a guy that seems larger than life (and a little, kinda, arrogant, I admit – but I liked him anyway lol).

      It was between Milan and Man City (and apparently he said RM just to piss people off – which, so not cool Ibra, no matter how frustrated you are haha) Barca wanted him gone either way and Man City would have paid more money – but Milan sicced Ronaldinho after him (no joke) and c’mon, who could say no to Ronnie? Plus methinks he wanted to go back to Italy anyways.

    2. That whole thing with Van Der Vaart was ridiculous. I have no doubt that he injured him deliberately. Rafa was one of Europe’s highest regarded talents at that point, and Ibra simply wanted to be the Alpha male (in all fairness, he was).

      Btw, you should definitely read Bill Simmons Book of Basketball next time you are at Chapters, or Indigo, or whatever bookstore you got in Ottawa… I really don’t like basketball all that much anymore, but that is a very entertaining read.

    3. Yeah, I’ll probably hit up Chapters sometime and try to read it. The random page I skimmed was pretty interesting (and by that I mean entertaining of course).

    4. Never mind me, I’ll just be over here trying to keep my job. In the publishing industry. Where we sell books. For money. 😛

  13. Very interesting post. Thank you.

    The points made above about basketball not being a very good comparison are well taken. I was a fan of the sport as a boy, and it has changed tremendously in the past decades — to the point where it is barely recognizable to me. It is a shame, because it used to be much more of a team sport, and it isn’t so much any more. I think baseball is a better example to use, personally — this is apparently a boring battle between a pitcher and a batter, but that is only apparently speaking. It is also completely a team sport with a lot of tactics involved, where everybody must execute perfectly. I say this as a non-fan of baseball, too. The general point that a country’s sports, and the way it plays those sports, are a reflection of the psychology of the country is a good one, I agree. I remember some years ago reading about how China is trying to develop its soccer (ooops, football) program, and how it is failing utterly. The reasons suggested by the article were exactly that the Chinese character and culture simply did not lend itself to that kind of sport, particularly its very hierarchical structure.

    A few other thoughts I had are about how the U.S. is often viewed from afar (or not so far, in the case of Canadians) — in my experience the image is largely a caricature. Moreover, because the U.S. happens to be (one of) the big boys on the block over the past few decades, many countries find themselves defining themselves in contrast to it (naturally), or to their idea of what the U.S. represents. This tends to veil the many, many similarities between countries. I say this with a good amount of actual experience — I lived nearly 20 years overseas, in three different countries, one in Asia and two in Europe. Along the way I became tri-lingual, and actually formally emigrated (in the sense that I got the foreign equivalent of the U.S. green card) twice. Curiously we have a few Canadians in my present company, and they are very much NOT like Kari describes herself — I don’t know if that is because they feel they need to behave ‘american’ (or at least how they think we behave), or if they are anomalous — in any event they are very prickly! In contrast a couple of my best friends are Canadians, and they are the sweetest people I know. I guess I point that out because I know well that generalities quickly breakdown…
    Finally, I think I understand a bit more why I find Barca such an attractive group of kids. I hope it keeps its character, because it has so much to recommend itself.

    Finally, I have mentioned this in other threads, but I agree very much about the binary way we tend to view our heroes and villains. In fact all our heroes have feet of clay, and the villains are, with very few exceptions, complete humans as well.

    Hope we see more of your contributions in the future.

    1. Great comment.

      Couple of things: Since people’s personalities aren’t defined by where they come from, I don’t really like using the general image the world has about Americans as a baseline to explore a point – but the thing is, when you talk to people from different countries, it could be a bit of a hassle to explain the complex nuances of a country (or in this case, the state of the sport in that country since it has so many factors, like socio-economic, as discussed above) when all you want to do is give a quick contract to the idea some people in that country have in contract to other countries.

      So in this post, there are (or could be) people for Albania or Korea or South Africa that could be reading, so I just wanted to make a quick point about ESPN culture – whilst not representative to the majority of Americans, I’m sure – is pretty uniquely American.

      In Canada – or I should say, in Ottawa, since I don’t know for sure how things are done in, say, Medicine Hat – though people grow up in the same structured environment (which I feel just espouses basic manners – don’t cut in line, be kind but not overtly familiar with strangers, etc) the personality someone has is entirely their own. I meet rude Canadians all the time, but more often than not I meet polite people who, if they’re angry, will be passive aggressive at worst than be outright disrespectful to your face. At least in public, haha.

  14. Just want to say that this comment section is basically the best. Thanks for all your contributions everyone (and thanks for reading, lurkers!) Seriously.

    1. Thanks for coming back and sparking this fascinating discussion 🙂 Your thoughtful and humorous posts were really missed, hope to see you around some more!

    2. Thank you actually, for this read.

      I just saw ‘Incendies’, once again few days back and I must say it is a brilliant movie. I suggested it to many of my cinema crazy friends and they were stunned too. You must be proud as a Canadian.

    3. Sadly, this movie is much better known outside Canada than within it. Canada makes some fantastic films (especially in Quebec), but they get almost no play here. Shocking.

    4. I try to watch movies from around the world and came upon Incendies quite accidently and was shocked. I was sure it cant be a one off success and have been trying to watch others. Most, – you’re right, from the Quebec region, in French – are excellent.
      But I can understand why Incendies may not be popular in Canada/US. The theme is quite against the general/popular Western thought/topic, isnt it, they suffer the same fate as many brilliant movies from the middle east, East Europe, Turkey, Greece, Denmark, China etc..

    5. You think it shocking that movies from Québec get no play in Canada? Ça n’étonne personne, tabernac!

      (frantically running back to the hills to avoid the wrath of Blitzen and Kari)

    6. Haha, no wrath here. Tho, movies from pretty much every province get no marketing or whatever.

  15. I find it highly amusing that Bale and Ronaldo are now on the same team. Essentially clones of the same kind, physique wise and skill wise. Gelled up hair, both standing over free kicks with their legs apart. It is just so lame, I wonder if Penaldo is a bit pissed to see his uniqueness diluted with Bale’s arrival.

    This whole Blatter nonsense just proves what an utterly incompetent governing body FIFA is. People are talking about how CR has tarnished his reputation with his outburst, But I tend to think that Blatter’s crap speech only serves to harm Messi and his chances. The supposed favoritism is all over the news now and were Messi to win it again, it is certain to be tainted with cries of conspiracy from everywhere.

    On Zlatan’s justification that he is what he is and did what he did (@barca) because of where he comes from. That’s fine if you are fine being remembered as just another good player. At barca, even though the environment was nothing he was used to, he had a chance to become TRULY GREAT. He screwed that up with his tantrums. A man with his talents and the team in which he found himself in, he could have cemented himself as one of the best strikers in history and definitely added a couple of champions league medals to his collection. He’s never going to win one of those now, atleast as the protagonist. Ajax, Inter, PSG are all ok, but succeeding in a club like Barca takes you to a completely new level, which he effed up for himself. At the end of the day I’m sure the fact that he doesn’t have one of those shiny CLs will hurt him and haunt him. and the thoughts of what could have been, had he and Barcelona gelled. It is a tragedy indeed.

    1. You are right friend. In some ways, this is working against Messi for no fault of his.
      On the back of mind I am hoping, there was a Mourinhosque personality around the club, who could actually scream out loud, all this is yet another conspiracy against Messi and club.
      For, right now, all are only discussing one side of the issue – Blatter.

    2. Messi doesn’t have any chance to win Ballon d’Or. Or in a truly just voting process, he wouldn’t. So Blatter’s harmless impersonation and the poor qualities of FIFA have zero effect on those chances.

      Simply put, Blatter did absolutely nothing wrong. But the Ronaldo and RM camp, craving a distraction from having gotten beaten in the Classic, shifted from the ref to Blatter. And people stopped talking about that match, so it worked.

      The outrage was so loud, the dudgeon piled so high for that precise reason. Now that they beat up on Sevilla, a team with a woeful away record, and Bale/Ronaldo scored goals and kicked ass, they are great again and the Classic was down to a lineup/tactical error, rather than RM being outcoached and outplayed. Okay. Fine.

      FIFA isn’t incompetent because Blatter did a little march at a gathering, or because that silly shuffle did anything whatsoever to damage Messi’s (for me) nonexistent chances. It is incompetent because it is an organization that is corrupt to its core. Its head has made comments that are sexist, the World Cup process is a sham and it thinks that racism can be stamped out with slogans, armbands and handshakes. On the ash heap of that real failure, a player’s chances at a for me meaningless individual award are like a thimbleful of water in the ocean.

    3. This could be one year, where Messi may not win the award. true.
      As a friend of mine (a pro player) said, since the voting is done by ‘players’ and ‘coaches'(not just journalists) and they are asked to vote for the best individual player, Messi might still reach on top.

      However, may I ask, what you meant by ‘truly just voting process’. You mean the current process is not ‘just’. Coming from you, I would love to know your thoughts.

    4. I think that when votes are made public, they can’t be truly just, because the person that you voted for or against will know. So people tend to vote for countrymen, etc, or along team lines so that the guy you share a locker with won’t say “Hey, asshole, how could you vote for so and so over me?”

      That amid all that crap, correct decisions sometimes happen is remarkable, even as the whole notion of the Ballon d’Or is a mess. Best player? Best player that year? Biggest competition? Most goals? Nobody is sure exactly what they are voting for, and it becomes a silly popularity contest.

      This is, in part what justifies the unspeakably silly reaction of Ronaldo and his camp. That perception that it IS a popularity contest.

      So no, I don’t think that Ballon d’Or can be a truly just vote. Make them anonymous, make the criteria clear and unambiguous, and you’re off to a good start. But even then, the selection of finalists can be a mess.

    5. @Kevin, Thanks for explaining yourself.
      The only saving grace for Fifa now, is that, the voting pattern/list is quite transparent and it is impossible to call it a doctored one. If that aspect also is removed, this would become a cruel joke – every one will cry foul – like it happens with the movie awards in my country.
      But from what I have heard, when the vote papers are send to players and coaches, there is quite a brief on what is expected from them, and what they are doing.

      My opinion is, I am yet to find a just voting procedure. I still remember all those issues around the American presidential campaign some years back. In my country too, we really do not have a clear option rather than chosing what are thrown at us – Recently there is this court order to chose NONE OF THE ABOVE option, but that too was made a jock when the election commission declared that if NOTB comes first, then the candidate with the maximum vote, would still be elected, making the whole process stupid.

  16. For me, Kari’s most excellent post illustrates something not yet brought up in these comments: Guardiola has failings, and significant ones, in the personnel aspect of being a manager. Xs, Os and tactical theory are one thing. Human beings are yet another.

    Ramzi mentioned this when the club was having difficulties with Toure Yaya and then Eto’o, eventually jettisoning the latter for a player who would prove to be even more difficult than Eto’o. It was also a difficulty during the Toure Yaya situation. As Levon notes, Guardiola and Txiki B should have understood what they were getting into. I’ll go a bit farther in saying they failed themselves, the player and the club in NOT understanding how to drive the car they bought.

    In the situation with Ibrahimovic and Barça, the general belief is that Ibrahimovic screwed up. And he did. Big time. But for me Guardiola was also complicit in the dissolution of the relationship, as evinced by the still-present anger that Ibrahimovic has toward him (even as some of that anger is at himself, making the anger at Guardiola even more acute) and based on what we now know about Guardiola’s management style, where he said that you have to do things his way, or he’s in effect done with you.

    And while this is really going to piss people off because of the implication, it’s worth noting that part of being a truly great coach is being able to deal with the MANY different personalities that you will encounter along the way. You will have the compliant schoolboys. You will also have the larger-than-life pains in the ass. Sometimes, you need to understand and use all of them to make something truly great.

    I think back to (many, so many Chicago Bulls analogies, and continuing with the hoops theme) Phil Jackson, who coached the Bulls to six championships. He did so with a crazy collection of personalities, from a hothead such as Scott Williams, to a laid-back Aussie surfer type in Luc Longley. He kept Michael Jordan from completely destroying Will Perdue, and figured out how to make Scottie Pippen and Jordan not only respect, but learn to play with Toni Kukoc. And what he did with Dennis Rodman was nothing short of astounding.

    But people still said he wasn’t a truly great coach. So then he went to Los Angeles where he had not one, but two superstars in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and did the same thing, clashing with Bryant as he did Jordan (you take on the biggest kid in the schoolyard so that people understand), to win another 5 championships with that club. (BTW, the Bryant/Jackson situation has many echoes of Ibrahimovic/Guardiola. Fascinating.)

    What Guardiola, a brilliant man and coach, did with Barça was remarkable and deserving of eternal respect, even as I am not yet convinced that he is a truly great coach because of his failings in understanding and managing personalities such as Ibrahimovic. That was, in many ways, a bridge too far for Guardiola. The tactical aspects of his great ideas can easily translate from B to first team. But managing mature, often-difficult players didn’t translate as well, to my view.

    Perhaps Mourinho’s past as a selfless translator helped him better deal with Ibrahimovic. Or maybe he just gets it. Who knows? But it strikes me that when Ibrahimovic was fire-sold because he and Guardiola couldn’t get along, it laid the foundation for the club not being able to be fully complete because it blew out a significant, extraordinarily high-quality player and has only just this summer, in Neymar, replaced that quality. Yes, the club bought Villa, but Villa ain’t no Ibrahimovic, even as he is a great player and better personality fit.

    Some speculate that Guardiola’s solution was to turn the attack over to Messi. Like tika taka, that worked until people figured it out. But unlike adding verticalidad, there is no real fix for a one-player attack except to add another player of approaching quality. (No, I am not saying that Neymar is as good as Messi. I am saying that Neymar has the quality to single-handedly affect a match, in addition to Messi, something we haven’t had since Ibrahimovic. Recall, among others, the Arsenal CL away leg, or the home Classic.)

    The Ibrahimovic mess began when he went rogue. We understand why he went rogue. What we don’t fully understand is why Guardiola dealt with it in the way that he did, even as his quote about his management worldview provides a bit of insight. The Messi “him or me” text message rumor persists. But even absent of that, it strikes me that there should have been a better way. The psychology of the high-level athlete will always fascinate me, along with the different ways that different coaches deal with it.

    If you look at Ibrahimovic now at PSG, it’s clear that he has learned from his Barça experience. He is The Man, but he also selflessly blends in when required, happy to set up the Lavezzis and Cavanis. As Kari points out, being The Man is psychological, rather than based in action. Ibrahimovic doesn’t HAVE to score the winning goal. He just has to believe that the club counts on him to.

    Ultimately, for me that was such a missed opportunity, for him and Barça. When people talk of adding a 9 to our club, I keep going back to the fact that we had a 9 who was perfect for the club in every way except his personality. And that’s a shame.

    P.S. When I heard Kari discussing her ideas on Twitter, I immediately reached out to her, and was so happy that she decided to place them here, as I think that any Barça-related site would have been more than happy to have and publish them.

    I have also laid a trail of brownie crumbs to the moderator’s shack, in the hopes that she one day decides to follow it.

    1. The issue you point out with Pep’s management of difficult personalities is rearing its head again in his clash with Robben. We’ll see if he has learned anything from his experience with Ibra.

    2. Robben wanted to take a penalty in game a week or so ago and Pep didn’t let him. In the next game Pep asked Robben to take the penalty and he wouldn’t.

    3. Robben is a petulant little sh**, but to embarass him over a penalty in front of a full stadium of people like that was just incredible…

    4. We don’t know the specifics of the situation. There is usually a designated PK taker for every game. For us it is generally Messi. Pep said “the team know why Muller was the one who took it on Saturday.”, leading me to believe that Robben knew that if the situation came up Muller was the designated taker. If Robben just ignored that and tried to go against the coach’s wish, then he deserved to be publically embarrassed.

    5. Yeah, I see your point. However, I think it would have been better to substitute him immediately after the penalty and lambaste him in the dressing room. Again, man management, as in, how do I manage petulant little berks.

    6. In a recent match, Robben wanted to take the penalty, but Pep wanted somebody else (Mueller if I recollect correctly). In a following match, they had another penalty and Pep gestured to Robben, who didnt want to take it.

    7. I’m glad someone had the balls to go here. I only alluded to it with my “Ibra would have been fine with Rijkaard’s Barça” comment. I’m also wondering if there are ANY coaches like Phil Jackson international soccer. Most of the acknowledged great ones (whether Pep, Mou, Fergie, etc.) appear to be “my way or the highway” types unless they lose the lockerroom.

      That said, in terms of defining truly great coaches, the knock on Phil Jackson is that he starts with already-great teams.

    8. Thank you too, for this Kari post.

      No human being can be 100%. So, Guardiola failed with one player doesn’t make him a poor coach at man management. Eto was already an issue, even before Pep came in, wasnt he?
      Wasn’t it Alves who once said, he was ready to jump out of the building if Pep asked so. To have some one like Alves say that, imagine the kind of trust and respect that man gained from the players.
      Toure’s issue, from what I understand, was only playing time. He still speaks bout Barca with respect, as if he would like to be back some time. I was very sad when Toure left. But now I realise, how brilliant Busquets is. May be we should have kept Toure as a CB.
      Zlatan was such a complex, issues creating, personality, it is understandable that he didnt gell with Pep. From Karis article it is quite clear why he didnt gell. For me, it was Zlatan rejecting the idea of being an obedient guy, just because he didnt want to be. Such a guy can only be a trouble, unless he matures, like he has now, at his 30’s, at PSG. He might change even further as he reach 35.
      I do find Pep as a special person with many complexes – I first understood this by his strange look to Eto, when Eto hugged him during a sideline goal celebration. And it is normal for a human being to not be perfect. There is no one.
      To mean Pep was not a great coach, that too because of a character like Zlatan, I cannot agree friend. We are looking at the Robben issue currently, and here again, it is only just one player from the whole squad. And its Robben, with mini Zlatanesque qualities.

      I do agree the scouts made a mistake in judging his character, before signing him. Or Guardiola didnt judge Zlatan right, before signing him. But once Zlatan issue started, I could say he did well in sending him away at the earliest (unfortunately at a loss)

      For me, even on the pitch Zlatan was failure. He always was an obstruction at the final moments of our flowing passing game. If he wasn’t, he could have ended with 30/40 goals instead of 20, that season.
      When can we know the truths about all these rumours about Messi, especially the sms one. Should we wait for an autobiography by Pep/Tito/Messi?

    9. But neither of the 3 sounds like the type to write such a book. Especially Tito. So, maybe we’ll never know.

      Pep is a complex man, no doubt about it. But you sometimes need those “Zlatanesque” players and you have to learn how to work with them. He didn’t want Eto’o to stay when he came and nothing that happened during his first season in charge changed his mind about it.

      Pep is a brilliant mind and a great coach. A bit of flexibility could do him some good. Maybe things will work out for him at Bayern without Robben next season. But Arjen was an intricate part of their team last season. The selflessness he showed in the 2 SF matches against us impressed me, knowing how he usually acts.

    10. Minor quibble – my memory may be off, but didn’t Kobe finally come into the fold & become a disciple of the Zen Master only after experiencing a losing season without him?

      Otherwise, I’ll agree overall that Pep played his part in the fiasco that was the Ibra experiment.

    11. I strongly disagree. How can you question the ability of a coach that pretty much won everything. There is no way he would of gotten the best out of his players if he didn’t know how to deal with them on a personal level. Wasn’t it Dani Alves that said “I would jump off building if he told me to”. There is no possible way he is jumping off a building without some type of personal connection.

      The whole situation with Ibra comes down to one thing, and thats Ibra himself. It all rest on his shoulders. Regardless of how expensive he was. There were certain expectations that Pep upheld and It’s obvious that Ibra didn’t agree with those. Its simple Pep had a certain way of doing things and Ibra didn’t want to buy in. Why should this rest on Pep’s shoulders? All the other players bought into a successful system. So what made ibra exempt from it all?

  17. Kxevin, you ask some great questions about Pep.
    Nobody is perfect. Yes Pep had man management issues as clearly demonstrated by his confrontations with Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Don’t forget he was literally only starting his coaching career. Also Every person is styled differently. And Pep’s style is very intense and demands maximum commitment to the cause.
    Pep was not perfect. Far from it.
    But he was the perfect coach for Barca. Or atleast a good idea of Barca. Perhaps the best we’ve seen.
    Which is why I find your recent agenda to highlight Pep’s shortcomings and even exaggerate them, a bit stretching and disappointing. Like your claims that people are getting injured now because of cumulative fatigue, that Pep RAN them to the ground. Used them like cheap taxis. I find that funny, because year after year, for 4 years, he actually convinced them to DO that. Press like dogs. And enjoy their football above all. For a poor man manager, the guy must have some serious motivating skills to get that from his players. And if you really think about it, all players really rose their performances. Every player spoke of his delight in training and discovering concepts. In other words, he extracts the best from his players. He failed with Zlatan, but am sure that a more flexible player with a cooler head could have found a way to maintain his identity and express himself. I don’t believe Pep is as inaccessible as you portray. Now please don’t assume I am once again championing the cause St. Pep bunyan or whatever, I am only thinking aloud. It was a real tragedy that Zlatan didn’t work out as he’s a player I love, just like Eto’o.

    But give Pep time, I am sure he will figure out a more sustainable method to his coaching. But even your impeccable and well articulated eloquence will not affect my belief that Pep was perfect for Barca, even if he’s far from perfection as a personality.

    Please don’t assume by defending Pep, I am discounting Tata. I am a huge fan of Tata already and believe that he is the perfect coach. For his Barca. And its a good Barca. The best? We’ll see but he himself recently spoke of the rare odds.

  18. Phenomenal post, Kari! It’s nice to see your writing on BFB again. 🙂

    With what’s been said in the post itself and subsequent comments I don’t have anything else to add, but to say thanks for writing!

    Now onward to the Barcelona derby that isn’t quite anymore, now that los Pericos moved out of the city. Vamos!

  19. Few more thoughts, first the off-topic ones: Regarding great Canadian films, check out ‘The Fast Runner’ and then more recently ‘The Stories We Tell’.

    Back to business: That Pep has shortcomings should be no surprise. Managing and coaching is very different from playing mid-field. It is in this regard that I think Tata is an intriguing choice, as he has the tactical chops as well as maturity. I think in the long run the people management skills are really the more important, as it is far more unusual to have a locker room filled with world class players who happen also to be great friends and humble (barca). That simply doesn’t happen much. The next time an Ibra type challenge presents itself to Pep we can reasonably expect him to deal with it more skillfully.
    Regarding Ibra, who knows where he ends up in 20 years, but from what I can tell he seems to be a very intelligent and actually emotionally perceptive person. Folks like that often make exceptional coaches and mentors, because they understand what it is like to be them. I think a large percentage of players of any sport have ‘issues’ in the sense that rarely do well-balanced people feel the need to push themselves to the extent needed to succeed at that level. Ibra has been one, and maybe when he makes it into middle age and later he may find himself interested in coaching, too. Already he seems to have lost some of his narcissism.

  20. So awesome to read the Sweetheart of BFB! Very few are the book reviews that are as enjoyable as the book itself while encouraging readers to enjoy the book itself with insight and kindness. Kudos!

    I wrote an unevenly-received post a while back poking fun at the phenomena of “feeling sorry / bad for …” gazillionaire athletes for losing a match or two when, really, their every-day lives are the stuff of dreams.

    But I would never with-hold empathy for people who do experience difficulty on a human level, regardless of their circumstance. And so as a human being and the mother of sons, my heart ached to read about Ibra’s life before professional football. And it would make sense to me, then, that if soccer is where Ibra was able to find a place of safety and sense of self, then soccer is where he would a) shine, in terms of athleticism; and b) dim, in terms of sportsmanship.

    At the same time, I agree with Kari that Barça’s culture (corporate, regional, and popular) is so crystalized that it would be very difficult for any player with a very definite personality of his own to ever really assimilate later in his career. The playing style itself makes unique physical and psychological (in terms of “reading the play”) demands on him … let alone the whole “més que” business. I would feel frustrated, too, even if the whole of my life hadn’t shaped me to be superstar or else. At times it must feel like, “Geez, give it a rest, guys.” I don’t think that Pep Guardiola is someone you can say, “Geez, give it a rest, guy” to.

    And as long as we’re going *there*, why not go **there** too? We love us some Messi. He’s not just gifted. Lots of athletes are gifted. It’s also that he’s so little and rumply and goofy-looking, and now he’s got those silly tattoos and that funny Argentine accent. Put him next to Xavi and Iniesta and ya just wanna ruffle his hair a little. But he’s not someone whose hair you can just ruffle, either. (Maybe you could do that to Iniesta, if he had hair. Less so Xavi unless you want a palmful of product.) But Messi has his “moments”, too. We’ve seen younger up’n’comers like Tello and Cuenca get taken to task, and one of the endearing qualities, to me, of David Villa was his ability to hear Leo out and jaw right back at him without pouting.

    Now, I also see parallels between how we’ve been describing Ibra and how we perceive Cristiano Ronaldo. Oddly, perhaps, of all the players today Cristiano is the one player I actually do feel sorry for. Even now, with his fabulous lifestyle and physical gifted-ness and extraordinary fame and all the rest. There’s a Spanish saying, “No tienes abuela (you don’t have a grandmother)”. It means that you’ve never had anyone tell you how great you are, so you have to go around bragging all the time. Well, Cristiano has … if not an abuela, I don’t know … a very doting mother, I understand. But, like Ibra, I never see his dad. And to me, when I see him flailing his arms and sulking over this or that or stomping his foot, I see a very little boy feeling just desperate. There is something missing inside, so missing that it’s isolating him in the missing, even from his own teammates. The end of a playing career is not always the end of a soccer career (cf. Zidane, I’m always so confused to see him on the bench in a tie), but I don’t know what will be available to Cristiano after the end of his playing days, and I worry for him.

    That doesn’t mean that not having a dad makes you a jerk (although I think there may be some new dads out there on the boards so take heart, your kiddos need you). After all, I’m of two minds on Señor Jorge, and I’m not convinced that children ought to be groomed as early as kinder years for a single enterprise in professional sports before they even know their favorite color. But I think that this is where someone like Mourinho fills a special role for some of these superstar child-men. All coaches, to some extent, are father figures (or, to a lesser extent, big-brother figures, which can lead to conflict too, cf. Rijkaard and even Pep.) But Mourinho is, in his own words, “special”. Now, in all of this I’m speaking strictly to these men’s “persona”, or facets that are observable to an armchair shrink such as me-self, and not to the whole or even a sliver of the truth of who they really are. That said, Mourinho cultivates very special relationships with a select group of players even within his own squads. People who deem themselves “special” in this way tend to do this, they extend their own “specialness” to one or two people they consider “special” too, so that there is this kind of “special” bond between them. I mean, who expected Sneijder to tear up during a FIFA award ceremony talking about Mean Ol’ Joe? So Mourinho can create a bench in which some of his players are adoring him with their mouths open and the others, not just ignored but actively excluded, are left wiping their noses on their sleeves while sniping to their journalist hottie girlfriends.

    Again, not necessarily anything new … we saw similar dynamics between Pep and Leo and Pep and Ronaldinho and Pep and Eto’o and Pep and Ibra or whomever. But Mourinho does take this to a whole new depth of strange. Think about it … many, if not most, coaches will complain about a bad call after a lost match. Only Mourinho will wait in the garage for you to intimidate you personally. And so when personalities conflict and separations happen, you get different results. When Pep left everyone blamed Rosell and the player-coach relationships stayed more or less intact, or at least invisible. But to someone like Mourinho, that specialness is conditional. He will always remain special, but you, his special little buddy, will not … particularly if he perceives you as disloyal in some way. Then his reaction will be spectacular. So Mourinho leaves an unsuccessful (in his terms) stint at Real Madrid, who have rejected him, who are therefore now the enemy, and out pops a completely unnecessary comment about coaching the “real” Ronaldo. Since Madrid has rejected Mourinho, and CRonaldo plays for Madrid, all of a sudden CRonaldo becomes fair game for whatever frustration Mourinho feels in the moment.

    And *that’s* what I really dislike about Mourinho. There is a frustrated superstar in there … he has all the brains and none of the physicality. So he knows how his superstars are vulnerable, and he knows how he can influence them, and he knows how much more power, ultimately, he has in comparison to them. He does so by being the coolest dad ever, and then when they stop being adoring children, whether by dint of personal strife or simple coincidence, he replaces that specialness with spite.

    So the narcissism I see in Ibra and Cristiano and Leo (yeah, you too, pay your taxes) I get. I attribute it, perhaps wrongly, to the demands that they come into their selfhood, their manhood, in a floodlight of fame and fortune in an immediate present with an uncertain future. So I forgive the tantrums and the pouting and the teenager stuff, because they really are teenagers. But I don’t hesitate to diagnose Mourinho’s persona with a personality disorder, because he is old enough and wise enough to know better, and everything he does suggest he does know better but chooses otherwise in order to suit his own damn self.

    *phew* Okay I’ma shaddap now.

    1. That’s an awesome comment.

      I do have a question, though:

      “So Mourinho can create a bench in which some of his players are adoring him with their mouths open and the others, not just ignored but actively excluded, are left wiping their noses on their sleeves while sniping to their journalist hottie girlfriends.”

      Is this something that happened just at M*drid, or do you have examples of his time at Inter, Chelsea and/or Porto? It makes me wonder, because I have always understood one of his strengths to get the whole squad to follow him, even those that hardly played any minutes.

    2. Very good comments. I think emphasizing the fact that the athletes are often still teenagers, even if they are into their 20s (or later) is quite accurate.

      I mentioned earlier that I spent a long time overseas, basically from early 20s for a couple decades. One comment I recall reading from a diplomat in Japan from the late 1800s was that “foreigners in Asia tended to remain the emotional age they were when they arrived” meaning that no matter how old you were, if you arrived in China at the age of 30, you tended to stay at that level of psychological maturity. I found it to be very insightful — basically when removed from your own culture, with all its demands and a ‘normal’ trajectory of life, and placed in one where you are not under the same constraints, things kind of stop. It isn’t a hard and fast rule, but as a general one I found it to be pretty good (and it is one reason I ended up heading back to my ‘home’ country — I didn’t want to end up like that). Anyhow, I think most football players are in a very similar situation, and theirs is exacerbated by the huge amounts of money and media attention they receive. It is a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I think Messi’s situation is actually better than most, as he seems to have a very tight family that keeps him anchored — actually many of the barca boys seem pretty settled (xavi and iniesta come to mind — only pique seems a bit of a glamour boy).
      Soccermom’s comments on Mou and Ronaldo are interesting, and they ring true. Especially Ronaldo. And the idea that there is something hollow in him, some hole he is desperately trying to fill… Not an object for scorn, really, but compassion. If he had the choice, he probably would be very different.

    3. Beautiful and a very thought provoking piece. Thanks for sharing with us.

      I look at Mourinho as someone who has immense knowledge of psychology. He knows how a person/institution behaves, what are their strong and weak points. His actions are so cold, calculated and precise eg: All this talk about UEFAs conspiracy with Barca, eye gouging incident, “us” vs the world philosophy etc. The latest incident that comes to mind is his insinuation about Neymar diving after the Celta game. I am sure Mourinho knows what he is doing. As already mentioned by others, he is laying ground for pressuring the ref if he happens to face us again.

      All these being “negative” sides of his psychology. However if you are on his team, he seems to know exactly what to do to get you going. He knows your buttons and he aint afraid to press them. It almost seems as if he appeals to the baser instincts that a person just cannot shrink away from. Several players have often quoted that playing under Mourinho is like going to war and moreover they are prepared to die for him. Not everyone can do that. I am going to just about compare this with Guardiola’s philosophy and loyalty. It almost seems “civilized” in comparison to Mourinho (I am not insinuating that Mourinho is an animal in any sense). This might seem foolish but there was a undertone to Harry Potter books – love over hate – love being more powerful than hate can ever be, although hate being an equally significant force which can inspire people to perform deeds which they might not otherwise even contemplate doing. When I think of Mourinho and Guardiola this is all I can think of. Mourinho being the “Voldemort”, the one who incites/provokes/even inspires based on hate, on being at war, being ruthless and taking on the world – I can almost imagine Mourinho saying “they are the evil ones, they have refs in the pocket, UEFA is conspiring to defeat us, but we are special, we will fight tooth and nail and we will not give up.. ” or something more dramatic. Whereas Guardiola will always be the “Dumbledore”, the one who wins loyalty form players by loving them, by teaching them why they need to follow his tactics, by being entirely committed to a certain style of playing and by leading by example. We always hear about Xavi and Iniesta growing up idolizing Guardiola. If his love, his fairness and his vision doesnt inspire you, he will assume you are not a good fit for the team. It somehow seems that he lacks this skill to create this primal urge to go to war on the football pitch (And in no way am I saying he does not inspire players).

      For Mourinho, winning is what matters and he is ready to do whatever is required to do that. AND he is an excellent reader of human psychology. I have read that he might not be as tactically prodigious as say Cryuff or a Guardiola but he is an immensely charismatic military general. His legacy is such that we are still talking about him. I am fascinated by Mourinho from a psychology point of view, however I hate him as an opposition manager, if that made any sense.

    4. Holy crap, if this were on Twitter I’d be favoring the hell out of it. But then what do you expect from SoMaestra?

      I only have tidbits to add that make this even more awesome: Cristiano’s dad was actually also an alcoholic with whom he never ‘rediscovered’ like Ibra IIRC. Their relationship stayed rocky until died from liver disease (that was obvi alcohol related) and Cristiano doesn’t drink (sued the Daily Fail for making up a story related to a drinking party or smth: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/soccer/2009-11-09-873451543_x.htm)

      So there are a lot of parallels between Ibra and Cristiano that I didn’t go into cos this post would have been about 2000% longer haha.

      On Mourinho: Think Cristiano really benefited from having Fergie as his first “major” coach and unsurprisingly sees him as a “father to him” or as he puts it “my father in sport”

      And please keep talking forever – this was seriously the best comment I’ve read in a while.

  21. “No player is being than the club”

    I think you meant bigger. Just a typo from an otherwise flawless article.

    To me, it all comes down to whether you want to remain true to yourself or lets say, make the best of the opportunity given before you and win a CL or two. Not that you can’t do both, but I feel “one-man” teams in which Ibra shines in, are easier to shut down in the CL.

    1. Let’s hope PSG won’t make you eat your words. I was really impressed by that team (as a whole) when they came to the Camp Nou.

      In some ways Ibra’s choice of remaining true to himself over enjoying success with what he once said was the team of his dreams is admirable.

    2. I didn’t say PSG was an example of a “one-man” team technically 😛

      Yes, when seen from a certain perspective. From the other it seems like he doesn’t wanna accept that sometimes, you need to sacrifice yourself for the team. Like Messi did the other day.

    3. Typos aren’t my fault! *shifty eyes*

      I caught them after I sent the doc so there wasn’t any time to fix ’em, haha.

  22. Wonderful read..Thank you Kari..hope you return and add more articles to this wonderful blog.

  23. lineup

    Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Montoya,
    Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta,
    Alexis, Messi y Neymar

  24. Is that two rockets with his left foot in the last two matches for Ini? That’s what he’s been doing wrong all these years… 🙂

    1. Genius play

      Nobody else on the team would have tried that pass last year. Worth every penny 🙂

  25. There was no replay for the ‘foul’ on messi in the box at the dying stages of the game so I guess I may not be correct, but it might have been one if Messi was in a white kit

  26. Aha, ok, i just didn’t see any controversial call in the box during the game. We won, that’s what matters, because in another day this sort of a game would have surely ended in draw.
    We were just tired and slow, with too many mistakes.

  27. Yeah, my overriding impression was that we looked a little tired at times. Credit to the players for the effort they put in. You could see that when we got ahead. The passes started to go astray and I don’t think it was complacency.

  28. Messi’s fitness issues, annoying as they are, really unleashed Neymar and Alexis. Tata’s tactics and man management probably also helped. I’d rather Messi not win the golden boot, and we have scoring and assisting evenly distributed across the front three with the help from midfield. An injection of unpredictability has really been key to unlocking difficult defenses this season – triple-covering Messi doesn’t cut it any more. Luckily, our superstar is smart, hungry and mature enough to play different tactical roles that maximize the team’s potential.

  29. So this reaction, from UltraCule, is what makes analysis of, and writing about the club and the people involved in it, so discouragingly difficult:

    Which is why I find your recent agenda to highlight Pep’s shortcomings and even exaggerate them, a bit stretching and disappointing. Like your claims that people are getting injured now because of cumulative fatigue, that Pep RAN them to the ground. Used them like cheap taxis. I find that funny, because year after year, for 4 years, he actually convinced them to DO that. Press like dogs. And enjoy their football above all. For a poor man manager, the guy must have some serious motivating skills to get that from his players. And if you really think about it, all players really rose their performances. Every player spoke of his delight in training and discovering concepts. In other words, he extracts the best from his players.

    Boy. Where to start. Probably with the simplest thing: I have absolutely zero “agenda,” as you put it, in doing anything whatsoever to discredit Pep Guardiola and the work that he did with this club. Go back and read the stuff that I have written in this space, and that will become abundantly clear. It is absurd as the contention that I somehow hate Messi.

    My intention, with the Myth post as well as with that comment, is to provide some perspective into a very interesting situation. In reading that comment, and I did again, it’s clear that my point is not that Guardiola had man management difficulties, but that he has difficulties with “difficult” personalities, such as Eto’o, Yaya and Ibrahimovic.

    But so unfathomable is the notion that Guardiola could be anything other than perfect, that when it is suggested, I become this miscreant with an agenda. The comment is worth reading again, and discussing without this automatically defensive reaction. Here is the relevant paragraph:

    What Guardiola, a brilliant man and coach, did with Barça was remarkable and deserving of eternal respect, even as I am not yet convinced that he is a truly great coach because of his failings in understanding and managing personalities such as Ibrahimovic

    As for running the players into the ground, Guardiola didn’t do it deliberately, but his playing style brought very high demands on the players, and that fatigued them. You bet. That’s what happens. Whether anyone wishes to read anything into that very simple observation is their prerogative. But when you ask someone to run a marathon and they do it, they aren’t going to be very much good for a while to the next running coach. That’s just simple logic.

    At some point, we have to be able to discuss this team, and every aspect of it, without accusations of secret agendas and other things. We have to respect what someone else has to say, and take THAT THING at face value.

    A number of things are true about me: I am not a fan of individual players, and really could care less about them other than as their function as a part of the club that I love. I think individual awards are worthless. I think that people are misremembering a period in a way that is causing unfair criticism of a team and the man who is doing (to my view) an excellent job of running it.

    What, however is NOT and never will be true about me, is that I have any sort of hidden agenda to discredit anyone or anything involved in this club. And it’s a shame that I can’t express a legitimate thought without being accused of such a thing. This space should be sufficiently advanced to take such notions, and discuss them.

    1. “I think that people are misremembering a period in a way that is causing unfair criticism of a team and the man who is doing (to my view) an excellent job of running it.”

      This is definitely an interesting stance and worth discussing. Two things come to mind.

      One is that while it might be true that some culés critize Martino’s Barça by holding it up to Pep’s golden standard, it is from as far as I can tell far from the majority. I might be wrong here, but I think that most agree with me that Tata is doing a very fine job indeed.

      The other thing is that if people misremember Pep’s four years at the club now, you can only imagine how the period will be remembered in the future. After all, his Barça was the most successful club since Cruijff’s Ajax back in the early seventies. Any flaws that are fresh in our memories today, will hardly be worth any asterisks twenty years from now. They are nevertheless interesting to discuss, of course (whether in the past, the present or the future)

    2. Nobody is misremembering and nobody is criticizing.
      Which is why I made it a point to add my views on Tata after only seeking to correct a mis-remembering (on pep) that is taking place. ironically.

      Kxevin, please dont be discouraged. 😀
      my comment was only an attempt to discuss, some thought provoking questions, raised by you in fact, not an accusation.

  30. A few thoughts:
    Last season almost no-one was making runs into the box. This game there were huge numbers – which is why Alexis scored.
    Nobody at Barca hits a better long pass than Cesc.
    With three speedsters on the forward line, surely he is a better bet in midfield than Xavi (good as he still is) who just doesn’t have that sort of range.

  31. Although I am clueless about American mentality about sports, I found the post informative and thought provoking. In fact I guess this is the best post I’ve read on BFB in some time. I loved it. Thanks

Comments are closed.