I won’t begin, for an instant, to pretend that I didn’t expect Barça to win this match.
–They were at home against Osasuna, a team that doesn’t travel well.
–I think that those who want to write this team and its coach off are nuts.
–The group appears to be coming out of a collective trough.
–It’s what professionals are supposed to do.
Nonetheless the match brought me great joy, not because it was a victory, but because for the first time in a long time, our sprites looked like they enjoyed playing football. I won’t presume that I would be able to chronicle the human side of today’s win as eloquently as Eric Coffin-Gould did over at TotalBarça.
All I can point to is the Messi smile.
This has, quite frankly, been a long, long season. From board squabbles and stadium referendums, legal actions and NeymarGate, players leaving, personal tragedies and heartbreak, this has been ridiculous. That, through all that crap have come moments of searing beauty makes you wonder how the people who do them, actually manage to accomplish such feats.
And then, Messi smiled. A genuine, “Gosh, this is fun” smile that made you realize how much of this season we have watched him trudging around the pitch, head down and grim-faced, visage set not in determination but in something else foreign. He broke another record today, but I don’t think he was smiling because of that.
Every week we watch, marvel, carp, piss and moan. I have said that it is multimillionaires capering about, playing a game. But it’s also a job. Just like you get up on Monday morning, sigh and get dressed for work, so do they. It strikes me that just because fools like me think that it would be fun to play football for a living, to be able to do tricks and make people cheer, doesn’t mean that it’s so. It’s a job, a job that isn’t always whistle while you work.
And I got to thinking about why Messi smiled, and came to my own conclusion, as writers are wont to do. For me, he smiled because for the first time in a very long time, the game was fun. It wasn’t fun because of the lopsided scoreline. It was fun because of the glee of possibility. When a conductor and an orchestra bask in the rumble of a well-earned standing ovation, they are thinking, every last one of them, “Holy crap, we did it! We didn’t just play the piece. We played that piece of music in a way that changed lives, just for a moment.”
One lovely summer night, at the end of a spectacular reading of the Mahler Symphony No. 2, people were applauding like crazy for the Grant Park Symphony as I cursed my critical reserve that doesn’t really allow me to clap at performances. But I rose to my feet and, with one hand, gave the devil horns salute, that metal tribute that says to the band, “You killed that shit. You, my friend, are metal as hell.”
A young violinist saw me, pointed me out to a friend and, from behind huge grins, gave me a nod. If I was at the Camp Nou today, it would have been devil horns for everyone, because that performance was metal. It was “this is what we do.”
Messi smiled because he was part of that collective wonder that is created by in-form performers. He scored three goals, but my delight was in seeing the thrill he got from celebrating the goals that teammates scored. Was it a monkey being lifted from the team’s back? Was it the realization that yes, they still have the capability to obliterate an opponent? All of the above? Dunno, but yell at me all you like for reading so much into a smile, but that grin made the match for me.
Does anyone who has a dream job realize how lucky that they are to have that job? Good question. I love what I do. I would do it for free. Every now and again, I get paid and say to myself, “Wow. AND money?” Football players must do that, as well, even if it isn’t always 7-0 scorelines and goals for everyone, even as they also have those “Oh, crap … work!” days.
Ray Hudson, during his match commentary, focused on a simple word in describing how the team played against Manchester City, and again against Osasuna: hunger.
People bristle when our team’s hunger is questioned, as they should. Saying that players don’t want something is a complex allegation. It also isn’t true. There is never a time that players don’t want to win, even as there are times when they aren’t physically or mentally capable of doing everything necessary to ensure a positive result.
So La Real, mad and seeking vengeance, play out of their collective minds and beat us. Then Valladolid come in and take advantage of a still-down team, and grab a one-goal win. And the world comes to an end. Players should be sold, #Tata out trends on Twitter and it is, simply put, bedlam.
And whether it was a collective mirror check, or the realization that “Hey, this is going to be it for many of us,” or all of the above, the hunger returned. They didn’t just trot against City … they ran. Watching that match and looking at the 50/50 balls that were ceded against La Real and Valladolid with almost a “Sure, go ahead,” were attacked with fire against City. Can fear and worry make a team focus? Certainly.
Tata Martino said in his presser last week, that the best way to fire up his team is to doubt it, so people who don’t want Barça to play well should stop saying bad things about it. Who hasn’t done something to spite someone, right? “I’ll show YOU.”
But a lack of hunger doesn’t imply a lack of wanting to win. A friend and cycling mentor said to me that some riders walk up to the pain door, look and shrink away. Others open it, then decide it’s too much. The winners don’t even think about kicking the door down and striding through it. You don’t win because you are better or more talented than your opponent. That is just part of it. You win because at that moment in the competition when it’s on the line you say to yourself, “I want this enough to do anything for it.” Then you do. If you couple that desire with effort, that defines hunger.
And to hell with tactics. It wasn’t tika taka, it wasn’t counterattacking, it was everything all at once. Long balls for Pedro to run onto; a long pass launched by Valdes that Pedro tracked down; Messi being a bull; Iniesta unleashing a piledriver that had something extra on it from outside the box … goals scored in all kinds of ways, from team goals to individual brilliance by a team who was saying, with its collective play, “It doesn’t matter what you say, it doesn’t matter how you play. We are better than you, and here’s why.”
You watch that from the bench if you are on that team, and you marvel. So Song comes on and kicks ass, because he has the hunger. He doesn’t want to let down the side. Tello comes on and scores a marvel of a goal, because he doesn’t want to let down the side. The cliche “all for one and one for all” in the context of a football team seeking to be its absolute best, isn’t a cliche at all, but rather the way things are.
People will say “The team still needs a CB,” “This result doesn’t hide the team’s problems,” etc, etc, and they will be right. I also don’t care. We have the players that we have, players who on their day, are fully capable of beating any club in the world.
Even as faith-filled culers know that, we are also clueless as to the ultimate fate of this team. It could win a Treble, it could win nothing at all. But I do know this: those who come to bury this team, should, as blitzen said on Twitter, put away their shovels. Because the hunger is back, and it’s a lovely thing.