Someone who knew once said to me, “You have to do 100 things exactly right to win a bicycle race. Do 99 of them exactly right, and you finish second.” Margins are like that in athletic endeavor.
You push, you shove, you train as hard as you can, doing efforts and intervals until you actually vomit. You wipe your mouth, rinse it out with Gatorade and get back on the bicycle as soon as you stop seeing double.
You do this because you want, more than anything else, to win. Every athlete wants to win. Winning is the absolute best thing that can be experienced. Once you get it, it’s like the most addictive drug. People lie, cheat, dope in an effort to keep doing it. As the saying goes, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
For athletes, this is true. That FC Barcelona, our amazing football club, has been able to win and keep winning for so long, is an astounding accomplishment. It is one that, when I sit here in front of this keyboard, I really can’t even begin to fathom.
Today, the football team capped a week of poor results, falling to its third loss in a row, knocked out of Champions League, potentially losing the Liga championship and the Copa del Rey. It seemed so weird and sudden, how a team that used to score goals just for fun, suddenly couldn’t even muster a single, stinkin’ goal against a side we used to beat like a gong, another side hovering just above the relegation zone and our eternal rival.
One goal. A thin, thin margin between the falling over the edge and grabbing a handhold to lift yourself to success. Winning.
If you take that 100 things that a single bicycle racer has to do to win a race, add a ball, 10 other players and 11 opponents, and make the effort to run the math equations that can attempt to explain the crazy alchemy that makes a team win a football match, your brain will probably burst. Yet in a run that began in 2008, Barça has worked that alchemy time and again, in ways remarkable, bizarre, unlikely and inevitable. It has won so much that when it hasn’t won, things seem weird, like the world is out of whack.
In a game in which speed, strength and power define its parameters, a group of small, comparatively weak players did things with a football that made even jaded chroniclers of the game oooh and aaaah. Best of all, its instruments of destruction were home grown, Catalan soldiers mostly, marching to war with a senyera enbroidered on their blaugrana suits of armor.
People kicked at them, fouled them, played unfairly and still, they won. They won so much that people stopped thinking about how amazing, how improbable winning is. Winning stopped being a remarkable thing of wonder, and became an expectation. “They didn’t win. Why not? Whose fault was this aberration?”
There are people who follow this club, who came to it during the Treble season. All they know is winning, probably unable to wrap their minds around a crazy day in 2001 (not really THAT long ago) when Rivaldo scored the goal that ensured Barça would finish in 4th place in La Liga, and qualify for European football.
Close. Crazy close
The 87-point Liga of the treble season didn’t happen. It was eleventythousand points that season, when not a single match was in doubt. Oh, I remember it well. And the Chelsea match has become the stuff of legend rather than the contentious alley fight that it was, salvaged only by an absurd goal from a player who admits that he just hit it and hoped. In the Champions League final, legend needed Ronaldo to scuff shots, misses that bewildered all until an unlikely goal against the run of play, after United were finished having at our makeshift (no CBs then, either) back line.
Recent culers only know winning, and wizened culers came to embrace winning. Time flies when you’re winning, so it only seemed like it happened suddenly, this failure business. But in fact if you look at it over the arc of the excellence that has defined this football club, the signs have been coming fast, heavy and impossible to ignore.
People blame a volcano for that Inter Milan defeat, rather than a team that defended like shite in Italy. People blame cruel fate for the Chelsea defeat, rather than the lapses in concentration that turn sure goals into astonishing misses. It was those injuries that brought our team down to size against Bayern Munich.
And then, this season, our team lost to a better team as hairline cracks became rips became fissures in the fabric that allowed this team to continue winning.
When Pep Guardiola took over Barça, it was after two silverless seasons in which the team was inventing ways to lose almost as if on a dare. Mentally, the edge was dulled and when Guardiola came in to say “Run you bastards, run!” the running was easy because there was a goal at the end of it all: winning.
The players didn’t really know what they were doing until suddenly, there was a pile of trophies in the living room. At the time it was happening culers couldn’t really wrap their minds around it because even during the wonder years of Ronaldinho, the kind of magic we were witnessing just didn’t happen. It was so unbelievable that it seemed just a blink that a season beginning with failure morphed into the Year of Six Cups.
Your run of the mill juggernaut football team gets 2, maybe 3 years at the top. It doesn’t, for six years make the Champions League, the tournament that gathers the best footballing sides in Europe, seem like the Gamper Tournament or something.
A loss comes, and people are shocked, and angry. “Whose fault was that?” It’s usually an unfavored player or coach of course. Later, another loss comes and again, culpability is the object. Nobody looks at the mentality of winning, the batshit crazy, microns-thin edge that a winning team has to be on to keep doing what it does.
You just can’t stay wound that tightly, for that long. Inevitably, and you don’t even know it, the edge dulls. You think you are still the same, because you don’t know any different. You are hitting the ball the same way. A stab deflection becomes a foot in the way becomes an easily blocked shot becomes an interception that leads to a break against you.
“We’re doing what we’re doing,” even when you aren’t. Not quite. And it’s hard to understand because nothing has changed. It all feels the same, and the players haven’t changed, so what the hell? We’ll just play a little harder next time. And you do. You focus for a match or two and the results are there, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief that expectations are again being met.
And we resume the task of forgetting to remember how truly remarkable winning is. And hell, that’s a match, never mind a championship. That is so improbable that you feel faint when you start trying to think about what could have happened to bring about such an event. It happened for Barça, time and time again, as the team became a legend that it never was. We play our matches in a vacuum of dudgeon when we lose. ‘How did this happen,” as the other team is terrible, instead of fine athletes who want to win every bit as much as we do.
So what DOES happen?
Teams stop winning because to continue winning all the time is humanly impossible. Excitement becomes anticipation becomes expectation becomes overconfidence. And suddenly, you are losing matches and nobody understands why.
“You gonna tell me that a team of Messi, Iniesta, Neymar, Sanchez, Xavi, etc, etc can’t score one stinkin’ goal against Granada?”
No, not in the state that our players are now in.
These seasons of wonder have extracted an absurd psychic toll: injuries, cancer, more injuries, coaching changes, player sales during huffy nocturnal meetings, court cases, thing after thing after thing, all serving to break down the stuff that making winning possible. A right back gets his ears bobbed. Pop stars visit the team’s practice sessions as the focus erodes. The team gets attention, its superstar coach gets attention. The press clippings pile up and the players allow themselves just a glimpse at them, then a look, then a nice, hard read. And they think “Man, are we that good?” And the winning continues even as the complacency begins. Players are human. They can’t help it.
Then it’s too late.
On more than one occasion, people have commented that “Neymar is the only one trying to win out there,” but maybe the thing is that Neymar is the newest player, so his brain isn’t fried. New players reset the circuit breaker. So Neymar hasn’t been through the grinder of paranoia and expectation, that this will be the match. Or maybe this one will be the high-wire crossing where we put a foot wrong, and plummet to defeat.
You get your car back from a tune-up and you think, “Boy, this feels like a new car!” When Guardiola shipped out Deco and Ronaldinho, then made a slew of squad additions, it was a psychic tune-up. Brains were freshened by an infusion of new blood, players who pressed, prodded and shamed incumbents into running as hard as they did. Then those new players became old players, and the process stops. A player here or there is added, but it isn’t enough to change the group dynamics, bring back that edge.
And that’s where we are.
Earlier this season and today during the match, practice was the thing. “They aren’t practicing hard enough, so the edge is dull.” Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the coach of this group knows that they just don’t have that kind of stuff in them, that maybe running, tackling and playing rugby is about all that his charges are capable of, because their brains are fried from winning and worrying.
What’s wrong with Messi?
It’s the question on everyone’s lips, even if they aren’t saying it aloud. His national team coach said recently that his mind isn’t in a good place, that he is mentally tired. This is a player who took an 8-week training break in the middle of season, ostensibly to heal a hamstring. Eight. Weeks. When he returned, it was “Oh, boy … look out. He’s fit and healthy now. You guys are in trouble!”
But that didn’t happen, and the questions began. “He’s walking, what the hell?” “It has been 12 seconds since he scored a goal. What’s going on?”
Could it be the soul-crushing pressure of having everything riding on you for club and country? You are The Man for everybody, two sets of absurdly demanding audiences, culers and Argentina football fans. And both groups believe that winning is a legacy. then you have all the other stuff, friendlies, charity matches, Super thises and thats, internationals and then club football. It’s so much.
Add to this the burden of the extraordinary becoming expected. 91 goals? Are you kidding me? And people ask what is wrong with Messi, when maybe very little is wrong with Messi, that he is finding a sustainable mortal level through no fault of his own, as the brain just breaks down under pressure that is an order of magnitude heavier on him than it is on the whole rest of the club. It used to be that everyone around Messi wasn’t up to his standard, the churls. Now Barça has become Argentina. It’s all his fault. Edge? What edge?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
All the answers
In the past three matches, all losses, it seems the opponent has had all the answers. But is it because the questions aren’t being asked as quickly as they used to. And that’s that.
Are the players trying? It sure seems like they aren’t as opponents zoom past them. The want is gone, which is never, ever true because no matter how bummed you are that the club lost, imagine being the players.
And then suddenly supporters have all the answers. X or Y player out, W or Z player will do it. Make the change, you crappy coach! It’s his fault. I can’t wait for him to leave our club.
It’s easy to heap blame on a coach who doesn’t deserve the crap he has gotten, rather than asking what the deal is. Why is this happening, part of everything all at once?
And we sit in judgment of these athletes. “X or Y is terrible, he isn’t Barça quality, and should be sold.” “Fire the coach.” Yet above, beyond and aside from the institutional malaise brought about by a passel of prats more focused on a monument than the sporting project, our champions are mentally hammered, and not getting any better. The fresh brains and legs necessary to revive the sporting project, provide options for a coach, hasn’t happened. And humanity does what it does. Excuses? Blame. No and never. Nobody needs an excuse for being human.
Players never, ever want to lose but sometimes, increasingly as the mental load increases, they just can’t. The circuit breaker trips. Then a team that is cohesive, hard working and fully committed, gets a result. Then it happens again. And again. And the judgments begin.
Tata this, Fabregas that, Song the other, Pique, Mascherano, Alves, Alba, Pinto, it all depends on how someone feels about a certain player. Cowards gather to hurl insults at the players, Alves and Neymar face racist chanting at the airport, it’s all so horrible that something so beautiful as winning has come down to vile recriminations and anger.
Winning all the time is impossible, even for a group that will go down in history as one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Does the rage stem from the misplaced faith? Disappointment? Who knows why supporters rage against the athletes who strive for success on the collective behalf, but it is so in every sport, even as people who are more intelligent than we are explain to us how absurd our expectations are, that logically, winning is mathematically incalculable.
But loving a team isn’t math. It’s … emotion, and belief, and rage when that belief is misplaced, lashing out at the people who we think brought us this misery. “I want them GONE!”
And yet, ultimately, that something is the humanity that makes bodies falter and psychology slip, that allows that imperceptible diminution of effort that is truly nobody’s fault. It just happens. And if you think you are upset over the team now winning, you feel only a fraction. Think about how the players must feel.
As Iniesta Tweeted, “Sad for the loss and not bringing the cup home. We were motivated to give you some joy. Now more than ever, proud of everyone.”