Do you know how mad you have to be to throw a shoe at someone? Think about it. You’re at work, and something happens. Let’s say someone or thing has been vexing you for most of a workday. What does it take to finally, finally get you to snap and … off comes the shoe.
Arda Turan’s moment really typified what was a bonkers football match today. He threw his shoe at an official in a fit of pique (rather than Pique, who was sublime) over a call not made during a match in which Barça attackers were the equivalent of foot pinatas. Turan’s gesture was about futility, about an acceptance that this was it, and yet it was so much more.
This team has come of age. Coming face to face with the neighborhood bully can place a great many demands upon you, but at the core it comes down to fight or flight. When Diego Simeone took over Atleti he began the task of fashioning them into a fist — one capable of the hard foul, certainly — that could take on the best teams in the league and triumph by virtue of simply being a better team. The best players? Nope. But the best team, that went to war, fought for each other, fought for every possession and every ball.
Last season, Barça had nothing for that team, establishing a record of futility that led to watching someone else’s Liga victory parade and viewing the Champions League final on TV. And even though last year was a mess, there was a certain emotional fragility about that Barça. They beat RM twice, but it wasn’t the Mourinho RM. It was a calmer, more elegant version that was willing to play football. Atleti got in Barça’s face, and it flinched.
This year, as the season began an the team struggled with a new system and a way of playing, people were already giving things up and declaring everything lost, as lost as that mythical Way. Some cautioned patience, not only with the way the team was playing but with the man in charge of that side, that the system would come into place as would a preferred XI. But football in these modern times is a game of history and impatience, a world of ghosts and statistics in which armchair savants spout formations and tendencies, and make proclamations based on those notions.
Meanwhile, a team was coming together, a team that manifested the fruits of those labors in three matches against its most fearsome rival.
If someone had said to a culer at the beginning of this season that Barça would face Atleti three times and go 3-0, laughter would have been the response, that kind of “Foool, you cray!” howling with which we greet a truly cockamamie notion. And yet at this juncture of the season, in Liga and Copa, Barça is 3-0 vs Atleti. No squeaking by on away goals, but getting it done first at home and then in a roiling tempest of a Calderon whose denizens were cheering for more fouls when it was clear that the match was lost.
From that violent cauldron emerged your football team, and a team you should be proud as hell of, if you already aren’t. It didn’t even seem that extraordinary an accomplishment, as the matches were won in three very different ways:
— A high-energy dismantling
— A coarse, ugly scrum
— A wide-open, violent crazyfest
In all three, Barça played many different ways from beautiful, flowing football to hunkering down for battle. What the three wins have in common is backbone. This year’s team isn’t fragile. Has it taken on the jut-jawed character of its boss? Dunno. But it definitely has a character, that is for absolutely zero crap. We should leave the tactics for others because in athletics, a moment is often about a player or team deciding that this, today, is enough. It stops here. There is that small elevation of the game, a greater degree of intensity and suddenly, things are different.
Simeone credited the intensity of this Barça, which is immense praise. Barça was always a more talented footballing side than Atleti, but that wasn’t the point. Football at Barça had, over the years, almost become reduced to this theoretical exercise in beauty, a world of triangles and curlicues. Fire ebbed as pass counts grew, and the purists took heart in numbers of passes and rondos as increasingly, an opponent with a fraction of the completed passes and possession managed to get results.
This year, Barça is intense. It’s also willing to play in many different ways to beat an opponent, unhindered by adherence to a Way that becomes a dogmatic resistance to a new world in which opponents are big, fast and physical and are allowed to use that advantage by an officiating world that seems as tired of hearing about and seeing Barça as many opponents are.
As people race to credit various tactical things to the win today, breaking the match down to a bloodless dissection, for me it was very visceral and bloody as hell. It was fast, messy, disjointed and intense as can be, the kind of match where past Barça sides would have been found wanting in the wake of the years of dominance, where the ball moved fast and opponents not fast enough.
The Copa return leg went awry early and often, in the presence of a Fernando Torres (of ALL people!) goal that equalized the tie on aggregate, along with incessant, high-energy pressing of the type that signified a team wanting to get it done at home, that believed Barça was still the team that could be pushed around, those guys from last year.
But this year, there was none of that getting a break, stopping the ball to let the attack form and make triangles. Press this team and it sends a player running of the shoulder of your defense, or executes a bust-out counterattack that never slows down until the ball is in the net. As one journalist said on Twitter, “I don’t recognize this Barça, but it sure is competitive.”
It’s the kind of change that doesn’t happen on the pitch but in the mind. A team goes into a complexity and comes out the other side different. Tactically, it’s easy to explain: Atleti had to press, which left them exposed on the counter, and that was that. It’s the psychological side that is more complex and vastly more interesting. Was it elections? Was there in fact, despite player denials, some dressing room row that got resolved? Did the team finally decide to go all in with Enrique? Did Enrique finally get then to understand what he has been trying to do with the superstar front and solid back? Who the heck knows.
Two counterattacks and a set piece is how Barça scored today, an accounting that is as absurd as it is almost laughable. Atleti scored a lightning goal, then when Barça answered, Atleti was gifted a penalty that wasn’t even a foul much less a penalty, as it occurred outside the box. A Ter Stegen assist became a bungled offside call instead of a glorious end-to-end goal by Neymar. Fate gave Barça every chance to flinch, but it wasn’t interested in any of them. That the header for the set piece goal came from Busquets, the frailest of them all, says something about the team’s attitude today. Yes, some help from Atleti’s Miranda was required, but cool sporting stories always require a bit of luck to go along with the style and happy story. Today was no exception.
Enrique ran the sidelines and pumped his fist, exploding in emotion after the first equalizing goal. That Messi wasn’t needed as the entire team stepped up to become as much of a team as Atleti but ultimately a more talented one, and that talent was as much as the difference as the want.
Neymar wound up and riled up, scoring two lovely goals in the process that were facilitated by his front line mates, Suarez on the first and Messi on the second. Jordi Alba bent space and time, blocking a shot at one end and then giving the assist to Neymar in the Atleti box, all in the same sequence.
And Turan threw his shoe.
It’s hard to know what you’re seeing sometimes, as eloquence is reduced to “Holy crap, what just happened.” Is is really as simple as a team coming of age?
Logically, the reasons are many: Messi is fit, Neymar is a sensation, Suarez is a presence that makes the defense worry, the defense is more solid. You can look at all of these things and make assumptions based on sound, objective principles. But how would Barça play when it got smacked in the mouth? What of that plan then? Just as when Enrique took abuse he just stuck out his jaw and said, essentially, “The hell with y’all, I know what I’m doing,” the team took the hit and got better. It played better, and took advantage of an opponent whose view was obscured by red mist.
The headlines blare “Barça beat nine-man Atleti,” glib facility that ignores the reality that this match effectively ended with the third goal, when Atleti had to score 3 goals in a half, against a defense that finally remembered how it was supposed to play. Halftime handbags at the break led to Atleti playing with 10 in the second half. That 10 became 9 with less than 10 minutes to go, when the already decided outcome became an affirmation as Barça just kept the ball and got fouled by Atleti.
And nobody is quite sure what we saw today because extraordinary, inexplicable things are often like that. This match isn’t about the Copa, a tertiary competition that really gains importance for the team that isn’t able to get any big trophies. This match is about staring down the bully and punching it in the face, about a club coming to vibrant, glorious life right before our still-unbelieving eyes.
However or whyever it happened really doesn’t matter, just as the result is about more than the final tally. It’s about a team … your team, our team … and the ugly ways that it made beauty.