Fate owes us.
At the end of what seems an interminable cycle of fear, loathing and heartache, that damsel has some blaugrana debts to pay.
The notion of a team or group of supporters being “due” is an odd one, but for the record and from this chair, Fate owes the hell out of us. And as the team heads for Sevilla tomorrow, 4 points in the Liga lead with 8 matches to go, the Pollyanna in me just refuses to believe that Fate intends to be that cruel.
It has been quite a travail being a culer these past seasons. And whether Job and his trials, Sisyphus and his quest or any other figure of legend you can think of in an analogous fashion, it ain’t been easy. Let’s exclude the difficulties of the board’s own making and just manage things such as illness, death, personal tragedies befalling players and injuries galore. This stuff all combines to leave a culer wondering just when in the hell our beloved club is going to catch a break.
And as Sevilla is the match on tap for tomorrow, Barça finds itself in an odd position, one that I would wager not many culers expected the team to be in at this point of the season. Even as people draw parallels to last season in the fraught manner in which the Liga title was decided, close right down to the header that ultimately decided the title, this year feels completely different.
Last season shaped up as the Title Nobody Wanted. Each of the top teams took turns dropping points at times that managed to make the Liga more interesting than it really should have been. Whether the title was lost at the Calderon or the Martinez Valero isn’t as much the point is that it was lost … or snatched away, dependent upon your worldview. The headline at the official club site after the Elche match, the penultimate of the season was “Draw keeps title hopes alive,” because that’s the kind of year it was. But that 0-0 away the weekend before the title-deciding clash against Atleti summed up a lot about last season, one that was defined by heartache on and off the pitch.
As Sid Lowe observed in the wake of the Celta Vigo win, last season’s Barça would have lost that match. Heck, a few months ago this season’s Barça probably would have lost that match. What makes this post-La Real period feel so different is explainable not only in the nebulous way that supporters can point to the unquantifiable. There is objective data, tangible indicators that Barça is doing well, from set piece goals scored vs conceded to a gaudy winning percentage, overall as well as on the road.
Where last year’s team was a fragile structure that notched a loss and three draws in its last seven matches, this year’s team appears not only physically poised to close out the Liga, but psychologically set. The situation that exists right now is like a gift that nobody was expecting, and is afraid to open or even approach. But when Luis Suarez scored what is the most important goal of the season to date, a tally that provided the winning margin in the most recent Classic, something weird happened:
Culers started to believe, even if it was in that culer way that finds doom under every rock.
Whether belief has become expectation is for others to conclude. That this team and its manager have come a very long way from the trumped-up nadir of the La Real defeat goes without saying, as a Jordi Alba own goal put things into seeming disarray. Chaos reigned. The speculation about the turnaround will be endless, should the team go on to consolidate its Liga title. Cries were long and loud that Enrique should get the sack, and they came from the style side of the aisle as well as the results side. And whether Bartomeu was smart for resisting the calls for Enrique’s head, or hamstrung by the fact that no coach was going to take a job that could end prematurely, history will consider immaterial because both routes led to the same result: Enrique stayed.
Many press outlets are treating Enrique and what he is doing differently. Back then there were reports of a lack of a plan that anyone could see, too much rotation, a bad relationship with the players, Messi hates him. Now it is set pieces and you, how a psychologist is helping the club and the significantly decreased injuries this season compared to last. Enrique still does his pressers leading with his jaw, but the reaction to them is different, tempered by success and comfort.
And so we have Sevilla, who is unbeaten at home this season. So was Valencia before Barça notched a win. On paper, Barça is a better team than Sevilla. But home cooking and the real quality on their roster means that this match is an indicator of the team’s ultimate success. Win and it’s another step — a huge one — closer to the Liga title. Lose and worry will stalk the Camp Nou as the shell game played by Fate finds the team coming up short.
The four-point margin means that Barça would have to err one more time while RM didn’t falter at all, a prospect that is as likely or unlikely for them as it is for us. Like us, they visit Sevilla and host Valencia. Like us, they have nasty Champions League matches placed at inopportune times during the Liga run-in, a Madrid derby, no less. They are away to Celta, the same team that made Barça find another gear, the Sunday after a Wednesday clash with Atleti in Champions League. They end the season away to Sevilla and Espanyol, home to Valencia and a bogey team for them, Getafe.
In other words, them running the table is as unlikely as us running the table. Both fan bases will be crazed, both anticipatory but for my money, only one of them is due, after running a gantlet of sadness that includes the death of a beloved coach. As many wondered if the unbearable pain was the payback for unspeakable joy, the team began building its account with Fate and for this culer, the bill has come due.
It should be noted that I predicted that the team would finish silverless again this season. At the time it seemed logical: new coach, new system, 8 new faces in the dressing room and a key player who would miss half the season. No way in hell, said the smart money, that things were all going to come together this season to have the team in a position to win anything. It all made perfect sense. But like the people who said this team was never going to beat Atleti before Barça went 3-0 against its roadblock of last season. This year is different. Or is it?
The saddest part about this season for me is that most of the strife is coming from the culerverse, as the aisle divides and people who should be united in love rip at each other. There are people who say the team is a broken mess just awaiting the right opponent to destroy it. They point to a team that some say is being effective, doing no more than it needs to, and say that it’s an accident waiting to happen. Some say it’s a mess that isn’t the Barça way. Others say that something good is happening. There are still others who say that something is happening, the “Well, there is a glass, and there is something in it” alternative to the glass being half-full or half-empty.
The team wins but plays badly, not because it didn’t play well, but didn’t play correctly. To others, the team won. The end. There are arguments, attacks and bickering in a world where nobody wants to be wrong and nobody actually is. Each side accuses the other of being delusional. The most innocent statements get someone branded a “hater” or “defender,” depending on who is hurling the brickbat. It is at times disheartening, but a quick trip the the DVR or YouTube brings a psychic salve. The Mathieu Classic header, the Suarez match winner. Any of the improbable Messi strikes — this season has a lot from which to choose if you want a bit of respite.
FC Barcelona was founded by a Swiss businessman. One of its most legendary players is Hungarian, and its best player ever is Argentine while its most influential footballing figure is Dutch. Amid that polyglot blend should be room for everyone. The fight will never stop because like trench warfare, the armies are embedded, views ensconsed behind concrete bunkers of ire. But I think even that heartache adds to the collective tally, increasing the debt that Fate owes us.
And I hope, I sincerely hope, even as people might not ever agree on whether things are pretty, pretty messy or just something or other, that the factions can find common ground in support for the team and confidence in the players and can embrace, as I have been for every match this season, that burning desire to be wrong. Dead wrong.
Your move, Fate. What’s it gonna be?