There is speculation, nattering, punditry and all that other stuff but at the end it all comes down to this team, the players and how its supporters manage to deal with it. And for too much of this season, a lot of how supporters have dealt with this team has been like villagers with pitchforks and torches, running around looking for the monster.
This space has been ahead of the curve on things such as the team taking shape, noticing its pragmatism and that it is taking on the character of its coach, as many teams do. That isn’t a point of pride or any sort of forward thinking as much as just seeing what is there. If you find a dollar on the street, that’s all it is.
“Hmph. Some rich jerk just tosses money around. What about the poor, who could use that dollar. Hmph.”
It’s just a dollar on the street that you can choose to pick up or not.
When watching Barça, and this has been written about before here, it’s easy to get into believing what you want to see because a football team offers that possibility. A team choosing to go over the top because an opponent has flooded the midfield is said to “Not have a midfield.” Nostalgia makes things not as good as they are, and a coach is to blame. Not time, not players who are not what they once were, not the passage of time. It’s one all-powerful man.
But when the team begins to play better and better, to become what many wondered if it had the quality to become, it’s the players, doing this in spite of the coach and meanwhile, this or that player that someone doesn’t like still has deficiencies, still shouldn’t be on the pitch.
It’s all nonsense that like so many leaves on a windy fall day, are blown away because it’s always been about this team. It was, today, a group that dismantled a top European side in Paris St.-Germain, dealing them their first home defeat in European competition since 2006. That’s 33 matches, and the last 22 in all competitions. Some will say “Well, how much have they been in Europe,” “Barça was supposed to win,” “Should have been 3-0,” etc. But again, none of that is the point.
The point is this team. Xavi to Messi to Neymar to Suarez. That’s a fantasy, not a team, something so exceedingly rare as to beggar description. The best, to the best, for the best, finished by the best. That just doesn’t happen.
There have been crises, most of them imagined, this season. When some said of the Anoeta result that Barça dropping points at that place after an international break is like the sun rising, that was immaterial. Crisis. When Neymar threw a strop on the weekend over being subbed off at Sevilla, crisis as some press outlets penned hooey about the rift between Neymar and Enrique destroying the dressing room harmony. The headlines get clicks and move papers, but it’s nonsense from people who are often just about as knowledgeable about what really goes on as the average, well-informed fan.
And still, none of it matters because of this team, an extraordinary group of athletes who continue to do what they do, which is be among the best players in the world at one of the best clubs in the world, doing what they are paid exceptional sums of money to do. In a recent interview Messi described a year during which he scored more than 40 goals as a bad one, with a lot of personal stuff to overcome.
We have a team that includes a player who thinks that 40 goals is a bad season. We have a player who starts for, and is the captain of his national team, Brazil, but is still considered a flash in the pan and a YouTube sensation by too many culers. We have a midfield peopled by a pair of linchpins who, though still brilliant if an opponent lets them have their way, are not the players they used to be. And there is a coach who has to deal with all of that, and bring it together in a way that helps the players achieve their goals.
But still, it’s the team, a team that often can’t win for losing. Today’s goal tally included a sublime bit of build-up play that culminated in a seemingly effortless goal that was in fact difficult. It also included two bits of transcendent skill, that “individual brilliance” that disappoints so many when it rears its unpopular (in some quarters) head. It’s a team where a Messi run is genius but a Neymar golazo is “individual brilliance” that isn’t the proper way to score. People talk about “right” and “wrong” ways, then someone like Thierry Henry says that “Barça is playing how it always has, and Eto’o and I used to run out behind the defense.” And it’s interesting because Henry was there, so he knows. He received and processed instruction from a Barça legend, and he knows.
But he also knows what he sees, rather that what he might want to see. And even after all that there is this wonderful team, a group that retains that status even when it is disappointing us, because it is a group that is made up of spectacular talent. And every now and again that talent coalesces in a way that makes us shake our heads in wonder, but those matches for me aren’t as magical because they are the one-offs … like finding a dollar on the street. You can’t expect that every day any more than you can expect a transcendent performance every match.
Matches such as today’s PSG takedown are more fascinating to me, more lustrous because the team wasn’t at its best, didn’t play anything like at the level of which it is capable. The beauty is in the fact that it didn’t need to, that it could roll along in second or third gear and it was enough to not completely end the tie but confront PSG with the reality that it will have to score three times at the Camp Nou and not concede once to advance. It has to do that because a team of brilliant players didn’t need to be brilliant. It won a football match by being a team and doing what a team does, which is its job.
The Sevilla match breakdown discussed those three moments that turned that match, and one of them was a Suarez miss. Compare those simple finishes to the bits of athletic extravagance that he presented today and wonder about the meltdowns that occurred after Barça dropped a couple of points on the weekend. In some ways the analogy is like a guy who can split an atom but can’t boil water for tea, but that’s part of being an athlete who is part of a team, but not just any team.
People throw up their hands when Mascherano starts a match in defense or midfield, this man who was an immense part of the reason Argentina made the World Cup final. Any world in which he isn’t good enough is one that is off kilter, one that can be assessed as this oddity that isn’t linked to reality. Maradona, when he was coaching Argentina, said that his XI is Mascherano and 10 others. Enrique made it a priority to lock him down, and play him. Vilanova played him, Guardiola played him, Martino played him even as for many culers he isn’t good enough, has shortcomings that make them consider him a liability.
Whatever. So much of thinking, writing and nattering about football is theory, an ideal universe in which everything is perfect. Athletes nurse injuries, have good and bad days just like the rest of us, have all sorts of things go on that affect their confidence. Supporters come to blogs such as this one and say that such moments of humanity are unacceptable, as the players on the team we support somehow become superhuman based on the simple act of donning a shirt.
So today as Barça misplayed passes, got a little loose in defense and dealt with all of the crises that a team has to deal with as it tries to dispatch an opponent, the beauty of today’s match was the ease it evinced. PSG at times chased shadows. And Enrique had the luxury of calling a living legend in Xavi off the bench. And it’s easy to wonder how a team that can use the best midfielder in footballing history as a sub can be in any way deficient. Human? Sure. Not meeting fullest expectation every match? Absolutely. Needing to improve and take steps toward being better? You bet. But deficient? No.
It’s difficult to think of any of the brickbats that have been hurled at this group of extraordinary athletes this season as holding any sort of water, long term. Form comes and goes, but class is permanent. Barça has class, a quality that is evident not in the hammerings of an opponent, but in the “another day at the office” matches where the reality of just how good this team is gets driven home. Neymar scored a goal today that looked so easy. “He should have scored that goal,” so many said. But notice the touch that opens up the angle, recall all the players we see, week after week, who have a heavy touch that gets smothered by the keeper, who skim the outside of the post. But in a case of the delightful seeming workmanlike, a goal was scored.
It isn’t always wonderful, isn’t always perfect but it is always exceptional in one of the meanings for the word, because there are exceptional people doing things that sometimes veer into the exceptional.
This isn’t an admonition, or a way that calls out supporters in any way. But it is an acknowledgement that something extraordinary happened today, because of this team … this wonderful team. It isn’t wonderful because of what it does, but rather because of what it is. A sunrise only seems routine, but is a truly staggering thing to contemplate.
I had the great pleasure of working with a photojournalist, John White, who photographed the sunrise every day. For decades. And for all I know he still does. When asked why, he said because every sunrise is special. So are these athletes that we watch every week. No matter how much we might see, we should never lose sight of that.