Today, on this extraordinary day, it’s worth considering the absurdity of what we are about to witness.
Because sport is absurd, a hope and a prayer, a crazy quilt of luck, dreams and things happening the exact right way. You can’t say it’s impossible because it happens every week. But it’s close.
At the beginning of a season, a group of athletes gather to place themselves in the hands of coaches. And it all begins without a clue, because athletics is also hope. There are theories and training notions. You have to take it as faith, the ultimate act of faith that if you do this, that will happen. And it’s excruciating because nothing presses on an athlete like the passage of time. Seconds become minutes become hours become days, weeks, a whole season, and it’s painful. So the trust in the people who are running things has to be absolute.
Pep Guardiola didn’t just win because he had the best players. He didn’t always. His teams won because he was able to get complete and total buy-in from a group of extraordinary players. That buy-in, that psychic submission, is a crucial part of sport. It’s what every coach craves. A former training partner of mine had a favorite saying: “You have to want it.” That means it’s the things that we as spectators never see, the other side of the happy, grinning athletes in the images that the team releases. Being an athlete is about hope, and pain.
A man who rides with me asked me one day, how I go fast. All I could say to him was what my friend says: “You have to want it.” He sees me going fast. He doesn’t see me vomiting into a trash bin, or weeping into a towel because the training hurts so much. Nobody sees that, but it’s easy to understand if you’ve been there. So when this group of men on the Barça first team place themselves in the hands of other men it has to be fully, or don’t bother. Time and history are waiting. They can’t ask why, they can’t hesitate. In the speculation about what might or might not have happened after that day at Anoeta, I often say that something happened that gave Enrique that buy in. Without that buy in there is no point because that hope, that absolute commitment becomes impossible.
Sport is also belief and lack of thought. If a player thinks about flying into a tackle, about putting his face down where a foot wearing a spiked shoe is, why would he? Why would anyone in their right mind?
Sport is automations, the rote behavior built in training that leads to mindless execution in a game where there is no time to think. Back when people wanted Enrique’s head on a platter and some called for patience, that something was happening, it was simply because sport can never be judged quickly. My pre-season as a racing cyclist starts in October, and runs until April I know the things that I have to do. I know that if I do them, fitness will come. At the end of that fitness is … something or other. That’s pre-season. Racing is still another two months away, a period where you round off the edges, make efforts to understand what you need to improve and then, finally, I race. I can no more say that my season is going to be crap based on the first races of the season than I can say I am going to be King of Siam. Because as a season progresses, a body responds in different ways. Sometimes it breaks down, other times it gets stronger.
So when people were declaring Barça’s season lost it was panic rather than logic because a season happens over the long term, at the terminus of months and months of absurdly hard work and faith. You don’t know if the men running things are doing it the right way. You don’t know if you will plant a foot wrong during an exercise, land the wrong way and end your career. People always wonder why athletes don’t seem that smart, but it’s because you can’t be. A track cycling friend who was one of the fastest riders I have ever seen, didn’t make it. A coach told him once, “You’re too smart to be a sprinter!” What that meant was that instead of just doing it, this rider wanted to know why. Full buy in never came, so complete success never came.
It’s worth thinking about what athletes must do when a new coach comes in. This is a man who can potentially waste a so, so precious year of your life, time and effort that you can’t get back. Ask a great athlete if they’d rather finish 2nd or 10th, and most would say 10th because 2nd means it was a little something that you didn’t do that kept you from ultimate success. Tenth is just “Well, we lived to race again.” Second is anguish because if you don’t win, well …
Yes, there is European football and the money that comes with it, etc, and another shot on the biggest club football stage, but no. Athletes know. They know when they are good enough, when they have hope. During a telecast of the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race in the ‘90s, a rider named Theo de Rooy was talking about working on the team and a moment came when he said, essentially, “I know that I am not good enough to win, so I have to work for the team.” It was then and still is now a moment that brings tears to my eyes. The pain in his face, in his eyes was clearly visible, that reality no athlete wants to face: I am not good enough to win.
Because you want to win while you can, you treat everything with suspicion because you have to, even as you don’t have that luxury. Nutrition, performance monitoring, new systems of play. It is up to the coach to convince the players that he has the correct formula, that at the end of this arc that is a season of work, and training, and eating right, and sleeping right, and preventive maintenance and properly planned rest days, we will win. And the athlete has to believe, or he screws himself.
Sometimes, more talented players have less diligence, less buy in because talent can bridge a gap. Mascherano enters the pitch always turned on because intensity, unrelenting focus is his edge. Puyol wasn’t a great center back because he had gobs of talent. He was a great center back in part because he always played with that athlete’s awareness that this moment is everything, the embodiment of the adage, “there is no tomorrow.” It is in many ways the ultimate manifestation of the Buddhist saying, “Be here now.” This tackle is It. Then the next tackle is It. At the end of a series of single moments embraced in full, something good might happen. Puyol played with abandon because that was how he had to play, giving everything to each and every moment. Messi has the luxury of picking and choosing because he has been blessed with transcendent talent. He can decide, “Today I will give everything.” It is on the days he plays like Puyol that footballing sonnets are written about him and the wonder of it all. And yet the days on which he decides to play, really play, for 5 or 10 minutes are extraordinary as well because that is talent.
When a striker misses a shot, supporters slam hands to heads or fall to the floor and social media fills with anguished, “What! How!” You rarely see such emanations from athlete accounts because they understand exactly how. They understand the stupid physics of a foot striking a ball, how a dollop of moisture in the wrong place makes the shot not as true, makes the ball slip off the foot at an odd angle. They understand how fatigue makes you lean back instead of over, how striking the ball the exact right way at the exact right time is black art that the best make look automatic. They understand because they have been there.
And so we come to today, when nearing the end of a long season of hopes, dreams and effort, of belief and doing everything exactly right, FC Barcelona stands on the precipice of something extraordinary: victory.
When players celebrate a win it’s with something extra, something shared in the countless hours of suffering and effort. That celebration is a sigh of relief that some crazy thing didn’t happen to undo it all – injury, moment of blind luck, referee error. Winning is better than sex, better than almost any feeling that an athlete can experience. As supporters we can celebrate, we can leap around, we can exult, but we can’t understand. In many ways that’s good because if we well and truly understood, it would probably leave us afraid to watch games, afraid to check results, afraid to do anything except wonder how in the hell these men do it, week after week much less do it well enough to beat another team.
It’s wonderful, and extraordinary and at times impossible. An announcer for BeIN, Dre Cordero, Tweeted that it boggled his mind how Barca supporters could take something so extraordinary as a Treble, and reshape it into an expectation. Winning something, anything is magical. Visca!