Athletic Club 1, Barça 3, aka “Paid in full”

messi

Paid in full.

You wonder if somewhere there isn’t a cosmic ledger marked “paid in full,” as the cosmos finally determined that a team, a club and the people who love it had suffered enough.

On a lustrous Saturday when confetti rained down at the Camp Nou as Barça celebrated taking another step toward repeating an unprecedented accomplishment again, or something like that, my mind turned to the past, the days that I contemplated this team and wrote about it through a veil of tears, those times when I wondered whether the unspeakable joys of the Treble and follow-up successes had a price in pain.

I thought of Puyol, and Valdes, and Abidal, and the Iniestas struggling with their loss. I thought of the biggest loss of all in the team’s devoted Mister, now and forever. I thought of trying to sustain a moment of silence and wondering if sobs were cheating, and Mascherano laid low with grief.

I thought of all that pain, and those professionals trying to work their way through it. I thought of a fan base riven by the standards and demands of the past, of distrust of something new, of hashtags and snarling rips at new signings, crises and entornos, and it’s now all summed up in three very simple words:

Paid in full.

In the here and now, there is only joy. That cosmic ledger is wiped clean. For me, the Champions League final doesn’t matter. Yes, I would be overjoyed if the team won it, but today’s match was so symbolic of what this team has had to endure and how it has come out of the other side of the fire, that for me there is only joy.

team

When Luis Suarez came to FC Barcelona, hard hearts including mine were vehemently, vociferously against the move. Whether irony or symmetry, a second chance has helped deliver something joyful to an emotionally battered club. The “Wheeee!” with which Neymar plays became the battle cry of a team that wasn’t interested in anything that anyone had to say about anything that it did. It didn’t care for bleating about possession stats, or candles lit at altars of The Way. It didn’t care that it scored all of its goals in a match off set pieces, it didn’t care that counterattack goals worked or individual brilliance, that beautiful thing turned into something ugly by misguided pundits, was necessary at times.

This team only cared about one thing: coming together in a way that would find it a powerful, nasty, at times brutish fist that was also capable of unspeakable beauty.

At the beginning of the match today, someone at the Chicago Penya asked me what I thought and I said “a 3-1 win.” And it was weird to think that, because being culer is to embrace uncertainty and a sense of impending doom. I programmed enough recording time for extra time and a penalty shootout onto my home DVR, because that’s culer. But then there was the confidence, the belief in a team that has truly done something extraordinary this season in rising like a phoenix from its own ashes.

It was an exquisite, controlled display from a team that at one time was considered incapable of either quality. It was a goal of jaw-dropping brilliance, a goal that every time I watch it I still find it unbelievable, a goal that is pointless to describe, because you can’t. It isn’t that you don’t have the words. There are always words. What our language lacks is the capability of capturing the emotion of seeing something unspeakably brilliant. It’s almost like light bulbs explode in your brain as you try to process it, that weird silence right before you scream in delight.

Maybe it’s that absence of sound, motion or anything, when the only thing filling your brain is flashes and exclamation points that is the best way to describe the feeling of that Messi goal, one that I believe is the best one that he has yet scored.

There is of course the legendary Getafe goal. But with that goal, he was Messi, a young talent with running space. He wasn’t the player that teams devised an entire system around stopping. The Athletic defenders did everything right. Everything. Men were where they were supposed to be, the keeper set up so that the only available shot was something impossible. None of it worked. Nobody scoffed at individual brilliance then, fittingly, nor should we ever. Individual brilliance is something to be cherished, marveled at and captured in any way that we can. It doesn’t happen often, and that Messi goal was the epitome of the beauty of individual brilliance.

That shot going in typified this season in many ways, as the impossible happened once again. A season that was considered lost in winter is soaring toward a blissful apogee in summer. It was even a season of wishes granted, as Xavi said that he wanted to lift a trophy with Iniesta again. It’s everything all at once, beautifully.

xavi

Athletic Bilbao played an excellent football match today, about the best that they could offer. But Barça, at this point in time, is a collection of many players who are the best in the world at their position, playing at the peak of their powers, buttressed by peak fitness and tactics that suit their strengths. They are playing with verve and confidence, solid at the back and irrepressible at the front.

This team is also nasty, like its coach was as a player, a group that is not interested in taking prisoners even as it is pragmatic, working only hard enough to ensure that the job is done, because energy must be conserved for the next task. Give a Barça player a hard foul and you can expect to get cleared out at some point, by someone. Because that, too, is this Barça.

This team drives opponents to distraction. Arda Turan threw his boot in rage. Today, after Neymar tried a sombrero to get out of a tight sideline pickle, the Athletic players detonated and a row was on. From that point on any chance they had of finding some miracle to get a scrambled goal or two and a glimpse of hope was gone. Neymar wound up yet another opponent who ended up focused on the wrong thing as time and the match dwindled.

Enrique said that if he was an Athletic player, he would have had the same reaction, a statement that many viewed as being critical of Neymar’s move. But from this chair it was a professional’s admission that no professional likes to be owned like that. It makes them angry. Duh. But the ensuing row also meant that Barça had won the psychological war as well as the physical and ball skills one. It was a complete victory over a proud opponent, a 3-1 win that seemed a much larger margin, so complete was the control of this Copa del Rey final.

So many writers speak of this Enrique team being so very different from the Guardiola teams, but for me, even as points of comparison are invalid because both teams played Barça football with their own tactical variations, the teams are more alike than anyone will care to admit, because that sort of thing isn’t fashionable. But both teams controlled matches and opponents, both teams scored goals in a variety of ways, both teams had a dynamite front three that used its skills to destroy.

This isn’t saying that Enrique is as good a coach as Guardiola, or any of the stuff that will have villagers scurrying around with their pitchforks and torches, something that has been all the rage in this divisive, too-often nasty season. It is instead an observation that the past Treble-winning side and this potential Treble-winning side share similarities both physical and psychological.

Football is about highs and lows, about fan bases that believe they are owed some joy, that winning is something that is due after a certain period. But that isn’t true. Fate doesn’t care about any team or player. It only seems that way. A team can lose and keep on losing, just as a team can win and keep on winning.

But when the kind of heartache that has buffeted this club takes up what seemed at the time to be permanent residence, the kind of joy and beauty represented by unstoppable goals and victory celebrations is something that is to be cherished. These are great players, doing great things. And it is wonderful, for a change, to have our tears be those of joy.

confetti

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

18 Comments

  1. barca
    May 31, 2015

    beautiful read as always Kxevin. I could not even digest the goal properly because I was screaming like crazy. I am now going back and looking at his teammates reactions and they are super stunned! If someone you play with day to day are suprised this much, imagine what we can do. If you ever want to convert a person to a soccer fan, you should start by showing the person Messi’s skill videos and Barcelona team goals.

  2. Pahleo
    May 31, 2015

    Thank You for the article Kxevin, Superb as Ever. What truly astonishes me about the front three is that their camaraderie is there for everyone to see. The willingness of Suarez to set up Neymar for the second goal without hesitation while he could have taken a shot. And let me not even talk about Messi because i will not be doing him justice with my limited vocabulary. It should scare the hell out of opposition players and fans knowing that the trident havent spent a whole season together.

  3. CuleToon
    May 31, 2015

    Brilliant and moving post. Than you, Kxevin.

  4. georgjorge
    May 31, 2015

    Brilliant first half! Second half was in some ways even more impressive as the team clearly stepped off the gas there but still was more than capable of keeping Bilbao at bay. Can’t wait for Saturday.

    I had to switch off after 75 minutes and just now looked at the Neymar trick + Bilbao uproar at the end, what was THAT about? Is it now considered a grave offense to try a fancy trick in order to pass a defender?

  5. TITO
    May 31, 2015

    It’s not about the trick per se. Its’s about the person, THE Neymar. Opposition players just hate him.
    It would have been completely different story if Iniesta tried that.

    • bedhead
      May 31, 2015

      Iniesta would have never tried it. It’s disrespectful to your opponent – LE – alluded to this fact. The game was done and dusted with 10 minutes left, you don’t try to humiliate a team who has 1/4 your budget with your showboating tricks. Neymar is a punk. He has a lot of maturing to do.

      Why do you classify this season as nasty?

  6. TITO
    May 31, 2015

    What a hell the budget has to do with tricks???
    That is absolutely not a disrespect. He knows a thing or two and he is showing thatz what’s the problem? You cant stand that as a player, then go and try a different game.
    This is football, its about brilliance.
    Trying that trick is brilliant for me. Will i get offended by it if i was a player? It will only show how weak i am.

    • lala10
      May 31, 2015

      you think he is the only one who can do tricks? Why not do it at nil nil. The young man still got loads to learn. When he does that he comes across as a wanker. Its shameful.

    • G6O
      May 31, 2015

      He has done it at 0-0 in other games. He just got pissed because they kicked him in the shins absolutely pointlessly just a minute before that.

      Which is never a good idea – when you try humiliating other players driven by emotions, you often fail. And hat nobody is mentioning is that he did not pull it off – the ball was going out of bounds, i.e. the embarrassing thing was that he lost the ball, not that he tried to do this. Which should have been sufficient, no need to get in his face about trying the move.

  7. bedhead
    May 31, 2015

    Let me put it this way. It’s a cultural thing. Maybe in Brazil (perhaps South America, perhaps North America as well) to show boat against an inferior opponent, who played a game as good as they could – in the closing minutes when you are up by 2 goals is exciting and satisfying. It’s a whole other thing in Spain (perhaps Europe). It’s considered arrogant and frowned upon. Once you have dominated your opponent on the field and you’re closing out the game, as Barca was doing, it diminishes you in the eyes of many Spaniards to get cocky and arrogant by humiliating players with your cute, little tricks. You may not agree with it, and thats fine, but thats the sentiment of many La Liga viewers.
    Had Neymar tried that in the first half, or if we were losing or if we were trying to secure another goal it would have been a perfectly fine part of the game. The fact that he tried it in the 80th minute, 2 goals up with an opponent that had no chance of coming back is considered bush league. It’s what insecure, arrogant, show-boaty players resort to. Same thing Ronaldo gets accused of doing. Messi has no time for such child-ish antics because he’s busy dribbling past 5 defenders and squeezing a ball into the near corner for a perfect goal.

    • Pahleo
      May 31, 2015

      I don’t understand the people who are all over Neymar for trying out the sombrero at the athletic defender basing their arguments on a misguided and fanatical reason that it is considered disrespectful for players to do that in Spain (or Europe). Football has become a global sport and players with talent and skills such of Neymar are taken from their countries to England, Spain, France etc to do what Neymar has been doing since his day one at Barca i.e play football at the best of his abilities because that is why he is getting paid at the end of the week. Neymar is a full package that comes with all the flicks, feints, panenka’s and trivelas. Does anyone criticize Messi as he humiliates defenders and live them at his wake every other Saturday or Sunday? What of Jerome Boateng during the 1st leg of UCL Semi Final? What of David Luiz who was made a fool twice by Suarez? What if that fancy trick would have led to a goal or an assist?? Wouldn’t that given joy to millions of fans all around the world who live and breathe football?
      Just as Neymar said in his post match interview that is his way of playing football and he wont change it for anyone. Heck, The Great Ronaldinho did not!

    • Jamal103
      May 31, 2015

      It’s Neymar style. He also tried it against James in our 3-1 loss to Madrid earlier in the season.

  8. TITO
    May 31, 2015

    What a hell the budget has to do with tricks???
    That is absolutely not a disrespect. He knows a thing or two and he is showing that, what’s the problem? You cant stand that as a player, then go and try a different game.
    This is football, its about brilliance.
    Trying that trick is brilliant for me. Will i get offended by it if i was a player? It will only show how weak i am.

  9. TITO
    May 31, 2015

    Sorry about repetitive post.
    Anyway, i disagree with all those who treat that move as showboating.
    He tried a way to past over a player. I live in Europe, and that’s in no way arrogant to my believe.

  10. Jamal103
    May 31, 2015

    Love how our achievement of a double has devolved into a debate over an inconsequential play in the dying minutes of the game… makes you think, Can Cules ever be truly happy?

    • barca96
      June 1, 2015

      What’s wrong with discussing about it? It was an incident during a match right? Same could be said about you and some people, instead of commenting about the match and review, you nitpick on the people here. Everybody is different you know and nothing is perfect.

  11. Neel
    May 31, 2015

    The way Bilbao treated Neymar, Brazilian team captain and subsequently, the sky sports commentators who were on god knows what, to blame him for showboating and lack of respect – simpy ridiculous. We are talking about the beautiful game. Everyone who justified the actions against Neymar did a big dis-service to football yesterday and I hope they did not discourage a very skillful player from displaying his full array of skills on the field. Lucho has been put on the pedestal by all and sundry, but he lost more respect from me for not clearly backing his player in the post match presser.

  12. bedhead
    May 31, 2015

    Back in 2012, Puyol disrupted Alves and Thiago “dance” after scoring their 5th goal in a 7-0 romp against Rayo. Pep apologized for his players being too boastful in their celebration. We had already wrapped up the league and Rayo was on the verge of regulation. Alves and Thiago tweeted their apologies as well. Call it what you want. But, their motto is mas que un club – maybe that includes not rubbing it in people’s faces.
    I find the custom of not celebrating a goal against your former team, much in the similar vein. Personally, I like the custom of everyone kind of knowing that Barsa could have easily humiliated Bilbao in the secind half, but instead we put in some subs and circled the ball around. Touche! Does everything have to be so “in your face”?

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