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.
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.
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.