Sport is a magnificent thing for so many reasons, but mostly because it is an escape. We succumb to beauty and illusion, allowing ourselves to be seduced by the greater things that sport embodies.
This week at Wimbledon, a sport that is, like football, played on grass, a number of remarkable things happened with parallels to Barça. Roger Federer played some of the best tennis of his life in dispatching Andy Murray, prancing around in a way that couldn’t help but bring to mind Xavi, a player said to be past it many years ago, who proved to be essential to a team that made history yet again.
Then, in the women’s final, Serena Williams dispatched yet another opponent, notching another Grand Slam title on her way to becoming what many think she already is, the best women’s player of all time. It is this last one that I found fascinating as I discussed reasons people don’t like her with Isaiah. The one that stuck in my mind is that she messes up tennis.
Tennis is more aesthete than athlete. It’s a game where the smaller, weaker player can have a chance, where athleticism, being the biggest and strongest isn’t everything if you have a topspin backhand up the line. Rafa Nadal can huff and grunt his way past the sweatless Federer or the gifted Djokovic. Caroline Wozniacki can scramble, hit back one ball more than her bigger, stronger opponent, and win. The sport has had specimens, of course, athletes from John Newcombe and Rod Laver of the calf-sized forearms, to Sampras and Navratilova … and Williams.
But the sport has also had Justine Henins, Tracy Austins, Michael Changs and Hingises, Goolagongs and Borgs, aesthetes who nibbled at opponents, lopping little chunks from them until they fell over rather than destroying them with haymakers. Tennis has always loved these players, even as it has viewed the athletes with a bit of distrust, these people who mess up the game. Serena Williams messes up tennis because she destroys the illusion that the most gifted won’t always best the rest, yet again.
The world needs an underdog. Tennis embraced Williams during a frail period as she wrestled with injuries and self-doubt, becoming a fragile, tottering giant who gained charm as she slid down the rankings. Crowds cheered for her because for a time, a brief, fleeting time, she was an underdog.
Simple reality is that she was always the best, always the most gifted even if she didn’t always show it. Now that she is showing it, the illusion is stripped away and we see her for what she is: dominant. People will say that they don’t like her looks, think she has an attitude, etc, etc. But the reality is that in part, she’s a pain in the butt because reality sucks. Fantasy needs a chance.
Barça came to mind because as with Williams, some culers have a notion that they are cheering for a flawed Colossus, an underdog. Positioning this, and triangles that, and it isn’t exactly right, not winning in the right way, etc. We go nuts when the team wins, It’s wonderful. Reality is that Barça winning is like death and taxes, an inevitability that is supplanted these days only by something rather flukish.
The end of the Ronaldinho era was an anarchic train wreck in which an excellent team found ways to lose because it was a mess. There were, in subsequent years, referee errors, even a volcano. A freakin’ volcano!
It’s the reason that “crises” such as dropping points at a cursed ground become seismic. There is nothing better to do. Sitting back and saying that the only thing that happened is that Barça was denied a chance to take over the league lead that week is messing up the illusion. We need to believe that our team is frail and fragile, rather than an assemblage of talent that is the best in the world. It’s churlish to say that Barça is going to win because it is the best team with the most talent.
When Serena Williams strode onto the court against Maria Sharapova, a player who arrived, ascended and descended, all while Williams was dropping forehand bombs, that Sharapova was getting a beatdown was assumed. Sport wants to believe in its underdogs, wants to believe that there will be a contest.
In the final, when Williams was a bit shaky, people wanted to believe that her opponent, who was 5 years old when Williams won her first Grand Slam tournament, had a shot. The illusion needed to believe something other than Williams will play well enough to dispatch her just like she does almost everyone else that she plays, because that is what the best do. She messes up tennis because the same person, the most gifted person, isn’t supposed to always win. That’s just churlish, and unfair. You can’t flout winning the genetic and talent lottery by then kicking the crap out of everybody. Every now and again, even when there is hope, sport snatches it away.
The cruelest thing I have ever seen in tennis came in 1993 when Jana Novotna was beating Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon final. Novotna lost a tight first set, won the second and was up 4-1 in the third, serving, a point away from 5-1. And she blinked. And Graf got that face. It’s like Messi’s murderface. Back then, Graf was the same pain the ass Serena Williams is now. Death, taxes and Graf. People were going nuts. Then the universe set things right. Graf rolled off 5 straight games, winning the set and the title. So much for the underdog.
Legend has it that Barça is defined by wee technicians, players who supporters like to think aren’t good enough for other teams, who would have been weeded out by the demands of pace and physicality that other, misguided teams worship at the altar of. That illusion needs to ignore that there is a team that wouldn’t sell its mother to have Iniesta running its midfield, who wouldn’t find a place in its XI for Busquets. The illusion needs to believe that Barça isn’t as inevitable as Serena Williams, the best, most talented and brightest assuming the place that its abilities has dusted off and polished.
Barça is the best team in the world. It also has the most talent, buttressed by players who are perfect for its system. Dropped points are such an implosion among a fan base because of that reality. The wonder is that Barça EVER drops points, when you really think about it. You’d have to struggle to find a player in world football whom you would rather have than any of the Barça XI in terms of how they play, and how they meet the needs of the team. Your best bet might be at CB, where names such as Thiago Silva make people look askance at Mascherano.
Then you think about how Guardiola wanted Mascherano, played him every chance he got, as did Vilanova, Martino and now Enrique, and you wonder. From top to bottom.
It’s unseemly for a fan base to admit that its team is the best, that it is supposed to win every time it takes to the pitch. Logic would have made Barça the favorite against Bayern Munich even had all of its players been in place, but that’s a tough thing to admit because you don’t want to damage that illusion of uncertainty, the notion that your team could lose.
American football has a saying, that “on any given Sunday,” an underdog could pull off an upset. And history has shown us that this is the case. But as that 1-6 team beats, on that given Sunday, the 6-1 New England Patriots, it’s illustrative to look at the playoffs and championship seedings, black-and-white arbiters of the inevitability of excellence. Winning battles doesn’t mean a war is done. The best army almost always wins.
Serena Williams is 5-foot-10, runs like a gazelle and hits a tennis ball with the speed and authority that would be the envy of many a player. She has agility, improvisational abilities that turn lost points into won ones. She has mental strength, as well. She has, in effect, everything. Every last damn little thing. She is, at her core, unfair.
Lots of people don’t like her, just as lots of people don’t like Barça. It’s hard to see from the outside, but it’s for the same reason, really: it’s unfair. You can’t have everything. You can’t have Messi, Suarez, Neymar AND Iniesta, with Xavi coming off the bench. You can’t have the best player in the world at almost every position on your team, then act surprised when that team wins.
You can see how this would be unlikable if you are a neutral, or a supporter of another club.
If Messi had the skills of Messi but looked like Ronaldo, would he be as lovable? That squat dude who looks like the guy who, in high school, would have been the one doing Ronaldo’s homework for him is the best player in the game. Now THAT is an underdog we can get behind. Sport needs an underdog.
Back when I was younger and racing nationally, I was built like an NFL running back. I rode races in a way that didn’t even suggest I had an opponent. I just did what I did, because I had the skill and talent to ride in such a way that made an opponent immaterial. I was accused of doping, and other fun stuff. I was called asshole and the like, and I didn’t care. Who would? Talent and physical skills mean that it doesn’t matter what people call you.
Every now and again I would screw up, and a rider would beat me. And people would cheer like crazy. “See? It doesn’t always have to be like that. That fast guy doesn’t always win.” Messi’s appearance is part of his appeal. He’s short. He runs in choppy little steps on stubby little legs. He needed hormone treatments just to reach his less-than-normal-adult size. His haircuts are funny and even when fit, he has a little bit of extra flesh under his chin that you just know in that Legends game, many years hence, is going to be a full-fledged wattle.
Just look at him.
When that player is the best, when that player does things that make people slam laptops because human vocabulary doesn’t have words to describe what just happened, leaving writers to draw pictures of popping flashbulbs, exclamation points and butterflies, and he looks like Messi, it’s AWESOME! “See, son, you don’t have to look like Ronaldo to outrun everybody and score a jaw-dropping goal.” Messi is so easy to love for neutrals and culers, who struggle to understand why anyone might dislike him.
But as an opponent, all you can think is “That sonofabitch again,” because Messi is, as is Williams and Barça, inevitable. They might not get you right now, but over the course of time, they will get you. The fluke will be when they don’t get you.
Williams had competitors who have come and gone: Clijsters, Henin, Sharapova, Hingis, just as Barça has had RM, Chelsea, Inter, Bayern. Eventually, the universe puts things right. The best doesn’t always win, but it wins often enough that inferences can be drawn.
When this season comes, people will fret and worry. Dropped points will become crises, just as when Williams doesn’t win the Outer Mongolia Open, pundits wonder if she is losing her ability to dominate. But simple reality is that the best almost always win. The challenge for a supporter is getting our heads around that in a way that doesn’t make us assholes. Barça might not win everything again this year. Stuff happens. That doesn’t mean the collection of talent that Enrique can call upon isn’t jaw-dropping.
A culer would never say, publicly, “Of COURSE Barça is going to win. Why wouldn’t it?” That isn’t what sport is. But the team that we support has won the talent lottery just as an American woman tennis player has. It has had, for season after season for really the past decade, a collection of players who are the best or among the best in the game, functioning at extraordinarily high levels. The real wonder, when you think about it, is that Barça has won ONLY two trebles.
The roots of this piece stem from a conversation that happened on social media, as some of us wrestled with why people don’t like Serena Williams. But if you really think about it, those reasons are pretty clear. She messes up tennis just like Barça messes up football. The rich kid is also smarter than you, has a prettier mate and can throw a football 60 yards in the air and hit a 1’x1′ target.
It just ain’t fair. And as we struggle to escape life and all of the attendant unfairness and crap that we deal with on a daily basis, fantasy is important. It would rock if reality would just stop messing up our … alternate reality.