Roma 1, Barça 1, or “Lessons in responsibility”

Three years ago at track cycling old fart nationals, I was competing in the match sprints. In one of my rides, my opponent swerved out of the lane , trying to keep me from passing him, in a matter proscribed by the rules. He wasn’t relegated, but it was a real and serious enough infraction to raise my blood pressure and anger factor, to the “You want rough? I’ll show you rough!” level.

So I withdrew from the competition rather than race like that. Why? Because you have a responsibility to your fellow competitors not to perform actions that might injure. This brings us to the Roma match and that appalling, reckless tackle on Rafinha by a player who less than a year ago, broke another player’s leg in two places with another butcher’s challenge.

Football is physical, and challenges are lauded for being robust, but there is a line that one professional shouldn’t cross when it comes to putting another professional at risk. Grab the jersey, leave him for the people facing to kick, but going in from behind in a way that is at best, uncertain and not at all interested in the ball, pulsates with a recklessness verging on criminal. There is the idea of a “professional” foul, one that stops a dangerous attack while acknowledging exactly what happened. The player takes the card and goes on.

You can not intend to injure but by your actions demonstrate that you don’t really care if you injure. That was what made the season-ending tackle on Rafinha so reprehensible. It transgressed the boundaries of the game and what is allowed. There are tough players, there are physical players. There are also players who have a reputation for not giving a shit about what they do to their opponent. And it’s disgusting.

The offending Roma player probably sent the other player he maimed an apology via social media as well, saying that he didn’t intend to hurt him, either. You never do. I don’t think much of those kinds of apologies because your behavior speaks more eloquently than any apology. You might not have intended to harm a fellow professional, but your actions showed that you didn’t CARE if you injured. And with something like a leg break from another aggressive challence in your recent history, to still go in from behind like that …

Bad luck? In some ways, sure. Players often get up from challenges similar to that one. But if you make the challenge, what are the risks? What’s a goal or a scoring chance really worth to someone?

Pepe is often called a thug, but his mania is calculated. He often goes in hard, but he rarely goes for an opponent in a way that might injure. That is the difference for me. Mascherano is another player with a reputation for being a tough tackler, and he will go in hard, but never, ever in a way that might potentially injure. Professionals understand that. Unfortunately for Rafinha, he ran across someone with, in my opinion, a lack of that sort of regard. And he has paid the ultimate price, one that is sad on so many levels for a player who was just coming into his own, had been tapped for his dream, the Selecao, and who played quite well in his debut, even scoring a goal. He had also solidified his place at the 12th player for his club team.

A moment of recklessness has damaged all of that. I can’t presume to know how the miscreant feels, but you like to think humanity would dictate that he feels horrible about the consequences of his actions.

That was also a moment that changed the match in Roma’s favor, from the look on Iniesta’s face to the way our players backed off from the two-footed lunges being made by tired Roma defenders. And they should have. Better to take the draw and your ligaments home.

Easing off at the wrong times

And it was certainly a draw that didn’t have to be. Roma came out with 10 behind the ball, looking to play off the counter. Possession stats were more than 70 percent in Barça’s favor, and once the team got on the front foot, the work that Roma did to cut off those Messi diagonal rainbows notwithstanding, it was only a lack of precision and focus that kept the scoreline from going even more in Barça’s favor, particularly as nobody had an exceptional match on the attacking front.

Neymar is in a performance trough right now as is Messi, really, both to be expected after a summer with Copa America, an extended vacation and then the race to catch up to teammates’ fitness. Tack on an early international break and opponents who have returned to playing Barça in a physical manner, and it’s no wonder the feet are more than a little heavy.

When Neymar is off, Barça essentially has a lopsided attack that is easier to contain, because Suarez needs service. And being in something of a mood as he has been of late, he isn’t as sharp as he should be, with a full pre-season and no Copa America duty. But Suarez can be dealt with because Neymar is off, so the runs, the interplay with Messi and Suarez, the destabilizing danger isn’t there except for when Alba does overlaps. Neymar’s form will return, and Messi will become the electrifying goal machine that culers know so well.

But for now, the team is in a purple patch, getting by on a functioning system and player quality that is extraneous of that system. Even great teams have to, from time to time until it can catch its breath, grind out results. The team has a perfect record in La Liga, and drew in the match that it can comfortably afford to draw in. The season is long, and January can’t come soon enough for a team that will welcome the reinforcements with open arms.

There is a lot of speculation about what is “wrong” with Barça, and the answer, for a team that is still undefeated even though in the midst of a very nasty early-season (when a team is at its weakest) schedule, is not a whole lot. It has beaten very difficult opponents in Athletic and Atleti, and smoother sailing awaits. The next three opponents are Levante, Celta Vigo away and Las Palmas. Then there is Bayer at home before going away to Sevilla. It’s a nice stretch of winnable matches that should also enable the team to find its legs, and get some quality rest.

Roma was always going to be a difficult match, coming after Atleti away, so that the scoreline was low shouldn’t have surprised. What did surprise was how often Barça was able to breach the Roma back line. Even though the closest actual scoring attempt was Messi off the crossbar, there were many excellent chances, including Jordi Alba with a glorious opportunity in the match’s dying moments, thwarted by poor decision making. That happens when a team is tired, and has been kicked incessantly in every match that it has played so far.

Knucklehead or no?

Even then, the draw was something of a fluke, off a stunning goal that of course turned the Ter Stegen nabobs loose and running. “Out of position,” “Lets in cheap goals,” etc, etc. What was most interesting was that in the wake of the match, players from Pique to Bravo, and neutral observers such as goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn, all said that Ter Stegen was fine on that shot, which was a stunner that even hit the post.

Another, somewhat similar goal was scored by Thomas Muller from the worst cross that anyone has ever seen, so bad that it wound up as a shot that fooled the keeper, going in over his head. And that keeper was pretty much right on his line, the place that people who don’t fully understand the role of a Barça net minder would have Ter Stegen playing.

It’s easy to point to that one moment while ignoring the other plays he made, sweeps that stopped attacks, saves of difficult shots because again, football needs to have an answer to a situation. A goal was scored from distance, and Ter Stegen plays off his line. Therefore …

As Luis Enrique said, when the team concedes, his first question is what did the team do? You can go back to a shot from distance that beat Bravo, from Banega, a good shot that wasn’t anything like the stunning golazo that got past Ter Stegen. Banega was able to get that shot off because Iniesta was lazy getting out to close his man down. Rare is the goal from distance that doesn’t depend on mids who are deficient in doing their job. The Athletic distance goal came off slack Barça marking. Ter Stegen cleared a header and nobody chased it or battled for the possession at all, in a dangerous area. Should Ter Stegen have tried a safer play, controlling and playing to a defender for a more traditional attack start? In the hindsight of 20/20, you bet. But he’s an aggressive keeper. Pique lauded him yesterday for his role as an extra CB, given the way the Barça defenders often play up the pitch. If Ter Stegen gives up a goal from distance or two, but stops attacks by playing out from his net, I’ll take those chances.

Put those goals fully on the keeper if you like, but I’d bet my house that Enrique asked his team why they didn’t contest that header that San Rico so easily controlled, or how the Roma shot was even allowed to be taken. He just runs along, lines up the shot and takes it. Nobody even troubled him. If a team knows its keeper plays off the line, and that opponents are going to try to take advantage of that, you do the work and shut it down.

It’s the difficulty with ascribing blame in a team game. A keeper is responsible for a goal if he hits a crap clearance to an opposing attacker standing in the clear in his box, who then slots it past him. Keepers also have shots they should stop that somehow get past them, or that they misjudge. They happen all the time.

But for my money, the notion that Ter Stegen was somehow to blame for that Roma golazo doesn’t wash. He was doing exactly what he should have been doing, which was his job. As a professional, you depend on teammates not to screw up. It’s why De Sanctis was screaming at his defense for much of his time in the match, because they were allowing Barça to run riot. Professionals aren’t doing their job, which leads to breakdowns, which lead to goals.

And speaking of goals, spare a moment for the delightful team goal that Barça scored as a pinpoint pass over distance from Mathieu fell to Rakitic, who made no mistake with the cross for Suarez, who headed home. The goal looked easy, even as it relied on three exceptional plays. Really, both goals were of the highest quality.


The good draw

The lingering question is whether the draw is a good result? Yep, in a part of the Champions League where all a team needs to do is advance. Barça is in a group with Roma, Bayer Leverkusen and BATE Borisov. The team is going to advance and almost certainly win the group, which is idea. To advance to the next round is the objective. All the rest is for a fanbase to bicker over as people wonder why a great team isn’t flawless.

It’s a situation similar to during the match, when the commentators were wondering about why Barça wasn’t meeting a standard that was created not by the team, but by the very media critters who wonder why the team isn’t meeting that lofty standard. Woozy hyperbole is fun but if you create it, you can’t very well wonder about the state of your own fantasy creation. At least not logically.

So the real answer to what’s “wrong” with Barça is nothing. There is fatigue, there has been some poor injury luck. Both are to be expected. But as crises go, I’ll take a team that is perfect in league play and should win its Champions League group with ease.

What does Barça do for now, with Rafinha out for the season? Good question. Dani Alves returns soon, already back in training. Does he become a midfielder where Sergi Roberto continues at the RB slot? Or does Alves return to the XI at RB, while Sergi Roberto returns to his “in case of fire …” role? Sandro and Munir will have to step up, and look for the latter to get runouts in that Rafinha position, as Sandro is more of a pure striker.

Will a B teamer get called up? Unlikely, as that team is struggling so far in Segunda B, and needs all of the quality players that it can get. It’s always difficult to know what the future will bring, but the next stretch of matches, all winnable, will be crucial. If Barça can run the table there, an extraordinary thing will have been accomplished, something that could set the stage for bigger successes in the months to come.

P.S. The club, as soon as it could, activated Rafinha’s renewal, a 5-year deal until 2021. It is absolutely the right thing to do, and I have nothing but praise and respect for that action. A board that gets stick from me and many others for so many actions, deserves credit as well for doing the right thing in the right way.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. Wonderful writing once again, Kxevin. You successfully put the match and everything surrounding it into perspective. Thumbs up!!!
    I want to reiterate what someone said on the Atleti post. FIFA/UEFA should do something about such reckless & mindless challenges that could terminate a player’s career. If in the first round of group matches two players are out for the season-20 year old Luke Shaw of Manchester United got a double bone fracture against PSV- then it’s high time the authorities did something about it, especially when the player involved has an history of sending players on recuperative holidays. For goodness sake this Roma thug broke an opposing player’s leg last season on a serie A match. I propose that any player who recklessly injures another player should be banned for the same length of time the injured player is out. With a minimum of 6 months ban at the back of your mind, players will rethink the tackle before it is made. The same applies for matches, if u tackle a player so a result of which the player can’t continue the match, you should leave the pitch(straight red card). Today, it is Luke Shaw and Rafinha, tomorrow it might be Messi, Suarez, Iniesta or CR7 football, for goodness sake, isn’t war, it’s a game! ÁNIMO RAFINHA !!!!

    Like you mentioned, it is a form of irony that our midfield-of all places- is lacking in personnel. Should we have persuaded Xavi to stay till January? Should we have kept Halilovic & Denis Suarez? Whatever the case, In Lucho I Trust!!!!!

    Besides what is wrong with FIFA, what has FC Barcelona done to deserve this strictness. I hear the club won’t be allowed the chance of emergency transfer because of a nonsense transfer ban. It is mind boggling to think that the club the world believed to be the favourites of FIFA & UEFA just a while ago has become a staunch enemy. See the penalty non calls, even LE says it’s no longer news that Barca does not get penalty calls. Whatever they do, our success this season will be made more remarkable. VISCA BARCA!!!

  2. What a pity. I wish him a speedy recovery.
    Ter stegen needs a confidence boost, from somewhere, somehow.
    Is it possible to call back loan players mid season. ? 🙂
    We need halilovic back.
    I read from somewhere that its possible to sign a player to replace Rafinha in la liga? Arda was suggested.
    If such a thing were possible we will need aleix vida more.
    And Sergi? Whaaaa !!!!
    Break out defender of the season ( pretty early but still, whoaa!! )
    Roberto has been clean, pacey, good vision, everything.
    Aleix vidal should start taking midfield lessons from iniesta, he’ll need it.
    The coach needs to show his confidence and appreciation by benching alves, maybe a match or two.
    If rakitic were to put half as much effort into his football as he invests into his twitter account, our problems will surely be almost non existent.
    MSN will come good, a goal fest at the camp nou this sunday will set the mood.

  3. So we learn today that the summer transfer window ends in November.Yeah.Great.FIFA my ass.Well i dont want any favour from those corrupted bastards and despite the fact that the board are stupid,i like that we must fight against those bastards.It s nice that from the UEFALONA some years ago,now we are the target Of Fifa.

  4. And i dont like conspiracy theories but it s obvious who is behind all that.The man who is a honorary member of FIFA and the ex pres of FIFA is member of his team.One transfer in the history of football was a scandal(Ney)and one team in the world broke the youth rules.Yeah i believe u.

  5. People make the mistake to believe that Barca and madrid have the same power.Madrid is the system also in Spain and Europe.Franco created a beast,a monster and only after 50 years people will understand how Barca won that evil beast.

  6. Long time listener, first time caller.

    Hi Kxeven. I actually quit playing on the high school football team because during practice one of my own teammates was hard tackling me during scrimmage practice. We only had 12 players on the team! Blessed to have a former pro as the coach, but I was a skinny 9th Grader playing with the big kids.

    Everyone sees those potential-injury challenges coming. I propose that when the referee sees a player closing in on the heels of a player making a run, he must shout out Red! Red!, and if the player still makes a clumsy tackle it’s a straight sending off. The “Professional Yellow” is taking a lot away from the game. They should also add up team yellows, and at a certain number they lose a player, right there in the game, for at least 45 minutes of playing time. (maybe 5 yellow limit in 3-4 games, then it’s reset, game stats could help determine where to set the figures).


    Forca FCB (Finely Crushing Buses)

    1. Like your suggestion about yellow cards. Not sure though, if a player can hear the ref shouting red, red, in a packed stadium. But its clear something needs to be done. We should also recognise that it is the influence of the EPL fans – read the clubs/journalists and players etc – who keep on saying football is physical and contact sport and what not, who make these kind of challenges as part and parcel of the game. Heard Keane thought the challenge on Luke Shaw was a good one.

      As another commenter suggested here, it would be nice to suspend the tackler too, if a player is badly injured because of a tackle during the game. The problem is this could be misused. Imagine, a Espanyol player faking a serious injury, from a tackle by Messi or Iniesta, who will then have to sit out for the next 4 weeks or so, during which an El classico is coming. This can happen in Spain.

  7. I just read this on Thought I should share

    ” Former Barcelona director and presidential candidate Toni
    Freixa has claimed the club could register a new player to
    replace the injured Rafinha as the transfer ban imposed on
    them by FIFA has expired — paving the way for an early
    debut for Arda Turan or Aleix Vidal.
    Barca signed Turan and Vidal in the summer, despite the
    sanction handed down by FIFA after the club was found
    guilty of breaching the governing body’s rules on the
    transfer of players aged under 18.
    There was some confusion as to whether Barca were
    allowed to bring in the duo, although it later transpired that
    the players were simply not allowed to be registered until
    the January 2016 transfer window begins, when FIFA’s ban
    is widely reported to be coming to an end.
    However, Freixa has hinted that one of the pair could be
    registered to play immediately as a replacement for Rafinha
    — who is reported to be out for at least six months with an
    anterior cruciate ligament injury — due to the sanction
    having expired as the summer transfer window closed on
    Aug. 31.
    “Barca can register a replacement for Rafinha. Article 124.3
    of the RFEF (Royal Spanish Football Federation) is clear and
    here FIFA have no authority,” he wrote on Twitter.

    El Barça pot inscriure un substitut de Rafinha. L’article
    124.3 del Reglament RFEF és claríssim i aqui la FIFA no hi
    té cap competència (1)
    – Toni Freixa (@tonifreixa) September 17, 2015

    “Two transfer windows — last winter’s window and this
    summer’s transfer period,” AS quotes Freixa as saying
    regarding the length of FIFA’s ban, before reporting him as
    claiming that Turan or Vidal could be registered.
    However, while Freixa believes Barca have grounds for
    making such a move, AS says he feels the club “are afraid
    to confront FIFA as they know there are still unresolved
    cases involving the signing of under-age players
    Barca would have to unregister Rafinha, and request
    permission from the RFEF to sign another player to replace
    him outside of the normal transfer window, according to AS.”

    Can anyone shed more light on this?

  8. If it s true that the club considering to not take part in Fifa World Cup i am 100% with that.Enough with this joke.

  9. FIFA must make public all the youth players from all the clubs from the world.We must know everything to see if we are the only club in the world that broke the rules.If i was the president of our club i would ask for all the details.Bartomeu must stop looking for Qatar money and Espai and defend the club.

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