One of the most remarkable moments in the Club World Cup came during the trophy presentation. Messi and Neymar, as they strolled up to receive their medals, stopped to spend time with the trophy. They talked, Neymar caressed it, both gawked at it.
These are two players who have won almost everything that there is to win in football, just coming off a treble, both in the final three of the Ballon d’Or, and they stop to marvel at a trophy that is considered a bauble by many culers, a thing below the level of the Copa, a bit of obviousness that would be lovely if they didn’t have to fly all the way to Japan to be crowned.
But Messi and Neymar didn’t care.
When people wonder about what it is that makes this team so special, that makes it so extraordinary, from this chair it’s pretty simple. Just as when a pundit noted that when Barça score, they celebrate as a group as though they have never scored a goal before, the gazing at that trophy demonstrates a hunger, a knowledge of how special this all is.
Time, that cruelest of masters, is always the enemy. The useful life of an athlete isn’t long, really. The useful life of an athlete at the pinnacle of a given field of endeavor is shorter still. The time that an athlete has to be part of something extraordinary is, in comparison, milliseconds.
As a football team, FC Barcelona has been enjoying a period of dominance that in effect, began in the Rijkaard years, if you consider that many of the same key players have been part of the core of that team. Rijkaard had his success, paused, then Guardiola had his, pause, Vilanova had some, pause, and now Enrique. For a decade, when people think of not only beautiful, but winning football, the mind has turned to Barça.
The pressure to sustain that quality, that achievement that one year it took a volcano to derail, is immense. The players understand. Messi and Neymar revealed so much in that little moment, but nothing more than that they understand how extraordinary winning is, how every moment, every goal is to be cherished. It’s more than the “You never know, one wrong step” fatalism of the athlete. It almost feels like there is a legacy that they are striving to maintain, a tradition. Guardiola stepped down as a player, Xavi stepped up. Puyol left, Pique stepped up. It’s like a lineage that these players not only want to continue, but feel obligated to continue. It isn’t just a trophy, but another notch in the foundation being built upon the case to be made that over the last decade, Barça is the greatest club football side in world football history.
But first, there was a determined, and frankly kinda bonkers opponent to dispatch in a match that was never really in doubt. River Plate came out determined to make a lie out of the Messi comment that football takes more than balls. They pressed, ran, went in hard and made every square foot of pitch a hotly contested battleground. They ended with 22 fouls over 90 minutes. And if Barça didn’t quite give as good as they got, River Plate understood that it took a beating on the pitch as well as the scoreboard.
As River ran and lunged, it was only a matter of time, because of the quality gulf in the two teams. Legs needed to tire just for an instant, and that would be all that it took. And what a moment that first goal was, coming from a wondrous bit of interplay as Neymar showed a work ethic to match his dribbling ability, working the ball loose and playing a series of back and forths with Messi that resulted in the latter improvising a side-legged strike for the 1-0 lead.
At that point, the match was over. River Plate didn’t have a hope of scoring, because they really never had the ball in space where scoring was possible, with the bulk of their possession coming in their own end of the pitch. But they could, and would be physical. And the more they kicked, the more Barça scythed through them, working not with physicality but elegance. When Busquets influenced a ball loose, then dropped a physics-defying pass onto the chest of Suarez who nodded home for 2-0, the display was almost one of casual dominance.
River was fighting the known quantities as Neymar and Messi scampered about. Suarez made a delayed run, in a perfect instance of the run dictating the pass, and Busquets knew what to do. The third goal was much like the second, Barça taking full advantage of a team that really didn’t know what hit them, springing Suarez loose for a chance that he slotted home.
Barça played like a group that knew it had missed a chance to equal history when it laid a collective egg in the Spanish SuperCopa, knew things were messier than they should have been in the wake of consecutive Liga draws from a match that they had control of.
But most importantly, they played like a team fully aware of what is going on, a team that loves every minute of it. It’s a matter-of-fact quality that is a consequence of not only its best player, but the coach and his staff, who aren’t interested in anything except winning, being victorious enough times to, in aggregate, matter. Just as Messi gets fouled, gets up and plays on, and Enrique conducts matter-of-fact pressers with the impatience of a man who is being kept from an appointment, Barça is calm.
The team is making history without caring, even as it is aware that it is making history. It is a grounded group that is also a hungry group. When Neymar came to Barça, many said that the relationship between he and Messi wouldn’t work, that both were chiefs and one needed to be a worker. Then when Suarez was added, that could have been more potential dynamite.
But instead of rivals, they have developed into friends and colleagues in destruction, a trio unprecedented in world club football, the three best attacking players in the game all on the same team, and wanting nothing more than for their team to win. That is coaching.
There are those who say that when you have Messi, Neymar and Suarez it’s easy, a statement belied by the many star power combos rolling around world football that don’t have the same sense of style, coherence and togetherness. As Neymar, CWC trophy in hand, ducked in behind the gathered team and you noticed Suarez and Messi at front center, you already knew where he would pop up. For three such players to have not only an understanding but a mutual respect and admiration coupled with selflessness, it’s a remarkable thing.
On a day in which the most celebrated coach in world football divulged that he was leaving his club, a coach who really isn’t all that much celebrated was dusting off yet another accomplishment of matter-of-fact destruction.
Last season, the team took on the personality of its coach in that it was pugnacious and determined. fighting back and scrabbling out wins. This season, that personality has become defined, something as simple as “Let’s do this.” The building blocks are apparent: goals become wins become trophies. It’s the job of a coach to keep his group focused and calm, hungry and willing to always work for the good of the team. Guardiola did it at Barça, and now Enrique is doing it as well, albeit with a different set of raw materials.
With only a couple of exceptions, every player on the team has improved under Enrique. Suarez’s strike effectiveness keeps climbing, Neymar is working as hard off the ball as he does on it. Messi has rounded his game to a level that makes him potentially devastating whether passing or running. Sergi Roberto fits in, the new Iniesta has added backbone to go with the magic. That takes hard work, and understanding as well as the ability to impart what a coach knows to his charges. He’s up for coach of the year, and he cracked wise about the honor because the best coaches understand that they are nothing without their players, just as players understand that a coach can make them greater than the sum of their parts.
In another coaching portent that occurred this week, Jose Mourinho was fired at Chelsea, and the performance of his former players in their first match without him made it clear that there was some sabotage going on. A coach has to make his players buy into what he wants to do. This is Guardiola’s most exceptional quality. The tactics are a lot more manageable when you get that buy in. Enrique also is extraordinary at getting that buy in. He got it at Celta, wasn’t at Roma long enough to get it (leaving them to wonder what might have been) but there is a new level at Barça.
It is that level that sparks the hungry way that Neymar and Messi looked at the CWC trophy today, like players who want to win everything. Time ticks away. We don’t do things that we should, let moments pass that we should cherish, all based in a lack of understanding of the simple phrase, “there is no tomorrow.” Athletes pay lip service to it, but not as many understand as utter it. Enrique talked of Messi barely being able to stand, but wanting to play. Messi understands.
The Barça players, in part because of their coach, in part themselves and in part the consciousness of that legacy, usually play like there’s no tomorrow, with the cognizance that this moment is now, and the next moment will come — and it will be something else to be managed.