The woeful life of being Culer, aka “Here comes Atleti!”

A dog briefly came through my life decades ago. What kind of life that dog led before coming to my home as a foster, nobody knew, but the manifestations of that hardscrabble existence were fear. Put her food down, and she’d wolf it down, giving me all kinds of sideeye like, “Back off! Mine!” A toy that was given to her was immediately hidden away in one of her doggy hiding places, only to be pulled out when she was sure nobody was around to take it from her. Fear, fear, always fear.

Today, I would name that dog Culer, because that’s the prevailing mindset of a fanbase that outsiders almost universally laugh at. During the Copa de Rey return leg, Athletic Club came out like a house afire, pressing, charging, running around. They scored a goal, and in the Culer Worry Multiplier, that goal counted for 10. And yet, the match was taking the same shape and cycle as the Malaga match that was still fresh in memory, where an opponent came out pressing, playing physically and having a great match, only to have Barça do exactly what it did against Athletic: score a goal, and cruise to a win.

But this time, this time, it will be different. This time, all the prophesies of doom will come to pass. Then Suarez bangs one home. Then Pique heads home. Then Neymar decides laws of physics don’t apply, and people are celebrating having made the Copa semi-final, until the draw comes and the team gets Valencia. Then it’s “Well, the Mestalla,” and “I’m worried about this tie, etc.” A player says that he is happy and he isn’t going to leave, which doesn’t stop people worrying about that player being transferred.

It’s the kind of reaction that makes a body wonder if they’re a proper culer, because from this and most normal seats, what’s going on is:

— Barça is unbeaten in its last 25 matches.
— In its normal starting XI, Barça has the best player in history, the best player in the game on current form, the best DM in the world, the best AM in the world, the best striker in the world, one of the best CBs in the world, the best LB in the world, the … you get it.– Atleti is a mean, physical, formidable opponent who boasts the stingiest defense in Europe, and who hasn’t beaten Barça anywhere in its last 11 tries.
— Barça is top of the table, with a match in hand, against Sporting Gijon. Even if doom occurs and a loss comes, the team will be, when it all shakes out, still just fine.

Saturday showdown

So it’s an odd thing to sit and not have a lot of real worry, even as you can have anticipation, even trepidation because every time your team rolls out, you want it to win. This isn’t possible. The rate at which Barça wins isn’t really possible. Through injury, malaise, “crises,” it just keeps on rolling, keeps on winning, and is just off a treble-winning season, boasting a team that has been reinforced in two key areas and is, almost unfathomably, stronger than it was at this same time last season. So we have to, at this point, parse worry vs concern, as the team looks at a potential six-pointer at its home fortress.

Anyone who remembers the early-season match against Atleti is far better than most of us, who have to hit DVR files or download buttons. In that brilliant, hotly contested match, Atleti scored first, before Neymar whipped in a magic free kick. Messi didn’t start, and the team was also without Pique (suspension) and Alves (injury). Neymar wasn’t in anything like the remarkable form that he is boasting right now, and neither was Iniesta, even as he turned in an MOTM performance. Messi entered and was electric, notching the winner and sowing chaos every time he touched the ball. It was a big win that came at the end of a difficult run of Athletic, Malaga and Atleti.

Atleti has the same trouble scoring now that they had then, even as their defense has toughened up since that match, but both teams have changed. The first match was a stalemate that was decided by moments of individual brilliance. This match looks to be very different, even as it will probably feel much the same.

— The flanks look to be the deciding areas. Atleti likes to get attacking width from its fullbacks, and Neymar makes Barça’s attack go from his left-sided perch. Will one neutralize the other? Neymar’s form is such that Atleti need to be more worried about him than Messi, and yet, Messi is always charged against Atleti. And then there’s Alba who is also capable of creating danger. Given the need to exploit the space left by Atleti’s attacking FBs, does Enrique deploy Aleix Vidal for his pace and potential runs into vacated space? Celta, who took Atleti apart in a 1-3 win, utilized attacking pace to unsettle, and unusually slack marking by Atleti on set pieces to drive the win home. You can’t give Barça set pieces because of the danger of Messi and Neymar on free kicks, but if you don’t foul them, how can you stop them? The players get into danger areas so quickly, and present problems that are almost impossible to solve, without conceding set pieces.

— The midfield will be a stalemate, as it always is, even as Iniesta will be key to this match. If the anime-coifed mid’s current form holds, it’s difficult to see how Atleti will be able to manage a win at the Camp Nou. Iniesta and Busquets are, at present, otherworldly. This means possession and building from the back, two of the hallmarks of the Barça system will be in the hands of the players who know how to use it best. And both will be fresh as daisies. Busquets got a little run-out against Athletic, and Iniesta was resting, and plotting. Atleti has quality in its midfield, as well as physicality and the ability to pick out telling balls to key attackers. But even the most fretful culer, asked whose midfield they would bet their house on, wouldn’t choose Busquets, Iniesta and … Turan or Rakitic?

— Barça has defensive problems, right? Wrong. Atleti, given their difficulty scoring goals of late, will have much bigger defensive worries than Barça, a concern that will almost certainly affect how they play. Simeone will be desperate not to play from a deficit. Antoine Griezmann is a fine attacker, but Atleti still have problems at forward. Torres is on the outs, and Jackson Martinez isn’t working at a level anywhere near commensurate with his gaudy price tag. Barça can afford to concede a goal, with full confidence that they will be able to score at least one at home. Atleti, however, faced with the possibility of having to chase a match, would become increasingly vulnerable as players pushed forward. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Bring me the best

Diego Simeone is probably pulling his hair out right now because on form, Neymar is the best player in football right now. The game looks easy for him. The goal that he scored against Athletic in the midweek Copa tie was, for a defensive plotter, terrifying because it’s the kind of goal that Messi can also score. Neymar was surrounded by four defenders but quickly worked his way into the box to preclude the possibility of a foul, which these days is the most effective way to stop him. He danced, pranced and with very little lift, smashed a ball into a top corner, past a keeper who knew what was coming. He can destroy from the wing, he is quicksilver with the ball at his feet and has reached a level of calmness that isn’t quite Messilike, but you can’t take him out of his game by fouling any longer. As with Messi, it just makes him more determined to destroy you.

Whether this arrival is ahead of schedule depends on who you ask. Neymar would probably say that it’s behind schedule. Most observers would say that it’s ahead of schedule, as a 23-year-old wisp of a man is already playing the game at a level that approaches the theoretical. Again as with Messi, as a defender it isn’t possible to say, “He won’t be able to … ” because in the form Neymar is in, he can. Again and again. He is fast enough to get to the end line, elusive enough to make a defender lean and then leave him for dead. He can shoot and score, but is more willing to pass in a danger zone than any top-class attacker any of us have seen in a while. Defenders can count on Messi and Suarez, once in the box, to shoot. When Neymar has the ball at his feet, a defense has to mind its back, because a late-arriving runner becomes a tempting target, such as when Neymar set up Rakitic, after essentially eliminating 5 players with a mazy, crazy run.

Things to worry about

People inclined to fret have plenty to worry about at FC Barcelona, but all of them are off the pitch. Money is the biggest thing to be concerned about right now, as the club desperately seeks the massive piles of cash necessary to keep the magic machine humming. This is a club that is already at the 70% salary to revenue mark, and has some massive renewals/raises looming. Sergi Busquets is the best DM in the game right now, but isn’t being paid like that. Look for his new renewal to change that. Neymar will get a bumper new contract that reflects his status, and Messi’s automatic pay rise will kick in. Perhaps the best way to look at Barça and its need for money is the boiler room of old steamships, where muscled, sweaty brutes stuffed shovelfuls of coal into the mouth of a furnace as fast as they could.

Worry about money. Real Madrid just renewed its deal with adidas, a bang-up bit of business that resulted in the richest arrangement of its kind in history. Barça, meanwhile, is saddled with a legacy contract with Nike, a deal struck at a time before money had gone crazy. Look for the new deal to reflect Barça’s status as best team in the world, for all the reasons that gobs of money fly around, including ego and marketing.

EBITDA isn’t as sexy as goals, but financial ratios are the biggest worry that the FC Barcelona board has right now. Its coach wanted a player whose buyout clause is EUR18m, and a deal couldn’t get done because the rich kid is cash poor right now, and that’s a problem. And that problem isn’t going away. A renovated Camp Nou has, at last estimate, a price tag of EUR 600m, even as nobody expects the finished product to hit that mark. It will be more expensive, because what building project isn’t? More money.

Those money concerns and EBITDA ratios of course, are linked to a Damocles implement in the automatic elections being triggered if the proper EBITDA ratio isn’t being met. As potentially desperate men try desperate things to get numbers down, and those people run out of things to sell, players might become an option. Or they might just sit tight for a while, with no new signings of fiscal significance, hoping that the team can hang on until the club’s finances stabilize which, at the rate things are going, will occur on the twelfth of never.

The pitch is easier to fret about even as the team is getting it done, but the actions of Gucci-loafered businessmen pose a greater danger to the magic than anything any opponent can do.

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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.

16 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    January 29, 2016

    Even though I would describe myself as a bandwagoner rather than a “true” fan, I feel insulted by your second paragraph. Maybe if your contact with Barca fans wasn’t for the most part on Twitter you wouldn’t assume everyone supporting the team to be a fearful and pessimistic person with regard to football? This stereotyping is getting to be a bit much. I – and other Barca fans I know – don’t spend a tight half wringing my hands and talking of doom and disaster.

    • January 29, 2016

      There are people who say, even if it is normal for South Americans to call Negro, they doing it outside S.America is insulting or abuse or whatever. Based on my culture, equating anybody to dog is very insulting too. But I dont think Kevin intended it as an insult at all.

      Am of the opinion that, if anybody has issues with twitterati, they should finish it in twitter itself, or completely avoid twitter if it is such a horrible space. Why bring that negativity to BFB, where we get any of that kind of negativity very very rarely.

      I cant wait for the match.

    • Jim
      January 29, 2016

      Agreed on Kxevin, Fotobirajesh. For me, he maybe has a go at Culerdom a bit too often but I’m sure it comes, ironically, from his positive outlook on things. I reckon, like you, as he gets a lot of abuse in the Twitter world as anyone who expresses an opinion seems to. Not much grey in 140 characters. I didn’t even think for a minute about linking anything to the dog comment. I also like to think that any criticism of the team here is usually couched in terms of how well they are playing or how the game turned out. Whatever, I’m okay with anyone looking for the positive or pointing out the negative as long as it is well argued.

      Personally, being Scottish, even if we win, the Calvinistic streak in me looks at how we could have won better. It would be a mistake, however, to think we don’t celebrate a victory at the same time. I’d fancy my chances against anyone in the emotional stakes where a Barca win is concerned. I was really chuffed we won that game the other night as I thought we’d have real problems in midfield. Didn’t stop me playing over and over again Matthieu’s error for their goal. ( for what it’s worth, although an error, he didn’t do a lot wrong. He had his man covered, there was no pressure put on the man with the ball and Matthieu and Williams were five yards higher up than the line. Williams set off, Matthieu went with him, the defensive line led by Pique retreated a few yards then stopped suddenly. Matthieu, thinking Williams would run off, stopped for a second and that settled it. You’re not catching Williams with a start. After that Matthieu had a great game. Still don’t rate him at FB compared with how he performs at CB ).

      Really looking forward to the game tomorrow, even if it’s gonna be another non Sky screening 🙁 You have to fancy our chances. I’d forgotten Pique wasn’t playing last time. Well reminded, also, about the scary time coming up with regards to financial decisions. Just hope it doesn’t turn into another slag the Board episode. I doubt if any other club has had to deal with the salaries of five or six of the top ten players in the world at the same team ever before.

    • Jim
      January 29, 2016

      Meant to say also, Fotobirajesh, that yeah, on rewatching that goal TS has to do better. In no way is the goal down to him but when he sees Williams pulling the trigger he has to dive to try to block it. Worst that happens is Williams turns back, by which time we have two, maybe three, players between him and the goal. Is it just part of his nature, like the playing out from the back rather than hoofing it, even when it’s dangerous, that he likes to stay in control ?

    • January 30, 2016

      Everytime I watch that goal again, I find it very had to understand why TS didnt dive for the ball. May be he expected Inaki to strike with his left foot. And full credi to the player, he took the strike a step earlier with his right foot. Still, I cant help repeating, TS could have made a wild dive.
      Am not on Twitter Jim, just look at barcastuff page, thats all.

  2. luisthebeast
    January 29, 2016

    I respect Atletiko even if i dont like their football.But if we play a top match we will win.We won our last 5 games against them and our last defeat was back in 2014 in CL.So i am confindent we will be ok.

  3. Jim
    January 29, 2016

    Ok, my name is Jim and I have to confess even I felt sorry for a LVG when that equaliser went in.

  4. January 29, 2016

    I view the culerverse as everywhere. It includes Twitter, BFB and Facebook interactions, even. In this space commenters have a go at various things, and various players. Sorry, but it’s no different than Barça Twitter, as much as we might like to think that it is. Look at the comments in this very space, and how they change over the course of a match, especially if the team concedes early, or errors are made. It’s the same.

    If anyone is insulted, I can’t help that, nor am I really interested in that. These pieces capture the mood of a culerverse, as in the ENTIRE culerverse, rather than the part represented by BFB. It has always been that way, and will always be that way.

    Someone who is part of Barça Twitter and reads this piece will find something interesting in it. Someone at BFB who reads this piece has plenty to dissect/discuss above and apart from the general culerverse. As an example, we could have talked about finances, or whether Neymar is, on form, the best player in football right now, or our abundance of on-pitch riches, or how the Atleti match tomorrow might be different than the match that occurred early in this season.

    No piece in this space is about one thing. Both Isaiah and I write in a way that gives many entry and talking points into a post here. What about EBITDA and the board? What about the adidas deal and how that relates to our renegotiation with Nike, and how about those big contracts that come due.

    Naaaah. Let’s get on the writer’s ass for bringing a bit of the broader culerverse into the BFB space, is the overriding perception left by the comments. My skin is thick, so that stuff doesn’t bother me any longer, even as it used to. Now, I just wonder if there wasn’t anything else at all in that piece worth discussing. If it doesn’t apply to me, I don’t worry about it. If someone says, “Too many culers always … ” and it doesn’t apply to me, I ignore it. Why bother?

    The reason I ended the piece with the club’s finances is because it is a significant thing that the board is going to have to worry about. There is focus on the pitch, because the boardroom stuff is boring. I don’t write more about it because I know it’s boring. It’s also crucial to the future of this club. I had hoped it would be discussed, and maybe it will be at some point. No idea.

    But as noted above, the culerverse is a big place that includes many rooms and planets. BFB is read by a great many more people than bother to register or comment here. There are, what, 6 comments here? If even a fraction of the thousands of people who follow the BFB’s Twitter handle, Isaiah and I read a post here, it’s a darn sight more than six. So yes, we write for those people, too. Barcelona Football Blog isn’t a closed loop.

    • georgjorge
      January 30, 2016

      I don’t think I was “getting on the writer’s arse” simply by writing a few lines about a paragraph I disagreed with. Nor did I intend to take away from the rest of the article, most of which I don’t know enough about to comment on. But for the sake of the argument, let me rephrase my comment:

      I know enough Barca fans both in real life and in virtual life to think that your notion of Culers being almost universally pessimistic and fearful regarding their team is not so close to reality. Rather, it seems to involve some stereotyping. Maybe there is more than one culerverse (whatever that is) and the one you are in has led you to believe that all of them are that way, while mine (which may well be smaller) doesn’t correspond.

      Since you explicitely mentioned BFB, I don’t see much of the things you ascribe to culers in this space here. It’s hard to know what goes on during matches since that space is pretty dead, comment-wise, at that time. But after matches I don’t see much doomsaying and handwringing.

      Anyway…on to Atléti!

    • Davour
      January 30, 2016

      Well, fretting is part of the fun, I think. Being a fan is irrational and emotional, and disappointment is inevitable, which at times brings perhaps unnecessarily negative comments as a result of blowing off some steam. At least this is case for me (and I don’t see myself as a representative of doom). It is easier to write about things that do not go well, and combined with the need to handle a loss, this is to my mind why there is so much more traffic when things go south. Nothing strange in that.

      I agree with Georgejorge that I find the office-part of the club very interesting, but l too lacks the knowledge to really comment on it. I, however, read your analyses with great interest, and appreciate the gravity of the situation.

      Finally, I mostly go here or Totalbarca for my news (at times espnc) and am not in touch with the twitter-part of the culerverse. As a writer myself (in a different language), I appreciate the need to conjure up an “antagonist”, or opposition to create a counter-narrative. At times, this is overdone, but nothing to be insulted about, I think. We are a spoilt, nervous bunch, we are… let’s laugh at it, then fun, the silliness and love of being in love with a team.

  5. Son
    January 30, 2016

    Other big and average clubs can easily snatch a good sponsorship offer. Are we not the most successful club in recent history? It amaze me and I am saying this from the bottom of my heart, why the hell can we not snatch one right away?

    If Qatar doesn’t want to listen what Barto asked, then what is it really the difficulty in talking with other sponsors?
    As it ģoes, trophyless clubs can easily seals double of what we get. Right now I àm the scàred dog.

    One question – WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH US?

    • Son
      January 30, 2016

      Apologies if my tone is a bit harsh.

  6. Cyclops
    January 30, 2016

    Yeah, the Neymar’s comment is enough to keep anyone from Fretting, but not if its include stuffs like ‘i’d love to play for Guardiola’..hey, whats that?!?

    Calling the First leg of the Atletico Tie a stalemate, decided by ‘individual brilliance’ dosn”t wash for me…gee whiz, we practically murdered them in their own bedroom(literally), ever heard of roasting someone’s hide? we had the priviledge of seeing it with our naked eyes that time…It would have been the all time injustice from the Football Gods if we had ad much gotten a draw…Sometimes the Ball just developes a will of its own and refuse to enter the net( a la Man City UCL first leg clash last season) and need a player to take the game by the scruff of the neck and score that damn goal

    But i’d concur that the Alves issue is quite a conundrum..do we go with Alves now or Vidal? case can be made for each.. But then again, ever noticed that Alves seems to reincarnate into his beast self of the pep years whenever we face the Big teams and its show time? He hasnt really let us down now has he, from Man city to bayern, Juve to RM clash, i could wager a bet he’d turn out fine if he starts today..In that case, probaly not worth it to blight his confidence? by dropping him

    And RM get to play Espanyol, YaY! While we’d be picking up max points, they’d surely drop points against the *coughs* Gritty *coughs* Espnayol!
    hehe, sarky on point..there’re only ‘gritty’ against us, so infact RM would most likely be picking up max point..And thats regardless that they’re in a bit of a downward spiral these days, its been what, Five losses on the bounce for them now..
    My prediction says Eleven Losses, still on course for fufillment,, lets go guys, take it to Eleven! y’all can this!…

  7. Cyclops
    January 30, 2016

    And Kxevin you killed it, IMO..Cool calm and collected reply..
    There’s no issue here in my very honest opinion, i needn’t be a rocket scientist to decipher that this Article refers to a broad spectrum of people way beyond this blog, as the article rightly stated “culerverse”..And even if you somehow thought it was confinded to this blog, well quite a dozen amount of people beyond the commenters actually come here, and really you cant say you have a fair idea of the thinking of ‘majority of cules’, that they dont fret and all..
    The people you know hardly makes up a quarter of cules around..I tell you there’re some real strange guys out there, with strange thinking, who do more than fretting…Hopefully they get straightened out, if and when they sleep-walk to this blog..

    And talking about Fretting, well thats weird..I do worry, really now what would football be without that tincture of worrry, Anxiousness? Boring and hideously mechanical IMO…But the Kind of Fretting talked about here, seems to be one that leans more on the direction of Paranoia
    Right now, i cant really relate with that, hardly met such folks either(graciously)…
    Infact i’m going for a win today, really..if we(dare) dont win, i’d revoke the suspension of RM Transfer Ban, like seriously, thats after i’ve finished relocating the whitehouse from Washington DC, to Detriot….

    But, being a so called big club yet still unable to secure any meaningfull sponsorship deal, sucks dosnt? Untill tomorrow i’m still flummoxed and bemused by that one..

  8. Davour
    January 30, 2016

    Great win, strange game, two splendid gaols and well controlled by the team in the end, but game died after second red. Too bad Luis couldn’t keep his studs down, killed a potentially great battle. Guess he felt Messi was waking up from his slumber… first 20 we seemed to be waiting for something, no one making any runs, but bit by bit things improved.

    Still impressed by Atleti, Carrasco especially was a threat, and their first 20-25 were intense. Will be interesting to see how RM deals with that pressure.

    • Cyclops
      January 30, 2016

      whew, you practically stole that out of my mouth!
      Didn’t watch the 1st half, saw the second half, and i was left..speechless. like i dont know what to say, really.. If there is ever something i can say its, that was one weird game

      Congrats to Atleti for killing the Game anyways

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