When the Sandro Rosell board assumed power at FC Barcelona, it was faced with something of a quandary. Not how to get the smell of brimstone out of a room, but rather how to take a club that has always been considered something of a cottage industry, and make it a fully modern entity.
The barrier, of course, is the misunderstood “mes que un club,” and the many different things that the club means to its many different followers. For some, the club is indeed a local concern, for us by us. For others, the club is an international drawing card, a footballing powerhouse. For still others, it is this thing to be frozen in amber at its apogee.
Recently, a number of fascinating things have happened on different levels, all conspiring to roil the cauldron of what people think about the club and the direction in which it is headed, as well as the direction in which it needs to be headed.
Just out is a club-sponsored film, “Josep Sunyol: A Brave Cry,” that tracks the life and history of the late and iconic figure who was assassinated during the Spanish Civil War.
“We don’t understand how this figure has been forgotten for so long”, club vice president Carles Villarubi said. “With the documentary, we wanted to repair that injustice, starting virtually from scratch.”
This is of course, mostly the same board who many, including myself, have railed against for wanting to besmirch the legacy of this club, such as it is, even as on many levels they also continue the club tradition of boards that members want to throw shoes at. The stance is clear: the club is Catalan and wears its Senyera proudly, from Quixotic battles against UEFA fines for supporters waving independence flags, to clear support of the region’s right to decide its own future to this film.
It puts a spike in the ire of the accusers, and whether artfully done P.R. gimmickry or legitimate embracing of history, legacy and Catalanisme, the actions of the Bartomeu board are causing many to reconsider views about the club and how it is being run.
Make no mistake, there is danger afoot if the club doesn’t manage to produce the staggering sums necessary to continue to field the best football team in the world. The renewals of Busquets, Neymar, Messi and Suarez alone look to be massive. There will also be the stadium project as well as the other, well-compensated pieces of that team. The necessity of bringing the club into the modern era has never been more acute than it is right now, if only because of the immense sums the modern game represents.
And then there’s that damn football team, which brings us to another way that notions are being assaulted. A trip to Las Palmas was in the cards for the weekend, and a victory would mean putting pressure on the second and third-place teams in La Liga, who would play a day after Barça. And after Miss Las Palmas whacked a ceremonial first kick and some dude dressed as a woman stalked the stands, there was a match to be played, one in which not even the most generous, rose-colored culer would suggest that Barça played anything other than mediocre.
The match played out as so many matches have of late, the opponent coming out and pressing, creating stress if not actual danger, until Barça bangs in enough goals to win, and the “Fin” rolls across the screen. It’s like the weekly police TV series in which you know the cop is going to solve the crime. You can even pretty much tell how, but you still tune in because — well — it’s entertaining.
Barça was always going to win that match, one in which the final scoreline was deceptive, as Luis Suarez couldn’t finish a cup of coffee, spurning chance after chance. As if to make him feel better, Neymar scuffed a couple and for the most part, Messi didn’t even bother waking up all that much. They didn’t really need to, because the match was in control. Luis Enrique called the display “effective.” And there was Quique Setien, coach of Las Palmas, who summed up the same old show:
“Due to Liga lead, Barça relax against weaker teams. But when needed, they start playing their normal game.”
In the second half, Barça came out of the locker room and exerted control over the match, a control that would have been iron-clad had not individual errors crept into the mix. But even then, there was sufficient individual quality to snuff out any real danger, and it was another win in the books, an unbeaten streak that stands at 32 matches and counting.
Despite all of this, the Guardiola teams are still an unassailable standard, one that vexes many an observer, who pops into various social media, comments during the match broadcast or writes pieces about how dodgy Barça look, and how poor the team’s display was. Just winning isn’t enough, and it never has been for this team and its supporters. But this new, modern, pragmatic Barça is forcing the “frozen in amber” crowd to look again.
A long ball to Suarez is slotted home, or a lightning counter finds Neymar feeding Messi, who slots home. For a while, a long while, those kinds of goals were considered “impure” by many observers, as when the Tata Martino Barça won a match 4-0, but lost the possession stat so things were a disaster. There is a way of playing attendant to the Blaugrana. Win, and win beautifully is the mandate, until recently.
With enough winning, enough “ugly” goals such as the Neymar putback for the winning margin vs Las Palmas, aesthetic gracelessness takes on a beauty of its own, as culers point to the league table with pride, and stick their chests out. Instead of gushing about the 48 flawless passes and the ball that is walked into the net, they talk about the one-touch control/shot of Suarez, and how quickly the Luis Enrique Barça can hit back at an opponent.
But this is now a Barça team that understands the necessity of doing just enough, of winning and going home. In a recent interview, Xavi spoke about the tension that was present during the Guardiola years when the team didn’t play its usual champagne football, about the lack of adaptability. This current team doesn’t ever seem to feel tension because it has a number of different plans and methods of attack and defense. It is a less-flawless beast because it can be but more importantly, because it has to be.
The show doesn’t matter. There won’t be an asterisk next to the Las Palmas result because the team wasn’t beautiful. The three points will go into the book, and that’s that. This has happened now for 32 matches, through a match every three days, a mess of a pre-season, travel abroad for a tour, from there for the UEFA SuperCup then back home for the SuperCopa. The first part of the season was jammed with matches, and the farther the team goes in the various competitions, the more matches there are. Shortcuts must be taken, and this is a group that doesn’t mind taking them, glittering legacies of flawlessness notwithstanding. It just keeps winning.
So does Barça B, for that matter, having notched its sixth win in a row on Saturday as well as keeping a clean sheet. About a month ago, Barça B was roiled with a series of players being released from the club. There was talk of tradition being besmirched, of Masia being spurned for a newer, shallower worldview that was at odds with club tradition.
La Masia is supposed to promote players to the first team, and the B team is supposed to be, in effect, the next level of La Masia. What happened with the releases was an admission that others made clear. Xavi said that La Masia isn’t as fertile as it has been in the past. Luis Enrique said that nobody was really good enough to be promoted. And the team underscored that by finding its way to Segunda B, then the relegation places of that division. Something had to be done, and the jettisonings were part of that admission as players who weren’t good enough, and were never going to be first-team material were sent packing, replaced by older, more experienced players. The same thing happened in 2007, with the same result: the team is climbing the table, winning matches and looking good, and the Masia gems combine with the vets to win matches.
But again, what of purity? What of La Masia as a football factory, a place turn turns out sparkling gems for the first team? That role is unchanged, even as the class that peopled Barça B wasn’t in the glittering gem category. There were four Masia players who featured in the team’s sixth straight win. Whether this is bad, good or just part of the process, depends upon a worldview.
Barça B needs to be successful so that the players are at a level sufficiently high to sharpen their skills for potential graduation. The Masia-stocked Barça B wasn’t at that level. So far, the retooled Barça B is. And when Masia talent catches up to notions of effectiveness, homeboys who are also going to be able to win matches and earn promotion to the first team, practical approaches need be taken.
Even as traditionalist notions of the club and how it should be are under assault from three different directions as the board continues its efforts to make the club a fully modern entity, the club will always be what it was. “Mes que un club” isn’t tarnished because Barça can be a modern club with skyboxes and purchased superstars, and still represent everything to a supporter. “More than a club,” indeed. Barça is, and will have to continue to strive to be, all things to all people, an impossible task.
But what is interesting is that people are beginning to come around to the idea that maybe, just maybe, there is a different way of doing things. There is, after all, fertile ground in the middle as well.