There is La Masia and masia, each with very different meanings but also the same one. This Barça, this assemblage that is, irrespective of whether it wins another treble, the best team in the world, is formed by both meanings.
La Masia is the FC Barcelona youth academy, but masia refers to the farmhouse, a cultural touchstone that implies stability, solidity. It keeps a person grounded. As many search for purity in simple counts of players that come from La Masia, there’s a broader meaning of the word that makes this team a masia.
After the Madrid derby, Cristiano Ronaldo issued a series of statements that he wishes he could have back. They seemed to imply that his teammates sucked, and that if everyone was on his level, the team might be in first place, instead of a potential 12 points back of Barça. And at the risk of it coming off as a defense of him, Ronaldo makes points that are, simply enough, true, even as they illustrate the deep, grounded roots of this Barça at the same time.
He quite obviously meant that the subs aren’t the quality of Bale and Marcelo, rather than these guys are crap. And the fevered debates about who is the best player, Messi or Ronaldo, even as culers know the answer, means that at very least, there is a player who is part of that debate about the best in the game. But man, did the wording chosen by Ronaldo suck, just as it did when he talked about the hugs and friendship of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, another case in which he wishes he had chosen a better way of expression.
Recall when Messi threw down the gauntlet to the Barça board, saying in effect get me better teammates so that we can kick ass. He was right. He chose better words and an easier target given that the board has … erm … perception complexities, but Messi was right. He was right to call them out, right to demand that that group not waste his peak years as a player. Top players are hungry, and want to win. There is also a perception difference between the two players, so Messi can say things that Ronaldo can’t, leaving aside unfortunate wording. One can be the hunger of a great player not wanting to waste his peak years, the roar of a competitor. It’s worth considering what the perception would be if Ronaldo threw down a similar gauntlet to Florentino Perez.
Ronaldo’s post-derby words, and the uproar around them are all part of a larger picture, one in which all roads lead to a masia. Inside it, in the dim light, is a coach with his players. It’s a group that is pragmatic and grounded because of its core formed in La Masia. Its first treble, in the 2008-09 season, featured La Masia roots as deep as they come, pounded in by a coach who was deeply of the system. It was magic, a group that was the best in the world, but also a collection of normal dudes. One had goats, another tended mushrooms and lived with his family, another liked PlayStation and Legos. Family roots in a familial system that grounds a player.
That system permeates everything. Real Madrid’s vehicular stories are a player being part of a high-speed chase to training. Barça’s are Thomas Vermaelen, struggling to put his Audi SUV into the entrance of a parking garage. That simple difference, writ larger, is why this team is so extraordinary and why RM is, for a time, screwed. The glitter is on the pitch, and in the goals. It’s a system-based approach that makes the players part of a team. They are individuals who are part of a team, a grownup masia that the La Masia youth ranks would do well to emulate.
Even as the roster rolls over, its core is still grounded in Barça tradition: Messi, Iniesta, Pique, Busquets, and its coach also understands the club, its tradition and its system. It’s easy to scoff at the collection of baubles that Perez has assembled at Real Madrid, but the biggest complexity that team has is that it is facing a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent that is also part of a system, a collective way of thinking that builds a unit.
There isn’t enough money to assemble to team that Barça has. You have to build it, and build it right. Messi’s humility is why Neymar can’t evince some of the traits we saw at Santos, why Suarez works like a dog, why Rakitic slots in, why Arda Turan was willing to wait six months to play with this group. It’s a collection of great players, superstars who don’t act like superstars, who hew to the examples set by players who aren’t with the club any longer. It’s like Puyol is still there, roaring at people who transgress unspoken rules.
It doesn’t matter how much money a rival team spends to assemble talent, because they aren’t just fighting talent. Many a culer worried about the depth and quality of Real Madrid, about their subs, about James Rodriguez, Isco, Illaramendi waiting on the bench, where Barça had folks like Rafinha, Sergi Roberto and Munir. But if you look at the foundation of the house, it’s clear. You can build a glittering mansion on a landfill in a bad spot near a flawed water table, or you can build a farmhouse on a foundation of granite.
Some of where RM went wrong is coaching decisions and player pursuit, but most of it is just that Barça is too much talent, steeped in the right attitude. Messi wouldn’t say, in public, that the subs aren’t the quality of the starters because he doesn’t have to.What good can come of saying it? Messi would say, “We have to do better, we’re battling to overcome injuries and all we can do is keep working hard.” That’s the farmhouse kid.
In the year Martino coached the team, and injuries came atop tragedy came atop heartache and loss, there were no excuses. Why should there be? You do the best that you can, and then you go home. What’s also interesting is that being the same year that what Diego Simeone was building at Atleti came to vibrant, thrashing life.
Simeone isn’t Catalan, but he has a masia going over at Atleti, a team that is selfless, assembled not of glittering parts or players who are the undisputed best at their positions, but very good players who are fit, understand their jobs and are willing to run through a wall for a teammate. You have to build that. In many ways, Barça’s came ready made in the La Masia core that permeated everything the team did. Guardiola removed Ronaldinho and Deco, like a gardener pruning a bush so that it can grow to its fullest height. “Run, you bastards, run!” No glamor, just work.
Simeone has built a team that owns Real Madrid for the same, and different reasons that Barça does. It’s team that is grounded and understands its mission. Both teams are. But Simeone doesn’t have a Messi or Iniesta, which in many ways makes his task even more impressive. And if you were to catch him in an unguarded moment, he would tell you that he has built a team that is ready to take advantage of the systemic weaknesses of RM, a team that is, right now, okay with second place because nobody is beating this Barça. Not right now and probably not next season, either.
An interesting statistic is that almost 37 percent of the goals that Atleti has allowed this season (they have allowed only 11) have been scored by Barça. Simeone has built a fortress. They can’t score goals, but they only need one — except against Barça. It isn’t that RM is a bad football team. Far from it, despite the many who scoff at the group. It’s just that their Liga rivals are better in significant ways having to do with being grounded in a system.
The way that RM plays, and is expected to play, falls right into the clutches of Simeone and Luis Enrique. There is space, exploitable gaps left by the swashbucklers. But more than that, RM’s expensive collection of mega-talent exists in the world at the same as an otherworldly assemblage sits in the very same league.
RM is like Joop Zoetemelk, who finished second in the Tour de France a staggering six times. His career was defined by more talented riders, legends. Eddy Merckx was the first, followed by Bernard Hinault, then Laurent Fignon then Greg LeMond. Zoetemelk was a great cyclist, who kept running up against freaks of nature.
Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing are the greatest National Basketball Association players to have never won a championship because of Michael Jordan. They were immensely talented, but he was a freak. So it goes with RM. People have gotten so used to Barça that when Arsenal was being ripped by its coach for naivete, and people talked about their lax defending on the first counter goal, only a few folks said, “Wait a minute, look at the buildup to that goal.”
First, the Iniesta touch to Neymar that got it started. Iniesta made it look easy, but there aren’t many players in the game who could a) think of doing that in the split second the ball was headed their way and b) be able to execute it perfectly. Then Suarez has to be able to perfectly take and control, on the dead run, a pass in a way that lets him nutmeg a quality defender at the precise right moment, and Neymar has to be able to make a difficult pass, on the dead run while drifting away from a teammate, in a way that gives the teammate time to control it, and score.
That isn’t normal. The most lethal strike force in the game are also great friends. That isn’t normal. But it’s masia. Luis Enrique might not have said, in so many words, “Run you bastards, run,” but he said it. Clearly. And his charges listened, because you listen to the Mister.
When Ronaldo assessed the quality of the RM subs and found them wanting, that was a fair assessment as was his cry for teammates who, like him, are in the upper levels of the game. But even with those things, it wouldn’t solve the essential problems that RM face in Barça because of those roots, the systemic building of a way of thinking that creates a player such as Sergi Roberto, who plays on a team where people scream when they are too unselfish, too willing to give a teammate the opportunity for glory. But what else would a family do?
It takes a lot to beat that team. Jose Mourinho did it that one season at RM, because he built a unit, a team that was united, tied by the same things that led to its implosion. He left, and RM went back to being a collection of talent. Benitez came in, a scholar who tried to build a system, but couldn’t build a team. Ancelotti, if given more time, might have accomplished that, but the systemic problems that have hampered RM since the days of the Galacticos, reared their heads. And now they have Zidane, who might not be equipped to build a team or a system.
Meanwhile, there is Barça and to a lesser extent Atleti, hewn from the same rock, having success against RM for reasons that are different and the same. Perez will buy more expensive players, because that’s what he does. But he won’t be able to buy the essential thing that makes his club’s rivals so formidable: that masia bedrock.