When someone you love lets you down, what’s the reaction?
For a Barça supporter, there is still no more pertinent question in the wake of the Champions League elimination at the hands of Atleti. What do you do? Berate, with recriminations and told-you-sos that explain more about your petulance than anything else? Or a hug and a “Thanks for the effort, I’m sure you did your best?”
Or maybe you find someone else to blame because you don’t really want to be that kind of a person, so it’s the butcher’s fault for providing a poor cut of meat that cooked up so poorly, turning the big anniversary dinner into a puddle of broken dishes and an argument.
Barça came up short against Atleti in the pivotal away leg in this year’s Champions League, but it’s difficult to muster anything except gratitude for a team that fought so hard, did everything that it could but was ultimately let down by its own legs, its own energy. And Atleti and its demonic coach, Diego Simeone, came up with the perfect strategy to counteract a weakened, damaged Barça, a team that for once, didn’t have magic.
And it’s weird.
Supporters of other clubs are used to this feeling, but it’s an odd one for this current edition of Barça. Our supporters are usually the ones dancing on a grave while celebrating a win. It feels strange to be on the wrong side of a scoreline, of an elimination tie. Rootless? Kinda. You don’t know what to do now with a tournament that feels like it should end now that Barça has been eliminated. And no matter how bad or weird you might feel, imagine how much worse the team feels. It’s why berating someone who disappoints you never, ever works. They already feel bad, and know that they screwed up. Nothing that you say can make them feel any worse, even as it makes you feel better, in a perverse way, to purge your disappointment.
How must the flight back to Barcelona have been? What are the players doing as they deal with the aftermath of such a pivotal loss? Those who are athletes at a level where winning or losing matters, understand. Not the weekend kickabouts, but an event with something substantial at stake, be it a local championship, regional or national one. A loss sticks with you for a long time, especially one that came after you worked long and hard, week after week, month after month, preparing for a key moment. That time came, and you failed. I remember losing such a race, and my coach just gave me a hug. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. You can be fast enough, good enough and ready and sometimes, stuff just doesn’t happen right. And you feel unmoored.
At the nexus of a lot of weird feelings for athletes and supporters is wrestling with hope and belief. Hope is wishing something will happen, where belief is believing that it will. They’re different, even as they are emotional relatives. It was hard not to watch that Atleti match and wait for the inevitable goal, the crazy Suarez thing, the Messi move, the Neymar run to set up something incredible until finally there was only the hope for that most remarkable of occurrences, another Iniestazo. You could see the players trying to make that magic as much as supporters hoped for it. When magic didn’t happen and kept not happening the belief was undiminished, almost like the match should have continued until the proper result ensued. It felt wrong to see someone else celebrating.
The link between players and supporters was real during that maelstrom of a second half. “We’ve always done it.” “They’ve always done it.” So much belief.
Barça is out of the Champions League, so now what? As a supporter of the club from back when it was winning pretty much feck all, winning has always felt weird to me, versus supporters for whom winning is all that they have known. The reaction is, from this chair, the same as it would be any time a loved one disappoints. First, you examine the nature of the disappointment, and what it means to you. In the overall state of things, Barça being eliminated from Champions League doesn’t really damage our lives all that much. It takes away the joy of victory, the thrill of watching this team on yet another stage as it competes for the greatest prize in football. But the sun rises the next day and life goes on, for the players and coaches as well as the supporters. There are still two other championships in play, after all.
So what happened? Some are saying things such as “betrayal of principles” as Barça stroked the ball around in that first half, seemingly not interested in doing much except making sure Atleti didn’t have the ball, the precise kind of sterile possession that many claimed the Guardiola sides devolved to. But was it really that? The first Atleti goal, the one that defined the match, came when Jordi Alba hoofed a clearance away, in the worst way to the worst possible spot on the field. What happened? On another day at another moment, he takes the ball, controls it and strokes it over to a teammate, or just pushes it over the touchline. When you learn something, it is at the moments of greatest pressure and fatigue that you forget what you know. It’s worth asking whether that moment most clearly raised the idea that this team is a bigger physical and psychological mess than we can fathom. As a collective, Barça didn’t play as well as it could have in that first half, but what if that was all that they had and were mustering energy for the surge, the bombardment of the Atleti box that came in the second half?
In articles and on social madia, people pointed to things tactical, about bench depth, principles, this, that and the other. It’s all stuff that attempts to explain the simple reality that the best team in the world was brought down by a variety of factors and defeated by what is probably the second-best team in the world. In the first leg, Luis Suarez made the difference. In the second leg, he didn’t. Is it as simple as that, chances taken or not? At one level, sure. If he doesn’t hit those shots where Oblak could easily save them, the mood is different and the double treble is still on, right?
Football aestheticians point to various things and suggest those spaces are where failure lives. Theory. Others say that the bench was uninspiring and incapable of making a difference, and that was what it was, even as one substitute elevated play on the right wing and another, Arda Turan, laced in a brilliant cross that on another day would have left Luis Suarez doing his usual celebration.
Stats devotees look at things such as the fact that Atleti ran 12km more than Barça, as if that explains anything except in a symbolic sense. Every team runs more than the team that camps in their half with ball possession, more than 70 percent on this night. It’s easy to say that Atleti was more committed to its style and approach than Barça, in the abstract, always-perfect world of theory. “See, you run around, pass the ball and then score a goal. You go do that.” Messi had zero touches in the Atleti box. Fatigue, some sort of injury, which one media outlet alleged in the wake of the proceedings, or something else? Objectivity is craved in the aftermath of a familiar equation whose numbers reached a different solution.
But it just ain’t that easy. An athlete never really understands what happened in a moment of failure, even as they know what happened: they failed. Suarez might hit those same shots at different times, and they would fly to the left or right of the keeper because he hit the ball exactly right. He will relive those moments in his mind for many moments more, because that’s what athletes do. The ones who say they move on, don’t look back, are kidding themselves. It’s human to remember failure and wonder what you might have done differently. It’s also human to fail, it’s human to be frail at moments when you should be strong, it’s human to strive, just as it’s human to fail.
“You can’t win them all” is one the most rueful of sports cliches, even as it is also the most accurate. It puts pain into words. As an athlete, when you lose, there is pain. And sadness. Not physical pain. That can be managed. Your soul aches. You did so much, yet you didn’t do enough. It’s an indescribable feeling that every athlete at any level is intimately familiar with even if you never, ever come to terms with it.
The idea of paying it forward is an old one that is always valid. In many ways, this loss is an example of that for all of us who love this club. How we react to this failure will be quite different for each supporter, and always personal. I remember that one race day, my failure and that silent hug, which shapes these words and everything around them. And so, simply enough, the reaction is “Thank you,” or “Gracies, equip,” in keeping with the correct tone and language. Thank you for doing all that you could, thank you for bringing the people who follow your exploits so much joy. Thank you for making the phrase “double treble” part of the vernacular. Thank you for playing so well that a thing such as “double treble,” a fundamental absurdity, could even be a possibility.
Thank you for turning yourselves inside out for so many months, for being the best footballers extant, thank you for performing at a level so stratospheric that it rendered so many of you irreplaceable. Thank you for everything.