Romance and failure, intertwined

Football loves romance, but football also — tacitly — enjoys failure. The beauty of the game is that the two are often inextricably linked.

Leicester City, the most unlikely Premiership champions anyone will ever root for and Atletico de Madrid, Champions League finalists, are stories of romance, of teams battling long odds, close-knit bunches of hard-working, sweaty men led by coaches who are quite different but similar in their monk-like devotion to the cause.

And much of the romance and improbable success of both teams has roots in the dark side of success and romance, failure.

Leicester City won the championship by not even playing. They won it on an error by Tottenham Hotspur, a misplaced pass that was pounced upon and then dispatched by a player, Eden Hazard, who had been having a legit crapshow of a season but found it in his heart and legs, in that one moment, to create a golazo. It was a moment that dripped symbolism. Jamie Vardy, the Leicester forward, was having a party at his home. By all accounts, the place went up for grabs.

His was a team that did what it had to do, that did what it could. The defense that built clean sheet upon clean sheet was anchored by a pair of failures, journeymen who built their presence not on capering about and ball skills, but strength. It was players who, in their limited skill sets, knew what they had to do and were drilled on those things. Then they did them. When you only have one thing to do, it’s a lot easier. “Stand there, and if the ball comes near you, kick it away.” “Okay, coach.”

Success becomes manageable when you build it upon anticipation of an opponent failure. A top women’s tennis player, Caroline Wozniacki, just gets the ball back. It’s a game that is, in large part, based on making her opponent hit one more shot, on the statistical probability that the more shots someone hits, the more likely they are to screw something up. For a while she was the darling of the game, the slight, ruffled antithesis of the ebony slabs of muscle that is Serena Williams. In many ways it was football, and teams that reap success from destruction.

The two best footballing teams in the game and the two best teams in the world, Barça and Bayern, will be watching the Champions League finals at home. In the Premiership, footballing teams such as Arsenal and the Manchesters, monied pretty boys, are watching the class nerd celebrate and wondering what happened. The romance of Leicester has roots in the failure of the top teams to do what they were supposed to do (even if you figure that Arsenal is, by now, supposed to finish fourth). Chelsea imploded. City played below standard. United wrestled with a new coach and a way of playing, Arsenal Arsenaled. Even the other part of that Premiership romantic tale, an overachieving Tottenham Hotspur, fell prey to the wonder of the stultifying Lesters. Just do what you do, and wait for everyone around you to fail.

It isn’t as simple as that, obviously, because a big part of that romance is that both teams did what they had to do, when they had to do it. Your opponent can screw up but if you don’t capitalize on it, romance in unrequited. Look at the equalizing goal against United, scored of course by the captain, Wes Morgan. His team had to have that goal, United marked incorrectly and Morgan headed home. A header. That most smash-mouth of plays for a smash-mouth team, scored by a CB who outworked his marker. It was a goal as symbolic as the Iniestazo.

Another aspect of that romance was so few teams playing Leicester City like the prospective champions. The standard belief was that they were playing over their heads, these 5000-1 underdogs who everyone picked for relegation, that they would bottle it, find their natural level. Best games and tactical wrinkles were reserved for royalty. “Leicester City? They’ll bottle it.” And week after week, teams kept letting them do what they do until suddenly, it mattered and everybody wondered what the hell happened. It’s like the horror movie that could end easily, if the family just moved out of the haunted house. And yet, there they stay, and there the movie goes. Everybody expected Leicester City to bottle it, until they didn’t. Failure that bred success of the most dazzling kind.

In another league, Atletico built its success in the same way as Leicester, in essence, that kind of “one job, now don’t mess it up,” but at a higher level. People often mistake the Simeone style for parking the bus, but it isn’t. It’s rooted in not letting you do what you want to do, creating and then capitalizing upon failure, an edifice erected on a foundation of human weakness.

At its core, the presence of Atleti in the Champions League is based in a pair of bad passes, each ruthlessly converted into goals. One from Barça, and one from Bayern. Two crucial away goals that decided the tie because then Atleti could do what it does, which is to create failure. The game of football is, in essence, about creating failure. The Messi runs that everyone loves are designed to make a defender fail at his job. The intricate passing structures are created to find a weak link, a failure than can be exploited. The Iniestazo, the Babymaker that built the wonder that is modern-day Barça, has roots in failure even as it is also the ultimate football romance — an improbable shot hit by an unlikely perpetrator at a magic moment leading to a glorious result. Messi and Eto’o running around, and history picked … Iniesta?

Of course it did, because how romantic would that goal have been had Messi or Eto’o scored it? It’s a glorious thing founded in a legacy of failure. Belletti missed a great breakaway chance. Essien’s poor clearance effort went directly to Messi. What if Ballack had been tracking runners instead of ball watching? Look at the chagrin as he sank to his knees with the reality that Iniesta was his man. Failure. Romance needs that goal to be the nexus of a delightful Barça attack rather than a string of Chelsea failures, just as romance needs Leicester City and Atleti to be what they are. Atleti is fond of saying that nobody likes them, that they aren’t pretty, etc. Leicester City didn’t produce many highlight-reel goals to be replayed again and again.

But both teams are beautiful to their supporters and to football’s sense of romance, for the game needs romance, needs its current heroes to be indomitable forces rather than accountants of failure. Either or, but not reality, which is that they are both.

Attacking teams such as Barça and Bayern have attacks based in intricacy — runs, passes, links in a circuit that are closed at the opponent goal. Thirty-seven things have to happen and if any one of them goes keflooey, the system has to reset. Atleti and its coach understand that. Like the Mike Tyson quote that everybody has a plan until the get punched in the face, Atleti understands the value of disruption. If thirty-six of thirty-seven things go right, Atleti has won. Barça played better football against them in being eliminated. So did Bayern. It isn’t even that it’s more difficult to create than destroy, as many scoff. It’s that the law of averages is a law for a reason. You’re probably going to screw up. Most of us have far more failures than successes in our lives. Atleti’s way of playing is life, writ on a football pitch. “They’ll screw up.”

There is talk of injustice. The Bayern Munich president said that he felt “cheated” that his club wasn’t in the Champions League final. Obituaries were written for its coach, Pep Guardiola, for whom making the semi-finals year after year, a feat that 99 percent of coaches would kill to have accomplished, is considered abject failure because of the romance attached to him. Failed romance is just as compelling as requited love, after all. Build it up, watch it grow then curse it when it all falls apart. Bayern crashed on the rocks of Atleti, just as Barça did. They came at Atleti with fire and determination, just as Barça did. Their attackers hit shots directly at the Atleti keeper, just as Barça did, just as team after team after team did. And team after team said “We almost had them.” Leicester City won 1-0 and opponents said, “Almost. We just needed one goal.”

Romance loves an underdog, but romance also loves beauty. It hardly ever gets both. Romantics wanted Barça and Bayern in the final of the game’s biggest European stage because it’s football and those teams play football, beautifully. But would that have been romantic, or inevitable? Instead, romance will get Atleti, faced off against one of a pair of flawed, monied underachievers. It’s a party at which neither of the guests is particularly deserving of an invitation. Romance likes the right kind of ugly, a footballing Cyrano. Now that’s some romance right there. It’s easy to forget that in the play, Cyrano doesn’t waltz off with Roxanne. Christian successfully woos her, then goes off to war and is killed. Roxanne mourns him and later, once everything is revealed and she understands that Cyrano is really The One, he dies as well. But when a pair of Cyranos duel, who wins?

Romance won’t care. Atleti has won by just getting to the party. Winning would be icing on the cake. Leicester City would have been celebrated and adored even had they finished second. So will Atleti. Romance is malleable and fluid as it crafts and re-crafts its narratives. And no matter what happens, romance will win.

 

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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.

19 Comments

  1. Jim
    May 4, 2016

    My only hope is that a man City have started so badly it’s impossible to keep that up for ninety minutes. Is Yaya the laziest player in world football ?

  2. TITO
    May 4, 2016

    He really is.
    But man, i mean really, Roma, Wolfsburg, City? Out of Psg, Barca, Bayern, AM, they managed to avoid them all till the final.
    Incredible.

  3. Tata2
    May 4, 2016

    Those bastards couldn’t buy even just a goal, should have better let PSG (who would have given EE a tougher time) qualify. No shot on target over 90mins. Go Ugleti! And fuck that our untimely loss of form

  4. G6O
    May 4, 2016

    As I said in a previous thread, the worst part about going out in the 1/4 finals was not so much that we went out but that now we’re not in it to stop Madrid.

    And thanks to their criminal luck with the draw, they’re in the final.

    Hopefully, Atletico beat them, they definitely can do it, but I am afraid they will crumble under pressure once again, and either get a red card in the first half or just plain lose.

  5. PPos
    May 4, 2016

    That’s football, you win and you lose some. City was awful over the two legs. Kevin De Bruyne kept losing ball after ball today. Aguero wasn’t fighting for it. Real Madrid did ride their luck, but that’s football. Atletico has been in this position before but now they’re a better and more experienced squad. The final is going to be a tight game. Friedmann and Torres are going to have to be huge.

    • PPos
      May 4, 2016

      Stupid autocorrect
      GRIEZMANN

  6. Tata2
    May 4, 2016

    Last time their key players (Costa and Turan) were battling with injuries this time around this is hoping they are all fit. Ugleti has all it takes to beat EE. We are the only team that you can bet your house on to beat AM 7 out of 8 times. We know them just as well as they know us and if not for that loss in form we would have been in the finals by now. Only thing am wary of is EE’s aerial threat. Their way of breaking down a bus is by taking it to the wings and whipping it in for one of Bale, Benzema or Ronaldo to get their heads on.

    • PPos
      May 4, 2016

      And it works! Lewandowski managed to score on them like that yesterday. Atletico knows how to beat RM now. They beat them earlier this season at the bernabeu

  7. Tata2
    May 4, 2016

    Yea. that’s my only concern but if AM could withstand that Bayern pressure I feel they could withstand any of EE’s. And mind you AM could also come out to match EE man for man if they wanted but I know Simeone will order them back once they get a goal. Their safest bet will be getting two goals and defending with all their lives

  8. ooga aga
    May 4, 2016

    Another good read Kxevin. Thank you.
    Although we dont get the treble this is certainly a dramatic season and still so much to play for, not just for us but for our eternal rivals. Lets hope we get the romance and they get the failure.

  9. May 5, 2016

    I dont know if am jealous of EE. What an easy road they have got for the CL finals.
    Man city was so so poor and still EE had to content with an own goal shows how poor these two teams are.

  10. Davour
    May 5, 2016

    Great read, thanks! The focus on failure highlights AM’s tactical qualities and intelligence – though it is a negative approach, and I still hope the growing use of time wasting will be regulated somehow. The eternal rivalry between us and EE is – romantically – a veritable Capulet vs Montague without the bridging love of two children (or perhaps Rakitic-Modric?). I, like G60 and many others I’m sure, feel a frustration at RM’s path to the final, but wishing us to be there just to beat them might be focusing on the negative, destructive part of the rivalry: almost taking greater joy out of them losing than us winning. And this resentment is surely born from us becoming used to winning so much, that we feel – if secretly – a sense of entitlement. We have Messi et al – we should win, it’s written. For us it hurts when RM win, and they’ve been lucky this year with an easy draw when they were out of shape, while we had the opposite luck. Still, looking at their team they really have some good players, and with Bale’s growing influence, I fear they are favourites. And sure, I will embrace the negative, too, wishing their loss more than AM’s win, of course (naturally, they coincide). I just hope AM won’t be too fired up á la Torres against us. Discipline, my lads. Because an AM win would make our potential double the more sweet.

  11. luisthebeast
    May 5, 2016

    What a crazy world we live!Pellegrini is not a great coach but man what an average squad!They paid a fortune for Mangala Otamendi Sterling DeBruin and they were so poor!Barca fans say a lot of times that our board is stupid that we must pay 50m for Laporte or x player but the truth is that when u pay 40+m for any player u must be sure that he is ready for top football! watched Bale and the guy cant run without looking the ball!That guy cost 100m!Douglas costa praised all season and he cant cross to a teamate!Thiago was poor in Calderon!And so going on!It s so hard to find the players that they can make the difference.

    • Davour
      May 5, 2016

      Yes, true. I guess City bought names, not players to fit an idea. Like the opposite of Leicester or AM – or Barca. But our system is so difficult it is hard to find players who are both good enough and suitable in style and attitude. Small market, really.

      Will be tremendously interesting to see how Guardiola approaches his new job. He can’t very well throw out everyone. I can really, really see why he would want Busi (but he can’t!).

  12. Jim
    May 5, 2016

    Looking forward to hearing YNWA at Anfield in a few minutes. First home game after the verdicts, semi against a decent side, deficit to be overcome and a packed stadium. Should be good. Klopp just gets me excited by his own enthusiasm as he rambles in his pre match interview.

  13. Jim
    May 5, 2016

    Absolutely brilliant ! Love the Villareal fans singing along scarves in the air . . . I’ve said before , if you’ve never been, get yourself along to a European night at either Celtic Park or Anfield. You won’t regret it.

  14. Jim
    May 8, 2016

    Couple of really bad calls, Messi arguing with the ref at half time after being already ( harshly) booked and us slowing the ball down a little again. Add that to the ridiculous tackles flying in and I wish this was a little more comfortable. Don’t want us hanging on by single goal with ten minutes left.

    • Davour
      May 8, 2016

      And sometimes wishes come true! Solid game, in the end; didn’t let much through and were pretty effective up front. Messi had one of those 50 % games where he can hardly be bothered once things have settled, and mixes sloppy decisions with brilliance. Neymar keeps getting better, and Suarez was a killer. All in all, it looks pretty good. Too bad Valenica didn’t have another in them, as Levante did…

      All in for next round, then – Granada, step aside!

  15. Davour
    May 8, 2016

    Man, Benzema was really offside on RM’s second… well, as long as we beat Granada!

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