Heart. There are times when football comes down to which team has the greatest quantity. Baser scribes and pundits will take matters south of the heart, and pen odes to testicular capacity, but the Copa del Rey title was about heart.
History will show that Barça did what it was supposed to do in beating a Sevilla team with a few key injuries that just came off a cup final midweek. History will say that what else was a Barça team going to do, a group that had legends playing for it, along with expensive add-ons such as Neymar and Suarez.
And hopefully, we’ll be around to call history a jackass. Football matches are played on the pitch, where a resolute, dynamic, aggressive Sevilla wasn’t interested in rolling over for anyone. From the outset they played Barça as they played Liverpool, as a beatable opponent. After all, they had done it before, and were a better team now. The problem for them was that Barça was also a better team, in key areas that had nothing at all to do with footballing talent.
In the 107th minute, Iniesta fought a Sevilla player for the ball, and won. Earlier, Busquets worked some sideline witchcraft in dispossessing a Sevilla player that still needs to be seen. Pique, simply put, had the best 120 minutes anyone has ever seen from a defensive player. And Messi laid on a pair of otherworldly assists.
The heart of a team usually comes from an indomitable core, a group that makes everyone around it not only better, but a group that makes everyone understand what it is like, the importance of being part of that team. Pique, Messi, Iniesta and Busquets all came up through the Barça system, and the first three were reared in the bosom of La Masia. Today they formed the beating heart of a team that wasn’t going to lose, that played as if it found the very idea abhorrent, a team that eschewed beauty for grit and determination, a team forged in the mold of its head coach.
Sevilla was magnificent today, and had the best scoring chances of the match. Mascherano had to take a red card to keep Gameiro from being 1v1 against Ter Stegen, and Banega hit the post thanks to a key deflection by Pique. They pressed, ran and fouled when they had to, urged on by a coach in Unai Emery who had drawn up an intelligent, effective match plan.
Barça wasn’t great but a lot of that wasn’t their fault as Sevilla brought the precise kind of match needed to win this Copa final, picking right up from where they left Liverpool a defeated heap.
This entire Copa del Rey final seemed a fight, beginning with the club, which had to go to court to allow its supporters to fly the Esteladas, those vociferous, vivid banners that demand independence. It was a fight for free speech that roiled the pre-match days and turned attention from what was, on paper, going to be a brilliant final. And Sevilla made it a fight on the pitch.
On this day, the core brought the determination that its team wasn’t going to lose. A lot happened to Barça, from refereeing errors that were overblown by an expectant fanbase to a justly earned red for Mascherano and an injury to Luis Suarez, the dynamic core of the attack. And the only thing that Barça kept saying was “No. Not today.” They didn’t stress the Sevilla keeper, didn’t even threaten their area that much, but they fought, holding Sevilla at bay until the moment they could strike.
Much is made of Diego Simeone and the magic he wrought at Atleti, quite justly. He has built a team of heart and determination, a team willing to fight for each other to achieve success. But Luis Enrique hasn’t done too badly either. Want to see fighting? Watch an Iniesta run where he is fouled, falls to his knees and never loses the dribble, continuing to rush at the Sevilla box like a shark. Mathieu stuck his head in right where a ball was about to be kicked. Neymar took foul after foul after foul, and worked like a dog on defense. Everybody worked, and they took their cues from the core.
The two biggest giants were opposites, one all height and glamor with a pop star wife and wealthy parents, the other a pale wisp of a man with vanishing hair, a dazzler with the mien of an office worker or accountant. As individuals, they had matches that were almost career-defining. As part of a team allegedly in crisis at one point or another, they served as examples. Carles Puyol brought opponents down with fire and flying locks. Iniesta brought an opponent down with a calm, balanced a dribble, a moment of la pausa that made him a rock when the world around him was chaos and movement.
Crisis? Perhaps, if you’re the hysterical type. But when Barça seemed ready to topple, the team responded. It didn’t concede a single goal in its last six matches, and outscored opponents 26-0. The team won the domestic double for a second consecutive year, a feat not accomplished since the early 1950s, and they celebrated. This was a fan’s type of win, the kind of fan who wants to see a team put out for the colors, give everything and then a little more to ensure success. Yes, Barça has played champagne football and scored wonder goals, but today’s win was about the essential core of a team, that fight in a collection of athletes that unites them.
The first goal came from a Messi pass from about the halfway line, a diagonal delight that when it landed at Jordi Alba’s feet, you knew. He wasn’t going to miss this one, and he didn’t, beating a Sevilla keeper who had been excellent all match. The release was explosive, a fanbase went berserk and the players celebrated like it was the last goal they were ever going to score. They understood the fight. They knew what it meant, and knew they had a remarkable advantage that they needed to press home.
Barça played in a way that made the world forget they were down to 10. Every now and again, the graphic would flash, to remind us that something remarkable was going on, that a team went down to 10 and kept attacking as if it had 12. It wasn’t at its best and would have to accept good enough, if the quality that it had was buttressed with fire.
There are many culers who are as proud of this trophy as any of the others, not for the competition but for the way this team played. And it was the core that led them.
The second Messi assist was late in extra time, a slide-rule pass that was perfectly weighted and timed to eliminate Sevilla defenders but find Neymar in perfect stride. The Brazilian made no mistake. It was 2-0, and all over except for the medal and trophy presentation.
This year was hard. A short bench and key injuries blunted the fire of a team that was planned out, until people had to play more than usual. Stacking internationals atop that at key times, coupled with every last opponent playing the game of their lives against Barça, and this was a brutal season, one that required more concentration and mental strength than the wonder season of last year.
That concentration lapsed, and people thought the team would bottle it, come up empty-handed after winning everything last year, but this group wasn’t interested in that. Sevilla played a match that would have beaten a great many teams, but not Barça, not today. And everybody contributed. Ter Stegen was magisterial and Mathieu proved the perfect sub, turning in an excellent performance as part of a team that played with 10 until the 90th minute, when Neymar drew a red card foul from Banega.
But the greatest performances came from the players with the most at stake, that Barça core, and the three that shone brightest have been with the club since they were runts, faces glistening with the tears of a homesick child. They grew into killers who understand what Barça means, who reared their head at a crucial time in a crucial match, to help their team achieve glory.
History will say that the superior team won, and the underdog lost. But we will know what was at stake, how the match teetered on the precipice and what was wrought by a quartet of lions with blaugrana for blood.