This is a guest post by Conor P. Williams, longtime culer and savvy wordsmith. Hope you all enjoy it.
I spend my professional life in the world of education. And all the other hours are dedicated to parenting (even the ones I spend in front of beIN SPORTS). Both of these worlds are dominated by a common commitment to what’s known as “the growth mindset.” That is, there are no Good Kids — just good choices. There is no praising a kid’s intelligence — just praise for her hard work. That, we’ve learned, is the healthy, effective way to think and talk about success.
It’s a principle that’s more important as a lesson for parents, teachers, and kids than as an actual truth (even though it is true). Because we have some control over our work ethic. We can choose to persist, even if we’re stuck with our size, our peripheral vision, our eyesight, etc. This gets wrangled into arguments about “grit” and persistence and etc, and those can get a little rough, but the basic idea is clear enough: effort beats ability.
Which brings me — thanks for your patience — to Barça, and the sunset of the Dani Alves era. During the last decade of heavenly success, it’s been almost de rigeur to marvel at the blaugrana, at their essential, ephemeral cocktail of magic. They’re the team that only scores golazos, the team that makes the “sublime” and “magisterial” routine. They’ve been so good, so radical, so different, that media and fans alike are prone to chalking the glory up to natural (or rather, unnatural) talent.
Which is certainly true, as far as it goes. For years, Barça has been a team of freakish talents built into a system that’s (with a few tweaks and personnel shifts) designed to maximize their output. In this account, they’re mutants in a tiki-taka exoskeleton. They’re pass merchants who are clever and graceful beyond comprehensible human levels. They are built around the world’s — history’s — best player, a guy whose brilliance is as “irrational” as it is reliable. Messi is miraculous ability incarnate, a small, awkward person who has somehow been unstoppable for years. Think on it a moment: nearly every time it bursts forth, Messi’s excellence looks effortless. Effort-less.
Let me put this another way. Barça has been so good that they have partaken in the divine. They have been not just “more than a club” — they have been more than human. Their players appear to be just born for this. They have dominated with a craftsmanship and brilliant that calls forth comparisons to the supernatural. They are not just sweaty men on a pitch. They are demi-gods that play the game with an almost dilettantish/wanton level of enjoyment.
But this view of things is also false, as far as it goes. For FC Barcelona is also a team that, as Sid Lowe and others have noticed, is built on a foundation of steel. Barça have been good for many years. But the teams that have been truly great have been those that have simply, gladly outworked their opponents. This is hard to notice in the face of glittering one-touch passes through a parked bus.
This fact, I think, helps explain why Alves never gets the love he deserves from culers. He can pass, he’s quick, he can create … but his defining virtue is relentlessness. Alves always presses. He always runs. He always works his tail off.
Call it the Barcelona Tenacity Caucus. Edgar Davids helped found the modern chapter. Yaya Touré and Eric Abidal both joined. Pedro and Alexis Sánchez both joined as soon as they could. Suarez’s application is pending. And Don Carles Puyol forged the bylaws in iron. He incarnated the Will to Win. He played the game to the last full measure of exertion, the guy whose constitutive reason for existing was to [Expletive] Stop The [Expletive] Other Guys Right [Expletive] Here and [Expletive] Now.
This half of the Barça equation matters. Lowe noticed something about these recent teams, especially as they transitioned into and out of the Guardiola years. When they are great, it’s not because they have passed the tough teams into submission. They always out-pass the other guys, because (again) they have a half-dozen sorcerer men with sparkle shoes and 340° peripheral vision. Take out the hard men, the powerful and indomitable men, and FCB start to look like Arsenal, trying to pass their way into the net until they lose the tie to bad weather and a few fluky counterattacks.
The key isn’t to hold the ball. No, when Barça are great, it’s because they refuse to let the other team have it for more than a few moments. Because they swarm the other team as soon as they lose possession. Which is why the grit brigade matters so much. Why the team went from acoustic to electric when Captain Carles suited up. Why Javier Mascherano is perhaps their most essential player today.
This is why Dani Alves mattered so much — why his departure could be an epochal signpost. Alves is a first-ballot Hall of Fame member of Barça’s lunch-bucket crew. This is an unlovely crowd. These are men who do not sparkle. They burn, and sometimes they blaze.
I think that this is more or less why he never quite tattooed himself into many culers’ hearts. The Messi-fueled, Xavi-sustained quicksilver ethos is — obviously — congenial to supporters. Culers get a moral superiority born of connections to those favored by Providence. (Note: It also grants them a unique myopia regarding failure, for the divinely chosen are not meant to lose…and certainly not to Real Sociedad, or to Athletic Bilbao, or, as the blindness gets worse, even to Atlético Madrid. For immortal sporting gods, a month containing two losses constitutes an earth-shaking, existential crisis.)
But there’s something deeper happening here. The key players in the miracles theory, those little touch-passing wizards in their mystical city farmhouses, are less accessible than the workhorses. Because the grinders, the Puyols, are recognizable. There is nothing fathomable about men who keep working—hard—when others stop. We might never have Xavi’s vision, but we could be those gritty men, were we willing. It’s easier to worship the idols than to recognize our better selves in their examples. Lo, I swear to you, you will never play as well as Messi — ever — but you could be Dani Alves, were you devoted enough to the wind sprints.
And yet, this is still shorting Dani Alves’ importance to a brilliant club’s most remarkable era.His departure represents a crumbling of a bridge at the Camp Nou. He linked the glitter to the sandpaper. He was at once glitz and grind, glamour and grudge. Here is the man, here is what he was for the fans in Pedralbes, here is who he still is: Alves is a remarkably good passer who is not Xavi (although). He is a rocketing force down the line who is neither as smooth nor quite as clever as Iniesta. He is always fully spent. He has good games and bad games, but he never has halfway games.
Conor P. Williams lives and writes in Washington, DC, but he tweets right here at @conorpwilliams.