Barça, Dani Alves and the dignity of work

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.

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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.

16 Comments

  1. June 7, 2016

    I ABSOLUTELY ♥ THIS POST.

    ” He linked the glitter to the sandpaper. He was at once glitz and grind, glamour and grudge. “

    The above lines are so true, and in more ways than one, his departure signals the end of an epoch for this Barca.

  2. chowzoi
    June 7, 2016

    I was at the Camp Nou for April’s loss to RM. Even though it was a loss, being in Barcelona and watching my guys was a great experience. When Barca’s goal line was to my right, Dani was right in front of me. I will never forget his non-stop running up and down the pitch. Relentless. That’s a perfect word. I will miss him playing for Barca but we can still keep track of him on social media. So there’s that.

  3. Jim
    June 7, 2016

    Don’t know if anyone else is watching Spain vs Georgia but yet another piece of rotten defending by Ramos costs Spain a goal. They’re not gonna win the tournament with him in the defence.

    • Jim
      June 7, 2016

      Previous comment is redundant, having watched the whole match. They’re not gonna win the tournament anyway. I’m still not sure what formation they were trying to play but there are a whole lot of players with big reputations on that field who really don’t add much to their cause.

  4. June 9, 2016

    The Copa matches have been mostly awesome, for those watching. A healthy Jughead makes an immense difference for Argentina. Reckon had he been healthy for the WC and Copa last year, people wouldn’t be hating on Martino as much because Argentina would have won both competitions.

    Argentina is playing Friday in Chicago, and no, I’m not going. Would get a kick out of seeing Mascherano, but ticket prices are crazy, starting at $200. I’d gladly pay that for Les Bleus or Barça, it should be added.

    My match of the tournament so far has been Ecuador/Peru on Wednesday, which was like a track meet being run by drunks. Wild. Huge fun.

    Semis are also in Chicago, likely to be Brazil against Mexico or somebody (the ideal for the organizers).

    • June 10, 2016

      Chile was a very different side, much much low in quality, to the side of Sampaoli. Further, they were in a very bad run of form. A poor Chile made Argentina looked much better, I felt. Didnt see anything from Martino which improved his rating in that match, am afraid. He still looks like a good man, rather than a tactician. His player selection has been even poor. Who would leave out some one like Dybala, when it is very clear he also has to build up a team for WC18, and also considering Juventus wont let him for the Olympics, but only for Copa. Who would, with this generation of players, prioritise Olympics ahead of Copa?? As a life long fan of Albiceleste, I would only be happy to eat my words, but there are no good signals coming. Who would play De Maria as a forward when he excels in the mid.
      And his goal was a poor shot, with a shameful keeping by Bravo. And the second was a deflection too. This inspite of Chile offering lots and lots of space to Argentina, its not looking good. They might still go a long way, as most teams are looking very poor, barring Mexico, with their player quality.
      The only good decision DeMaria did in that match was to pass the ball for Banega, for the second. Normally he doesnt do that with Argentina. He is a player with world class technique, but with amateurish decision making.
      But its true, if he remained healthy for a whole tournament, Argentina wont be a one man team, especially how terrible Higuain and Aguero are for them.

      $200 is a huge sum Kevin, but if was near me, I would definitely pay that for watching Masche.. even more if Messi plays too.
      I hope Tata wont start Messi against Panama and give him more rest.

  5. June 10, 2016

    Quite a bit going on in the world:

    AS picking up a Brazlian outlet’s buzz that Neymar has agreed terms with PSG for the 2017 season: http://en.as.com/en/2016/06/10/football/1465560278_293236.html

    — Ikea Munain and David De Gea implication in allegations regarding a forced sexual encounter.

    — Valdes released by United today.

    — The deal made in the Spanish courts’ Neymar tax case is done. Club takes the guilt, pays 5m, Rosell and Bartomeu escape any personal culpability. (Suffice it to say, Barça Twitter has been in an uproar over this.)

    • Jim
      June 10, 2016

      Wow! Daily Mail reporting De Gea sent home from Euros.

      I’m doubting the Neymar stuff although he must be feeling the heat in Spain so I suppose nothing is impossible. Don’t like the idea of the club taking the rap, if there is one, for the Neymar deal. If true, it’d be one of Barto’s first mistakes for me although I can understand the idea that a settlement is probably best at this stage if it’s unsettling Neymar.

    • Jim
      June 10, 2016

      Hmm, DM now rowing back from expulsion and saying he’s told friends he’s determined to stay. Press conference to come should be interesting. Sky ignoring it at the moment and concentrating on England ‘s delightful dilemma of having so many good players to choose from which any manager would be envious of ! Tbf, Hodgson trying to bat these notions away but reassuring that the English press has learned nothing which is just as well from my viewpoint because they actually have a decent young side who haven’t yet discovered the many ways England teams can screw themselves in major tournaments.

    • June 10, 2016

      That’s the thing, Jim. It is being painted by MD (surprise!) as being good for the club, because it removes this nonsense from the docket. (Only in Spain, of course. The bigger battles are still to be fought in Brazil, and vs DIS.)

      But as with you, the culpability thing is a fairly massive thing for me, and not just because of my general distrust of this board. The club didn’t do the deal, though technically it is the assigning entity. Rosell did it, he, Barto and the board signed the papers. So own up.

      Of course, their responsibility suit against Laporta is still dragging its way through the courts, which should elicit a rueful snort from pretty much anyone.

      I’m glad to have the Neymar stuff behind the club, but I just don’t believe that was the way to do it.

    • Jim
      June 10, 2016

      Yeah, Kxevin. It’s a good article at Grup14 on the issue ( I’m assuming it’s well informed). The various intricacies make my head hurt, tbh. Seems there are several advantages to the settlement and a grey area as to whether the accountants and legal experts involved knew the likely issues or not. Whatever, if Pogba is worth €90m we got a bargain in anyone’s book.

    • Jim
      June 10, 2016

      See, that’s the problem I keep seeing with Pogba. He is a supremely talented footballer but with his physique and skills he should be the glue in your passing game, be able to turn and run at pace to destabilise a defence and be an absolute beast in the press.

      I don’t know if he’s lazy, doesn’t have those skills or is still just young and learning but anything he did tonight our subs can also already do.

  6. June 10, 2016

    Oh, am going to the Copa America match today in Chicago. Wasn’t going to, but figured how often would I get to see Mascherano and Messi doing their thing without having to fly to Catalunya. So why not?

    • June 10, 2016

      Masche would definitely star. Was hoping Messi wont play, but news is he would come in as a sub. Good for you.
      Unless Panama park it, it would be entertainment.

  7. Jim
    June 10, 2016

    Maybe better make the most of it. From Barcastuff:

    Barcelona player Javier Mascherano (32) still wants to leave as he’s not getting the contract he asked. He’s talking with Juventus. [sport]

    Now this is Sport so pass the salt but it wouldn’t surprise me. His departure from both WH and Liverpool were unsavoury to some degree. However, nor would I blame him at all as it’ll be his last big payday. I just ( if it is true and I have doubts he’d be talking to other clubs during the Euros) wouldn’t like a good cop, bad cop approach with the warm words followed by the gimme more money.

    In general we have an interesting few weeks coming once the Euros are finished. If Masche were to go we’d probably need two new CBs as well as a backup 9. I also noticed a few days ago, and tbh this would worry me more, Barcastuff reporting that Samper isn’t gonna sign a new contract till he hears what the club’s plan for him is so I think we can assume he’s not been kept in the loop so far which is a mistake imo. I said last week I wondered if we’d have some friction between the club and manager over comings and goings this summer due to finances. New contracts for 32 yr olds or buying players approaching 30 for big bucks isn’t gonna appeal to the guys in charge of counting the pennies.

    Still, we don’t really know the ins and outs but it gives us something to speculate about once the Euros are finished.

  8. June 11, 2016

    Hey Kevin, Even if it was against a 10 man Panama, am sure you enjoyed a Messi hatrick. How lucky to be there live…
    Argentina again poor, made a 10 man Panama look better than them for long.
    And De Maria, again.

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