This began life as a season prediction post, a chronicle of a Treble in the offing because the best team in the world has, in the off-season, made itself even stronger with a series of astute additions to an already glittering roster. Then it all stopped with a look at my mobile screen saver, which is a picture of the Iniesta strike at the Bridge, and a different feeling hit: what the hell was wrong with me, to predict such a thing?
Sport is illogical. Look at Leicester City. Look at Portugal at the Euros. Look at that Iniesta goal.
What were you doing when the Iniestazo hit?
The only remaining personal memory — something that hits even now — is this feeling, an indescribable feeling. You can’t breathe, your head is filled with something akin to a jet engine sound and sparklers are exploding in your face. You don’t know what to do, how to deal with it all, so you scream and run around, looking for someone, anyone to hug and wind up hugging everyone.
That goal, that absurd, improbable strike is still the most magnificent goal that most of us have ever seen. Technically, there have been better goals. But it’s difficult to recall a goal that matches the Iniestazo in terms of import, in terms of what it started. It was the first plank in what became not only the Treble, but the year that Barça won everything. Spain had international success, a way of playing took root. That goal was everything.
That goal also kick-started something unfortunate, from this seat, a loss. Those times were still innocent. Barça was a big football club that had won a Champions League title not all that long ago with Ronaldinho, a victory that even now seems more capricious than inevitable, like the Brazilian genius who made magic on a whim. The team won Ligas, and had success. It was wonderful for a club that had tasted such things in metered doses. But the Iniestazo kicked off a blizzard of so many things, including a loss of that innocence.
Nobody stops to think about what would have happened had that strike not gone in. Not just schoolchildren who wouldn’t have been born. Would the same things have happened, the same magical moments? Would the perception of a team and its coach be the same? What would have changed had that goal not gone in and how would the Barça club and fan base be today? Look at the faces of the new guys, Lucas Digne and Samuel Umtiti. Do they have any idea what they are in for, any notion that the simplest error or moment of human frailty could doom them to the abuse of a supporter base that demands flawlessness? Or maybe they have the psyches of Mongols and the hide of a water buffalo.
In the here and now, a football newcomer would, on a casual perusal of Barça Twitter, think that the club was a relegation candidate, desperately searching for players to save it from its inevitable doom, with finances that have bankruptcy right around the corner. “Wait. They won the title? Was it like Leicester City, where people predicted them for the drop? No? They just won three titles the year before? Wait, I don’t understand.” In this space we analyze, dismiss and discard players who might be among the best in the game at their position, but aren’t “Barça quality.”
Championships are remarkable things that gain perspective if you think of them as your life. Think of all the things that had to happen to put you where you are at this moment. Are you happy with your job, your life, your spoouse or significant other? Think of the zillion things — a delayed train, car trouble, missing a couple of stoplights — that might have happened to create a circumstance that would have resulted in a different life. The mind boggles at the math. That is a championship. A collection of remarkable things all have to happen often enough for one team to have enough success to be the best. We should faint dead away every time one happens, if you really stop to think about it.
But after all the success sparked by a remarkable goal by a remarkable player, we have become insatiable. No sooner do the echoes of yet another Camp Nou celebration fade than the recriminations begin. Barça won the double last season, but somehow it all seemed a failure. The team had enough to win the Treble again. What happened? Whose fault was it, and how can that failure be repaired? This player? That player? Not Barça quality, not good enough. That other player? Don’t make me laugh. A player for this team must come dowm from Olympus with the temperament of Gandhi, must not only be among the best in the world but patient, willing to sit while better players take their assumed roles. Why doesn’t the stupid board buy that player?
So much now is defined by failure and expectation. A few million bucks on a punt of a player becomes something so much more, symbolic of something deeper and more nefarious, even though teams take punts like that all the time. Not Barça. Every transfer must be flawless, every player must fit immediately, or they are deemed trash. Championships are the standard, everything else is dross. Win the Classic 0-4 in the Bernabeu and “Dammit! No manita!”
People who, like most fans, wear Barça kit can trace the team’s profile by the history of reactions to that blaugrana shirt. In the late-90s to early 2000s, wearing a Barça kit brought no reaction. By 2005 it was “Barka? That Ronaldinho dude is awesome!” By 2010 everybody knew the shirt, and commented. By 2016 the shirts are so omnipresent as to be almost commonplace. The nods that we used to share are, these days, rarely returned and if you nodded at every person wearing a Barça shirt, you would wind up in traction.
A Catalan institution has become a global celebrity, a superstar in what seems like record time, even in the supercollider of sports chronology. 2008, when Pep Guardiola took over, was only eight years ago. He rolled in and jettisoned Ronaldinho and Deco. Who did this new guy think he was? Imagine the scenes if a new coach came in next season and decided that Messi and Iniesta were surplus to requirements, sufficiently past it to reconsider their presence in the team. Imagine the scenes! Is there even a coach in the game who would have that kind of power now?
Barça is no longer a football club, but a factory that is expected to produce championships. If it doesn’t, everything unfavored is crap, and has to go. Into the cauldron with it. Tata Martino, rather than a kind, noble man who took a wreck of a team farther than it had a right is a failure, a reputation that affected him in his next job as well. He didn’t win championships. Arda Turan is a world-class player who is struggling at Barça. Sell him. Not a second to waste, because he sucks. It’s clear. The board isn’t making enough money. A team this great should be worth all the money in the world, so that the club can buy all the players in the world. What is wrong with those fools?
Pep Guardiola left the club, driven out by a board and his own demons of pressure and insatiable demand. He left the club with a magnificent record of accomplishment as well as an albatross. Everything now has to measure up, or it is failure, the failure that defines everyhing now, even success. “We had to back into that Liga championship.” “Juventus was a goal away from making that Champions League final really fraught.”
People ask, “Can’t we criticize, can’t we analyze, can’t we look at the club with an analytical eye,” but those aren’t really the pertinent questions. Instead, it isn’t that hard to wonder when the game stopped being the most fun you could have on a weekend day, how something so wonderful has become tainted by misery, expectation and restlessness?
You can watch the Iniestazo a million times, and it will never be any less stupefying. It started some wonderful times, moments that none of us would trade for anything. But as we sit on the precipice of a new season, it’s difficult not to wish for the return of the magic of the impossible, the innocent wonder that let us revel in the extraordinary.