Every day we hear the bleatings of former greats, aka “has-beens,” talking about how this player is or isn’t this. Every day, that bleating is worthless because times change, the game changes.
Barça is now. It isn’t just that it is of the moment, or that you accept how the team is now and come to disgruntled terms with some craptastic shadow of a team that doesn’t do anything the “right” way. This Barça is now because it is what we have.
There is a thought (and post-provoking) piece over at TotalBarça, that is worth your time. It describes a love-hate relationship with Luis Enrique, a fondness for how things used to be — “used to be,” of course, descriptive of a compresed period in time in which the machine worked perfectly.
In the sense of good-natured dialogue, I hope that my Barça-loving fellow wordsmith, Max Mthiyane, will accept that I disagree with piece on a great many levels, mostly this one:
I don’t think that we can separate Barça teams to the extent that so many do. Barça plays attacking football. Each coach adapts that philosophy to his own objectives and the tools at hand but crucially, each Barça team is an evolution of its predecessors. It’s a single arc rather than a bunch of individual ones.
As Gang of Four titled an EP, “History’s Bunk!” There is a lovely Museu at the Camp Nou, which is the place for history. This Barça, rather than the flawed abomination many consider it as, is a descendent of the Crujff dream teams, just as Rijkaard’s was, as Guardiola’s was, as the Barça of Vilanova and Martino were. The players change, but the committment to attacking football with style is the thing that unites them all. It’s a club philosophy that is one of the things that differentiates Barça from say, Chelsea.
At other clubs, each coach can come in and create a philosophy from whole cloth. Because why not? No tradition to mess with. Since even before Cruijff, Barça has had a tradition, and woe betide the coach who messes with that tradition. All that said, tradition isn’t a house protected by an architectural set of restrictions. The game changes and adapts, and a team must do the same. Further, each coach has a set of tools, just as each coach has a structure he would like to use those tools to build. His house isn’t crap because he didn’t use the same tools to build it as another coach. It’s still a Barça house.
The danger of the past, particularly a glorious one, is that it becomes a prison. That is in danger of happening at Barça as the acolytes, robes and ancient runes in hand, line up to decry the latest pretender. Philosophy at Barça extends to many things, but it all comes down to winning. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but it does. Would Tata Martino be considered the piece of shit that so many believe he is had be been able to find five goals, and Barça did a double his season? No. People would quibble about his philosophy and how he went about things, but he wouldn’t be a joke. The team has to win, or the coach is out. Higher callings are one thing, but that’s the reality. Guardiola wouldn’t be as beloved if, with all of his tactics, theory and beauty, the team finished fourth in Liga, made the Champions League semis and lost the Copa final.
A Barça coach, never mind a successful one, is hamstrung by philosophy and history as they relate to the necessity of him doing his job, which is to win football matches. One of the stupidest things to ever pop up in this fanbase was when Martino’s Barça won 4-0, but people lost their minds becasue Rayo had a percentage point more possession than Barça. It was, and is one of the most significant examples of a philosophy becoming a prison. “Attacking football” doesn’t mean “most possession” or “most on-pitch rondos around a helpless opponent.” Attacking football could be a 27-pass masterwork of a goal, or a long ball over the top. Attacking football is a complete philosophy that finds CBs up around the halfway line, that has FBs capering in the opponent box. It’s a great many things all of when stitched together properly, result in a successful football team.
It’s safe to say that there isn’t a team in world football that wouldn’t kill to be where Barça is. But people look at the fanbase scoffing at a coach who has won a treble and double in consecutive seasons, and laugh. And they should. Yes, the team has an approach to the game, but that approach is malleable. Everyone has selective memories. So they remember the Rijkaard teams that found ways to lose, leading to his firing. They remember the second Manchester United final, a perfect football match, rather than the last year of Guardiola’s tenure, where the team could only manage the Copa. Nobody remembers the magnificent football that Martino’s Barça played before the wheels fell off mid-season, nor do they remember the aggressive wonder that Vilanova was working to build before illness took him from us.
It’s necessary that we be able to pick and choose what to scoff at and revere.
La Masia is the new watchword, and Thiago, and Grimaldo, and the people who left for various reasons, which are all laid at the feet of a convenient scapegoat, as if a youth player is a babe in the woods, snatched screaming from a mother’s bosom. And now Palencia is on track to be the new Grimaldo, just as the supporter-based social media nattering is setting up Nili to become the Gumbau to Palencia’s Samper, the pretender that doth dare to usurp the anointed one.
We follow blogs and breathless chronicles of a talent on the rise and forget that shit happens, that players don’t always become what the first team needs them to become, that when they do, sometimes the player just wants a better job. But no. It’s Their fault. Things are as they are. Each and every coach has the right — obligation to choose the team that will bring him the most success. If an academy player is good enough, in he comes. If he isn’t good enough, off he goes. Barça is the best football team in the world. It isn’t a charity, something done for altruism. “Sure, that other player is faster, stronger and just as skilled. That’s okay, we want you because you have the right pedigree.”
And when that doesn’t happen, notions of what is or isn’t mes que un club are thrown about, even though the slogan is about what the club represents as a wholistic entity, rather than a worldview that takes a player from cradle to first team, way of playing or transfer dealings. Mes que un club isn’t a samite cloak in which Barça supporters can wrap themselves as they look down on lesser clubs who have to (shudder!) buy players. Every club has to buy players. The stupefying luck that resulted in a glorious class of academy players all peaking at the right/same time is like a lightning strike. It is absurd to expect that to happen again and again, no matter who crows about what player might be the next Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, etc.
Sergi Samper isn’t at Granada because Luis Enrique is stupid. He’s at Granada to learn the game to a degree sufficient to find a place in the best team in the world. If he was there already, he wouldn’t be at Granada. That view is simplistic, but it’s all there is. Thiago is at Bayern because he wanted a better job. Grimaldo is at Benfica because Luis Enrique didn’t want him for the Barça first team.
“We never buy players,” quickly becomes, “We always buy the wrong players.” The club needs a 9, buys Suarez and “Ugh. Galactico spending.” Barça is a world, at present, in which risk isn’t tolerated, failure isn’t accepted and every move must be a sure thing, or woe betide the miscreant. It’s cruel and unforgiving, extreme and misguided. Most of all, it consistently loses sight of things that are important.
The players always say that the team is in a special moment. They understand how crazy this all is. The club buys a Luis Suarez because the academy hasn’t made one. A coach isn’t some magic elf that can take a sub-standard player and make him into a world-beater. Guardiola, as a player, didn’t have all the physical gifts. But like Xavi, he had the intelligence, the presence, the foresight to be able to play the game at a high level, because sometimes skill is in the head as well as the feet. Only rarely does a player such as Messi, who has every last attribute, come along. A coach isn’t flawed for wanting the best players. Guardiola bought Javi Martinez and Bayern, and John Stones at Manchester City. He didn’t buy some undersized, really smart defender from a second-division French side. The best coaches at the biggest clubs want the best players. If they can’t raise them, they buy them. There’s no shame in that, no betrayal of a philosophy.
Barça is. The way that it plays, is. Beauty is malleable. It comes and goes. I sat in the Camp Nou and watched beauty as the team destroyed Sevilla. I sat on television and watched the crapshow against Alaves and Celta Vigo. Both of those are the same team, part of the same arc.
People are fans of players, and fans of coaches. Nobody should ever tell anyone who they should or shouldn’t like, or how to be a fan. There are many different ways. But there is only one team, and that is the team that we have. If we erect a shrine to the way things were, nothing that happens after that will ever satisfy. That is the biggest complexity with the Way Things Were as religion: nothing else good can ever happen because it isn’t the Way Things Were. A treble is the wrong kind of treble, an excellent coach isn’t good enough because he isn’t that previous coach and we sit in the window, candles burning, waiting for a day that will never come, because it already has. And now it’s gone.
Barça is now. That will be true tomorrow, next week and next season. What we choose to do with that reality, that now, is up to each of us.