How do you describe something impossible? How do you find words that replicate the feeling of soaring, of complete and utter bliss? You could smear something with tears of joy and post an image. Or maybe a podcast that is just sobbing and screaming.
The thing about fairy tales is that they aren’t supposed to be real. Real life argues, spits in the face of fantasy. The princess doesn’t kiss the frog who then turns into a prince. Everyone doesn’t live happily ever after, the end. There are no magic wands, nothing that spins straw into gold.
And yet, there was Sergi Roberto, the only player on the pitch who could score the only goal that would bring an indescribable fairy tale to a blissful ending. Sergi Roberto came to La Masia at age 12. Barça is the only club that he has known. He made his debut and kicked around for a while, one of those players that more knowledgeable assessors said wasn’t going to amount to anything. People clamored for him to be sold, didn’t think he was Barça quality, that thing of myth that so few players are believed to be capable of. His intelligence was lauded but well, something more was needed to enter footballing Valhalla.
But Luis Enrique saw something in him, and went to work. Before long, Sergi Roberto was seeing more time in midfield, then more time pretty much everywhere else except keeper. And he improved. Then he became the starting right back and suddenly, people weren’t saying that he wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t Barça quality, because he was living his dream of playing for the only club that he has ever seriously known.
At the pinnacle of all of those hopes and dreams, of a young kid with tousled hair, of a young man bounding around, of a fairy tale that needed a happy ending. who else could it be but Sergi Roberto, a comeback story brought to life?
As people who love Barça, we all faced today whistling past the graveyard. Nobody believed the team could come back from a 4-0 deficit against one of the best teams in Europe. Not seriously believed. On Twitter, I told someone who wasn’t going to watch out of fear that us putting five unanswered past PSG was far less absurd than them putting four past Barça unanswered. I told that person that they should believe, that they should have faith in the team.
But how can you believe in something impossible? I mean, truly believe, not in that way that supporters pay lip service to something, but in a way that denotes absolute, unshakeable faith in a team’s ability to make history.
This is where players, the people who are in fact a living, breathing, functioning part of a team, make it clear why they are players and we are supporters. It isn’t the fact that they can do things with a football that we can only dream of. It’s the complete, unwavering belief in themselves, in each other, in their ability to make history, to make that fairy tale become a reality.
And they are led by a coach who, even with all of his tactical and player selection failures, has instilled this team with a fight, a spine, a ruthlessness that this group has never had before. It had talent, genius, magic from the best player in the game. But it was never evil, never hard in that way that thugs are. It’s more than a spine. It’s an unshakable belief. Luis Enrique had that. He said the team was going to give its everything, said it was going to advance, said it was going to score six goals to do so.
The team didn’t sparkle tonight, not in the glittering, footballing sense that would have made everything perfect for some people. But it worked. It pressed, it ran, it used everything, even the black arts, and it got the job done. Its coach was happy, didn’t say “I told you so,” didn’t tell the assembled throngs to eff straight the hell off.
He didn’t have to. Luis Enrique is like the kid that nobody likes, who keeps having the right answers, getting results even when the methods aren’t pretty. His test papers are all ink-smeared with eraser marks here and there, but the answers are right. He was supposed to not be smart enough, or flexible enough, or daring enough to admit his errors, to devise a tactical solution to the problems that his team faced. He wasn’t supposed to be able to read the match, to make the right substitutions that would turn the tide, yet one of his subs, Arda Turan, had a shot cleared off the line. The other scored the winning goal.
Neymar sparkled into vivid, vibrant life, suddenly the future. His hair, his Instagram, the love for his sister that makes him jet to Brazil for her birthday, all of the things that nobody likes about a man who is in fact the second-best player in the world, culminated in ten minutes of wonder as he took over the match.
It felt weird, because that was Messi’s time. When the goal made it 4-1 and things were in the balance, it seemed clear that the best player anyone had ever seen was going to pick this moment to cement his already cemented, etched in stone and written in indelible ink place in history. His team had gotten itself close, now it was his time, time to find that extra gear, to do those Messi things.
But it was Neymar who did those Messi things. He converted the penalty, laced in an absurd free kick, made runs and passes, made everything happen, changed the game in that sliver of time that became an eternity for Paris St.-Germain.
The team was together, the team celebrated in the locker room, the team believed that it could. Luis Suarez, in his pre-match presser, said of course they believed that they could. We had doubt because even as we love the team, even as we know the players, we can’t see them as teammates can, haven’t looked into their eyes and taken the measure of a man and decided that not only was he with me as teammate, but I was with him, that everyone was together, united in a single goal of being the absolute best for each other. It’s that miraculous state of being all in that can elevate an already fantastic group of athletes into history makers.
There were scenarios. Three goals by the half, this situation, that situation. Then the match started, and in the first five minutes, there was a goal. Could it be? PSG was rattled, and everything was up for grabs. Then came another goal. It was 2-0, and the rumblings were beginning even as people held full faith in abeyance because we have to give ourselves an out. Love is one thing, but what if it doesn’t work out? I can’t be heartbroken believing in something that isn’t going to happen.
A third goal came, and the rumblings grew louder, even as we still held back. Sweating, hearts racing, we began to have hope, that weird something that — no. PSG coach Unai Emery brought on Angel Di Maria, that jugheaded assassin of dreams, and he immediately maade a difference as PSG decided that sitting back to absorb pressure wasn’t the thing, wasn’t the way. And chances came. Cavani off the post, Draxler running loose, until —
Pique, dammit! A dribble led to a bailout foul led to the player being gassed led to a Cavani goal. It had to be him, of all people, who would put the dagger in. Him, the serial bottler. It was 3-1, the scoreline predicted by many, the valiant effort that would allow the team and its supporters to say see? We are this good. You’re lucky we didn’t play this well in Paris.
Ter Stegen stopped Cavani in a 1-v-1, and Di Maria, the assassin himself, missed a glorious breakaway chance, yet another Niang moment that brought to mind the last Barça remuntada, when the Milan attacker had the match dead to rights, and pranged his shot off the post.
And the rest is history.
The Suarez penalty wasn’t one. No culer cares. Being all in means doing everything to win. That is that quality of the Luis Enrique team, they fight, like their manager did as a player, like he demanded they do in training and in battle, fighting to win even if the winning isn’t beautiful, even if aesthetes scoff at the method. Because history doesn’t award style points.
This was a team victory. For all of the people who will laud certain players and say that this or that player was a key, this team pressed, harried, ran, slid, jumped and gave everything. Busquets was a reference, Mascherano a monster, Iniesta tried to turn back the clock, Suarez fought and glowered, Neymar tilted at windmills. Emery’s match plan was so effective that Messi didn’t have a shot on goal from open play until the 75th minute.
PSG fouled, and fought their own way, celebrating that Cavani goal as if it was the Champions League final, lusty bellows of exultation, now that they were finally going to put the witch to the sword. They fell, the keeper dallied, they made everything take many times longer than it needed, leaading to the brutality of being killed by the extra time that their actions created. This part of the fairy tale was also necessary, the just punishment.
But even now, after all of these words, we haven’t come close to describing the feeling, the euphoria, the unfettered joy attendant to the team that you love being able to make history, being able to say to the workd, the entire football world, “You’re wrong. We’re strong. We said we could do it, and we did it. Because we’re Barça.”
As Pique said after the match, they should hire midwives, because there’s going to be a lot of love made tonight, and there should be. When it comes to expressing something inexpressible, what we yearn for is human contact. We hug strangers, need the physical equivalent of pinching ourselves to be sure we aren’t dreaming. If I am hugging someone else who is screaming and crying just like I am, then this has to be real.
it is that feeling. The feeling you have right now, that lump in your throat, the welling of the eyes as you think about it all over again, think of how much you love this team, how wonderful this moment is. There are no words for that, for all of this, and that it just as well.