It’s difficult to remember the last classic that filled me with nervousness and trepidation — probably the eventual 2-6 victory. There was so much riding on that one, and even though Barça was the better team and everyone anticipated a win, the whole dominance thing was still new, that sense of expectation among a fanbase not yet present.
Uncertainty is a weird thing.
This Classic is the first one in a long time where there is everything and nothing at stake. There’s pride, there’s bragging rights, sure, as well as the opportunity to, at least for one day, lord it over an eternal rival.
But Real Madrid is a better team structurally, they are leading the Liga and a favorite for Champions League. Their supporters will be content with gifting us the tercera piece of silver, just as we poked fun at them for celebrating the Copa win with bus tours, and the involuntary transmogrification of cup into plate courtesy of butterfingers Ramos.
The reality is that Barça could drop a manita on RM today, and as long as they win the rest of their very winnable matches — the few that are left in this Liga season, they would run out as champions.
A sense of finality also suffuses this Classic. The coach is leaving, its glittering, ghost-like midfielder has been making rumbles that he might be contemplating a departure. Many players will be gone from this team, a group that feels unsettled in the face of what will be many changes over the summer once the man who will run the show is known.
Most years in recent history the Classic leaves me calm, worried more about the trip to Malaga or Anoeta. There isn’t a culer in their right mind who doesn’t adore beating Real Madrid, nor is there a culer in their right mind who, during this period of extraordinary dominance by a single group of footballers, hasn’t greeted the Classic with a sense of calm that comes from being on the front foot. This Classic, however, feels maudlin, in that way final things so often do.
It’s a time of change at FC Barcelona, as club and team work to regain that sense of calm, that idea that it doesn’t matter what anyone else does, as long as we do what we do. Not helping was the almost childish desperation of initial notions that Barça was going to play with fire and name the suspended Neymar to the team, thanks to a rather blinkered reading of a semantic technicality. Cooler heads prevailed. That’s a start.
Injuries and a general sense of consternation among the entorno has also made this season seem unsettled, as a group unprepared for the reality of the ebbs and flows of cycles have come out, fangs bared, at the slightest sign of weakness. Everyone is lashing out at everything, instead of understanding the nature of cycles for a team, even one blessed with the greatest player ever.
This Classic feels like a finale because so much will be different next season. There are people who are putting knives in the team, saying it’s done. Those people are fools. The structure is too sound, the key players too good for anything like that. Yet, in the sense of change, this is a finale, and a grand one.
Many culers are just counting down the matches to when their bete noire, Luis Enrique, leaves the club, their dislike for a man who has coached the team to a treble and a double rooted in notions of how things are Supposed To Be. For that group, this Classic is just another chance to vent about having been right, about how the team is led by the worst coach in the history of football, or whatever hyperbolic rant is in vogue at the moment.
The tempest of this season has contributed to this feeling like one of the most singularly joyless Classics anyone can remember, or imagine. And that’s sad. This should be a celebratory, giddy day, when Esteladas are unfurled and a united fanbase is ready to spit bile at the team that, even if we can’t agree on anything, should be able to agree on our collective hatred of.
Others understand the reality of the overall situation, and just want the team they love to put on a good show and send out this season in style. They want a lustrous match from Andres Iniesta, the wee, talismanic midfielder who is also the living, breathing manifestation of those glory days, when the ball zipped around the midfield and the world was helpless in its thrall.
Still others have hope, and believe that if the team wins, and an opponent can make RM stumble in the frenzy of Champions League semis, frisky Valencias, erratic Sevillas, capering Celtas and resolute Malagas, that something amazing can happen, the last remuntada for this group.
I just want to watch my team, the team that I love, play. This is a Final in many ways, but even aside from the other factors, the weird things, uncertainties and other complexities, how hard is it just to love watching the men in the Blaugrana strip come out to do their thing. No matter what anyone has invested in this or that narrative, this or that hated player, our lads are playing, and that’s beautiful.
What’s going to happen? No idea. For a change, that isn’t as important as this opportunity to watch my team play. Maudlin? Nostalgic? Sappy? Yep. But sentiment is what it is. What XI do I want to see?
Ter Stegen, Mascherano, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Turan, Messi, Suarez
This is the time to go with the pros, the folks who have Been There. Plus the veterans deserve to strap on the armor for what might be the last time for a few of them. It’s a sentimental XI for that reason. Is it the one that gives Barça the best chance of winning? Valid question. But in the face of injuries and suspensions, it’s difficult to conceive of an XI that does give Barça that best chance of winning. So give the vets some love, and let’s do this.
As Isaiah said, get hyped! Your team is playing. For one match, at least, this time, put aside the crap that roils this supporter base, that splits us into factions. Barça is playing a Classic. No matter what the stakes, that should be enough. Visca.