FC Barcelona will never be good again.
To understand that, understand this: band reunions are loathsome, and should be banned. My pop music worldview finds them vile attempts to capitalize on something that should have no place in pop music — nostalgia.
The band reunites and fans of the past gather to travel back in psychic time. The older the band, the more vile the reconstitution because reunions mostly chase something that is impossible to catch — the past.
Just as pop music should be temporal, make your statement and get out, football should be every bit as immediate. The game has past greats who weigh in on How Things Are, as if that matters now. Fans look back on glory seasons, as if that matters now. Sport, football in particular, is in danger of being choked by nostalgia as fanbases are always looking at the present and comparing it to the past.
FC Barcelona has a particularly acute problem in that it had a period of magic, where its team, led by a mad, emotional genius, seemed to rewrite the rules of the game. A sport heretofore defined by black leather boots and white spheres had a switch flipped, like a b&w movie that becomes Technicolor in mid-frame. Spain played like Barça because that team’s personnel occupied all the significant spots of that national XI. The academy played like the first team, a legion of capering sprites eviscerating opponents in the model of the life-sized caperting sprites. The world gasped in admiration, and all was magic.
Barça wasn’t just the best team that anyone had ever seen. It had the best coach, the best player ever to play the game and rather than superstars who jet-setted hither and yon, its driving forces were human. They lived at home, hunted mushrooms and tended goats. They invested in boyhood clubs and stayed out of the limelight. They were amazing footballers who were also awesome people, and the club became a model, not only in the eyes of the game but in the eyes of the supporters who flocked to Barça in the thousands.
The board carried the patina of success as well, until suddenly, someone ripped away the shimmering white samite around the foundation. It was wood instead of concrete, stilts instead of a slab. And as lustrously as it all bloomed into life, it was ripped away.
Barça will never be good again because of nostalgia, because it can’t be. Everything that anyone at the club does carries the weight of the past. No matter what a coach does, it isn’t Guardiola. No matter what a president does, it isn’t Laporta. No matter what a midfielder does, where is the next Xavi? It’s the worst part of pop music nostalgia, that chase after something that can never be again, something great that defines a particular part of your life.
So fans go to the show, hear the song they loved in high school or college, and allow themselves to forget receding hairlines, beer bellies and old heroes. Because that’s what nostalgia does. And they argue with people like me who suggest that such shows shouldn’t be around because of what they represent. “It was fantastic,” they pound out in angry emails. “They can still hit the notes. I don’t know what show you were at.”
Under Luis Enrique, Barça won a treble and then a double the following season. But it wasn’t good. The way the team played was wrong, the transfers were wrong, the coach and his ideas were wrong, everything was wrong. Failure became the justification for all of that wrongness, buttressed by contentions that because the game wasn’t being played in the right way, of course results were going to lapse. And the standard persisted, because it ignored the reality that results lapsed under the rosy period as well as the game changed to meet a threat.
Barça can never be good again because all of the fantastic feelings embodied in that era, Coldplay songs and victory dances, beautiful goals stitched together from countless passes and that exultation that comes with a certain kind of success. It was real. We didn’t imagine it all. Why can’t we have that again? More than the tangible results, Barça gave supporters something more in the kind of purity that allowed a lofty reserve, a lordinng it over fans of lesser clubs. The team plays the right way, does business the right way, does everything the right way. “A pity that you can’t. Look at our all-academy XI. Do you even have anyone from the academy in your team?”
In a year, when Usain Bolt runs a race for fun, he will run it faster than most people in the world. He won’t suck or be the slowest runner ever because he comes short of his exalted standard. That just isn’t how reality works.
In the here and now, everything is judged by an impossible standard. What’s good isn’t good enough, what’s bad is terrible, what’s terrible is reprehensible. Many joke about the idea that “everything is the worst,” but that isn’t the real issue — there is a standard that even the people who established it can’t live up to. Every game has become a manita, every goal perfect, every transfer logical. Some other club brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Samuel Eto’o plus cash. Some other president spied on board members. Memory is a beast of convenience that lets us shrug off things we don’t need.
But Barça is what it is. It is what it is right now. Xavi will never be back to lace perfect passes to darting teammates. Iniesta is still the Illusionista, but the tricks are performed at a slower speed, now more manageable for opponents. The team has to strive to create something that is still wonderful from a collection of expensive mercenaries, because of a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent that all came from the same place: home.
But everything is different now. La Masia, the squat brick building that exuded calm and knowledge, is now a glitzy training facility. The stark inner ground of the Camp Nou, once a place you traversed to get to your carefully hoarded seat, is now like a mall, with shining lights, restaurants and massive sponsor signage. Life moves on, slipping through out fingers like sand, and we resist because we want to keep good things. It’s human nature. Much more difficult is embracing the notion that life is what it is at the moment it is experienced, that there can be magic in chocolate or vanilla. In 1984, Gang of Four was the best band ever. In 2016 it’s a tribute band, middle-aged dudes sawing away on hoary sonic cliches.
So what’s next?
Barça has problems, and lots of them. They worry the hell out of even the most casual supporter of the team, and correctly so. But a lot of the view of those problems is colored by the exigencies of feeling. It isn’t the worst club ever, it isn’t going to die, every player that it signs isn’t a disaster. Good things can happen, even in a crapstorm. But for something to be good again, we have to allow it to be what it is. Right now. It’s a challenge, one that until we as a fanbase faces it full on, will force acceptanace of a basic reality: Barça will never be good again.