Barça will never be ‘Barça’ again

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.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

16 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    August 30, 2017

    Great, great article. Spot on.

    I came to Barca because it was the most aesthetically pleasing way of playing football I’ve ever seen. Anti-football, designed to avoid tackles, aerial duels, all of that messy stuff by just not giving the ball away. Pure pleasure, and something that will likely never be seen again in football at this level.

    Your point is very strong, but I wonder if it is possible to reduce the influence of past games, past players, past experiences to your perspective on a football club, and still have much emotion left for it. Why would you support FC Barcelona, if not because of your past experiences with them? Might as well pick a club at random every season. But I understand – we should remember those experiences, but not use them as blueprints for everything that can be good.

    Thankfully, Radiohead and Portishead – my two favourite bands from my youth – are not yet in danger of becoming their own caricature despite having been around for a long time. But they had to evolve in order to avoid that.

  2. Jim
    August 30, 2017

    Kevin, there must be things in this world we agree upon. There just must !

    But first of all, another thoughtful piece and a genuine thank you for keeping this place going. I realise its value, even / particularly during the close season, more and more.

    And there are parts of this I agree with such as if we expect a new Barca to be as good as Guardiola’s side we will be disappointed and we will be wrong to be. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to those levels or that style of play or we’re wasting our time. I came to Barca because of Ronaldinho and stayed because of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Busi etc who all play the game the way I think it should be played. That style of play isn’t nostalgia, just the brilliance of those players. But that’s enough about the football. That wasn’t what got me fired up this time ( I know, first time for everything . . .)

    As an old codger who enjoys his fair share of nostalgia I have to take issue with the central idea that there is something wrong with it. If attending a band reunion takes you back to when you heard them for the first time and you enjoy the evening that in itself makes it worthwhile. Live is seldom as good musically as the record but is still awesome. I’m at the stage in life when my old heroes are dying off so I maybe feel this more keenly than most but I have trouble with the idea that someone can tell me that there is something wrong with getting enjoyment from it.

    About 15 years ago I was fortunate to see the Rolling Stones for the first time. Yes, they were past their best but I really enjoyed it because I hadn’t seen them before and wouldn’t have if they had given up. A year ago in March I saw Brian Wilson at Sydney Opera House and no he can’t sing anymore but he did write all that wonderful music and I felt privileged to be able to see him once and thank him for all the enjoyment I’ve had over the years. A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet James Taylor in an Edinburgh hotel and have a brief chat with a lovely hero of mine who was just as nice in person as I’d hoped. etc. etc (lest this become a list of our favourite bands. . I’m sure we wouldn’t agree on those either, although I think I Remember you saying you liked the Jam at one point ? ) Are those artists I mentioned as good as they were ? Don’t care. If you don’t get nostalgic you don’t get this but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth something.

    In the end a growing part of our lives consist of memories and they are inevitably tagged to an emotion of some sort. That’s as true of football as anything else. For me that is to be embraced as part of growing old. I play in the golf medal every Saturday knowing I’m not as good as I was. Should I now give up in this brave new world ? Should I forget that I was actually decent once, sit in the clubhouse looking out wistfully at the Young Turks carding a 6 under par while sipping a glass of the red stuff? Should I look with cold eyes at Roger Federer and say he’s not the same as when I saw him at Wimbledon in his prime or should I allow myself to well up when he wins Wimbledon again at his age and feel that’s a poke in the eye for those who continually write people off ?

    I’m gonna take a wild stab that my favourite lines from literature are also not pinned to your wall, Kxevin.

    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. ”

    Just in closing should this not be an opinion rather than an analysis piece ? 🙂

    ( I know you don’t like emojis but I couldn’t resist ! )

    • Davour
      August 31, 2017

      Funny, I have The Great Gatsby on my desk as I read your comment (part of a course I teach). Not sure the desperate, self-deceptive hunt for an impossible dream is the way to go for Barca, though, but I agree you should maintain ideals, as long as they are not stale and contra-productive. Beauty is not singular, as we all know, and the past can make you blind to the possibilities of the present, even if that also works the other way around (discoveries can be made by looking back just as much as looking to the present, as any music buff knows). In terms of football, it begs the question wether one is a fan of the club or a very particular style/ideal, supporting whoever manages to fulfil this ideal (Napoli?). No less consistent, of course, as a fandom goes.

      For Barca of today, the very point Cieran makes below, that Messi no longer presses, is enough to discard a return to the past. Messi of today is, in a sense, better – but more a Riquelme type: a brilliant puppet master, not an all conquering destroyer. How to make use of this? I for one am hoping for Coutinho as his partner in crime.

      • Jim
        August 31, 2017

        Great and really interesting discussion, guys. Can’t be many football blogs where the same discussion wanders around the value or otherwise of nostalgia, the merits of Twitter and the themes of The Great Gatsby !

        Now, Davour, don’t get me started on this book ! I used to love asking my classes at the end of it who they admired most and secondly who they would rather be, Gatsby or Nick. Oh, the arguments that ensued . . .

  3. ciaran
    August 30, 2017

    For me it’s the difference between admiring the past and hating the present because it’s not the past.
    I started following Barca at the tail end of the Cruyff era when I thought that they played good football. I continued to support them through downturns and upturns and have seen everything in between. Funnily enough my favourite Barca were Bobby Robson’s all out attack for the sheer thrill of going toe to toe with everyone and seeing how it came out.
    I would love if the current Barca had the midfield of the Pep era but if that is the tactic and each of those players is worse than those who originally played it then we would be worse. If you add in the fact that Messi no longer presses, at least in no way consistently then we’d be worse than we were.

    I dragged myself into the 21st century… I got myself into the twitter machine. Early days but I think that Twitter might just be a success, it is looking promising. After a quick peek around I’ve noticed a lot of the old commenters from here are on it. I must be half a decade late to the party.
    Still not sure how you are supposed to ramble aimlessly with only 140 characters. Doesn’t suit an Irishman, let alone one whose livelihood is made by talking.

  4. Miguel
    August 31, 2017

    Gang of Four? I thought this article was about The Misfits.

  5. Mishti
    August 31, 2017

    Oh Kevin, my favorite feeling in the world is nostalgia!

    But seriously, this is a paradoxical one. There was a distinct point in time when I came to this club and its football, something clicked, and an attachment developed. That memory is undeniably fundamental to my folllowing this club for the 25 odd years that came after it, so I do hold the memories of those early days very dear. Yes, it was Cruijff’s Dream Tream, one that I thought played some good football, and also had in Romario one of my favorite footballers of all time. Now, that nostalgia has never hindered my enjoying Barca as it has been at any given moment. I don’t count myself as a ‘Cruijffista’, whatever that might mean. I have actually rather eclectic tastes in football, and don’t really believe there is a right way to play the game. In fact the very reason I like football probably more than any other sport is the infinite variations and evolutions that are possible within its rather simple structure. I adopted Barca and kept going with it, and the club didn’t fail me, in that it has managed to remain, more or less, ahead of the curve when it comes to inventing tomorrow’s football. So, no, while I cherish my memories of all those special moments that came along the way, my dream is always for Barca to define the future of football, not emulate some version of itself in the past. I’ll commit blasphemy by admitting that there were aspects and phases in Pep’s era that I didn’t like. It is also true that I enjoyed Rijkaard’s heydays and some of the football we played in Luis Enriques’ treble winning season a lot. On the footballing field, I rarely feel that we are somehow on the verge of losing our ‘identity’. May be because I feel that the true sign of vitality for a football club/team is the ability to reinvent itself, redefine its own identity, when it comes to football. Now, on the institutional side, the last decade has seen a lot of dramatic changes. Those have far reaching consequences for the club as an institution. The pros and cons of such things merit discussion and debate, regardless of whether it is motivated by nostalgia or genuine concern for the club’s future and direction, or both.

    I just want to highlight something you wrote that really struck a chord with me.

    “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 recent years, I have had a growing uneasiness about an attitude that seems to have become rather widespread in Barca fandom – some sort of ‘holier than thou’ sense of moral superiority that we feel entitled to proclaim vis a vis other clubs and their fans. I don’t get it, don’t appreaciate it, and feel very embarrased by it frankly. We are a football club, just like any other, trying to win trophies. Sporting rivalries are great, and great fun. But the whole on-your-face ‘righteousness’ about the right way of doing things is a bit much, and dare I say it has earned Barcelona fanbase quite a bit of notoreity. Thanks a lot Kevin for putting it in stark words.

  6. TITO
    August 31, 2017

    Cant remember the last time when we have entered the last day of transfers and still be in the play for a player(s).

  7. squeen
    August 31, 2017

    The past inspires the future. Michels to Cryuff to Guardiola etc. (to Xavi?). No you can’t go back in time, but life is cyclical. As much as I love (and anticipate!) each of your articles, you’ve put yourself out on a limb a bit by insisting “the game has moved on”. I disagree: look at the success Real Madrid had/is-having aping Barca of the last decade: 1) hiring a former brilliant midfielder player as their coach, 2) focusing on an academy and young players 3) de-emphasizing star players and emphasizing team play and work ethic (i.e. the “deep bench”). Life happens in cycles. Ideas come in an out of fashion, and every generation copies the past while imagining it has invented something revolutionary—rarely it even does.

    I believe that something that will always work in football (or any sport) is team play (e.g. the Chicago Blackhawks in recent years)—it’s what the devotes call “Barca DNA”. Neymar was an aberration, introduced by a faction of the board that found Guardiola’s style “boring”—he draws attention to himself, holds the ball too long with fruitless 1v1’s at half-field, and left the year after when his personal goal tally dropped because he’s never been about assists. “Look at me! Look at my outrageous hair! Aren’t I special?”

    Self aggrandizement is not a human virtue. At the opposite end of the spectrum of virtuous behavior we also have Ramos in the last Super Copa: refusing to hand the ball to Messi EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE WINNING. The RM team ethos always seemed to be that of a**hole jocks—brutal tackles, jabs when the ref isn’t looking, lying, etc.. Its why it was always super satisfying when a bunch of “regular” Barca players consistently beat them through collective teamwork, fair play, and self-sacrifice.

    Yes. Teams learned where some of the golden-era Barca weaknesses lay, but now, several years later, I’m willing to bet that they have “moved on” even further and forgotten those hard learned lessons. Either way, it’s the style I enjoy watching even if it’s not world conquering. One of the fundamentals of the game is getting in to situations in which your team has the ball and has an advantage. That advantage comes in two main favors: a skill mis-match (e.g. Messi vs. anybody) or a numerical (man) advantage. One way to team success is to seek the former via “galaticos” on an inflated transfer market, the other is by moving the ball quickly via solid team play using academy players. Again, I prefer the second—the current board prefers the first.

    • squeen
      August 31, 2017

      Put another way. Just buy the fastest horse and you’ll win. Boring.

  8. TITO
    August 31, 2017

    Mbappe to PSG on loan deal with a mandatory purchase next season, as was suggested here few days back.
    As i said previously, if you show up with the money and negotiations skills, you can manage to get the deal done, regardless on the negotiator on the opposite side of the table.

  9. ooga aga
    August 31, 2017

    Big moves from our club on the last day. Douglas loaned to Benfica.

  10. hereiam
    August 31, 2017

    They are planning to sign Alexis Sanchez for free next year.
    Make all the business sense in the world.

  11. Víctor
    September 1, 2017

    A little bit off-topic, but yes, I also disagree with Kxevin on band reunions and nostalgia. Some of us do like to see bands from earlier on our lives play the music we enjoyed a lot again. No sin in that.
    That doesn’t mean that I do enjoy some of nowadays music (although most mainstream music is crap) or that I do not appreciate other forms of it.

    Back on topic: that being said, I do understand that expecting another Barça just like Guardiola’s is kinda silly because we don’t have the players’ quality and characteristics required for it…

    Personally, I do like to see Barcelona using more direct offense and using counters. And I’d like to see the team using more aerial tactics and being better at set pieces. However, possession football should still remain as the team’s signature strategy.

  12. BA
    September 1, 2017

    Nostalgia perhaps, but nostalgia rooted in seeing the value in what was past. Like a poor family bequeathed a great castle, but who can only afford to live in the gatekeeper’s house. 4-3-3, possession with intent to attack, taking care of the ball, are, yes, legacies of the team from a quarter-century ago but also, crucially, remain *good ways to play football*. The amorphous term “Barça DNA” inevitably refers to players who can do all of those things, who fit this broad system. Our current team has been shorn of most of those players, and replaced by players not raised in or fitting to the Barça mold. We get up in arms about recruitment because we recognize that this is where the growth begins, or the rot. We have too much dead, rotting wood, from Gomes who isn’t good enough to Vermaelen, a player who in 3 seasons has averaged 7 games a season in the shirt. My hope with Valvede was that he would clear it away, as Pep had to do, to allow new shoots to come through, whether from the Masia or outside. He has not. Like Sqeen said above, I also believe that football is cyclical, but weighed down by inadequate and ill-fitting players we can’t start the cycle again. We’re stuck with the remnants of a great side, and no resources to restore them to their former glory.

    • TITO
      September 1, 2017

      Like we kept Verm and loaned out Marlon who looked quite promising. Go figure it out.

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