This week, one of the mods, Levon, got his first soci card. It brings back memories of that day, and a giddy culer carrying it around in his wallet for no reason whatsoever, but just happy to take it out and look at it.
Romance is a powerful thing. It drew many of us to the club in the first place, and affects our view of matters. My view of the board is affected by it, as is my stance on selling the shirt, whoring out the Camp Nou and all of the things that less romantic people say are inevitable as Barça becomes a truly big club, and should be embraced. That, for me, will never happen, which is why with all of the Coutinho stuff, and allegations of unprofessionalism, greed, leaving his club in the lurch, etc, a huge smile creased my visage as I considered the beautiful anachronisms:
Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique are the core of this club. All are, also, players who would never leave this club. In the summer, when people were all aflutter about Messi being unsettled and leaving, or Iniesta not having renewed his contract and about to leave, I was calm. Romance does that. They could no more see themselves in another shirt than we could. Any talk of them leaving was narrative based, that weird need that supporters have for drama.
This is different from when Neymar rumors popped up, because like any player of this era, there is nothing romantic about Neymar. He is all business, cut-and-dried. His transfer to Barça was all business and looking out for number one, so there was no reason to believe that his departure wouldn’t be, no reason to believe that it wouldn’t eventually all be about the money and the status, scurrying away when he had gotten all that he could from Barça. His role as the architect of the craziest remuntada in Champions League history was his moment of maximum value. So, yeah.
Likewise, there have been rumors about Samuel Umtiti having had his head turned by Manchester City. We can scoff but Umtiti is a player of the modern era, a different world in which players look out for number one. That is their right. Barça is his dream club, but it was for Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and Fabregas as well. We wake from dreams, and consider what we must then do with the world and the rest of our lives.
But the abovementioned quartet are different. What makes this team special is, in many ways, that it straddles two worlds — romance and avarice.
The board has dragged into the “modern” world of avarice, of selling everything that isn’t nailed down, of taking political stances that don’t hurt the bottom line even as they sideeye the notion of mes que un club, that extra-football status enjoyed by FC Barcelona in the hearts of Catalans mostly, but also supporters who have made themselves aware of the depths of the club’s history. It’s a board that has, in effect, tied romance to a car bumper and dragged it by its ankles as Achilles did Hector, doing laps around a rebranded Camp Rakuten Microsoft Amazon.
The antidote is Busquets, Messi, Pique and Iniesta. The last has been with the club since he was a tyke, and has signed a contract for life, to the surprise of all except those who understand what Iniesta represents. Even as you don’t know him personally, it is difficult to imagine that he isn’t as he appears everywhere, the player who scored the winning goal in the World Cup and had a t-shirt ready, to honor the memory of a departed friend. On commercials, he plucks a thorn from a bear’s paw, then is next seen at home, watching television and sharing snacks with the bear. He dressed up as an electronics store clerk and helped customers, who were oblivious to the calm, helpful person assisting them. Goofy haircuts because of his daughter? Sure. How can that player even think of leaving his boyhood club?
Messi is a tool of those who have agendas, who hate the board and want to see it gone and therefore need to create drama. So every now and again, it pops up: Messi is leaving. Sure. A player who came to the club because of the hormone treatments necessary to give him life as a player, who grew up with and within that club, who had the baton passed to him from Ronaldinho, who has made championships and coaches, broken records and turned astonishing feats. Yeah, he’s leaving. He married his childhood sweetheart, and went on vacation with his best buddy, the striker who so often benefits from his largesse. While others were partying, he and Suarez were exchanging headers in a hot tub.
But it isn’t just all of that. Messi is loyal to the club that he made. Ronaldinho and his exploits dragged Barça, kicking and screaming, into the modern, global age of highlight reels and supporters coming to a club not because of any roots or ties, but because “Wow, did you see what Ronaldinho did today?” You still see people wearing R10 shirts and you probably always will. He passed the torch onto the next number 10, who took what Ronaldinho did and cranked the volume. For many, Barça is Messi FC, not in a bad way, but because that player and his extraordinary exploits are everything to the club and its supporters. Think, for just a moment, how weird Messi would look in, say, a Manchester City shirt. Or a PSG shirt. Impossible to imagine.
Busquets and his style are Barça. Rumors come but are never taken seriously because it is difficult to imagine a player so completely emblematic of the style of a club. Being a Barça midfielder is give and receive, move, give and receive, repeat. Where other clubs run, slash, kick and dash, scaling the ropes with scimitar bransished, Busquets glides about, epee at his side, scoring points with deft flicks as the brutes thrust sharpened tips into the empty space he used to inhabit. He wasn’t raised in the club from as early an age as Iniesta, but he is as deeply ingrained. He supplanted a more “modern” DM because his coach, Pep Guardiola, understood what he wanted, understood the kind of football that this particular team needed to play to succeed. Like Messi and Iniesta, Busquets is Barça, and will always be.
Pique returned home to the club of his beating Catalan heart. It is said that Sir Alex Ferguson was sore perturbed to hear that Pique was sold but really, can you imagine Pique playing CB in the Premiership, even now? You can just hear the Sky Sports or NBCSN announcers wondering about that silly CB acting like an attacking mid and bringing the ball up. They still laugh at David Luiz when he does it. Pique found his fullest flower almost immediately at Barça, making it clear why the team brought him home. There are rumors about him as well, that he will leave the club. One rumor is that he wants to go to New York and relax with Shakira and his kid. That one makes sense for a man constantly in the eye of a hurricane, whether it is about political comments, baiting another player or wrapping himself in the Senyera, to the ire of Spain NT supporters. But another club? Nope.
This Barça, this team right here and now, is special because it still has romance, still has a system of playing, a dour coach who believes in that system and a quartet of veteran stalwarts who understand it and how to execute it. That essence feels like the player still wearing black leather boots while everyone around him sports candy-colored footwear made of space-age materials. It is, in a way, beautiful and reassuring.
Coutinho, it seems, is coming. The only issue will be price. He is coming because no club can keep a player who wants to leave. All it can do is make the ransom sufficiently high that there is something in it for them. Coutinho is, like Neymar, 25. He’s entering the back half of his career and is hungry. Liverpool isn’t going to win the Prem, and something extraordinary would have to happen for it to win Champions League. Coutinho, should the move to Barça happen, would be joining a club that is odds-on favorite to win the championship of the best league in the world, and has to be one of the favorites for Champions League. But his is a move of lust, not romance. He isn’t coming because he grew up wearing a Barça shirt. He is coming because like Thierry Henry and Neymar, Barça has something that he needs. It’s a transaction. There is nothing romantic about a transaction, even as all parties can be satisfied.
In many ways, wresting Dembele from a protesting Dortmund and Coutinho from a protesting Liverpool (who wrested Virgil Van Dijk from a protesting Southampton), brings the club fully into the modern age that the board puffs out its soulless chests and beams with pride about. It’s luxury boxes rather than an empty, musty mezzanine. It’s a common area with restaurants and sponsor branding, rather than a place you pass through in a rush to get to your seat. The longer supporters stay, the more likely that even more money will be pumped from them. That is the modern game.
But like the people who cling to cherished memories, who sit in the same chair every day or take the same route to work because they walked it with a now-gone loved one, we should embrace, appreciate and understand the luxury of our beautiful anachronisms for what they are: living, breathing symbols of the last vestiges of pure romance in a world of howling savages with stacks of bills, hell-bent on making it rain.