Many years ago, a legendary television critic who worked at one of city’s big newspapers, was fuming — pacing back and forth, running his hands through his hair, almost hyperventilating and issuing forth with a string of epithets fit to make the most hardened conoisseur of such things say, “Dearie me!”
He had written a story, an exceptional one, but there was an error in the photo caption. “The whole damn story is worthless now,” he screamed, before stomping off to his office. That uncompromising gentleman — who really was — came to mind in the wake of Barça’s win over Valencia, thanks mostly to Ter Stegen as well as timely interventions from Pique, Umtiti and Alba.
By beating Valencia, FC Barcelona broke the La Liga unbeaten record for a season, and extended its lead to 14 points over second-place Atleti, and 18 points over fourth-placed Real Madrid. Thirty-nine matches unbeaten, an extraordinary thing that has involved fantastic play, luck, comebacks and other weirdnessees. History won’t record any asterisks, won’t say, “Whew!” after the match that saw Valencia with chance after chance, more excellent scoring chances than Barça had but time after time, key defenders came up big.
During the pre-match press conference, Barça coach Ernesto Valverde — presently seeing #valverdeout hashtags on Twitter — talked about the importance of the weekend clash with the third-placed team in the league. He said it was “important,” and we scoffed. The Liga is won. How could it be important, particularly in the wake of the egg laid in Rome, in which a 4-1 aggregate lead became elimination in the Champions League quarters yet again for Barça.
It wasn’t until you saw the players in the tunnel that you understood some of what Valverde meant. They were serious. Many interpreted the almost grim faces as an unhappy team but no, this was a team that wasn’t interested in losing, that had an exorcism to perform. Lose against Valencia and suddenly a great many things are possible, including a psychological slide that could become a slump in the same way the Roma match kept getting worse and worse, leading to who knows what? Players and a team had to regain the swagger, the edge that allowed them to be where they are, allowed its supporters to be chagrined that the team wasn’t still in the most glamorous knockout competition in Europe.
The slashing, lovely, at times sloppy football that was played by Barça was of a sort that prompted many, “Where the hell was this team on Tuesday?” comments from the world of social media. Today, Barça was on the front foot. Today, the scoring chance for Valencia didn’t go in, and the team had a reason to feel lucky as well as stuffed with talent. Today, the brilliant opening goal came, via a can opener of a pass from Coutinho to Suarez, who made no mistake.
But it wasn’t until the second goal that you could almost feel the sense of relief and relaxation, the team embracing the idea as a collective that they had a bad night in Rome, with the hangover and lost belongings to prove it. And it set a record that few celebrated, and few appreciated, a record that is in a lot of ways like Paulinho, this big thing that just came, that very few supporters appreciate or respect.
Over the course of a season that began in July, this team has lost two matches, an ultimately meaningless one to Espanyol in the Copa, and against Roma. To say it is astonishing doesn’t begin to describe it, particularly given where the team began. Yet after the match, Luis Suarez said, something to the effect of winning La Liga doesn’t matter any longer. The Champions League failure was so complete, so unexpected that it has tainted the rest of the season, a season that still holds meaning for the players.
Supporters say that going unbeaten doesn’t matter, that setting the record doesn’t matter, but supporters aren’t players. Players want to make history, want to become legendary. The Arsenal Invincibles will always be thus. People who scoff, who don’t know any better, suggest that the players would have traded a loss or two for a European trophy that season. But we don’t know. We aren’t football professionals, with pride, a finite career and a sense of history. We can’t know how much it matters.
Valverde hasn’t rotated enough to satisfy any of us, and we hold that against him without considering that maybe, just maybe, the players want to go unbeaten, work with their Mister to get over the various knocks to keep playing, keep being essential. Paulinho, Pique and Busquets have taken injections to play matches and we scream about why Valverde doesn’t rest them. How do we know they aren’t clamoring to play, aren’t begging their coach to play, to be part of history.
What was great about the Valencia victory, a step along that potentially historic path, is that Barça became a team again, rather than a bunch of seals cowering on the rocks, pushing the ball at the greatest of them all in the hopes that he would save them. Barça won, even as Messi didn’t play particularly well by his lofty standards. The team played well enough to win, however, as everyone ran and contributed as things have been all season, in a way that allows Messi to be decisive if he needs to be, or peek out of his superhero lair from time to time, with the confidence that the city can survive a day without him needing to don his cape.
This match was important because the next big match for Barça is the Copa final, and the team wants to win. To do that, confidence is required, which necessitated as much of the same XI that played in Rome as could be managed. Rakitic just had hand surgery, so Paulinho came into midfield, and Coutinho played, which meant that Sergi Roberto moved to his usual RB slot and Semedo watched from the bench. Those players had to play and win, even as in the theoretical world of football Twitter, a world in which everything is theory and therefore perfect, we screamed about using the same players YET AGAIN.
Those players delivered as they had to, as they have on every occasion except two this season. They were happy with the win, of course, as they broke an amazing record and took another step toward making history. And Suarez wondered why supporters don’t seem as chuffed as the players must — and relieved and almost certainly flush with renewed confidence.
If Suarez were to ask me, the answer would be easy. We went from no hope at all, really, to a gradual build to somemthing approximating belief as the team knocked down target after target. It got lucky in the first leg against Roma but knocked down another target via a scoreline verging on gaudy, only to dissolve in ignominious capitulation against an opponent barely much better than that day’s Liga victim.
Suarez would hear that consolation prizes rarely console because once winning has been in sight, and the manner of the loss, makes such prizes scant salve for the inconsolable.
But then, after some contemplation, he might ask how we would feel if Real Madrid was unbeaten, looking at the possibility of going the season going unbeaten, how would we feel if our eternal rival was on track to accomplish something extraordinary.
It’s a safe bet that we would be horrified, calling for heads and looking forward to the day on the calendar, the next Classic, when we would hopefully end that chance, that ambition of making history. And we would hate that it wasn’t us. As someone who I follow on Twitter (and you should to) Mike Goodman Tweeted:
The Barcelona fan base which mocks Real Madrid for treating the Champions League like the only thing that matters wants their manager who is undefeated in the league fired after losing in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
This is accurate. Is a loss more than a loss? Does failure seem more cruel when it is snatched away from hope? Against Bayern, the year of the 7-0 beatdown, not even the most faithful culer considered a team stuffed with injured, psychologically broken players favorites to advance over two legs. This time was different. This season, the team had always gotten it done, always managed to find a way to pull it out. It was a favorite that threw it all away in almost exactly the same way PSG did against Barça last year, something for which the ridicule has been non-stop. We curse that even that has been taken away, that we can throw a 6-1 at them, as they throw a 4-4 back at us.
We should be proud of this team. We should take a moment to bind our psychic wounds, our rage at any, all and everyone who has taken hope from us, and understand that something extraordinary happened today. Our beloved team set a record for going unbeaten in Liga, a record that might stand for many years, given the quality of the league now. We should take a moment to understand how Suarez might have felt a bit crestfallen as he considered that supporters don’t appreciate the thing they all have worked so hard for, that they turned up for a match against a tough opponent in Valencia, fought through some clunky play and delivered yet again.
There is pride in FC Barcelona for the people who support it, for the people who manage it, for the players who wear its Blaugrana armor. Is there pride in seeing the team break a storied record? Yes, and there should be. The challenge is to put it into perspective, to see past the residual pangs of rage and heartache to understand that even after Rome, we are still witnessing something extraordinary. It might not be enough for us, but even as consolation prizes don’t usually console, this record, this almost certain league championship and shot at a domestic double isn’t a consolation prize. It’s the product of hard work, dedication and fortitude that most of us can only begin to imagine. And it is impressive, and worth feeling good — really good — about.