The weirdest championship in the history of championships is ours, a championship rivaled only by the year of the 100 points in a championship that doesn’t feel like a championship, a championship mired in recriminations and anger.
The players celebrated, got drunk, inhaled food from Luis Suarez’s restaurant and cheering throngs lined the streets. The players did some editorializing as they tossed beer on some journalists, and a wonderful time was had by all.
Or at least all who mattered. The players, the coaches, the physios mattered to each other. They understood what had happened, what they had to get through to get to where they were. And they celebrated even as they also looked a bit bemused. As David Byrne sings in “Once in a Lifetime,” “And you may ask yourself / Well / How did I get here?” Same as it ever was, indeed.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said he prefers to win the league title. So did Pep Guardiola, who won it in grand style with his Manchester City squad. Both echoed each other in that over the course of a season, with more than 30 matches and team after team giving you their best because you are the big kid in town, to come out of all that on top is something special. It’s a mark of consistency, a mark of a group who, week in and week out, get it done. And if this year’s Barça was to have a theme, it would be “getting it done.”
We know how this season started out, the mess and the maelstrom. We didn’t know how it was going to end, yet we watched it progress. And it culminated in a blissful bit of payback, as the last time Barça visited Deportivo, still drunk from the PSG remuntada, they lost a match against a lower-table side, a match they would have won on any other day of the season, a match that was expensive as they were eked out at the Liga line by Real Madrid.
This year, they beat Depor 2-4, the loss that ensured the drop. At one end of the pitch, players danced the sardana. On the other, players, surrounded by bereft supporters, wept. It was that kind of year, and not just for Depor. Barça fans — a great many of them — don’t really seem to be celebrating the championship. They have already moved on in the world of social media to screaming about Thiago rumors and the like.
But to the players, this, the club’s 25th La Liga championship, was something special. They understood what had happened. The match was in many ways a microcosm of the season as Valverde made the subs that helped the magic work, something that he has done more than any other coach in Liga by a stupefying statistical margin. And people didn’t like those subs, again as usual. But again, more often than not, Valverde was right. Again.
So many things about this season will be inexplicable as the team, once again, got it done. Paulinho entered and did whatever he does. Suddenly things were more stable, and Depor wasn’t peppering Ter Stegen with spherical signs of their endeavor. Denis Suarez came on with his coiffed industry, and runs came. And as usual, there was Messi, decisive, in the right spot as his teammates did what they do for him, have done all season except twice, as Valverde improvised a system that let Messi decide matches.
This wasn’t a year where Messi had to beat himself up, making countless runs, battering against the lock of defenses determined to kick and claw at him. This was the season where Alba skittered down the left and Messi ghosted in to put the dagger home. Getting it done.
This wasn’t a good Barça team, even as it was stuffed with players. The quality gap from the XI to the next folks was massive, and it told in the coach’s reliance on that core group. And still, week after week, they got it done. At Sevilla, a match that everyone had given up on as it was 2-0 to the home side and should have been more until suddenly, the team created a pair of goals from straw, turning a sure loss into a draw, a notch in the unbeaten roster that continues, going into this weekend’s Classic, a weird match that is meaningless, yet fraught to an unprecedented level.
Barça has to win this Classic, many feel, even though the Liga is done and dusted, even though Real Madrid will mostly likely end up in third place in the table, because that same Madrid team is in the Champions League final, a place that, because Barça isn’t there, has for many supporters turned a domestic double into shit. Mostly meaningless shit. And why celebrate shit, when there was Rome, and a wreck of a team that failed again?
There is even sadness amid the joy, for those who consider another championship something joyful, as Iniesta heads off to China to sell wine, yet another blow and another plank dragged away from the floor of a glory period defined by a homegrown core. He was and is a majestic, beautiful player who deserves all of the happiness, all the money, all the everything that he can grab, even as our lives are diminished by not seeing him slide and glide along the pitch as he puts yet another series of victims to the sword. Fittingly, Iniesta’s last days with the club will be marked by a victory parade, the events that have become all too familiar now as the double-decker open top eases its way through the city.
This season has taught many of us things, including the value of enjoying what you have, cherishing it because tomorrow might bring something entirely different. Life is never what we want it to be except in those perfect, fleeting moments that define us if we let them, that doom us to forever chase that singular feeling as days of beauty and wonder, even if not perfection, slip through our fingers.
Of the recent Liga titles that the team has won, this might be one of its best, precisely because it was so improbable. If the team can manage to pull off the feat of also going undefeated, it would be bonkers even as, like this championship, people won’t consider all that big of a deal. In many ways, Barça is like that perfect day that we chase, making all the other fantastic days seem drab and kinda ordinary in the reflected glow. Barça is Messi, a player so extraordinary that he will do something that would define a season for another, lesser player. We take it for granted. Another impossible goal, another year of 30+ goals, another genius pass, another, another. The extraordinary becomes ordinary, and we lose the ability to see it for what it is.
The “So, What?” championship was something pieced together through grit, glory and injury, doubt and desperation, led by a man more alchemist than coach. Paulinho was a signing? For THIS midfield? It was weird, and it worked. Even (shudder!) on the lips of many was that he should have started the Roma match, to cap off how weird a season it was. Dembele came and then broke, and was lost for months. Gomes evinced crippling mental frailty that brought out the supporters on his side, even as it didn’t bridge the gap between his promise and his reality. Paco Alcacer played some, had an effect, but not enough of one to warrant more time, part of the Valencia tandem whose twin failures defined the perceptions of two coaches now.
What a weird, wonderful year this has been. At the Chicago Penya, we sang “Campeones! Campeones! Ole ole oleeee!” as people sprayed beer. We hopped around, took selfies and acted like a crazy bunch of fans. During the match, people there saw what was happening and called for the inclusion of Paulinho, even cheering when he entered, then nodding as the anticipated effect came to pass. It was, in many ways, a sliver of the best parts of being a supporter, a feeling that this was our team, and we were there to love them. Rome was talked about, and people shrugged, tried to explain what happened then moved on.
Later, checking into the world of Barça social media, a world quite different from that at the Penya, you could see that this Championship didn’t even matter. Even as somehow a team that was tapped for little more than a beatdown at the beginning of the season, put Atleti and Real Madrid in its shade.
But this championship matters. It matters to the players and their coach, matters to the other people who service the team, who service the club. It is a championship, hard-fought and well earned. It took some luck, some extraordinary things, crazy bounces and unlikely chances. Over the course of a season in Copa, league and Champions League, this team has lost twice. Only one mattered, however, and there is danger in letting that define this season, rob some of the joy, beauty and grit from the endeavors of a set of amazing athletes. Resist. Dance, sing, celebrate your lions. They got it done. Sometimes with grace and style, sometimes with something a bit ugly. They still got it done. And next season, after a summer of work, they will strive to once again, get it done, in all three competitions. What we don’t have lost shouldn’t matter as much, when we have something this extraordinary.