There is a movie out and about, “Take the Ball, Pass the Ball,” that a few of you have probably heard of.
Based on the exceptional Graham Hunter book titled “Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World,” this movie documents the Pep Guardiola era via video snippets but mostly interviews with players, coaches, the people who were there. Be warned, pepole expecting loads and loads of match analysis and highlights. That isn’t there. What this movie does is place an astonishing footballing era into blissful, human terms, fitting for a coach who built a team structure that felt a lot like a family.
We forget that humanity matters in football. We forget about bonds forged, that teams aren’t comprised simply of millioniares united in a search for glory. That reduces that amazing Barça team to a mere business exercise. “Take the Ball” reminds us that Dani Alves offered Eric Abidal a piece of his liver, when the French fullback was battling cancer. We see the residual pain in the face of Dmytro Txigrinski as he talked about his time at the club, talked about what he did, what he wishes he had done. And yes, we can imagine that a bit of that pain is at the memory of the horrible way he was treated, by supporters and media outlets.
Absolutely everything is in this rip-roaring film that tells an indelible story of an amazing time, and does so with grace and style, even if the image is marred a bit by the “Xavi for coach” primping at its end. But this, from the seat in the man cave, is the only flaw in a film that you should see if you get the opportunity. And you will.
All of that said, if you were culer — immersed in the team and its comings and going as so many of us were — there won’t be anything new for you here. For me, there was almost a sensation of wondering whether this was a rerun, or that I was watching the wrong movie so familiar were the scenes, player stories and conversations. It felt really good to watch it from the worldview of remembering that fantastic party, or the night you met the people who are now best friends, spouses or girlfriends. Again — humanity.
But “Take the Ball” is also a historical document, and should be viewed as such, rather than a blueprint for the future. Things are consigned to history because of their special nature, their once-in-a-lifetime qualities. That team, that amazing team, is one of them. That starting XI had, from the same club academy, the legendary La Masia: Pedro, Valdes, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Busquets, Pique. Only Eto’o, Mascherano, Henry had roots that couldn’t be traced back to a squat, craggy farmhouse.
And every player on that team was in their prime, at the apogee of that athletic diagram of age and malleability. They learned an amazing way of playing, and as importantly, had the facility to convert that theory into practice. We often forget that.
Football right now is in the throes of a cult of coaching. Social media has allowed people who used to be fans of the game to absorb tactical knowledge, develop theories, have favorite formations and armchair coach matches. And the names: Guardiola, Sarri, Machin, Setien, are talked about these days with the same reverence as players.
But the danger of that cult is forgetting that any system has to be properly executed. If winning football was simple theory, would teams ever lose? As people talk about juego de posicion, making it sound as simple as following a principle that spells out a guideline for success, a question is demanded: is it really that easy?
Guardiola had fantastic ideas at Barça. Guardiola also had Xavi, Iniesta and Messi to implement them. Would he have had the same ideas had he gotten the team that Frank Rijkaard, the forgotten Barça coach, had? Or do tactics and theory adapt in the face of the stimulus of the modern game? Guardiola didn’t play the same way at Bayern as he did at Barça, even as he instilled footballing principles. And his team got tonked by that of a heritic, Luis Enrique, because the then Barçaa coach had the horses. Guardiola didn’t.
Nor does Guardiola’s Manchester City team play in the same way as his Barça team, even as people try to retrofit notions across eras. It is so, so easy for people to watch “Take the Ball” and, rather than being entertained by reliving a wonderful time, deduce that this movie documents the way, that Barça needs to go back to those times.
Every player, every potential transfer still has to run the gauntlet of that great Guardiola team. If Barça is struggling in the here and now, it is because football isn’t being played in the right way. If a transfer doesn’t show glittering dribbles from a foot touched by divinity at his unveiling, he is cast aside like rubbish, already inadequate before he even plays a competitive minute.
History is precisely that, even as history is also an albatros, a millstone around the capability of too many of us to enjoy football — the football we have, rather than the football that we want to see, the football this or that woeful coach isn’t playing, the football that we would play again, if only.
There is no “if only.” There is only this. This coach, this team, this moment.
In the wake of the Betis loss, had Josep Bartomeu walked over to the visitors’ dressing room after the match, checkbook in hand, and walked out arm-in-arm with Quique Setien, straight to the press conference dais to make an announcement, huzzahs would have drowned out the world. Because there is, and always will be, the persistent notion that his team out-Barçaed Barça.
That week, via an appearance on “Viva La Liga,” a TV show that chronicles the league, one question for me was given Betis, what were my views on Setien, that match and nostalgia. My reply was that the crappiest-playing Barça we have seen since Rome knocked three past his disorganized, defensively loose side. That coach shouldn’t be anywhere near my club.
There is the idea that “football,” complete with proper way and heavenly hosts, will solve everything: age, lack of pace, people not tracking back, mental errors. Just play the right football and everything will sort itself. “Take the Ball” can lure people with its siren song of footballing perfection. That time was that time. This time is this time. That Guardiola treble was ten years ago. Puyol is retired, as are Henry, Valdes, so many greats from that team. Inietsa is battling relegation in Japan, Xavi working for money in Qatar, Pedro making runs in Chelsea.
Pique, Messi and Busquets are all that are left, and only Messi isn’t showing signs of diminution — unless you compare him to That Messi, then he is as well. Those teams were amazing because they were almost perfect. The last team that had anything like that overall quality, the 14-15 group, won another treble. That Luis Enrique’s group won that treble playing a different type of football damns them in the eyes of many. That is the millstone of history, of being so devoted to a particular time and place that everything is viewed in the context of that glorious period.
“Take the Ball” is a fanstastic movie. But in the here and now it is not only history, but fantasy, a real-life fairy tale. Look at how the players’ faces light up as they talk about it. Amazing. Watch it, love it, but understand it for what it is, which is a four-star look at a soul-stirring time. Then come to the Barça that we have, and understand that team, its struggles, its shortcomings and weaknesses, understand that even if the same man was coaching it, it could never, ever be That Barça.
The quest for the right coach, the right players, the right ideas are endless, but they all date to that particular period that saw its footballing aegis in the destruction of Manchester United at Wembley. If we don’t let all of that go, don’t recognize that a documentary such as “Take the Ball, Pass the Ball” is the last step in consigning a period of time to the history books, all we will have is joylessness as yet another coach, team, transfer fall short of our rose-tinted expectations.