A favorite movie genre of many is the western/revenge porn, vintage or contemporary, where the steely-eyed hero picks up his gun and ventures forth to right a wrong. The best ones are direct, violent and spend as little time as possible setting up why everyone is about to die. “Taken,” “John Wick” are two of the best modern examples of this trope, “High Noon” the classic.
You wonder what the action movie about Barcelona’s sundering of Sevilla would be called. In many ways, athletic comebacks feel like revenge porn, especially return legs.
Set at a level we mortals can comprehend, have you ever lost something, gotten mad at yourself for having lost it, then found it? Remember that feeling — rage, exultation, happiness, that sense of having righted a cosmic wrong? The mind strains to find a more apt way to depict the feeling of Barça dismantling Sevilla to advance to the Copa del Rey semi-finals.
Five of the six goals were of high quality, fluffed football feathers (to borrow from Ray Hudson) in the service of righting a wrong. In the first leg, Barça lost to Sevilla 2-0 in a blizzard of poor decisions, bad finishing and defensive lapses. It was a crapshow that gave the sense the team was angry. They talked about the return leg casually but with purpose.
Most pundits and observers figured that Barcelona would advance after Valverde rolled out the big guns. At home, with a lineup that features Messi, what could go wrong? But there was something extra in this remuntada, even as there was the absence of the usual rah-rah stuff from the club’s social media accounts, almost like this was a private affair.
In “Taken,” the bad guy says to Bryan Mills, “Please understand … it was all business. It wasn’t personal.”
“It was personal to me,” Mills responds, before pumping a bunch of bullets into him. That is what that return leg felt like, and it was wonderful. Revenge porn always is.
There is lots of talk this season of Barcelona playing “boring” football, of a group that many assume has taken on the dour demeanor of its coach, rather than the businesslike mien of its captain and leader. And whether that football could be considered boring or effective depends upon the philosophical worldview of the person watching the match.
It was feeling that extended to people, supporters of the team, saying they no longer watch matches because they can’t deal with the football on display. You wonder if any of them watched the grim-faced, yet joyous evisceration of a Sevilla side who made the mistake of riling up the hero. Barcelona, like any team, plays the hand that it is dealt. A different match will result if an opponent packs nine in the box than open, flowing play, or a packed midfield with lots of tactical fouls.
The early penalty, dispatched by Coutinho, set the tie on edge and changed the mood of Sevilla. The second, from a jaw-dropping pass from Arthur that sundered time and space, made it 2-0. It was at that point that Sevilla’s demeanor changed, like the mobster’s son in “John Wick,” full of bluster behind a wall of bodyguards, a feeling that changed as they all fell away. You can go from hunter to hunted in an instant.
Sevilla didn’t play any differently after that second goal, but the only person other than Sevilla players to wake up screaming is probably Jordi Alba, after his travails facing the dynamic Promes. And once the score reached 2-2, the feeling was only how much Barcelona would advance by rather than if they would.
Barcelona was playing off the front foot, looking for vengeance in a match that mattered. This is a team arrogant enough to want every trophy, to be hungry enough and confident enough in its own abilities to, even as knuckleheads like me wondered about the value of putting out for the Copa comeback, make the choice to not only play, but play its best. It was a romp that left Sevilla with absolutely no idea of how to counter a footballing masterclass.
Their foolishness was in not packing it back, the bravery of the damned as the music swells and out comes the gun as the hero stands there, waiting. This movie is only going to end one way, and this one did as well, even coming down to a final goal that laughed in the face of the “this team doesn’t play football” contingent. It was a symphony of movement, flicks and backheels, a sequence of exploding glitter bombs — flick, sidefoot, backheel — that resulted in Lionel Messi doing what he does. The passes, including one for Sergi Roberto from amid a thicket of players, the speed and focus with which he played, as if he knew where the ball was going and always had a head start — everything was stunning. He even gave Coutinho the penalty that came from a typical Messi dart into the box, to get a key teammate going again.
It sounds odd to say, given the collection of tenured champions that festoon this roster, that Barcelona is a team taking shape before our eyes, but it is. We still don’t know the ultimate capabilities of this group, even as we get occasional hints when an opponent is bonkers enough to allow football to happen.
A hero’s quest is personal. Bryan Mills in “Taken,” John Wick in his eponymous flick, Will Kane in “High Noon” are all detached. They have people in their lives but not really, because emotional encumbrances make them smeared and uncertain. For Barcelona’s assassins, those encumbrances come from the tans. As an entertainment spectacle, football is played for the fans. The cheers rain down, the players soak them up.
But this revenge movie, starring Sevilla, featured a classic protagonist, righting wrongs on his own behalf. The players gathered to celebrate each goal, a unit understanding that it had done what was necessary. Unlike when Messi ran over to celebrate with the fans at the end of the PSG comeback, this one was different. We DID it, damn you, shaking fists at the sky, at Fate, rather than an opponent who was just a means to an end. “Deserves got nuthin’ to do with it,” says Will Munny at the end of “Unforgiven.”
The anger after that first leg, washed away in the second, wasn’t at Sevilla as much as self-directed. How could I let this happen? How did I end up in this stupid predicament? Each goal was a release, a step toward a greater end. It has never, ever been clearer than it was on Wednesday that this team wants every trophy. In quotes after the match, Messi said that his talk in front of fans at the Gamper was misconstrued, that yes, the team wants Champions League, but it also wants every trophy.
Sevilla didn’t have to play that way, didn’t have to open up the match, didn’t have to go for the jugular, thinking that surely an away goal would break their hearts and end all discussion. And bad guys don’t have to rush around corners blindly so that our movie’s heroes can take them out. It’s all part of the show, what we love, what we come for.
As with the hero movies, the quest is theirs, and we are just along for the ride. Voveuristic? Sure. Amazing? Absolutely.