Barça and self care, foundations and the future

In surveying the blackened destruction that is the Barcelona entorno as we enter another season, it’s worth looking at how tiny moments have massive consequences, like the proverbial flapping of a butterfly’s wings.

— If Messi scores that 1v1 late in Rome

— If three of his teammates don’t fluff his passes at Anfield

— If Rakitic’s pass and Alba’s control were better

— If Pique and Ter Stegen were paying attention

— If the defense was paying attention.

— If Valverde had more adventure and self-knowledge

It takes so little to make a great many things different. And the honest question to ask is whether anyone would be screaming about crises, real or imagined, had any of those moments gone the way we would have liked? Would Rakitic be a pariah, Valverde possessor of his own particular pathology? Not likely. We would all be sotted from having celebrated consecutive trebles, and all would be right with the world, even when it isn’t. We support a team that is far, far from perfect, that has finally only begun to progress, but still has significant problems.

All of which makes it weird to say that from this chair, next season has the potential to be quite exciting. And this will be true even now that Valverde is staying on. But for this to happen, we have to allow the same hope that suffused our souls at Anfield, right up until the death, to live again. And I don’t know how possible that is, hence the self-care suggestion: understand what we can deal with.

Television shows go on hiatus, marriages endure a separation period. The idea is that time away can often make things right, can help us understand, in the absence of the irritant, what we loved about something. On Barcelona Twitter, the people expressing chagin, hopelessness and doom about the coming season have never been more numerous.

In a recent, very smart Medium piece by Manj Bahra about our emotional surroundings, the author suggests that whenever we can, we cut out things in our lives that bring us misery, or that darken our emotional worlds, even when they are habits. Consider this relevant passage:

Think about it, have you ever hung around someone whose enthusiasm was infectious and inspiring? What about a person who always complains about everything? Did you feel yourself starting to become agitated and compelled to moan without any real reason? How about a relationship with someone lazy but lovable, or the mood of your WhatsApp group chat completely disintegrating within seconds?

For many, Barcelona Football Club is that negative thing. Matches bring a feeling of impending disappointment that seems pre-ordained. The team can never play good enough, particular players or coaches can never do the right thing.

Why subject yourself to it? We can love an entity, yet not want to spend time with that thing. Maybe that’s the path to happiness for a lot of Barcelona supporters. Just don’t watch, don’t expose yourself to the misery, the disappointment.

But what if you do? What is there to look forward to? For consecutive seasons, the team has laid an egg, blowing a three-goal lead at a crucial phase in Champions League. What do you do? Start with forgiving yourself, changing the expectations that you have. The outsized majesty of the Guardiola years has affected everything about the club for people who came to Barcelona at a certain time. The success of that Masia-based XI has affected how the club’s academy is perceived. Everything is success or doom, with no middle ground. Fan expectation has moved from a rheostat to a toggle — euphoria OR misery, rather than the broad range of emotions in between those polar opposites.

Valverde is staying. How do we get over the pathology that blames everything on him? One way might be to step away. Another way might be to try to understand the problems that he needs to solve, and wonder what solutions we might undertake. Still another way might be to adjust our own expectations.

After the team’s second friendly, there were a few Twitter threads about Nelson Semedo, all finding him inadequate. “Final third,” “passing acumen.” Yet in looking at the fullback tasks he performed, shutting down attacks, intercepting passes, using pace to end potential danger, there is silence. Semedo, a fullback, is evaluated like a right wing as the Dani Alves template is applied to him. We forget the times that Pique, Puyol or Abidal came steaming over to bail the team out while Alves was up the pitch, because that’s necessary for the romance of it all, those magical times when the team attacked with eleven, and nobody defended.

But work rate and defending with eleven was a lot of why those great teams worked, and a lot of why Valverde has so many problems to solve. The team no longer attacks and defends with eleven. It can’t. Age and diminution of skills have seen to that. How does a coach solve those problems? Should we ask ourselves how a different coach might solve those problems, or just continue to throw things every time Valverde’s face shows on screen.

It’s worth asking.

What makes football beautiful isn’t the game, but the emotion — hope, love for our team, joy — that we bring to it. It’s okay to step away from something that isn’t joyful, just as it’s okay for, if we choose not to step away, finding something that brings us joy.

De Jong has been brilliant, so has Griezmann. Dembele looks as ready as he ever has, and the team is playing with impressive pace and interconnectedness. This is true even as it still has an age and pace problem, still has at least two passengers when an opponent runs at an old, slow group of defenders, still only has one left back.

And like it or not, and who does, Messi doesn’t have many years left. This isn’t because his quality won’t still be at a high level, but something tells me that Messi will have a very hard time not being Messi. The moment he can’t, he will retire. Just like that. We can appreciate the magic he brings to the game, look at the sparkle in Griezmann or De Jong’s eyes when they talk about being able to play with Messi. We can enjoy that.

“Sure, until Valverde screws it up,” will be the reaction of many. But that isn’t a valid reaction. He has done an excellent job coaching the team, but failed at key moments. So have his charges. If we can’t admit, accept and move on from that, what’s the point of watching? To crow with glee about being right about predictions of doom? Is there joy in that?

Also from the emotional contagion article:

Contagion — The result is that people tend to catch one another’s emotions.

My mood is dramatically different when watching matches with the Chicago Penya, vs in the company of Barça Twitter. So there will be more of the former, and less of the latter this season. Emotion and mood are contagious, even when we think we are immune. What do you see when you look at an all-black painting?

Finding joy is a constant struggle in a world that wants to take it from us at every opportunity. Sport, athletic endeavor, is one of the things that can bring us joy. A brilliant goal, a silky pass, Simone Biles on a perfect tumbling run or Katie Ledecky swimming faster than anyone thought possible. It’s why we watch. We start each day anew, each match our team starts at 0-0. Foregoing that emotional deficit is hard, but worth chasing. Our joy depends on it.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.