“Get out of my club”
“They have destroyed the philosophy”
“Principles are wrong now”
“They are ruining the club”
If life among the Barça fanbase had a house built on four pillars, they would be the above. But what does all of that mean? It’s easy to reason that for most, they mean that the club isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, which is celebrating trebles. Any protestations of “We just want the team to play football the right way,” whatever in the hell that means, is a macguffin. It’s about winning. Winning more than any other team, winning in a way that lets supporters puff their chests out and lord it over other clubs’ supporters.
All the rest is hooey, including an antechamber of the four pillars, “We wouldn’t mind losing if the team played the right way.” Paco Jemez at Rayo played lustrous, swashbuckling football, and usually got whomped. It was charming, but how many Rayo supporters outside of the club’s base do we reckon there were? The philosophy was pure.
For culers, is “philosophy” centered around notions of “mes que”-ness, that extra-football idea that FC Barcelona represents something more than sport? That idea has little to do with transfers, winning, losing, or what Masia starlet flys the coop for cash. So what, then, of this vaunted philosophy? If Bartomeu and Valverde are destroying it, what are they doing?
For most, not winning.
The last two seasons have ended badly, even as one brought a domestic double, the other a Liga championship title by double digits. But “the team made us a laughingstock in Europe,” with consecutive away leg collapses against opponents they should have beaten. Football is ego, being a supporter is ego. It’s cool to support a winner.
When Formula One used to hold court in Indianapolis, every year there was a man there who loved Minardi, the perpetual relegation candidate if F1 had relegation. The car was usually 4-5 seconds a LAP slower than the top cars on the grid, a functional eternity in F1.
But there was this man. Team kit, pit shirts, ran around waving a massive Minardi flag. He didn’t care that they were last. That is an egoless supporter, stuffed amid a sea of ego in Ferrari red and McLaren silver, the two hot teams in F1. Unless you’re some weirdo from somewhere, why ever would you support a backmarker?
Online shops don’t sell a lot of Granada shirts. When people come to a team as a new supporter not from the home city, something attracts them. Usually, it’s success. With Barça, for more than a decade, that success has been extraordinary, attended by two of the greatest players in history by anyone’s measure, Ronaldinho and Messi. Many more supporters came to the club during the Guardiola years, when La Masia graduates made up the majority of the starting XI and U.S. newsmagazine shows were doing puff pieces about the magical academy. The football was the stuff of legend. It even had a name.
What a time that was.
When people talk about philosophy, or the club being ruined, it usually speaks to that time, that feeling of being on top of the world. When people talk about “Bartomeu out,” it usually isn’t because of shady business dealings, selling the club down the river to avoid a personal guilty plea, the return of the Boixos or making a storied club into FC Commerce, an entity with all the morals of a money-hungry goat. Nope. The damn team isn’t winning enough.
Football is about winning at the stratospheric level of the game occupied by the big clubs. Winning means money. They buy and sell, make moves all based on improving chances to win. Competing well and moral victories are for Malaga or Levante. Win, or everything is bad.
Winning even allows ersatz crises, such as the agony of having won a treble that was going to assure the successful election of a president that nobody liked for reasons only a few could clearly enumerate. So “Yay! A treble,” became “Pah! It just means that they will win reelection,” something “they” were going to do at any rate.
Is this “philosophy” a club management thing? We struggle with that one as well, since the next great president that Barcelona has will be the first. They have all been flawed, including St. Joan of Laporta, with financial hijinx, Great Uzbek Adventures and spying on board members. That promise of David Beckham has long faded into the mists of time, as they finagled Ronaldinho, and the rest was history. You bothered by the club selling the shirt? Guess who laid the groundwork? President after president has been messy, human and flawed, with legal proceedings, even jail time in the wake of their various tenures. No philosophy there.
A way of playing? Barça plays attacking, possession football. How a particular coach decides to get there is up to him, protestations of the Cruijffians aside. Rijkaard had his way, Guardiola his own. Vilanova had a notion, as did Martino and Luis Enrique. Now Valverde has his own. The danger is conflating philosophy with tactics. What so many call “tika taka” was a tactic, just as the “total football” played under the late, great Cruijff was. “Give to Ronaldinho” was another tactic, just as “get it to Messi” is.
Valverde’s approach has been called “boring,” and “cowardly.” There isn’t swashbuckling, with this XI peopled by geezers. Barça philosophy is supposed to fix all of that. Just play the right way, and it won’t matter that every key player on the squad is over the age of 30, right? Positional football as a fountain of youth and template for success. Nah.
Barça is a corporation now. Corporations don’t have philosophies. Ain’t no money in that. But even before it became a multinational based in Catalunya instead of a Catalan football club, it didn’t have a real, definable philosophy. It was trying to win in the best way possible, which brought sponsors and more money, which bought players, which repeated the cycle until we have the colossus we support, which is aiming for a billion Euros in revenue for the next fiscal year.
We shouldn’t have any illusions about Barça and what it’s about. Not now. You can love the club, but understand why you love it, understand that sometimes, love breaks your heart, steers you wrong, leaves you sobbing into your replica kit because your team broke your heart. What broke your heart? Losing. Love isn’t theory, love isn’t philosophy, and philosophy in big-club football is money and winning.
There was a glorious sliver of time when everything was right. A once-in-a-lifetime Masia class combined with a home-raised coach to make magic. Lighting struck. That time isn’t coming back. Ever. But even then, that took money. Laporta got the motion passed to sell the shirt because of money. Marketing and money. La Masia has turned out an exceptional bounty of talent since that time, even if so few of those players were good enough for the first team. It isn’t a philosophical failure that a midfielder isn’t good enough, or wants more money because he is good enough. That’s life.
What we want from a football team is romance, success and celebrations. It’s the hope that brings us, it’s the hope that more often than not breaks our hearts, it’s the hope that keeps us coming back. But go into it with clear eyes.
As Valverde tries to come up with a workable system based around coots, it won’t be what we want to see. When the next Masia starlet turns out to be more Dongou than Iniesta, that isn’t a failure of philosophy. Nor is a long pass to a winger. That affects winning, which affects the bottom line.
On the pitch, it’s pure, men, the ball and endeavor. We want them to win, not for them, but for us. The boards want them to win for the lucre attendant to success. It’s football, and money. Mine those for philosophical purity all you like. You’ll find precious little, if any. Just an avarice-slaked quest for silver and gold.