Let’s be clear about what this loss in the Spanish SuperCopa means:
That Barça lost by a goal in a meaningless tourney that is part of a morally bankrupt RFEF money grab means absolutely nothing. We can appreciate the joy that Atleti showed in winning, the effort put in by the teams. But it was a gross exercise in perversion of something that used to be a pre-season matchup by the Copa del Rey winner and the Liga winner. In this format, two teams that didn’t win a damn thing last year are going to face off for the trophy. The only benefit of this dross is to RFEF, assuming the checks clear.
Predictably, people are melting down over this dross. In my ideal world, a club that wraps itself in human rights when it suits them would have said, “We just think that having the SuperCopa in a nation with a complex history of human rights violations doesn’t sit right with us, so we decline to attend.” But that was never going to happen. They lost in the “semis?” Good. Now go home and get some rest. You’re going to need it for when matches that mean something commence.
The only shame of this is that for 70 minutes, Barça played one of the best matches that it has played in some time. They had Atleti pinned back, pinging shot after shot, forcing great saves from Oblak. And even if this wasn’t the football that we quite wanted to see, it was effective and dynamic-ish. As long as control was kept, danger was always afoot. It was, dare we say, fun.
But after the match, as many predicted in the case of a loss, came the hysteria. But let’s look at the loss, and some of the catalyzing decisions that helped it along, beginning with referee decisions. The first came when Messi scored a magnificent goal, one of control, balance, brilliance and power. It was ruled off because the ball bounced up and struck the outer part of his shoulder. Handball. No goal.
The second odd decision came after a Pique goal that would have put Barça up 1-3, but Arturo Vidal was judged to be offside in the buildup by a margin you would need a magnifying glass to detect, once the red lines were all laid out. Both decisions were wrong, even as they were correct in the strict interpretation of the rules. Both decisions go against everything that football, in particular attacking football, stands for, while also besmirching the beauty of the game. Those sorts of decisions aren’t just wrong for Barça. It’s wrong for the game.
VAR is supposed to correct clear and obvious mistakes, not nitpick a match into oblivion. If you need lines to detect whether a player was off, he’s on. And why is the “handball” rule different for attackers than defenders? For an attacker, if the ball is judged to touch any part of the arm, it’s a handball. Defensive handball calls are parsed more delicately. The biggest problem with VAR isn’t its existence but how it is used. At present, it’s a mallet being used to pound the joy out of football. Golazo? Wait a minute. The fullback had an erection, so he’s off by that unplanned, unfortunate swelling. The engineers and nitpickers have taken over the game and if they aren’t careful, fans are going to start leaving the resultant joyless enterprise. Celebrating a goal is part of the beauty of it all. How many strangers have you hugged in exultation over a Barça goal? Imagine doing that, and then … never mind. The stationary forward’s heel was on the wrong side of a miniscule line drawn on a computer screen. And that’s that.
The larger complexity of the loss was a complete and utter collapse in the final 20 minutes, for the same reasons we have seen all season, and have seen since Rome. An opponent presses, works the ball loose in midfield, and players who are too old, too slow or both, can’t stop the ensuing attack and a goal is scored. It happened twice yesterday. And twice, the last man with a shot at keeping something bad from happening was Sergi Roberto, who people prefer over Nelson Semedo because he’s better going forward, which did a lot of good at two key moments against Atleti.
Pique is slow and lumbering now, and his errors of position that left him, even as his best, incapable of fixing them with pace and/or physicality, stood out. People say he’s in form. Yes, for a 30+ year-old centerback whose best days are behind him. A young, fast CB, say a 19-year-old Frenchman, should already be pressing him, rotating with him instead of looking at apartment listings in Milan, Schalke or whereever the hell the latest rumor has Jean-Clair Todibo going.
Busquets was brilliant, until he lost the ball at a key moment and could do nothing about it. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then Valverde and his team are bonkers, batshit crazy. It isn’t that they don’t have control. It’s that they have nothing for when they don’t have control. Never has a Barça team been as precarious as this one. Opponents seem to always be able to create danger, because it’s so easy for them to create danger. Morata, not the fleetest of players, looked like an Olympic sprinter compared to the Barça defenders.
After the match, people were calling the team “mentally weak,” because it seemed to have been done in by a pair of poor decisions. But that wasn’t the whole of it. The team was physically powerless was the bigger problem, yet the selection of a coach who has carefully cultivated his roster to yield comfortable, complacent veterans all being fitted for gold watches, looks good on paper but is easily wrecked.
You shouldn’t care about this loss, even as you should be bothered by the template to which this loss hewed. This loss also represents what could have been a greater reality for Barça this season, lucky wins that turned on lucky bounces or great individual moments. They could easily have been losses. You shouldn’t want Valverde out because of this loss. You should want him out because of what he has built, what he has neglected and what was laid bare by an Atleti team that struck at the right moments against a collection of pylons. And you should sideeye those pylons for being so comfortable that they accept the gifts of a comfortable coach. Old people are supposed to get the hell out of the way of young people, not dig in their heels because that spot on the sofa is still so niiice. Progress is part of a strong football club and team. Progress isn’t happening at FC Barcelona, and even if they had won, this would still be true.