It hurts to see Real Madrid atop the Liga table with some daylight. It hurts to see what my club has become. It hurts to see the pundits say that the standings are going to finish this way, hurts to understand that unless something drastic changes, they’re probably right. It hurts to see the look on Messi’s face as the reality of Valencia set in, hurts to realize that we had the same look on our faces, the hurt and confusion of wondering how things got to this place. So much about this club hurts right now, from how poorly it’s being run to how much culers seem to detest each other as we fragment into hostile encampments, purists vs “resultadistas.” Sport and entertainment have become something ugly, angry and awful.
Legends are awesome. We love the stories because they’re one of a kind, great moments that illuminate our lives like skyrockets, and live on in our memories like cherished friends. They uplift and unite us. The mistake comes when we want to recreate memories instead of reliving them.
The best way to relive those amazing Guardiola years is to visit full match highlights on YouTube, or hit your hard drive for those matches you have hoarded. Supporters should do that, that board should do that, everyone involved with the club should do that, instead of what is going on, which is an attempt at recreation. Everything that so many talk about, everything that so many seek, is aimed at nostalgia. The “right way” of playing, “where’s the midfield,” is all a byproduct of a time that is never going to come again, even the lingering enmity toward a coach who had the audacity to win a treble by going about it all wrong.
The astonishing thing about the last decade of FC Barcelona on the football side, is that the team has enjoyed an array of once-in-a-lifetime people and personalities, who defined the game for club and country. Valdes, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Guardiola, Alves, Messi, Busquets, Suarez, Neymar are all players and a coach who changed everything. They’re also talents who are unique in their composition and approach to the game, people for which there is no analog. By “controller,” people often think of Xavi, and man is that wrong. His game was truly astonishing, and the longer we go without him, the more astonishing it becomes. Iniesta was beauty and promise, Puyol hairy-chested grandeur. Alves was indefatigable majesty, and prime Busquets defined a game like no DM in history.
When Luis Suarez went down with a knee injury, lost for the season, the talk was immediate. “We need a 9.” Who? Nobody can do what Suarez does, even in his diminished state. Even as you can debate the value of what he does, or more correctly can no longer do and how that plays into what the club needs, you can’t argue that he is a unique anachronism, a throwback who should be forced to play wearing black boots. We carp about him, diss him, scream when he misses sitters, but he’s still the best pure 9 in the game, with a skill set that only now do we realize makes everyone around him better. Messi has seemed like a motherless child since the big Uruguayan went down, and the attack has stagnated.
In the midfield, without Xaviniesta, players whose skills were so linked and compatible that we came to think of them as that single name, everything is different. Players come and are talked about, they materialize and we embrace the hope. Arthur came in as a controller. Some even billed him as the “next Xavi.” You hear Iniesta sometimes when people talk about Puig. Coaches are evaluated for their philosophical purity, and the arrival of Quique Setien has been lauded to a degree that people have forgotten he was the board’s third choice. Third. What is he going to do, except talk about how to play, and invoke the name of the late, great Johan Cruijff?
Many got excited, said “Now, here is a coach who will do what the team needs.” It’s worth going back to watch those Guardiola teams, especially the treble winner, and how much work that team had to do, how amazing the movement was, how telepathic the bond. Even if you could find a coach who could get the buy in necessary to make the players want to work that hard, look at the roster and tell me who can in that XI. The few who can would be failed by the ones who can’t.
But still we cling to faded memories, because digital technology makes them seem so fresh. Hope and love make us hang on because reality is too grim to consider. Frenkie De Jong comes, and is lauded as the next something, the missing piece necessary to get the team playing the right way. He comes, and gets a coach in Ernesto Valverde who isn’t interested in playing the right way, perhaps because as the ultimate pragmatist, he understood the futility of that endeavor with the pieces that he had and chose a different path. We detested him for that, for the dour way of playing that nevertheless won consecutive Ligas and, admit it or not, came within a single away goal (twice) of ultimate glory, a bleak, constrained, dour man who came closer than we liked to consecutive trebles. What would that accomplishment have done to our perception of his legacy. Would he have been an immortal, or a fool who was lucky enough to have Messi?
Because he failed, it was easy to diminish his accomplishments, because we seek higher things, we seek the return of magic. We want to be entertained, we want glitter bombs. We will swear up and down that we don’t want it be 2009 again, that we know a return to the past is impossible. But everything that we talk about speaks to a craving for those attributes. If playing the right way was as easy as we make it seem, the B team wouldn’t be huffing away in Segunda B, Guardiola wouldn’t have changed his approach. Nor would Vilanova. If it was that easy, Guardiola would be doing the same thing at Manchester City and trading off trebles with Barça as two teams capered and flicked off thousands of passes per match.
Yet the team most likely to win a treble is Liverpool and its heavy metal football, a team that huffs and puffs and crosses and runs, that is driven by fullback bombs and pressing and the magic of hard, hard work. To have a numerical advantage at both ends of the pitch all the time only seems like witchcraft. It’s hard work. Barça didn’t worry about numerical advantage because it had the ball, had the runners, had the passing angles, had the centerbacks that played like DMs. That team had everything. We took it for granted, because it all seemed to easy. It’s only now, that we understand how impossible it is to recreate, that we begin to understand something of the wonder of legends.
Football has moved on, but we haven’t. And on social media, on Barça Twitter, we bicker and squabble, more worried about being right than what any of it means for the team. It’s wanting Valverde to lose so that he could be fired so that a new, more correct coach could be hired. It’s harassing players on social media, and turning every post by the official club account or any club official into a shit trench of bile. Everything is wrong. What we aren’t stopping to acknowledge, maybe, just maybe, is that it won’t be right again until we understand what is possible now, what the game demands from its champions in the here and now.
Setien has been installed and in three matches, the team has looked woeful. It should have lost to Granada, should have lost to Ibiza, did lose to Valencia. Next up are two “easy” matches at home, but time will tell how easy they are, and all eyes will be on the team and its new, third-choice manager. Our eyes will be on them as well, our pens sharpened, barbs awaiting the unfavored and unfaithful, pillows stuffed with absolution awaiting the favored.
We can acknowledge that this board is crap at doing all of the things that it needs to do to ensure that its team is healthy. But the Camp Nou gets plenty of butts in the seats, plenty of shirts are sold, soci fees are paid, revenues continue to climb, enhanced by not having to pony up for player bonuses as recompense for another round of unprecedented success. Yay for money. The human cost of that is an old team that can’t even do what nostalgia wants it to do, never mind what the modern game demands of it, run by yet another compliant coach who doesn’t have the power to do what needs to be done, to do what Guardiola did. “You play my way, or you don’t play.” So we get halfway dross, something that we think needs time instead of what it really needs, which is an overhaul of both the squad and our expectations.
And still we wait, and we hope. If you drop a 50-year-old crystal vase and it shatters, that’s it. There’s no replacing it. Nostalgia? You might be bummed at the loss of a family heirloom, but then you get another vase to hold the flowers, and it works every bit as well, even if it’s different. In looking at that vase every day and cursing it for not being the old standby, nothing is helped. It’s time we let go of that vase. There is no playing the right way, no next Xavi, no Iniesta replacement. Ter Stegen isn’t another Valdes. He’s just Ter Stegen. We’re in love with an old team let down by its board, that will have to find a way to creak and wheeze to enough results to make us unhappily happy as we half-assedly celebrate another trophy that we desperately wish was the other trophy.
Romance is pure and beautiful, and it fuels the early relationship. After a decade of marriage, you’re still in love but the relationship has changed, reality sets in. You aren’t leaving the room to fart any longer, you’re having some of the same conversations as if by reflex. You understand each other so deeply the bond is almost telepathic. The happiest couples understand the reality of change, the things that the passage of time does, the compromises we have to make to sustain the malleability of magic. The saddiest, angriest couples wonder why, after ten years, things are different, why they had to change. Loving someone as they are rather than as we want them to be is hard, but part of a relationship. We love Barça, and are part of a committed relationship, albeit one that is struggling right now. How strong it is depends on us, clear eyes and open hearts, even if those hearts are now a little hard. It doesn’t mean accepting things as they are, but it does mean understanding them as they are, and understanding that what we want might be impossible, and what now?