Kids don’t care.
We see kids doing all kinds of stuff, bombing down steep roads on skateboards, doing things without regard for consequences. Winter? Snowing? Why is that kid in shorts? Because they’re kids, and kids don’t care.
Grownups call what talents such as Fati and Pedri do fancy words like “precocious.” Nah. They don’t care. And they don’t care because they don’t have any template for failure. Why? They’re kids.
When Pedri talked about playing matches, he said that he just imagines that he’s back home, playing kickabout with his brother. And that doesn’t just help him not realize where he is; it’s his clearest frame of reference. So when Juan Cuadrado, a Colombian international who was first capped when Pedri seven years old, had Pedri pinned on the sidelines, using that chalked stripe as an extra defender, Pedri just dropped his shoulder and spun. Then he ran away.
Kids do stuff because they can. Cuadrado wasn’t Juan Freakin’ Cuadrado. He was just some dude, impeding a kid who had somewhere to be. As a matter of fact, it was so much fun that he did it again. He spent most of the match outplaying pretty much everyone around him, throwing down an MOTM performance that didn’t include goals or assists, the the calm elegance of a player who just doesn’t care, which allows him the freedom and mental space to just do what he does.
“No pressure, kid.”
Right now, FC Barcelona is kids, geezers and expensive baubles. Pedri, Fati, Trincao, Dest, young players that percolate with energy and something that only the tactless would call irreverence. But there is bliss in not knowing any better. As we age, we get tight because our failure template has changed. We fail, we crash, we lose money, we screw up in momentous ways that make us tentative. Players don’t choke because they forget how to play. They choke because they suddenly understand the moment, what it means and what they stand to gain … or lose, and they forget what to do. Shots go wide, passes are pushed into the stands or to the wrong player. It’s human. I knew it was time to stop racing at the senior level when I saw a gap that was just wide enough for my handlebars, and hesitated where a few years earlier I would have shoved the bars in. That’s how it happens when you know better.
It’s still a game to kids, still this amazing thing. There is talk of somehow “spoiling” the likes of Pedri or Fati, but what’s to mess up, really? They’re just balling. When Nyom stood over Fati just after fouling him, Fati just hopped up and walked back, like “What the hell is this dude on about.”
When Pedri was acquired by FC Barcelona, he was slight. Tiny. He made magic on loan at Las Palmas, and was going to come to Barça in the summer, a stay that was thought by pretty much everyone to be just long enough to understand what he was going to be ready for someday, once he learned the game that grownups play. He came, and sparkled in training, but lots of people do that. His name came up, along with Riqui Puig, as potential loanees. They needed playing time, and weren’t going to get it among the grownups, the hard men who were legends and highly compensated professionals.
Both decided to stay, to take the shot. Koeman subbed Pedri on for the first time, and all he did was play like he was 30, with an unerring sense of calm on and off the ball, playing in a way that belied his age and size. “Nice outing, kid. Anybody can do it once. No pressure.” Pedri was subbed on, and did it. Again. Then he started in the biggest match of any FC Barcelona season, and he did it again. Then against Juventus, he did it again, on the road in Champions League.
This was an odd match because on paper, Juvenntus was formidable, but they haven’t been all that good this season. But Barça has had just a few things going on this season, so who knew what was going to happen. Bartomeu resigned yesterday, and today the team kicked up its heels. It wasn’t just that it was Juventus. There was joy in the play again. And after the match, Sergi Roberto, one of the captains, said that “The best response to Bartomeu’s resignation was today’s win.”
The team has faced weaker, more compliant opponents, but haven’t looked as good. And it would be silly to place all the blame on the players being able to sing, in their heads, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead.” Koeman’s XI didn’t feature Busquets, who was on the bench. Nor did it feature Pique, due to suspension. Koeman’s XI did feature a stable, active group that was doing weird things like tracking back, en masse, to stop a Juventus counter. It wasn’t the Full Atleti, but it was a very impressive change from the norm.
Pjanic started, and once he got over his early yips, was a calm, steady presence. “Take The Ball, Pass the Ball” wasn’t just a movie. Pjanic got the ball and moved it on, not dwelling on it, not dribbling or sliding it around. “Got it. Here ya go.” De Jong could go about his business and his business alone, and was a better player for it. Pedri could play his game without being part of any support system. It was wonderful to watch. Dembele started on the right, where he belongs, and had his best match in a very long time. He was calm and smart on the ball, using his dribble to make space, then making the right pass, time and again. He even scored a golazo, deflection though it was, that made Messi burst into a smile to rival the sun. Even Griezmann played his best match in a very long time, hitting the post twice.
It’s weird how a single, seismic event can change everything. Culers watched the match with light hearts and clear minds. Bartomeu was gone, all of his Twitter accounts deleted, the social media variant of “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around any longer.” The match felt different. Lighter. More fun. The scoreline remained 0-1 for entirely too long for comfort, but there was never the sense of impending danger, even as Morata had three(!) goals ruled out for offside. When Fati earned the penalty with a daring move that forced a clumsy challenge, Messi tallied the second, and that was that.
Koeman was smiling, with kind words for Pedri as he came off, and a match that seemed so massive after consecutive losses in La Liga, was dispatched at a canter. It was, dare we say, joyful. And that feeling, that obvious mood that seemed to permeate everything, is the oddest part of the season so far. There is plenty of football to be played, plenty of time to return to earth, for the joy of having gotten just what you wanted on Christmas morning to wear off. But for now? It’s those crazy kids, a perfect record in Champions League and a coach with things that happened as a consequence of his team selection that might have been symbolic. Maybe.