Quit is one of those weird words that is so often bandied about in sport, a quality almost as nebulous as want.
We read and hear that x or y team wanted it more, which is always odd because when a match starts, want is a quality present in both teams, along with determination and desire. Quit is the quality that is easier to identify. Shoulders slump, eyes are downcast, a sudden lassitude is present as the team that has quit understands the inevitability of its fate. The idea that it might be possible to change it never occurs to it.
In the 89th minute, down 2-0 to an ebullient Granada side that was looking like another giant killer in Copa … and then something happened.
You can’t even be sure exactly what happened, really. The protagonists themselves would be hard pressed to explain it. Griezmann, indefatigable, worked a ball in at the near post, one of the easiest stops of the night for the Granada keeper, who had a stupendous match. And there were four minutes left, four minutes in which those of us who were brave and crazy, dared to dream. Then came the Alba header, as he and Griezmann traded goals and assists.
Suddenly it was 2-2, and we all had to survive a late, sphincter-clenching run from yet another damn Luis Suarez. But Fate was like, “Even I’m not that big of an asshole,” and his shot rolled wide.
Quit, and want. We have seen this Barça team in both states, rampant after the famous 6-1 Camp Nou impossibility against Paris St.-Germain, a match that will always be one of any proper culer’s all-time favorites. Just as the Bayern 8-2 will be an absolute nadir as the team gave up, making the scoreline not at all the most difficult part of that match to stomach. Rome, Liverpool, a pair of SuperCopas, a Copa, this is a team with a history of failure right at the doorstep, and that history isn’t at all pretty.
Much is made of the psychological aspect of football, of having players who are ignorant of their role in an entity’s collective failure complex, so they don’t know to play along. Dembele was marauding on the right flank like nobody told him nothing good was going to happen. Griezmann kept running, kept trying, Puig kept driving, Messi kept dripping pearls, even tempting us with the cruelty of a struck post. Supporters began to feel like it wasn’t to be, but something weird happened. After two crossbars and a post, plus a dozen saves from a keeper standing on his head, the ball went in. And as with PSG, they grabbed the ball out of the net like there was unfinished business, and got to work.
Koeman said that the Copa del Rey is the team’s best and only real hope for silverware this season, and the team fought like it. The fight was weird to see, but welcome, especially for this group, and especially for one of the key protagonists. As the 88th minute came and went, the high priests of doom exulted, crowing about the team’s psychological problems, but nobody told this team.
It would have been so easy to give up. They had the run of the joint in the first half, did everything except score. Then in the second, in rapid succession, Granada scored twice, then set about defending. The match had gone almost 90 minutes without Barça being able to breach the Granada net. What would anyone expect?
Everything, as it turns out.
So much uncertainty surrounds this team and club. It’s in debt up to its eyeballs, its talisman isn’t sure whether he wants to hang around, it doesn’t have a president. It’s almost like matches are a refuge for a team that is playing better and better, that is responding to its new manager, finally. His XI is looking pretty set in stone, right down to a preferred CB tandem that still should include Umtiti, by the by. There were just a few things left to deal with, among them a winning mentality. A team winning matches is different from a winning mentality, and the team hasn’t really had occasion to show one. It’s winning in Liga, but that’s a Quixotic quest. Champions League is still on. SuperCopa is done, another final failure. This match, this single-elimination match that it really had no right to win from the position in which it found itself, provided a light.
This was a weird, wild match. Extra time came, and with it another Griezmann goal for thet crucial lead, that seemed to last about as long as the echoes of our cheers before a penalty was awarded to Granada. We can debate the penalty. What can’t be debated is the ease with which Granada(!) got the ball up the pitch and the attack got the corner on Dest, who didn’t evince the highest level of calm and intelligence there. Yes, it was shoulder to shoulder, yes that often doesn’t get called, but it did that that time. Granada leveled, and so many minds turned to penalties, because surely this was looming.
Our relationship with the team has changed. We talk about the players quitting, but so do we, a group that has gone from expecting the best to not only expecting the worst but welcoming it, like a salve for our assertions that “These bums are no good.” It seems to feel right when they fail and we spend hours on social media almost reveling in that failure. When the team defies the new logic, we almost don’t know what to do. It doesn’t feel right, this not being disappointed for yet another match. It was beautiful, was what it was.
The rest of the Liga season, Copa and Champions League is still to play out. But this match, this amazing, wild thing that defied expectation despite the final score confirming what everyone thought, backed up by the statistics, might have been just what this team needed. A team that has manifested the kinds of mental issues that Barça has becomes like its supporters. It doesn’t expect good things to happen. The 6-2 remuntada team played like it expected good things to happen. It wasn’t haunted yet by the ghosts of failure. It’s been a long time since this team played like that, like it expected something good to happen, even when very few were. And that wonderful thing happened. We exoected quit, and got want, and desire, and execution.
This team might let us down yet. Some would say that it already has, but this was always going to be a rebuilding year, always going to be complex. Koeman has come, and done things to this team, things that we saw against Granada. Lowly Granada? If you want. But sometimes it isn’t as much the quality of the opponent when the opposition is you. Barça didn’t just beat Granada in a wild, impossible-to-explain Copa quarterfinal. It may have taken steps toward beating its own ghosts, those chain-rattling haunts of failures past.