Consider collective action, perhaps also collective memory; you could even go as far as pointing to Durkheim’s collective consciousness or to the upwelling of collective history in works like Galeano’s Las venas abiertas de América Latina (though for purposes of this piece, perhaps his El futbol a sol y sombra would be more apt). Somewhere in there, between the rhythmic beats of the show and the magic of the voices pouring down from the heavens, you can find the individual. Sometimes you only see him in flashes, stepping out from the shadows for merely a moment’s work before sliding back into the scenery; sometimes, though, he has a monologue with the spotlight centered on him.
During these epic performances, when you’re rising to your feet to clap and smile and shake the hands of those next to you, as the artists on stage bring things to their crescendo and inevitable conclusion, as you spout words like “magisterial,” “unparalleled,” or “exquisite,” you might just notice that there was something a tiny bit off—that actor forgot one of his lines, I think, that bit of scenery wasn’t painted as well as the others. You would never say anything, of course, because this was a “rapturous performance,” a “scintillating artistic endeavor,” but maybe you overhear someone—the guy with the cough behind you that annoyed you during the show, perhaps; yes, it must have been him—saying to their friend, in faux-hushed tones meant to be overheard, that so-and-so wasn’t up to par tonight, that it detracted from the beauty of the piece. You dismiss it. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, the silly buffoon who is also stupid.
As you settle into bed that night, dinner having sated your appetite and a round of toasting to the “terrific, magnificent cast” having brought smiles to the faces of even those who missed the performance, your thoughts return to that comment said near the orchestra pit: If only that actor had been better, if only he had played the part more correctly. Maybe that buffoon (who is stupid) was onto something. No, no, it didn’t ruin the performance, not a performance as fantastic, as dramatic, as well put together as that. You sigh contentedly. Your head falls onto the pillow. It was such a good night. Next time you go, though, you’ll just have to watch more closely, make sure he really is doing his job correctly. Just so, you know, you can tell that buffoon how stupid and silly he is.
That collective action and memory causes one, at least the modern Barça fan, to feel that the collective transcends the individual, that the moments are created organically by the whole. We remember things passed down by those around us, we encourage ourselves to remember Barça, the team, the blaugrana stripes, the Camp Nou in full roar; yet we also discuss the individuals in hushed tones: Kubala, Herrera (not even a player!), Cruyff, Guardiola. In casual conversation, we bring up moments—Koeman’s freekick or Ronaldo’s run, Figo’s moment of treachery or Luis Enrique’s deification—rather than eras or teams. The Dream Team perhaps transcends this, but not many people will remember the individuals of this year either, except maybe Messi. “Who is Xavi?” your children will ask and you’ll smack your forehead, just as your father or mother smacks his or hers if you ask “Who is Garrincha?”
After all, the original culers in Les Corts were not cheering a concept and neither are we, really, despite many claims that such was and is the case. There are those who argue that we have a philosophy, that we care more about how we play than the results, that we should “think of history instead of a single season,” but none of those fans are worried about anything other than our victories here and now. For instance: against Valladolid, was your heart not in your throat before the match? Did you not scream something (profanities, shock) at Valdés’ touch of stone that gifted Manucho a wide open shot that he cuffed because he’s rubbish? What about during the Inter match? Did you say “This possession is fantastic! What’s with these over-the-top-balls that just give it away?” or were you more aggressive, demanding that we stop with the spectacle and get on with the winning?
Lest it be pointed out by others, I’ll cop to it now: I’m not above demanding goals over beauty, of putting a little brawn into our sugary sweet approach. In the more sober moments (both literally and figuratively) I like to think about the beauty of our passing, to talk about how we played a team of the park, or discuss how we drove our philosophy into their skulls and made them thank us for it in the process. Of course I do. I’m a culer. So I understand the sentiment, I understand how and what others think of the team (if I may be so bold as to say so), and I fall prey to it whenever the going gets rough as well.
At some level the social consciousness, the group mentality, breaks down into that of the individual and appraisals of singular pieces of a machine are obviously possible. However, Paul Connerton connected the collective with the individual in a physical sense (such as gestures, even clothing) and therein lies the crux of the problem. Because we take almost everything as a clue—be it the way someone walks, talks, gels their hair, or otherwise comports themselves—we often find ourselves judging people and things for nothing more than a glance or a fashion choice.
Take any footballer you hate (or if you don’t hate anyone then whoever you dislike the most) and think about why you hate them. I am overtly anti-Cristiano Ronaldo, but obviously the reasons are more for his demeanor on screen than because of the conversations we’ve had. Sometimes it’s the boisterous one that makes you sneer, sometimes it’s the quiet one (Paul Scholes has always made me cringe, which is hilarious because he’s not exactly an advertising megstar that pops up on TV all the time hawking ludicrous products; the same is true of Tim Duncan, who I know I should really like because he, like Scholes, gets the job done with a minimum of fuss and showboating). Whatever the reasons are, they’re personal and, truth be told, rather petty. But they are what makes us who we are and what makes our societies function as they do: without these signals, we wouldn’t be able to find the friends or sexual partners that match our personalities.
Beyond that, of course, is the concept of fitting in. How does one move from one social group to another without adapting? It’s not really possible, is it? If you’ve ever moved to a new culture or even a new city in your native society, you know that the immigrant experience is more than learning a new language or memorizing an unfamiliar street map. There are new social rules, new mores, and even new physical gestures—it’s such a cliché at this point that if you listed off the “new kid in town” movies produced in the last 20 years, you’d be here all day. Basically: it’s hard and when it really comes down to it, it just takes time to adapt.
Returning then, to Durkheim, to Galeano: If Barça is a totemic religion (and I would argue that football clubs are religious institutions and football itself an overarching religion divided into many sects), then it stands to reason that it has its symbols, its rites, its necessary pilgrimages, and its required demonstrations of faith and commitment. If you fall afoul of these requirements, of the often unspoken list of demands, you’re the goat, even if you play well. You can’t be our player if you’re not one of us, after all. But this proof is often more than solemn badge kissing or pointing out that you’ve always dreamed of playing for the club, it’s got to do with how you look, how you are perceived. The rules are, after all, unspoken and it’s often the minutest detail that gets your blood boiling or your heart going pitter-patter, pitter-patter.
In his book, El futbol a sol y sombra (Soccer in Sun and Shadow), Galeano writes of the mystical, mythical, and personal. For instance, there is no modern German football—no modern Germany—without Rahn:
It was at the World Cup in 1954. Hungary, the favorite, was playing Germany in the final.
With six minutes left in a game tied 2-2, the robust German forward Helmut Rahn trapped a rebound from the Hungarian defense in the semi-circle. Rahn evaded Lantos and fired a blast with his left, just inside the right post of the goal defended by Grosics.
Heribert Zimmerman, Germany’s most popular commentator, announced that goal with a passion worthy of a South American: “Toooooooooorrrrrrrrrr!!!”
It was the first World Cup that Germany had been allowed to play in since the war, and Germans felt they had the right to exist again. Zimmerman’s cry became a symbol of national resurrection. Years later, that historic goal could be heard on the soundtrack of Fassbinders film, “The Marriage of María Braun,” which recounts the misadventures of a woman who can’t find her way out of the ruins. (Galeano, 94-95)
I don’t know who Helmut Rahn is. I’ve never heard of Mihály Lantos or Gyula Grosics. To my knowledge, I’ve never heard Heribert Zimmerman’s commentary and I’ve never seen The Marriage of María Braun (I mean, now I have heard of them and even read up on them, and I’ve now listened to Zimmerman’s commentary), but the resurgence of Germany in the 1950s, the reawakening of German self, is akin to the sudden, seemingly inexplicable resurgence of the Barça self with Iniesta’s goal against Chelsea. You are self-actualized by these moments and the whole is reaffirmed by the individual. There’s no doubt Rahn was a hero in Germany—perhaps he still is—and there’s no doubt Iniesta ascended to culer deity at that moment, but it speaks more to the collective than the individual that there is even a pedestal to put them on.
What I mean is, we all know what transpired at Stamford Bridge and most of us will carry that memory with us for a long time, but it is meaningless without the existence of the season that came before it. Without the team, there is no Iniestazo, no Champions League semifinal to play in. I cannot speak for Germans in the 1950s (or at any time, for that matter), but my cule-ness, so to speak, is inextricably tied to those moments of magic that bring home what the rest of those “lesser” moments really mean; still, if it weren’t for those moments, the ones that mean so little when you look at them individually, there would be nothing at all to feel rapturous or terrible about. I’m gutted when we lose and exultant when we win, but the games mean nothing if I don’t actually watch them.
All of that, the meandering thoughts and bloated concepts of where football meets sociology, brings me, at last, to my point: Zlatan Ibrahimović deserves to remain a Barcelona player. I think I just heard you roll your eyes. All this for that point? Well, yes. But obviously, like an infomercial, there’s more.
Forget money. I mean it. You bring up money and you fail to understand or consider the reality of the situation. 11 players on a field, 1 team. The former is subject to change, the latter is not. Sure, without the collection of the former there is no latter, but without the latter, the former are a hodgepodge of nonsense running around kicking a ball on a field. Or, really, probably mostly kicking the ball off the field since they have nothing to lose by doing so. It’s the team that matters and it’s mostly the symbols that get in the way of empathy and fairness.
What I’ve noticed over the course of the year is that most of us want to break down the team into the “who did what and how well” kind of thinking. That’s all well and good and I’m the first to point out when Busquets galumphs his way down the field and into some mighty trouble, but often it mistakes collective failures for individual failures. When the team messes up, when the system breaks down, the individual often pays for it with embarrassment. And when you’re the guy everyone is watching and considering, you’ll be lambasted for your mistakes and your successes will be brushed aside as if they’re the expected results.
Remember the show we put on at the beginning of this post? The one that everyone loved, cheered, and generally thought was the greatest ever? Except that jerkface behind you, of course. And that, to me, is exactly the case we have here. We have a team playing beautifully, earning the most points in the history of the league (99 or 86.84%) and garnering an astonishing +74 goal differential, but, of course, there’s something wrong with the scenery, someone missed their line, I’m sure of it. Didn’t you see it too?
Of course we did. Of course we saw it. I also see the cue marks when I go to the theater and the reels are about to change over, but that doesn’t ruin the movie. You know how in Godfather the scene where Carlos gets killed doesn’t actually make any sense? I mean, why would you do it in the car in your own front yard? You lost a windshield and got your car all messy, numbskull. But that doesn’t ruin the movie either. The pothole on my street doesn’t make the neighborhood suck. And Zlatan’s surly look doesn’t make a difference to me either. I mean, it does, because I’m not as spastically happy to chant his name, but it doesn’t really.
Speak of contributions to the team all you’d like: he played in 8 of our draws and all 4 of our losses (in all competitions). Guess what? Xavi played in all the games we dropped points in. All 10 draws and 4 losses. Sell him! Messi? 9 draws and 4 losses. Out!
Goals scored? 21 overall, 16 in the league. Only Messi, the Pichichi and Golden Shoe winner, scored more goals in the league and only Messi and Pedro did so overall. As a general rule, I like the minutes-per-goals scored statistic. Only Messi, Bojan, and Pedro have a better overall MPG, than Ibra, while in the league only Messi and Bojan scored more often. Of course, Bojan only had 8 goals. Funny this stat: Lots of people say that Bojan only got minutes at the end of games, when he couldn’t possibly make an impact and that coming on as a substitute is harder than being a starter—Ibra has 167 minutes as a sub, Bojan 164. Yes, Ibra has exactly half the number of sub appearances, meaning he averaged about twice as many minutes per sub appearance as Bojan, but he also has 3 sub goals to Bojan’s 1.
But forget the stats. They only tell part of the story. Remember when we talked of collective action coming together in a singular moment? What about this moment? Or that whole match? It has become, in a lot of ways, not a question of his actual contributions, but of his perceived attitude: from his gruff look throughout the season to occasional lack of celebration with the team when we score or win.
Yet note that he was all smiles and jokes at the trophy celebration, his brusque façade dropped for a moment, as it occasionally did during the year. He is a part of this team, but he is still learning the ropes of Catalanism, of ignoring the press and the pressure from socis to not just be on a winning side, but be the winning goal scorer. It took Henry and Abidal a season to figure it out; Hleb never did seem to care to do so, but we never gave him the opportunity to prove us wrong; Alves and Keita took a little bit, but it’s Alves’s gregariousness that carries him through all manner of situations without worrying about anything and it’s Keita’s quiet demeanor and hard work that has slowly won everyone over. Yet because of his price tag—meaningless now—we forget that Ibra is a part of the whole, not just an individual.
Do we demand that Ibra perform 9 times better than Maxwell, who cost 1/9 as much? How can we? They’re on the same field. Did you say “oh, he just wanted to score” when Maxwell failed to cross to a wide open Ibra? Did you call Maxwell a failure because he didn’t create the goals necessary to win the game against Atleti and didn’t stop them scoring either? Do you remember that Ibra scored our only goal in that match?
It is, for me, as much a question of overall style and value as it is individualism. Certainly criticism of players is warranted—of Busi, of Hleb, of Ibra—but often the factors are not taken into account. As long as the player is making an effort, as long as he is trying to do the right thing, I am all for his continued inclusion. And that, of course, is my argument on why Busi and Hleb should be gone: they don’t seem to be trying. But maybe I’m wrong about all that. Busi showed a more mature side after his dance with absurdity during the Inter match and I like that and hope it continues through the rest of his career. Hleb, of course, never got to prove that he was integrating himself into the side. He seemed aloof, didn’t celebrate with the other players, and appeared to have trouble dedicating himself to learning Spanish or Catalan.
The same cannot be said for Zlatan, who, from everything I’ve seen, has learned a lot of Spanish, has watched enough Crackovia to make fun of himself using the caricatures on the show (“Io sono molto contento”—he’s said it in press conferences early in the season and he repeated it during the title celebrations after the Valladolid match). Still, I understand that his body language rubs people the wrong way, that his me-first celebrations can grate, and that his seemingly reserved attitude about things can be misconstrued as pure egotism. But in the end, interviews with him, such as Cirkus Zlatan, reveal a guy who loves football, fast cars, and his family more than he loves the publicity and fame. He obviously loves that stuff too, of course, but he’s more complicated than the 2D image painted of him by those who like to look at him as a commodity rather than a human being, an immigrant in a new land.
Because of that, because watching Zlatan through the eyes of someone who was against his coming for a while and who has previously called him a brutish player with an outsized ego made me realize I’m being unfair and overzealous about perceived qualities, I have to amend my statements about Hleb, at least. My statements about Busi are derived from his direct actions on the field, rather than who I think he is as a person or member of the institution. What I need to remember is that I have no idea what these guys are like until they give us a window into their lives and even then its not like I should be able to judge them any more than you, my readers, should be able to judge me as a human being based on what little you know about me. You should be judging my writing and intellect rather than, you know, whether I should procreate or throw myself out of a plane without a parachute.
Fact: Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not Samuel Eto’o. I know, I know, that sounds absurd when you just come out and say it, but it’s true: Ibra is not Samu. No, really, he’s not. Stop comparing them in your mind. How do I know you do? Because it’s natural to do so thanks to the way in which Ibra arrived on the lovely shores of the Ciudad Condal. Eto’o’s inclusion in the deal makes it easy for us to say that Zlatan repaced Eto’o, but in reality, Samu was gone and Ibra was brought in not to be Samu, but rather to change the way in which the team operated.
For instance, look at their roles. Eto’o was our goalscorer, the guy we passed the ball to at the end of galloping runs through midfield or with slashing passes that caught the offsides trap flat-footed. Now, after the conclusion of his first full season with the team, can you say that Ibra is the focal point of our attack? I think not, not just because he didn’t score the most goals, but because he wasn’t even the destination most of the attacks. He had enough close-range goals to suggest to the uninitiated that he’s a tap-in artist, but almost all of those goals were done from a deeper position than Samu ever came from. Even his goal against Real Madrid, that thunderous slash into the back of net from behind the defensive line, started with him passing backwards with Pique in front of him and then finding the space from deep to get open. Yes, he was offside an enormous number of times (50 in the league alone), but most of those were when he was making his run from deep and wasn’t found with a pass until too late. Eto’o wasn’t offside as much (33) because he wasn’t playing as vertical a game—a game not only not suited to Ibra’s physical stature, but also to his role in the team. It was Messi who was given the “free” role most of the time in what was a massive tactical departure from the way we played most of 2008-09, which is why you saw him behind their defenders so much more than Ibra and why, when he started to play more often towards the end of the season, Bojan was doing it too: it was their role.
It’s hard for me to argue with those who claim that Ibra hasn’t adapted enough because at some level, that adaptation to the “Barça philosophy” is merely an attempt to project something that isn’t even real onto a player. What I mean is, did Eto’o embody this philosophy? Was he “team first, me second”? Was he, “Pass, move, offer” before he was “shooooot, coño tio joder” or whatever? Was Samu anything other than a goalscorer? Didn’t Guardiola say he wanted more than a goalscorer? And if it’s this that makes Xavi so good, isn’t it this that makes Ibra so good? What’s the difference except that one was purchased for a lot of money and the other was raised locally?
If this season is a failure because we didn’t win the Champions League crown, then we have had 3 successful seasons in our history and this nothing to get up-in-arms about. If this is, in fact, a successful season, what on earth suggests next year won’t be similar? If we were unlucky not to get by Inter and into the CL final (the words of others, mind you), then it stands to reason that next year bad luck wouldn’t befall us. Or if it does, it’s that and nothing more: bad luck. So whatever the nay-saying reasons, the only one that makes any difference to me is whether or not Pep comes out and, like he did with Ronnie, Deco, and Samu, says that he no longer wants Ibra.
That will sway me, but nothing more because I believe he is not only a part of this team in ways that are impossible to comprehend from beyond the fences of Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper. Bay all you wish about unfulfilled promises, but until we don’t win the league because we failed as a team and as individuals, I don’t understand eviscerating one actor in a majestic pageant for failing, when you’re not even sure he failed at all because you don’t have the script in your hands. Maybe sometimes he tried too hard, overacted a bit (the missed opportunity against Valladolid springs to mind), but it was all to provide you with the entertainment you wanted, in the way you wanted it. Eto’o scored gobs of Podunk goals and was lambasted as being nothing more than a poacher. So Ibra hears that and tries to score them with flourish…and he’s derided as a failure for not living up to the standards Samu set, despite his teammate doing so (and Messi of course was slagged for only scoring 23 goals, right? Henry got 19 and was heralded as a virtuoso, as a genius, as the vintage Thierry. Funny, then, that 16% of the goals scored by the team (Ibra’s) is so terribly worse than Messi’s 21% or Titi’s 18%. But then Messi this year scored 34% o the goals and Eto’o just 28% last year. Off with all of their heads.
Until we accept that others coming in from outside of the Barça universe are unaccustomed to our demands, our style, and how we perceive particular actions, it is impossible to say that we are giving anyone a fair shot. Chygrynskiy has done nothing but work hard to win us over, but because he is a giant, scraggly-bearded Chewbacca, he’s viewed as an incompetent. Not everyone can adapt immediately, so give these new signings time. If Villa doesn’t score for his first 3 games, is he an abject failure? If he does score, is he a thrilling success? What if those goals are set up by Ibra? What if they’re set up by Hleb? Yeah.
Don’t be the person behind everyone else whispering loudly enough for all to hear about the mistakes that were made in the pursuit of perfection. Be the one that applauds the effort and the beauty of what was successful, that has a good time. Love this team, love this club, and love it in a way that makes you happy. Don’t be frustrated when we don’t win 5-0. Be exuberant that we won. Be thankful that we’re living in an age of prosperity, when drought is always just around the corner.