[Note: this was written on June 5, 2011]
I don’t know about you, but the 28th of May was the first time a football match has reduced me to a sobbing mess. It was an expression of joy, relief – and the ultimate release of frustration. When Gerard Pique spoke so emphatically about what we don’t do at the celebration on the 29th, he was speaking our language. If the fans have felt helpless and angry about the way our club have been attacked this season, imagine how it affected the players.
Thank God, then, for such a brilliant ending to the 10/11 season, one which seemed to erase all that had gone wrong. Someday we may have another, equally skillful team to call our own. We may even have a better one. But I’m convinced we’ll never have one quite like this again, with supremely skilled players who fit together like a jigsaw puzzle totally subsumed into a collective. That, to me, is the most striking thing about this team.
identity and silverware
The second most striking thing is their composure. I’m sure nobody reading this needs to be lectured on the way Cruyff changed Barca’s history. Statistically, it’s really quite striking. Before 1989, Barca had won the league 10 times in its entire history. In the 22 years since, it has won 11. Before 1991, Barca had infamously never won the European Cup. In the 20 years since, it has won 4 times under the new format. A culture of pessimism and victimisation has been transformed into one of confidence and self-assurance. Under Guardiola, this new identity has become the default.
This has been reflected by the way outside perceptions of Barca have changed. We used to be the perpetual underdogs, the ones with the hard-luck stories. They play good football, it was said. Pity that [internal politics are holding them back/they have such rotten luck/their superstars are always making trouble/they don’t have a winning mentality].
In this day and age, we cannot claim to be the underdogs of anything. Not with that winning record in the last 20 years. Not with a team that makes anyone they come across adapt to their style of play. The tone of the press coverage of Barca’s victory over Manchester United received reflects this. We’re now the big bad wolf.
Problem is, we’re not very good at it. It’s never been Barca’s way to take the victory and run. We care what other people say about us. We care about how our victories are achieved, and how other people perceive them to have been achieved. That’s why all the scurrilous crap emanating from Madrid’s general direction this season bugged all and sundry associated with Barca so much. Caring about the how is part of our identity. It’s not going away no matter how many trophies this new, improved team wins.
And that’s just fine. For once, those Nike T-shirts got something right: football gives back what you put into it. Going around with the belief that our way is the right way is all well and good, but no one’s going to pay attention until you prove it. And keep proving it.
fire with fire
It may be a cliche, but it’s still true: the absolute worst thing our opponents can do to Barca is to make it forget itself. Think that’s impossible? I wish it were, but the past four years have shown us different.
Firstly, remember back to the mess of the Clasicos. Be honest: would you honestly say you were proud of Barca’s entire performance? Or would you rather forget how we won, only that we did?
It’s in a football fan’s bones to think that the world is out to get us. I would argue that this is mostly not the case. In fact, many neutrals are predisposed towards Barca, and many who were turned off by the Fiascos came around again after the Champions League final, a timely reminder of what we are at our best. It was said that the final had shown Barca were not by nature predisposed towards the dark arts of the game. That they had been driven to it, either by: 1) the heat of the occasion, and/or 2) Real’s tactics.
The first I can excuse. That’s part of the identity of the Clasico. The second, I find considerably more difficult. The type of tactics Real used will only become more common as teams retreat in fear against Barca. Our response cannot be to resort to ugliness, not if we care about the how.
Secondly, consider the dark days of April 2008. Few remember now the polls in the Barca papers showing Mourinho to be the fan favourite to take over from Frank Rijkaard. Every drop of ink spilled on the topic reflected a loss of faith in our own identity, engendered by the complete collapse of Rijkaard’s team. A team which, least we forget, managed to limp into the Champions League semi-finals by virtue of sheer individual talent.
By a mixture of sheer dumb luck, good advice, financial concerns and political opportunism, Laporta opted for continuity in the form of Cruyffista Pep Guardiola instead of a radical break in favour of another style. The fact that so many people were in favour of the latter [and to be honest, I had moments of agreeing with them] illustrates the chronic short-termism of modern football. It also teaches us a valuable lesson. As Tito Vilanova put it:
“But Barca must maintain this philosophy. At such times [when the outlook is bleak], people must not be thinking of looking for another way of playing or for different types of players. It is a philosophy we need to maintain.”
In the final reckoning, this has been a dream season of remarkable success against the odds. There will be far harder days in the years to come. That’s just the way football works. When those days arrive the value of our memories of the difficult lessons of this season will be just as valuable as the glory.
“The ball doesn’t get dirty.” – Diego Maradona
For my part, the past month has renewed my faith in the essential character of this club. Whatever problems and concerns I have with the men in charge in the boardroom, it is on the field where the best face of Barca has had its purest, redemptive expression. That’s all one can ask of football, isn’t it?