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It was a breezy February night in San Sebastian when the team stepped onto the pitch with one leg in the final. They had won the home game by two goals to none, but that didn’t mean much to the men who mattered. Or at least it shouldn’t have. The Anoeta was a tough ground that did not suffer blaugranas gladly. It was only last season that they lost there, and that was after not losing for more than twenty games in a row. You never quite know what you’re getting into until you’re in it. That’s what they told themselves, anyway. Besides, the win at home was far from convincing, according to some. If fans had a bone to pick, the players didn’t want to throw them any. Tata was not a cautious coach by nature.
I prefer to think of myself as pragmatic, he said, but not out loud, and certainly not in Catalonia.
So it was that he brought out his gala XI, or at least something that came close.
Pride entered Hernandez’s heart when he looked down at the red and yellow band around his arm. It was a bit tight. With his right hand he adjusted it. He felt weird when he thought of himself as capita. It didn’t matter, because nobody called him that. One thing was for sure. He was closer to the end of his career than the beginning. As a player, anyway. He could feel it in his bones.
What the hell, he thought.
I have been playing with pain for years now.
Rare were the days that his tendons did not hurt. For some reason his mind wandered off to mushrooms, but not for long. Not that he cared what other people thought. He had a game to play. So he started passing the ball. And passing it some more. He passed it to Busquets a lot.
That guy is so smart, he thought.
He knows where I’m going to pass the ball before I do.
Xavi liked having the ball. He liked when his team had possession. Receive it, pass and move. Receive, pass, move. Receive, pass, move. It is simple, really, but it isn’t really. Still, this is his game. How he was taught to play at the academy. A clear philosophy. He liked that. It made him proud to play for this club. His club. Receive, pass, move. To be honest he no longer liked chasing the ball all that much. He didn’t have the legs for it any more. Or the stamina. This is a young man’s game.
But they can’t control the game like me, he thought.
He passed the ball some more.
Mascherano started the match with fire in his belly. His first intervention was all ball. So was his second. On the third one Carlos Vela was not so lucky. Mascherano left the Mexican sprawling on the grass. Charlie’s face grimaced with pain. El Jefecito didn’t blink.
I’m gonna put you on your back faster than an aspiring actress on the casting couch of a telenovela producer, he thought.
He was way too classy to actually say it. Even though it’s true. Nothing good can come from saying it.
Pass the ball, Leo, said Martino.
It takes two to tango, and we’re a long way from Argentina.
Ché boludo, thought Leo.
He and Tata were from the same hometown. The same boyhood club, too. Heck, for a while there both of them played for Newell’s Old Boys at the same time, although Leo was still in a youth squad. And now Martino was the head coach of the club he had joined as a 13 year old pibe from Rosario. La Pulga, they called him. The Flea. Well, the Flea would become the only player to ever win four Golden Balls. There might be more where that came from, too. Leo Messi was only twenty-six and he broke records as if they were made out of candy glass. He was a short man, but nobody in the club was bigger. Nobody in football, for that matter. He loved to dance through defenses. Just loved it. Then he saw Pedro open on the right. He passed him the ball.
Ha, thought Andrés.
With a quick turn he lost his marker.
Gerard ran as fast as he could.
I wish I could be young like Pinto, he thought.
He got to the ball before Vela, but only just. If he didn’t make up for the rest of the squad’s lack of height, Piqué could find himself in serious trouble. Relatively speaking, that is. He’d still be a millionaire, of course. And he’d find another club where he could dedicate his goal celebrations to his girlfriend.
Her hips don’t lie, he thought.
But he loved F.C. Barcelona and he dreamed of being its captain one day, despite his unfortunate surname. He didn’t understand why people held his relation with the Colombian superstar against him. It’s not like other footballers don’t have girlfriends to distract them at night. Ok, he understood but he didn’t agree and sometimes he’d say as much when asked by a reporter.
Capita, he dreamed.
Me Tarzan, you Shakira.
He liked the sound of that. So did she.
Busquets received the pass. He knew he would. His mind was not like that of anybody else. He did not have to think.
Griezman is four steps away behind my left shoulder, he knew.
He knew this before Griezman knew it. He could pass the ball to Piqué or to Dani Alves or back to Xavi or to Cesc. To Dani Alves would be risky. Cesc was the best option. Busquets always chose the best option. His mind was not like that of anybody else. He did not have to think.
José Angel did not see Lionel Messi standing there. Either that or his brain and his foot were in disagreement. How many times had his dad told him about playing passes across the middle. He started running but it was too late.
I got this, said the Flea.
He took the ball at the halfway line and ran with it. No defender could keep up. When he almost reached the penalty area he hit the ball with his left foot. Zubikarai got his hands to it but could not parry the shot. The ball bounced gently into the goal. Messi raised both arms and pointed at the sky. Barça was up one nil.
Cesc loved this. Finally free to do his thing. For the past two years he had played as if under a restraining order. Tiki here. Taka there. Playing for the man whose poster he once kept on the wall was not easy. Tata made him feel important.
Pedro, he thought.
Before he finished the thought he sent a lob over the defense. Pedro controlled it and shot. Zubikarai did well to block it. No matter. Cesc felt confident he would create another chance.
Dani Alves jumped, but not high enough. The ball flew over his head. Culers could be forgiven for thinking it was Mascherano. Especially those watching the game on a live stream. Carlos Vela received the ball, but could not equalize. Pinto blocked the shot. Dani Alves cleared the rebound. He chose the safe option and gave up a corner. The referee would soon blow the whistle. As they made their way to the dressing room, he wondered whether Tata would make any substitutions.
Mascherano sent the ball flying at his own goalkeeper. The second half had just started. High balls are definitely not his forte and he mishit it completely. Pinto kept his cool and volleyed it back into safety. That feeling that somebody is watching. When you’re in the supermarket. Or when you’re sitting in the bus. Feeling eyes staring at you. You turn around and sometimes you catch them with your own, but not always. It makes some people uncomfortable, but not Pinto. He had always liked that feeling.
Wake up, he yelled at Javier.
He liked pressure, too. When he was at Celta da Vigo, he won the Zamora. That was his best year, professionally. But he loved playing for Barça. He would have preferred more people to show up for Copa games at the Camp Nou, but that’s okay. After all, he was the back-up goalkeeper. At other clubs the back-up only plays in the pre-season. Pinto was the oldest player in the squad, but he didn’t feel like it and he sure as hell never acted like it. Besides, he had the reflections of a younger man.
Shoot, shot through his mind.
You’re only as old as you feel.
He hoped they would renew his contract. For the life of him he didn’t understand why Victor wanted to leave. This club gave them everything, and the guys in the dressing room were awesome. He loved them. Pinto thought Victor was different, that’s all.
Maybe he doesn’t like all those people watching him, he thought.
They should watch me instead.
Ha, thought Andrés.
He slipped between two defenders.
Up and down, up and down, up and down and up and down.
I own this flank, said Dani Alves.
I used to own this flank would have been a more accurate statement. For years now culers had argued about whether or not he was done. He wasn’t. Not yet. But neither was he the same as those first three seasons at the club. At least not consistently so. Many fans blamed it on account of him being Brazilian. Not because they are racist. Probably more because it was an easy thing to say.
Brazilians never remain motivated throughout their whole career, they said.
They love to party too much.
That might be so, but don’t tell Marcos Evangelista de Moraes that. Better known as Cafu to some. Dani Alves plays harder than people give him credit for. As a boy he would run to school, where he would run through its corridors and then he would run home. Under the blistering sun. He never stopped running. But one day he will be tired. Today was not that day.
Zubikarai is not a bad goalkeeper. That might sound funny, but only if Messi has a sense of humor. Cesc missed the rebound, but he is okay with not burying every chance he gets. At least one would think so. He was enjoying his football this season and he was playing well today. So were his teammates. Barça was very dominant. They hadn’t been this dominant since, well since the last time they were that dominant. There was something about the old Barça about them, the way they were playing. Not the real old Barça, but the Barça that would be considered old by new fans. The Barça of three, four years ago.
Ha, thought Andrés.
The keeper saved his shot, but it felt good anyway. He didn’t know why he scored so little. Everything else seemed to come easy to him. It’s not like he couldn’t shoot the ball. Or finish chances. He had some real beauties to his name. Some real important ones, too. Maybe he simply wasn’t raised to score a lot of goals. His father had always taught him that modesty was a virtue. The Anoeta booed him whenever he got the ball but it didn’t bother him all that much. He was just happy to be there. He considered himself very lucky to be cheered throughout the most of Spain. Not that he would ever let it get to his head. He was way too modest for that.
Tata stood and watched his team. His feet firmly planted behind the sideline, he bent his upper torso forward, leaned backward and straightened up again. He didn’t care that he looked funny in the eyes of some. Not in the slightest.
Worrying about stuff like that ain’t gonna get me nowhere, he thought.
Every day he woke up grateful for managing the club. For working with these players. In his eyes they were the best of the world. If someone thought that that would make his job any easier, they’d be mistaken. It didn’t. Nor would he have wanted it to, to be honest. This was the biggest club of his career. Probably the biggest he would ever work at. Sure, culés would always complain about one thing or the other. The team was too predictable. Too defensive. Too Messidependent. Too this. Too that. They might treat him differently if he were Catalan.
Or Dutch, he thought.
But most of all culés complained because he wasn’t Pep. Ain’t a damn thing he could do about that. Still, if they thought this would affect him they had another thing coming. As if the Primera A was a walk in the park. In Argentina people were usually busy doing one of two things. That is complaining about their president, or complaining about their football coach.
Alexis, you’re up, he said.
People always asked Alexis why it was he never sweat when all he did was run the whole darn time.
Shiiii-iiiit, he would say.
Where I’m from there’s too much damn dust to sweat. Besides, my family was poor. I just couldn’t afford to lose any water.
Life sure is rough in the Third World sometimes. And so he runs but does not sweat. You can take the boy out of the dusty shantytowns of Tocopilla but you can’t take the dusty shantytowns of Tocopilla out of the boy. Especially not now they named a street after him. Hard work is what got him this far, and he’d be damned if he didn’t go any further.
Playing football without busting your ass is like playing Monopoly without dice, he thought.
Not that he ever had played Monopoly in his youth. He just thought it sounded like a cool thing to say, and maybe he would one of these days. He might even tweet it. For now it was just a thought. If football were a game of fetch Alexis Sánchez would be the top dog. That’s something he never did think of, but one suspects he would have liked to.
In the end Real Sociedad equalized. It was a real belter, too. Fair enough. You can’t win them all, even those in which you dominate. The fans went home happy. The fans of both clubs. The Basques had not given up and had saved their honor. The Catalans had another Clasic to look forward to. Some are fed up with Clasics already. There sure have been a lot of them over the last couple of years. But that’s neither here nor there. The truth is, this was a mighty fine football match. The fans went home happy.