Archive | Soap Box

Ones that got away, aka “I love him so much! How can he DO that to me!?”

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Thiagopep

Just had an interesting discussion on Twitter that, of course, became the seed for a post, on the ones that got away and the reactions of supporters.

These days, no word can spark a spirited discussion like “Thiago.” Culers are never on the fence with this one, be it that Vilanova and the board cast him to the waves in a little papyrus basket, or he’s a little ingrate. After all the club did for him … .

There are many ways to look at the situation, but let’s take a broader view, for all the exes out there.
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Posted in Soap Box, Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors125 Comments

Myths, legends and difficult times for a football club, aka “The myth of Pep”

bunyan

So, there was this lumberjack named Paul Bunyan, and what a lumberjack he was. When he came into the world, it took not one, but five storks to bring him home. His hand claps and laughter broke windows and he was sawing legs off beds even though he could barely walk. He made a mountain, though he didn’t really know he was doing so, simply by piling rocks to put out his Bunyan-sized campfire.

Mes que un lumberjack Bunyan is described as being “64 axe handles high,” which by the 18-inch measurement of the average axe handle, makes him about 95 feet tall. And he traveled with the only blue ox in the history of mankind, Babe, who was sized to the same colossal scale as Paul Bunyan.
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Posted in History/Culture, Soap Box, Thoughts129 Comments

The burden of expectations, aka “We’re doomed … I think”

"Didn't I used to suck?"

“Didn’t I used to suck?”

I just want to make sure that I understand this correctly:

FC Barcelona won its opening Champions League match 4-0 over Ajax. The team is still unbeaten this season, and perfect in two competitions.

Okay. Got it.

Like Victor Valdes, Barça is this thing that nobody will realize is as good as it is, until it is gone. And make no mistake, this glorious, winning, conquering team will, at some point in the not all that distant future, be gone.

I’m not sure how people will take it. Will buildings have to bolt windows shut to keep people from leaping from them? Will the FC Barcelona bandwagon blow a strut from all the people leaping off it at the same time? Lord knows. (Shudder!) Meanwhile …
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Posted in Soap Box, Thoughts151 Comments

More Than A Slogan: Eric Abidal and FC Barcelona

“Abidal’s new contract has been written and as soon as he plays his first game, we’ll put pen to paper.” – Barcelona vice president Josep María Bartomeu, 12 December 2012

At the time, Eric Abidal accepted his departure with the grace that characterised his behaviour at Barcelona. He could have raged then about broken promises, about the club’s failure to communicate with him over a period of at least 3 months. He could have said many things, but he didn’t.

Instead, this is what he said:

“I didn’t take a decision because when your contract isn’t renewed, you don’t have a choice,” Abidal said. “The club’s decision is difficult to accept because part of my battle was for my family but also for the club. I would have liked to have finished my career or had another year here at Barcelona. I respect the choice of the club, the staff and the board. I leave with six years of happiness, titles and good friends.”

To many, the image of Abidal raising the Champions League trophy at Wembley was the pinnacle of the Guardiola era. Maybe the pinnacle of modern Barca. It was perfect – the club’s triumph interwoven with a personal triumph that touched so many. We cried and cheered for him. His struggle was our source of strength, as the slogan went.

When Barca subsequently renewed his contract in January 2012, it was a fantastic gesture of faith, a recognition of the role he had already played in making the best Barca ever possible, and an acknowledgement that he was important to the future of the team.

So what changed a year later, beside the glaring fact that Abidal was now, by the club’s own admission, healthy and cleared to play, having made a Herculean effort to recover from a liver transplant?

No explanation has ever been offered for Barca’s decision, as an institution, to go back on its word and decline to offer Abidal a new contract. Or, depending on how much of a fib Bartomeu was telling, to withdraw any standing offer. This in itself was insult enough – by dodging the question, the club implied that maybe Abidal wasn’t quite as fit as they’d made out when he made his emotional comeback months earlier, and made it harder for him to find a new club.

I doubt we’ll ever find out the truth behind the decision to let Abidal go unless someone involved has a decisive break with the current regime. And the fans aren’t the only ones wondering. Some of the players are, too.

The reality is that the decision was and is unjustifiable, even taking the most cold-eyed, pragmatic view. Barca needed and still need a player like Abidal. They scoured the transfer market without finding anyone they could buy to fill that gap this summer. We don’t know if the club doctors genuinely thought he couldn’t play on, but the club certainly never said so and subsequent events make it seem unlikely.

If the club had thought better of its earlier stated decision and wanted to mitigate the risk of offering a multi-million contract to a player with potential health problems, it could have set up a pay-as-you-play deal. Even if they had cold feet about the supposed contract that was ready to sign as soon as Abidal played a game, they could have sat down with him and at least tried to work something out. That would have been prudent and humane, and in line with Barca’s previous treatment of him. Instead, the club ducked all attempts by Abidal and his agent to set up a meeting for 3 months, leaving him in limbo until the end of May, when he was told that despite the club’s public promises to the contrary, his contract would not be renewed.

The club’s behaviour demonstrated a lack of basic competence, if not actual bad faith, and continued a troubling trend.

“For Barcelona to renew with Abidal when they knew he would need a liver transplant shows the greatness of this club.” – Pep Guardiola, March 2012

I cried when Abidal raised the cup. I cried again that terrible day of the press conference as I read about what had happened: the tears of Abidal and the other players, the disturbing, buck-passing performances by Rosell and Zubizarreta, and the equally disturbing failure by any members of the press to ask the obvious questions. This time, my tears were an expression of anger.

Something happened that day as Abidal dried his eyes and Rosell grinned for the press. Something that’s very difficult to overcome – a feeling that we as a club had taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Barca’s image took a hit when we let Abidal go, all the more so because of the way his story had been woven into our club’s recent history of glittering success. Because, and here comes that hated word, Barca’s support of him had become part of our ‘brand’. We didn’t just win. We played well, we won, and Abidal raised the cup. That’s impeccable. Nobody could dent that. Nobody else, anyway.

Eras don’t end with defeats. Defeat happens to everyone. Eras end when we become something other than ourselves.

“The recovery of our manager, Tito Vilanova, and the return of Abidal to active football have provoked emotions that are as intense as or even more intense than anything any title can bring. These have been triumphs of life, victories that reward the struggles of human beings that reach beyond the boundaries of sport”. – Sandro Rosell, April 2013

This is Barca. This is what we do now. We make real people into symbols of mes que un club, to make us look and feel good. We make their stories of struggle and triumph into clip reels set to stirring music, and we use their adversity to make our triumph seem greater.

That’s fine.

(Even though it seems a bit much for the club to take credit for supporting Abidal through his long recovery now that we know the club didn’t bear the financial burden. His last contract had a clause that allowed the club to terminate if he was out for longer than 6 months. He and the club agreed to suspend his contract instead, and he wasn’t paid by Barca for the 12/13 season until his comeback. But I digress. That’s not the big problem here.)

What’s not so palatable is discarding the real people after the fact. The club doesn’t get to dump the person and keep the reflected glory. His struggle is not ours to take strength from, because we responded to it with bad faith. We don’t get to talk about how special we are for supporting Abidal through his recovery when the club discarded him after he worked so hard to return.

We don’t even get to look at Abidal raising Big Ears and just feel good about it. Not anymore. Because we know what happened after.

Eric Abidal should still be playing for Barcelona. That he isn’t – and we still don’t know why – doesn’t make us just another football club. That wouldn’t hurt.

Every time Abidal plays for Monaco, every time he goes 90 minutes for France, it’s a personal triumph for him. It’s also a painful reminder for us.

We’re worse because we claim to be better. We’re hypocrites.

 

 

 

[Author's note:

I love this team. That's never changed, and it's probably never going to. Fundamentally, I derive more happiness from Barca than frustration and anger, and that's as it should be. Anyone who hasn't enjoyed being a Barca fan this past decade is probably doing it wrong.

At the same time, I have many, many issues with what Sandro Rosell is making this club into. None of these very serious issues have cut me to the core quite as deeply as what happened with Abidal. Hence this post.]

Posted in Analysis, Barcelona, Soap Box86 Comments

do not go gentle into that good night: decay, love and the winning habit

Asked what he would say to the young Barcelona fan crying for the first time last night, Guardiola replied: “Welcome to the club – there will be many more times, too.” – April 2012

It’s the end of an era! Pick up that shovel, we come not to praise Barca but to bury it. Gather around, we’re holding a bonfire of the accolades.

In the aftermath of such a traumatic defeat, that reaction is tempting. It would be easy to feel that way. I refuse.

*

Coaches are human beings. Footballers are human beings. They’re just as vulnerable to accident or depression or illness as you or I. If we ever needed a reminder of this, we need only glance at Barca’s manager on the sidelines. How many of us would be working in his state? Be honest. How many of us would be working if our job was as stressful as his and required the kind of hours we know his predecessor regularly put in?

His predecessor was a young, healthy man. The job made him sick. It made him old.

Tito Vilanova is in the second round of his battle against cancer.

Read that again. I’m not pointing this out to make excuses. I’m pointing it out because it’s what happened.

Then there’s entropy, which happens to every great team. At the simplest level, the aging process is slowly depriving some of the best players Barca have ever had of their powers. It’s hideous to watch someone that good be ordinary. But that’s what happens.

We can only thank them for the amazing memories they’ve given us; the sacrifices they’ve made, both visible and unsung, to make this team great.

*

To me, the best of Barca is this: Leo Messi bearing up under whatever burden we place on his shoulders, no matter how heavy; Xavi’s willingness to play through pain and injury (even though we should never ask that of our players); the extra effort Carles Puyol puts in to achieve full fitness faster; Gerard Pique sitting down at a press conference and telling the world this team wasn’t done; the commitment of the likes of Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano to Barca’s philosophy, in words and in deeds; the quiet labour of Sergio Busquets; the confidence and composure of kids like Marc Bartra and Martin Montoya when tossed onto the biggest of stages; the number of players who turn up on days off to work; Tito Vilanova’s heartbreaking dedication to his job in the face of a life-threatening illness; and the Herculean recovery of Eric Abidal.

I am proud of this team. I’m proud of what they have accomplished so far, and the potential they have to be greater still.

A few setbacks can’t and won’t change that.

*

’The most esteemed club side of the past decade, playing in their sixth successive semi-final of this competition, suffered their heaviest European defeat since going down by the same score to Dynamo Kyiv in 1997.’ – April 2013

Nothing reflects the esteem in which this team has been held quite as well as the media reactions to Barca’s defeat in Munich. Through seasons of consistent excellence, Barca earned its status as the perennial favourite. It became the gold standard.

From dysfunctional underachievers who occasionally got their act together Barca became a genuine force, one with a seemingly endless thirst for success and a winning formula. It also painted a target on its back. Eventually, a new challenger was going to arrive, starved for recognition and hungrier for it.

Whatever intimidating aura Barca had as the leading force is gone now, squashed down into a shape befitting a very good team. The challenge is now to build it back up, one win at a time.

*

One of the best parts of being a sports fan is the simple joy of one’s team winning a game. Depending on who we support, it can be a rare delight or a regular pleasure.

But winning should never become obligatory. It should never be something we as fans feel entitled to from our teams. Not least because that takes away the sweetness of it.

If Barca wins the league in the next two weeks, it will be a cause for celebration. A proper party, fireworks and open-top buses and speeches at Camp Nou. Don’t give me that crap about the job being done ages ago and lack of competition and Big Ears being the only important trophy. Remember how much it hurt to lose the title to Madrid last year? I don’t know about you, but to me it really fucking hurt.

Think of all this team has had to overcome to win it back.

The league is not a “clandestine tournament played between Champions League ties”, as Zubi sarcastically noted. It’s big and it’s important and it rewards consistent excellence.

Think of Abidal and Tito raising that trophy. Are you smiling now? I am.

*

The last 4-0 loss I remember was really, truly ugly. Barca were in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, up against Getafe. In the first leg, a young Messi had scored that goal, and they’d won 5-2. Frank Rijkaard decided to leave the kid at home for the return. The team he put out was embarrassed.

Things got worse from there.

As bad as it was, and as awful as it felt at the time, those years in the wilderness passed. It took them a while, but Barca rededicated itself to its best ideas and ideals, and rose again.

This is a story you all know, so why am I telling it?

‘From Wembley to Wembley Barcelona has undergone an extraordinary process of maturing … There is no better defence of an idea than victories, but there is no better victory than the fact that the stability of a club does not depend exclusively on a final result, but on a route map. That is the greatness of this Barça, which, make no mistake, will also be the principles that will enable them to vaccinate themselves in defeat.’ – May 2011

I’m going to get uncomfortably personal for a bit. Bear with me.

Someone who was very close to me died in May 2009. But thanks to this team, whenever I think of that month, the suffocating grief isn’t the only thing I remember. I think of the only thing that managed to make me crack a smile that week – Andres Iniesta’s goal, Messi’s tears, Pep’s run the down Stamford Bridge touchline. Good memories, memories I treasure.

We cules are lucky bastards. We’ve been blessed with this brilliant team. Keep the faith.

Ser del Barça és el millor que hi ha!

Posted in Soap Box27 Comments

Whither thou goest, confidence, aka “I need my No. 10 blanky!”

psgmessi

So Barça advanced against PSG. It wasn’t luck, as some suggested in the aftermath, nor was PSG the better side. The better side won the tie, and it won the tie without playing at anything approaching its best over two legs.

As the semi-finals approach, with the draw being held later today, that level will have to rise, but people should be proud of their sprites, even as once that semi opponent is known, too many will spend time drawing out the ways that we are going to lose, instead how we are going to win. As with PSG.

“Defense is bad,” “Offense is bad,” everything is bad. But our team gutted it out against a serious opponent with quality. But that opponent just didn’t have the absolute quality that we did, and that was the difference. They have Maxwell, we have the starting LB for the Spanish NT. Position for position, we are a more talented squad, and we advanced to a staggering to contemplate SIXTH Champions League semi-final in a row. That is absurd. Magic times.

But there were some troubling things in yesterday’s match that are worth commenting on.

On the weekend, Barça laid a manita on Mallorca at home. No, PSG is not Mallorca, and not just because of the price tag difference. They are stronger, faster and more aggressive than us. The difference is that in the past that didn’t matter, as that was true of almost every opponent that we played. The difference was in confidence, in teammates and in the system. There seems to be a lot less of those qualities now, and it isn’t just me that is noticing this. Iniesta admitted to Messidependencia in the pre-match presser. But it has gone from charming, something that we could all josh about, to something significantly more troubling for this cule, who wants the absolute best for the club that he loves.

Zonal Marking on the match

Excellent piece from Lee Roden on the match, and Bartra.

Sid Lowe hits the nail on the head.

Finally, some very astute observations from Miguel Delaney.

These pieces all say essentially the same thing, even as they draw different conclusions from that thing: Messi has become psychologically essential for Barça.

Having the best player in the world is one thing. But for me, being fundamentally unable to play to your capabilities without that player against a quality opponent is something else altogether. There were many other glaring deficiencies in yesterday’s match, on an individual and team level. But the best players in the world don’t stop being the best players in the world without their No. 10 blanky. That they seem to be now is distressing, and an ongoing bit of the psychic laziness that crept in as that last Guardiola season wound to a close.

Does opponent quality have something to do with it? That is, is our quality is so high that nobody in La Liga is capable of preparing us to face a strong European side? Some say that. I don’t think so. That quality gap has always been there, and it hasn’t troubled us before. Time and injuries contribute. None of our players, save Messi, Iniesta and Busquets, are the players they were when this run of excellence started (restricting this evaluative to players who were with us at the time). But it’s more than that. Preparation of successors is a factor, specifically in the cases of Thiago and Bartra, but it’s still deeper than that, and even outside of the match analysis from yesterday, there are problems. Against PSG at home:

Villa spent too much time standing around like a disinterested has-been.

Xavi had a 100% passing percentage to precious little effect. He is clearly not 100%, but we have no option in that spot.

PSG very intelligently attacked us in a way that isolated Busquets. Same as at their house.

Lack of pressure meant that PSG could run at our defense, which infuriated Valdes, the man who saved the day for us. Look at their goal. If you pause it when Pastore gets the ball, he is already behind the two players with the best chance to stop him. Alves and Adriano are chasing back, but it’s already too late. A more traditional team probably doesn’t concede that goal, because its defenders are closer to the box, but Barça isn’t a traditional team. Always risk. Pedro’s stray pass caught the whole team out.

Iniesta became the New Messi as the PSG defense switched its emphasis to him.

Alves had a dull match overall, but was not helped by being unable to take advantage of the space he was given because Villa and Pedro were too easily controlled by the PSG defenders.

The whole team played as if scared of something, snatching at shots and misplaying passes, including Villa’s first-half miss.

The players seemed afraid to shoot, as if they didn’t want to take responsibility. I can only speculate that overall timidity contributed to poor technical form, which is why so many shots went into orbit.

Fabregas’ companion was having a kid. During the match. He should have been with her physically. His head was.

The more time that Bartra gets, the better he looks. His play yesterday was very significant in the final result. The defense looked more assured and in control, and Valdes’ stress factor went down.

Despite all the problems, the team advanced because that is what great teams do. PSG played an excellent match, and we didn’t. That we still advanced speaks to the quality that this club has. But the loss of confidence when Messi isn’t on the pitch is at some point going to bite this team in the butt. Maybe akin to imagining everyone in the audience naked, as an aid to get over public speaking difficulties, we should imagine all future opponents in Mallorca shirts.

Was the difference between PSG and Mallorca as simple as saying that Sanchez should have started? Some say. I do think there would have been more movement to trouble the PSG defense with Sanchez as part of the XI. But that still doesn’t address the overall issue for me.

We seem like a bully who has a bigger bully waiting in the wings, when Messi isn’t playing. We can whomp on Mallorca just fine, and play the system and all. But when a bigger kid comes to the schoolyard, it becomes “Oh yeah? Just you wait until Leo comes in! We’ll fix your wagon.”

It is also absolutely true that while I am pointing out the dark side of Messidependencia, there is also the “Uh, oh ….” side that works on opponents, who have reverted to the psychological “The witch is dead” mode, who must now make the mental change. PSG didn’t, and the combo of Messi up front and Bartra at the back made a big difference.

It must also be said that Messidependencia isn’t Messi’s fault. He’s just doing what he does. It’s everyone else that is getting used to having him around, so much so that, as he becomes a more significant part of the team’s overall approach, seems to leave a Messi-less mess. This isn’t how the system is supposed to work.

To be sure, the system works better with a complicit opponent, but it doesn’t require complicity from its opponent to work. It does, however, require competence from its instruments. The spaces were there yesterday. Execution would have done the trick. It was like ultimate belief was lacking, and don’t kid yourself: belief is crucial at the highest level of athletics. Looking at a tennis player such as Andy Murray as an example, he has had the tools to beat the top players for some time. But now he has the belief, and his game is different because of that belief.

Overall, it struck me against PSG that our belief in the system seemed lost, as if so many moments of individual genius from one player has people thinking that it needs those to succeed. Messi is an awesome force who will go down in history as the best player ever. But he shouldn’t have been needed yesterday, and I find it very troubling, long-term that he was. Is some of it a coaching staff issue, as they said “We have this great thing, now let’s build around it?” Absolutely. But it is the dependence upon that great thing that can also be a hindrance.

Yes, you should want to have the greatest player in the game on the pitch. But players of the quality that we have should be able to function well enough to beat a quality side, without that player. The draw was a surprise. I was expecting a 2-1 win, but I will take it and be happy.

Now the team has time to rest, and heal. Messi shouldn’t play for two weeks. Neither should Xavi. Busquets could also use a break. Because whoever we draw in the semis (I would prefer Bayern) will be a handful. This team can win the Champions League, and I still think that we are the favorites.

But short of emergency therapy sessions, and I confess to not ever thinking I would say this, my ultimate confidence that our players can get this done even without Messi, is shaken to the core.

Posted in Champions League, Soap Box, Thoughts100 Comments

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