Archive | Thoughts

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

I can’t remember the first time I “spoke” with Kevin via the Internet, though I can remember the first time I met him in person. I was in Chicago visiting a couple of friends, taking a much needed break from New York, and I was sitting in a high school gym watching roller derby for the first (and to date only) time in my life. It was Kevin’s first roller derby match as well and he was giddy with finding this sudden and apparently rather serious subculture within the confines of his own city. Because my friend was reffing the match and I was otherwise alone, I had been instructed to watch a video detailing the rules of roller derby and I think I might have even had it on my phone at the time to give me a refresher when I had no idea what was going on. I probably prattled about the rules, thinking I understood things, since I tend to prattle. Kevin just grinned and nodded, so consumed with watching this whole thing, that pretty quickly his general approach of all in or nothing was infectious enough to shut me up and focus me on the women speeding around a track.

It’s that same intensity and all-consuming fire that Kevin brought to BFB for so many years. And it’s that same fire and intensity that kept him going through the “lean” years when he was virtually the only voice on the blog. I calculated that he wrote infinity kajillion words over the last 2 years and that he did it in the amount of time it’s going to take me to write this single post. He and I disagreed on a lot of Barça things, possibly on more things than we ever agreed on, but he always brought his willingness to write through the growing pains, which fascinated me as a writer and continues to fascinate me as a thinker. I always secretly compared him to Andrew Sullivan, whose voice and style were for years a somewhat under-the-radar pleasure of mine. Like Sully, Kevin has been accused of “blog first, ask questions later,” but, as with Sully, that’s a mistake.

Kevin may be a lot of things but a bad writer he is not. He is always straight to the point; often I disagreed with the gist of an article, but I never disagreed with his willingness to state his opinions in bold letters, which, if you were around this blog more than 2 years ago, you know can be somewhat of a issue for me. Beyond that, he is a fantastic editor. Whenever I send him a post or an article to edit, his thoughts are straightforward; the knife he uses to destroy my pieces is sharp and exacting, but always pleasant, like some sort of anesthetized medical procedure where you thank the doctor before the pain sets in and you curse him until you realize how necessary the surgery was. My favorite part of that analogy is how Kevin is currently cringing and thinking I should get to the damned point. Sorry, bud.

Behind-the-scenes here at the blog we keep in touch with email threads, sometimes blending shop talk about who will post what and when with small scale threads and or large scale link explosions. In one, Kevin was compared to Xavi, going out with a treble because, like Xavi, Kevin is leaving the team. It’s a nice comparison, but I’d like to think instead that Kevin is going out like Guardiola the coach: on his own terms at his own moment. Burnout is real and the constant nattering of small-minded commenters will wear on you after a while, regardless of whether you’re part of a blog team or a world-beating football team. I feel like Tata Martino right now, jumping in on the heels of dynasty, just hoping that things go well enough to not get fired. We’ll see about that, I guess.

And so here we are, saying goodbye. It’s been many, many moons since that day in Chicago, but someday soon, we’ll have to go see the Outfit (Chicago’s derby little secret!) again and maybe we’ll talk about Barça or maybe we’ll just watch in silence as the wheels roll around. Sometimes it’s nice to just relax and be where you are.

Posted in Goodbyes, Thoughts15 Comments

Changes and farewells

What a ride. When I started as a commenter over at The Offside Barcelona, who ever thought a space with a few voices would become something as interesting as it did. Back then, when I was just another voice in the crowd and Isaiah asked me to consider becoming a moderator, I was, frankly, terrified. I was then (and still am) learning about the team, the players, the history and how to watch and explain matches. Thoughts became reviews became something else, etc, etc.

When The Offside/Barcelona expanded into Barcelona Football Blog, leaving the comforting arms of The Offside corporate family, it was a risk. As the space grew and grew, into what I still believe to be the best English-language Barça site out there because of what it does, it also seemed something of a family because the comments space was a significant part of the feeling and mood of the space. We developed one hell of a powerhouse team for a while. Mods came and went, commenters came and went but through it all, the sense of pulling toward a common goal and a common love always remained intact.

I’ve tried to walk away from this space more than a few times for many reasons, and could always find a reason to stay. Time crunches were worked around by not spending more than an hour on any post, etc. Someone or something, usually me, has always worked to keep me here, often a sense of obligation in not wanting to see something that was so much fun wither on the vine. It’s huge fun thinking about the club in ways that are outside of the norm, being able to roll in after an event and contribute something that I hoped would spark discussion. I learned a lot, and hopefully shared something of what I had with people.

Things are very different these days, and not just the state of discourse. The site’s spiritual father has returned, which is huge. Isaiah is a writer whose quality attracted me to The Offside/Barcelona back in the day, and still makes me green with envy. He loves this club just as much as any of us, even if, as with all of us, real life conspired to intrude on his active demonstration of that love. His return makes me a lot more comfortable and confident in being able to move on with a clear mind.

Being better at “Hellos” than “farewells” (and who isn’t?), it’s easy and pleasing to say that the blog will be in excellent hands with Isaiah and Levon, and probably a few other mods who will be stepping up to the plate. Don’t be shy about shooting Isaiah a note. There have been some top-quality comments flowing here. In the past, commenters such as Kari, Euler, nzm and blitzen moved up from the comments space, and I am sure that will happen again. It’s the way that it always does, as in many ways a comments space is like Barça B, right? There will also be the likes of SoccerMom, whose stuff deserves a lot more love than it gets. She’s also in my “green with envy” group.

But my time here has run its course. I will certainly find other outlets for writing about Barça and the beautiful game, as that’s just too much fun to stop. But as with any family, there are changes: divorces, kids growing up, and the like. It’s part of the deal. The fun that was had here was huge, and there have been some memorable commenters along that road, from Euler to Ramzi, ciaran and Jim, Jnice, Jawsytown who always held my ideas’ feet to the fire, Peter, barca96, CuleToon with the insider’s view and so many, many others who shared knowledge and insight that I, and hopefully others, learned from. Frankly, the smartest thing we did was opening comments to one and all registered users. So much good has come from that, things that have made this space and its writers better.

Most important is that the space isn’t going to die, most assuredly. I’m over the moon to be able to hand it over to its father. And as much as I dislike official goodbyes, just wanted to put something up for folks who might wonder, “Whatever happened to that jackass?”

Thanks again, and for anyone interested, I am @kevvwill on Twitter. Visca!

Posted in Goodbyes, Thoughts25 Comments

Bartomeu and Laporta, more alike than anyone cares to admit

And then there were two …

Now that Joan Laporta has declared for the elections and we know that Bartomeu is already in, the two 1,000-pound gorillas are set to square off. Yes there are other candidates and the most interesting platform is that of Origen FCB, but reality is that there are only two candidates who have a viable shot at this thing, barring any compromising photos or new court proceedings.

What is absolutely fascinating is that there is, in reality and dependent upon the lens you use to have a gander, very little to choose from between them.

Laporta can say, “Do you want more of this?” and show a photo of himself with treble trophies.
Bartomeu can say, “Do you want more this?” and show a photo of himself with treble trophies.
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Posted in Analysis, Elections, Thoughts25 Comments

A salute to the forgotten man of this treble season, Andoni Zubizarreta

zubizarreta

It seems appropriate to take a moment to give a shout-out to the man who made so much of this Treble season possible, a forgotten man by many culers in their Triplete zeal but who was essential, a man who got shout-outs from the likes of Xavi, Rakitic and Puyol for his work.

No, not Luis Enrique, but Andoni Zubizarreta.
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Posted in Analysis, Thoughts, Transfers74 Comments

Sports, failure and a collective psyche

The Copa America match that featured Argentina vs Paraguay was, for this neutral, endlessly fascinating throughout, and entertaining after the final result.

After the match, of course, it was the expected, “Tata Martino screwed up.” But a very interesting Tweet from a pair of hyper-intelligent minds (and BFB mods) got me to thinking:

“What really gets me about the last 10 years as an Argentina supporter is the repeated self-sabotage. Bad subs, Maradona, the Tevez issue …”

And the reply:

“Is there a common denominator, or just history repeating? Different coaches, different players, similar patterns.”
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Posted in Analysis, Copa America, Messi, Thoughts21 Comments

It isn’t fashion. It’s tradition.

The problem with the new Barça shirt isn’t that it’s ugly, it’s that it’s repugnant in all senses of the word.

adjective: repugnant

1.
extremely distasteful; unacceptable.
“the thought of going back into the fog was repugnant to him”
synonyms: abhorrent, revolting, repulsive, repellent, disgusting, offensive, objectionable, cringeworthy, vile, foul, nasty, loathsome, sickening, nauseating, hateful, detestable, execrable, abominable, monstrous, appalling, insufferable, intolerable, unacceptable, contemptible, unsavory, unpalatable; More
informalghastly, gross, horrible, horrid;
literarynoisome
“the idea of cannibalism is repugnant”
antonyms: attractive, pleasant
2.
in conflict with; incompatible with.
“a bylaw must not be repugnant to the general law of the country”
synonyms: incompatible with, in conflict with, contrary to, at variance with, inconsistent with
“the restriction is repugnant to the tenancy”
archaicliterary
given to stubborn resistance.

It’s visually distasteful, but it is also in conflict with decades of tradition, the synthetic-fibered embodiment of so much of what the now-gone board stood for.

“You have your money. What’s the matter?”

It’s like a manager who manages the work instead of the people, not realizing that if your people are happy, the work takes care of itself. They market, they sponsor, they trumpet record profits and forecast a bright, shiny increase in club revenues for the coming season. But they fail to realize that it’s about more than money, just as that shirt, that thing they so casually screwed with, is more than a shirt.

It’s difficult to speak for everyone but for many culers, myself included, the shirt was automatic. Every year when the shirts went on sale, we bought them. Home, away and third kits. Reef blue? Okay. Variations on a theme? Okay. For me, that automatic acquisition ceased when the board decided to sell the front of the shirt to a commercial sponsor.

It ain’t the morality. It doesn’t matter who it is on the shirt front, though it might for some and is certainly lurking in an anteroom of the house of contention. It’s the simple reality of it. Someone scoffed at me that the shirt selling was essential, that the club couldn’t compete in the modern, big-money market without it. Of course. That 30m for a club with a half-billion Euros in annual revenues is life blood. Of course. I would have sold players before I sold the shirt.

But even with the sponsor, the shirt was tradition. Vertical stripes. How far back do you want to go? 1980s? 70s? 50s? 20s? Vertical stripes. This season, the club decided that horizontal stripes would be the way to go. Why? Good question.

Big clubs want to sell more shirts. Like fashion houses that attempt to capitalize on the whims of a public susceptible to marketing, clubs eye shirt revenue as a way to pad coffers. You can’t make money selling the same old shirt, right? Ask Real Madrid that as year after year, they sell an all-white home shirt. Not cream, not taupe, not off-white or beigeish-white. White. And people buy it. They buy it because they want a symbol of that club.

In all the years of buying Barça shirts, “I already have that one,” never entered the picture, nor did “I don’t like how that one looks.” That year’s shirt was and is, when donned on a match day or just because, a visible sign of love. This is my club. More casual fans wear the shirt. They pick one up because everyone is buzzing about Barça, maybe pick one up because Barça is cool. Reckon those folks don’t care about the hoops.

When I first started wearing Barça kit, more than dozen years ago, nobody asked. Nobody. Years passed, and by the Ronaldinho era, every now and again someone would shout “Ronaldinho!” at the sight of me in a Barça shirt.

Then one day, the year after the Guardiola Treble (how cool is it to have to designate which treble?) at the grocery store after watching a match at a pub, a checkout person said to me, “Barka! I love them!”

In the here and now, you can’t wear a Barça shirt anywhere without someone commenting on it. Picking up pizza last night I was wearing a jacket, and a guy walked up and said, “Barça! They had a pretty good season this year, huh?” Everywhere.

You wear the shirt because of identity. The club’s site says it best in the section on club identity: “But what is certain is that the Barça shirt has gone on to be one of the most recognisable and enigmatic shirt designs in world football.”

That same treatise, on the new-and-improved club site, suggests that the tradition is claret and blue. It says nothing about the stripes and the direction thereof, but make no mistake about it — the home kit has vertical stripes. It has always had vertical stripes. It is not something to be screwed with on a whim, because marketing guys think they will sell more shirts.

athletic

This year, when Athletic Club worked with Nike on new shirts, tradition was upheld. You can bet that when Real Madrid decides to work with Adidas, there isn’t a question about the home shirt. White. Our marketing guys? “Hey, what about hoops! I saw this other team with claret and blue hoops, and it was pretty cool.” Tradition isn’t a question. One Euro more is.

Those who find the sponsor business hooraw silly, scoff that there is no room for romance in the modern game, that the quaint idea of trading the shirt front for a commercial sponsor is selling a bit of the club’s soul is just silly romance. But romance is part of why you love a club, part of why you stare at a crappy stream on a tiny laptop at an ungodly hour of the morning, why we weep with joy and rage, scream when a player is sold or when the ball just refuses to go into the net. That is romance. And it isn’t just that there is room in the modern game for romance, it’s that romance is all that there is when you love a club.

A supporter doesn’t switch when a club has a poor season. “I followed Barka last year, but Chelsea is doing great this season. I want one of their shirts.” You’re in. All in. It’s pure romance. Donning that shirt becomes part of that romance, part of that attachment to a club. But romance is also tradition, romance is also pride. Romance is also not being able to countenance when marketing guys decide that a few Euros more is of greater value than tradition.

I like to think that the new site and its focus on claret and blue, without any mention of stripes is just because that’s what the historians believe, not some sort of marketing setup. “Don’t mention the stripes!” That such a thought even enters the picture is symbolic of the new world, in which seemingly everything is for sale.

One part of me hoped that tradition wasn’t, that romance wasn’t, that some things were sacrosanct. This year’s shirt is a symbol that such a thing isn’t true, that it is indeed about a few Euros more. It’s the modern game. Suck it up and get with the program. Sell the Camp Nou naming rights, paint a sponsor’s name on the stadium seats as big as “mes que un club.” Let’s go for it. “How else are we going to be able to afford Suarezes and Pogbas, you fool.”

“Mes que un club” is so often misused and misunderstood. When the club bought Luis Suarez, some misused it. As the club moved into the big-money world, still others misused it again. Even many supporters don’t quite grasp what it means, equating the phrase to some sort of moral crusade.

“Values” is a weird word. I believed, and still believe that the club ran afoul of its values when it signed Suarez. I think that values are important. Values are part of a club’s tradition. Any maybe, just maybe, in this season in which those values have been violated in so many ways, discarding tradition is a symbol in and of itself, as the last little bit of soul gets auctioned off to the marketing guys.

“Hoops! Yes! Brilliant!” Long skirts, short skirts, double-breasted jackets, single-breasted jackets, cuffs, no cuffs, and hoops. All are fashion items in the here and now, things to be marketed so that people will buy, buy, buy.

It has been said, never more so than this season, that the differences between Barça and Real Madrid are now insignificant. Same impatient, expectant fan bases, same giant clubs, the word “Galacticos” has even been tossed about in relation to the Barça front line. Culers have scoffed and snarled at those comparisons, which makes it a rather grim admission that at least they didn’t stomp on their tradition.

Posted in Supposition, Thoughts12 Comments

A Return, A New Beginning: Let’s Dance

I started a journey almost 2 years ago. It has been the most rewarding experience of my life to date and it is far from over. Parenthood happened and now my little girl is walking, talking, and occasionally chanting Visca el Barça. I think my work there is done, so it’s time to start writing again. I have never really strayed very far from BFB during my—let’s call it a sabbatical, shall we?—sabbatical and I’ve kept in fairly regular contact with Kevin as well.

The writers who contributed their time, energy, and brilliance to BFB before and during my hiatus are worthy not just of mention, but of praise: Kari, Blitzen, Levon, SoMa, Euler, NZM, Luke all carried the torch at one time or another. Some of them no longer write here, but they did not go unnoticed.

But let’s consider this for a moment: for 2 years, I changed diapers, wiped up an incredible variety of spills and unidentifiable liquid, went to music classes, slept about 4 hours total, and have definitely eaten standing up holding a stuffed penguin under my arm while using my feet to keep a raging mini-person from breaking into a kitchen cabinet filled with dangerous objects. Kevin, on the other hand, has been posting 4,000 word pieces on Barcelona and football in general almost every day for both of those years. I’m not sure who had the harder job. Mine, at least, eventually came with smiles of recognition and no server errors. For that, for his effort, for everything he’s done and all the times he hasn’t quit, I’m grateful. He kept this space going, kept the lights on. My hat is off to him.

Not that that means he can stop now. He’s not allowed. Definitely not now.

Now is when we turn our attentions to the next season, the season that awaits us, the future of this club. There are elections, extensions, signings, and tax fraud to discuss. I plan on discussing all of them throughout this summer and into next season. Will we see The (Cava-Fueled) Return of the (Catalan) King (Joan) or a triumph for He Who Has Never Been Elected? Beyond politics but still off the field, how does our club function as a member of a greater society, a larger footballing community, and as a member-driven entity? Let’s talk about shirt sales, shirt sponsors, stadium naming rights, transfer fees, to-loan-or-not-to-loan, foreign membership, and the Depor-FCB match fixing controversy. Hell, let’s do a Banquillo or two, shall we?

Let’s not go overboard, but let’s be happy and energetic. We won a triplete and we’ve got ourselves another 2 years (at least) of Dani Alves’ eyewear collection. I’m excited!

If you have any suggestions for topics throughout this summer, let’s hear them in the comments.

Posted in Thoughts40 Comments

A View From the City: The 2015 Champions League Final

Kaiser Wilhelm

This post is a guest post written by Isaiah. He traveled to Berlin for the 2015 Champions League final and this is how he experienced it. He can be found on Twitter as @rockofthune.

The sanctuary is a contemporary building, its interior cooler than the broiling sun outside. I’m sitting in a chair in the back row, looking up at the giant, hanging statue of Jesus. It is a modern take on the millennium-old concept of crucifixion: there is no cross, just a floating Jesus. Maybe he’s ascending to heaven or just looking out over his flock, I don’t know, but he looks peaceful, his face longer than ordinary depictions, his hands and feet oversized. What’s truly impressive about this space, however, are the walls; from the outside it’s just a drab, gray building, it’s octagonal shape rising out of a triangular patch of ground between 4 lane roads near Berlin, Germany’s Zoologischer Garten, but inside, it is a vibrant blue, a thousand squares of color glass pouring light in.

I am not a religious man, so it is not prayer that has brought me here, though the calm and cool of the sanctuary is a welcome respite from the heat of this early June day. I’m seated in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and while I breathe in this gorgeous space, Barcelona fans are nearby at an officially sanctioned Fan Zone. This is June 6, 2015 and in just over 5 hours, the Champions League Final will kick off in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, a few metro stops away. The fan zone is in front of the original church steeple, its former beauty reduced to an oddly elegant ruin, the victim of multiple direct hits in the bombing campaigns of World War Two. Many of the fans have tickets to the match itself, but several us are not so lucky and have to make do with the sense of camaraderie, the legality of drinking alcohol freely on the street, and finding a place showing the game.

My companion for the day, CJ, a good friend of mine from back in the States who happens to be in Berlin writing her dissertation and provided me with a ready made reason to ditch my domestic duties over a weekend and take a train 400 miles to the capital, ushers me out of the church and back into the masses of sweaty cules; senyeras and esteladas wave over their heads on long poles, scarves are balled up around fists and pumped in the air, and a circle of drums forms the nucleus and loudest point of this raucous crowd. The energy is infectious, even if the area itself is a drab affair, the only bits of Champions League merchandise on display is over-priced Heineken (though arguably any price whatsoever is too high) under an umbrella. There are some portapotties and a single FC Barcelona stand where they’re giving out keychains and flashing LED team crest pins. Fans stream in throughout the four or so hours we stay there, all-in-all maybe 500 have made the journey to this momentary Catalan outpost.

There are Juventus fans heading away from the area, maybe to their own fan zone at Alexanderplatz on the other side of the city or to the stadium, but there is no animosity on display. Indeed, the Berlin police reported afterward that there were 0 incidents involving fans over the entire weekend. While black and white jerseys dotted the city, they were routinely consumed by oceans of blaugrana; the similar ticket allocation suggested there were just as many Juve fans there and anecdotal evidence from those in attendance suggested Juve may even have had more fans actually in the stadium, but any quick glance around the city revealed far more Catalans than northern Italians. Both sets of fans though, were happy to pose together under antimadridista scarves or chant a variety of anti Real Madrid songs, the enemy of my enemy concept being a powerful dispeller of animosity on this occasion.

And suddenly it was time to cross Berlin to take our spots in the movie-theater-turned-bar that houses the Berlin Penya throughout the year and which was hosting a blowout viewing party. The site is a rambling building with sand out front, bare stone walls inside, and the feeling of a rundown arthouse. They had set up 3 large screens and, according to one of the members running the show, nearly 700 people attended when they were expecting 600. 2 of the screens were outside, but CJ and I grabbed prime seats inside, where the screen was not only the biggest, but also not affected by the sun, which wouldn’t be setting until after halftime. The downside is that there is no air conditioning and it was hotter than a coal furnace in there.

We saved our seats by placing my hat and my undershirt on the long wooden benches that made up the seating. And then we naturally turned to grilled sausage, dark beer, and meeting the variety of fans that had made the trip. A single mother whose life had taken her from her hometown in Colombia to Catalunya and ultimately to Berlin and her 7 year old daughter whose ended with the inevitable tears of a tired youngster overwhelmed by the delirious scenes around her. A pair of high school buddies from Burgos who are now living together in Poland. A crew of Swiss and Catalan Redditors meeting in person for the first time, their mishmash of languages an enjoyable challenge at times and a fun way of learning about their countries. A pair of honeymooning Californians on fast tour of the country that fortuitously involved their favorite team. We sat in one of the bar areas and chatted and drank with a pair of divorced Catalans who had nevertheless traveled together. CJ and I flooded our friends Whatsapps with pictures of flags, selfies, and videos of chants; we stuffed our faces and talked some more.

Eventually the whole reason for being in Berlin in the first place had to take place. We piled into the theater, excitement coursing through the crowd, the chants resuming. El Cant was shouted out by the whole crowd and then the game got under way. And we all know how it went after that. We also all know how I’ve proclaimed myself beyond the grasp of fear, but at 1-2 and in the 85th minute or so, I got down on my knees and stayed there until the final whistle. I could see how that might be misinterpreted as some sort of nervous prayer to the footballing gods, but I wasn’t worried. Instead, I was reveling in this team, these moments, and, in the end, the third goal.

After the match, when we were all beside ourselves with joy, in between flag wavings and chanting, I was telling everyone that would listen that I never expected to see another triplete in my lifetime. It’s a one time deal, a thing that you tell your children and grandchildren about while you show them the souvenir shirts and commemorative hats you got. Of all the teams in the world, yours was one of a handful that had been capable of pulling off such a great feat.

But then, suddenly, it was happening again. It was Xavi’s sendoff (cue the Xaaaavi, Xaaaavi chants) and what better way for one of the greatest players the team has ever seen to go out. While he did not play a starring role, he still lifted the cup and there were big smiles everywhere I looked. Whatever political chicanery is coming our way this summer, for those minutes, they were all gone. We were all in love again and we couldn’t wait to let everyone know it.

As I sit in the Kaiser Wilhelm church, surrounded by the blue light and the clicks of visitor’s cameras, I can hear a slow rumble of voices coming through the church’s doors. The noise swells from time-to-time, the words coming in clearly suddenly: I si tots animen, i si tots animen, i si tots animen, guanyarem, lo, lo-lo, lo, lo, loooo. I stand and follow CJ out the door, to do my part for the team I love, win or lose. I’m doing that now, just like I will be again in August, just like I will be in June of next year, whatever the stakes.

Thank you, Berlin.

20150606_230045

The author, minutes after the final whistle.

 

Posted in Champions League, Thoughts, View From The Stands42 Comments

Life isn’t like the movies … sometimes, it’s better

Sit down at a word processor and write the story of this Barça season, then shake your head. It’s crazy.

It’s always difficult to speak for everyone in a group, but these days are a pretty bizarre ride for this here culer.

And by “these days” I mean the last decade, from Ronaldinho’s samba football and Guardiola’s divine triangles to “Get em!” Enrique. What a time to be a culer, no matter when you came to the club.

It’s why it’s appalling when people want to make new fans somehow feel lesser because of when they came to the club. My interest in Barça started when the club was happy just to make Europe, much less dominate it. But that makes my joy no more or less real and valid than someone who just started following the club because they like Messi, and thought Guardiola was cool. Hell, people who are newer supporters find a lack of success even more wrenching than those who understand trophyless seasons and failure.

The culerverse is a big place.

But it’s still a bizarre ride because in this fairy tale season, a club and a team have embodied every single aspect of sport, and life. It’s still even deeper than that.

On April 27, 2014, Barça faced off against Villarreal. It was two days after the death of the club’s beloved Mister, Tito Vilanova. In a dark back room of a Chicago pub, lit only by the glow of flat-panel television sets, I sat on a bar stool and tried to hold it together during the moment of silence that preceded the match. It was impossible, just as it is impossible right now, as I type this.

And yet, in thinking about that time, staring at a laptop screen made blurry by a veil of tears and then thinking about today, comes the reminder that being culer is about everything. It’s rage, anger, mistrust, suspicion, delight, giddiness, exultation. It’s feeling betrayal as a favorite player is sold, it’s being happy when something wonderful happens to a millionaire in short pants who has no idea that you even exist. Sport consumes us because it is life, a crazy movie that lasts 90 minutes, breathless cliffhanger and love story.

I don’t care about the personal lives of the players, but you don’t have to look very hard to see magic and symbolism in the Iniestas welcoming a new child into the world in this amazing season, after the sadness of a miscarriage during a year that seemed cursed. If you were to write a story of a team and a season, this Barça and this season, and try to sell it as a book or movie, it would be rejected. “Make it more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Right down to Xavi lifting the Champions League trophy this has been a year of magic, culminating in making history and a club legend going out on top. This stuff is impossible to write. You wouldn’t dare. Too cheesy. The team’s last Champions League trophy was hoisted by a man who kicked cancer in the teeth, who left a note in the locker room of the stadium that hosted the final, a promissory note of greatness. And when that team’s Captain marched up to the podium, handing over the captain’s armband and letting that player hoist the trophy … “Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Xavi is past it. So many believed it. The line of fools has a spot reserved for me. Because Enrique knew better, he asked Xavi to stay. And when that player entered the pitch to finish what his successor in Iniesta started, to restore order and help the team that he spent his entire playing career at achieve ultimate success, the team that he almost left for fear he wouldn’t make it there …

“Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Belief and doubt. Even the most pessimistic among us has, deep down in their heart, hope and belief. You have to. People stomp around on Twitter, asserting that something is NEVER going to happen, but even they hope that it does. That’s the magic of it all, placing your joy in the hands of a complete stranger, then hugging a complete stranger when that joy is realized. But being culer is, in these emotional ways, no different than being a supporter of any other club. It would be wrong of us to assume otherwise, but it would also be wrong of us to feel those special moments any less, tears of joy and heartbreak. Their being universal helps us understand and explain them more easily.

Sport is life. I know people who don’t like sports, and it’s a little difficult to grasp their reasoning, because sport is life. In a match you can go from unparalleled joy to heartbreak in a few rotations of a spherical object. Great players do great things, great players fail. Journeymen have moments of divinity and become, for a few moments, superhuman. They often just as quickly return to mere mortality. It’s magic. The movies love sport because that world is bigger than real life in ways that make sane folks shake their heads. “No way. That didn’t just happen.”

It’s weird to wake up the day after something, and check to make sure it actually happened. Barça won a treble yesterday. Its supporters have a team for the ages, a team impossible to assemble so it was grown on-site, hewn from diminutive players who would have come up short elsewhere. Its superstar needed medical intervention to reach “normal” size, even as he is still physically a small man striding among giants, even as he has grown into the best player in the game, a genius who sets records and makes history with metronomic regularity.

Naaaah! Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.

Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts24 Comments

Barça 3, Juventus 1, aka “This team stands on its own”

“I don’t know if I will stay, but I am happy at the moment.”
— Luis Enrique

“I haven’t yet decided my future.”
— Dani Alves

Those two quotes seem an odd way to start a piece on a glorious, history-making day, but they are also the perfect way to conclude the uncertainty that came to define this season, one that has ended in glittering, celebratory fashion. Having just cleaned up the streamers and confetti from the last celebration at the Camp Nou, came another one. And now, another one.

People will line up to recreate history and flay a chunk off the carcass of this team, linking it to Barça now that it has had success. But for me, this is a team that deserves … that has earned the right to stand on its own.

Rijkaard had his own wonderful period, and so did Guardiola. But really, the era that each Barça trainer embodied ended when they left, when their team tasted failure. In hitting the reset button two times after Guardiola, only Vilanova could be said to be something of a continuation, but even he set about revolutionizing the way the team went about its tasks.

Enrique came in and did his own thing, even as you can point to the similarities to the first Treble season:

— First-year coach
— Exceptional success
— Attention paid to fitness and psychology
— A dynamic front three that stretched the pitch

You can even point to parallel goals between the two teams, the first a ping-ponging paragon of unselfish perfection that essentially walked the ball into the net (Rakitic/Iniesta); the second an aggressive, out-of-nothing scramble (Suarez/Eto’o); the third a bust-out and slot home by the left winger (Henry/Neymar).

The parallels are so easy, so seductive and yet, do Luis Enrique’s Barça team a disservice. This team came together, forged on the anvil of adversity real or imagined (same effect). It played its own way even as it followed many of the Barça tenets of attractive, attacking, possession football. But even if you don’t presume that the Guardiola era ended when that great coach left the club, surely it ended psychologically when Barça put Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side to the sword.

This has been a season of exorcism, from the unparalleled joy after a season of heartbreak last year, to paying back debts to teams owed them (Atleti, Bayern) to setting off on an astounding run that found this Barça a true champion of champions, adding the champion of Italy to the other notches on its gaudy belt buckle. It has also been a fairy tale, as Xavi, a selfless legend who completely devoted himself to the club that he loves, gets to go out with a treble, the shrieks of the Camp Nou crowd ringing in his ears and now, today, one more chance to hoist a piece of silver as the Capita of the FC Barcelona football team.

It is just one more aspect of a fairy-tale season.

In making history, this Barça team was like itself in that it wasn’t at its best, but found a way to win a match that it had to. Messi wasn’t anything approaching his dynamic, all-pitch best, even Luis Suarez seemed somewhat overawed by the moment. This was a day for the other guys: Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Busquets, Alves, Pique, putting in work to ensure success. Today as with the rest of this season, Barça played and won as a team.

Culers were warned that Juventus wouldn’t be pushovers, and they weren’t. Its legendary keeper, Gigi Buffon, came up colossal on three separate occasions that would probably have found other keepers lacking, leading to a second half that would have been all over but the shouting and trophy presentation. But he kept them around, and when they scored a quality team goal, it was suddenly game on, and tucker and pucker time for culers.

But just like the match in which the only goals were set pieces, or a late, late goal was forged from an ugly scramble on the goal line, this team managed to find the back of the net as it almost always has. 60 matches, 50 wins, 4 draws and 6 losses. That is an amazing record that is not only the best by any coach in Barça history, but a gauntlet that the team has thrown down for itself. Nowhere to go but down, drowning in a miasma of expectations and resurrected #luchoout hashtags.

That time will come later. For now, let this team be on its own, let it dance, and sing and get drunk atop double decker buses, make speeches at the Camp Nou and do all the silly stuff that victors do to celebrate with their supporters. They have earned it, just as they have earned the right to be champions on their own. This is about Enrique and Barça football. Be proud.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts32 Comments

Does it matter if Barça wins today?

Calm, calm, everywhere calm.

All over Barça social media is an eerie feeling on the day of an immense match: calm. People can wonder why such a thing is going on, but it’s easy for someone who has tracked the arc of this season to place a finger on it. This magnificent season is something of a surprise gift, a months-long party in which surprise guests and presents just keep showing up.

When the season started it was with a new coach and a new staff, plus eight new transfers into the team. Nobody knew how everything was going to go. Some idiots even predicted, notions with roots in logic, that this would be another silverless season, but just you wait until next year.

Things got off to a good start and the team was playing well, even if it wasn’t playing in the way many wanted it to. RM was playing out of this world football, and some pundits were declaring the season over even before it started. The season began with doubt, and wrapped doubt around it like a comfortable old blanket.

And then, something weird happened. Many trace the season turnaround to the mess at Anoeta. To my view, Anoeta was as expected as a tax bill. If you watched carefully, it was evident that the team was coming together in a way that was going to make for interesting football for the remainder of the season. The fitness was evident, the mental toughness was evident. This was a team getting ready for battle.

There has been talk of SMS messages exchanged, talks between Enrique and Messi, Xavi and Messi, the Dalai Lama and the team, who the hell knows. But when a training regimen begins to take shape and bear fruit, you see it. And it isn’t just fitness. It’s confidence. You look over and see your opponent bent over, breathing hard as you stand there, ready to go. You’re ready, you’re waiting.

When RM came back to earth due to injuries and fatigue (sound familiar, culers?), Barça was there to pounce. It seemed like this team took off like a rocket because people were too busy seeing what they wanted to see instead of what was actually there.

The team went 8-1-1 in its first 10 matches, with 9 clean sheets. Losses to PSG, RM and Celta at home got tongues wagging, because of impatience and lack of understanding. When you build a training plan, you put in the work. More often than not you will get the results, but as the plan takes shape and the program builds, there will be bumps that are expected. How an athlete deals with those bumps is what will define the success of his season.

The smart runner understands that a lost race, despite being fit and ready, doesn’t mean the season is lost and he should binge on gelato and donuts. He understands it’s a temporary glitch, and confidence in the plan is required.

In the 11 matches leading to Anoeta, Barça was 10-0-1 with 6 clean sheets, wins over Valencia at their ground and a 5-1 stonking of Sevilla. But so busy were the people extracting philosophical pounds of flesh (an irony given how vehemently the culerverse took after Ibrahimovic for labeling Guardiola “philosopher”) that many wound up missing what was going on.

Anoeta came after an extended international break, courtesy of a Jordi Alba own goal. “Why didn’t he start Messi, Suarez, etc.” ignores the fact that they entered the match in the second half against what should have been a more fatigued La Real, and couldn’t make anything happen.

But in the culerverse, it was Armageddon. The screams rang long and loud. There was insufficient patience with anything from too many supporters, no real effort to understand of what was going on. It’s understandable and inexplicable at the same time. The team was getting results, but not in the right way. More philosophy. Individual brilliance was terrible, except when Messi scored a brilliant solo goal.

It was a period that found the culerverse and the entorno at their absolute worst.

Some fools dared to say that something cool was coming, and folks should calm down. They were called idiots and defenders, and then … something cool started to happen. The gifts that had really been coming all season for those open to receiving them, started flowing and people started paying attention. Barça beat Atleti, then beat them again, eventually going 4-0 against a team that single-handedly ruined the silver rush last season. It beat RM via one of those goals that the philosophers found vile. It put on a clinic against Manchester City, playing precisely the kind of football the philosophers said it couldn’t play, and wasn’t playing. Beat Atleti to make the Copa final, beat the team of ubermen coached by the genius in Bayern Munich and suddenly, it was real.

The first treble season whooshed by in a “Wait, what just happened” rush. This potential treble season was so busy wallowing in a miasma of disbelief, squabbling and expectation that for things to have reached this point seems surprising. A different kind of “Wait, what just happened?”

So why wouldn’t some folks be calm about something so completely unexpected? Where did THAT come from? The easy answer is right over there, but you weren’t looking for it. The more difficult answer finds its notion in the traditional Buddhist saying, to “be here now.”

Football is fond of comparing, fond of ranking. Enrique Barça vs Guardiola’s. Messi vs Ronaldo. Messi vs Maradona. Barça vs Milan. This goal vs that goal. And suddenly, the world is awash in everything except the wonder of the moment. People scoff at those who say a win, ANY win, is pretty wonderful no matter how it comes. Theory is easy for the victor, but ask the vanquished about style points vs 3 points. Sport exists in the moment. It’s an athlete’s single-minded focus, it’s a supporter suddenly finding religion in the last minute of a scoreless final, it’s the reality of right here, right now.

Football will never stop comparing, even if it should. Because while we’re sitting there, wondering how the hot fudge sundae that we are having ranks against the all-time best hot fudge sundaes that we have ever had, we’re missing out on savoring one hell of a treat.

So many culers are calm because this wasn’t supposed to happen. For many, this season has been so wonderful that it doesn’t even matter much if Barça is able to beat Juventus today. I am one of those culers. This has been a magnificent roller coaster of a season that has ended in a series of magical moments, from Xavi hoisting the Liga trophy at his last Camp Nou appearance in the colors, to a record-setting front three and a diminutive genius cementing his status as best in the game. So much. So, so much that it’s easy to feel sated, besotted as joy splashes over a fanbase.

And now, here we are. Here we ALL are. No rivalries, no rancor, just a group united in its love for a team. In mere hours, it all begins. When you have doubt, when you worry, when you want to rage against the universe, remember this season and all that has come before this moment, breathe deep, and believe.

Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts31 Comments

We’re Going To Berlin

This is a guest post from Isaiah. You can follow him on Twitter at @rockofthune.

I’m headed to Berlin in the morning to join a good friend in trying to turn a German city into one big mass of blaugrana merrymaking. For a portion of the day we’ll be partying at the fan zone near the Zoo in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district (or anyway, very near to that district—I’m still a bit hazy on neighborhood boundaries) and for the game itself we’ll be at the Berlin Penya’s location in Friedrichshain.

I’ve never been to a Champions League final and I most certainly won’t be in the stadium tomorrow, but I’m pretty excited to see the sights and sounds of a Berlin full of passionate fans. There’s the ever-present possibility of running into an angry crowd of Juve fans (regardless of the game’s results, or if it has even started), so there’s a tinge of danger, but mostly I’m just super excited to be there. I gave up fear and a little over 24 hours before kickoff as I write this, I’m somewhat surprised to find that it hasn’t crept back in.

What has crept in, though, is a lot of excitement. There’s joy to be had in getting together not only with a friend you rarely see thanks to the distance between our homes, but also in standing in a crowd of like-minded individuals all cheering for the same thing. Sure, in my intellectual life I like to be challenged, but these are moments when I’d rather stand with those who aren’t going to gloat if I lose or need to be consoled if I win.

When I was much younger, back in the heady and hot days of June 2010, I was watching the United States play Algeria in the World Cup group stage. I first went to a bar that had a lot of English fans cheering on their team against Slovenia, but at halftime I was tired of splitting my attention between 2 games and of sweating mercilessly in an unairconditioned bar on a 90+F day. So I walked down the street to join a few friends who had succumbed to the heat far earlier and I ended up living the brilliant Landon Donovan goal moment with a crowd of partisan fans. I hugged a random stranger. I danced with that man, whoever he is, and probably could have and should have kissed him just because, well, that was awesome.

It’s not necessarily that I’m hoping to get physical with another stranger this weekend, but I’m hoping that the joy and the fun of these last few months with the team continues on through the game itself, whatever the tensions, however well we think Paul Pogba can play, wherever we believe our own midfield to be in comparison to the halcyon days of June 2011 or some other fairly arbitrary “peak” we’ve tried to define with our desire for narrative arc.

This is the peak. This is the moment that this team has and it doesn’t matter the historical artifacts of a legend we’d all like to live through again: Xavi is leaving, Puyol is gone, Abidal will not lift this trophy, but there are other stories, regardless of who wins. I very much want Barcelona to win, to give Xavi the perfect sendoff, but if it’s Pirlo instead, that’s hard to argue. If he loses, poor Andrea Pirlo will have been beaten in something like 8,000 straight finals by the tiki-taka machine that he once considered joining. Still, I’m hoping that that happens, just not maliciously. I hope Iniesta lets Pirlo visit his vineyard in the offseason or something.

There’s another subset of fans whose lives are as wrapped up in their team as I am in mine and while I don’t happen to like their team, I’m impressed with their passion. And their legs. 683 miles in 9 days? Holy hell, that’s impressive. That’s 75 miles a day! I don’t even know if I’ve walked 75 miles in my whole life. That far every day for more than a week in order to get a single ticket? That’s dedication. So I guess I hope that Iniesta also invites him to his vineyard as a consolation prize. And also doesn’t make him walk there.

The subset of fans I’ll be with tomorrow might be a nervous wreck, but I suspect German malts, hops, and barley will assuage many of their fears pre kickoff. And that should be a lot of fun. I’ll try to snap some pictures in interesting places and get some thoughts on (digital) paper when I come back, but for now, I’m just thrilled to be going, to be taking part in a final. Whatever happens next year, tomorrow is going to be fun and let’s try not to lose sight of that: this is a party, try and have a good time. And let’s hope I hug some sweaty strangers.

Posted in Champions League, Thoughts5 Comments

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