Archive | Thoughts

Why I Don’t Care About Messi’s 91 Goals

My brother was in the bathroom when Mark McGwire stepped up to the plate and sent the first pitch into the stands with a line-drive home run. I was watching, along with my father, and we both yelled, happy to have seen this moment of sporting history. My brother was furious at McGwire because he was almost back in the room. Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a year had stood for 37 years, but, as the saying goes, records are meant to be broken.

Lionel Messi recently broke Müller’s calendar year scoring record of 85, which the German set in 1972. That record, if you are too lazy to do the math, has lasted 40 years before Messi sauntered onto the scene with a brilliant 365 days. The thing is, when it comes down to it, I don’t care. In the greater scheme of things, Lionel Messi vs Gerd Müller is one of those statistical wankfests that a lot of people love to get into. The New York Times got in on the act, comparing Messi-Müller to Ruth-Maris because of the difference in how many games they played during their respective record-setting and record-breaking years (and all that before Messi had even broken the record).

It would be fairly absurd of me to say that I statistics don’t matter because most of you know that I don’t think that. We even have a category for it, after all. But there is a difference, I think, in comparing meaningful statistics and meaningless ones. Baseball is an incredibly easy example given the glut of statistics that comes out of it, so I’ll use this example: Runs Batted In (RBI). For those of you who don’t know or just need a refresher, an RBI is a statistic used in baseball and softball to credit a batter when the outcome of his at-bat results in a run being scored. There are more nuances, but that should suffice. Roughly speaking, a lot of baseball fans get excited whenever someone gets 120 RBIs or more in a season. The record is apparently 191 by Hack Wilson in 1930. What’s important about the RBI is that it obviously requires teammates to get on base before one is able to hit them in. In 2004, Ichiro Suzuki broke the single season hit record, yet only had 60 RBIs. His team went a fairly abysmal 63-99 and finished bottom of the American League West.

What’s that got to do with Messi? Simple: glorious statistics do not translate to important feats. Watching Messi score 91 goals in a calendar year has been phenomenal, but not because Messi scored 91 goals in a calendar year. Rather, watching Messi play is a reminder that there is still art and beauty in this game we love so much. If he scores 3 in a match, it’s a wonderful prize, but it’s not particularly important to connect it to the game before it or the game after it. In some ways, it detracts from the grandness of what he’s accomplishing: he is revolutionizing the way millions of people think of the sport. To put a drab number on it (91 in 365!) is to make it seem less interesting, less significant, and even less challenging. Think of it this way: “Did you hear Fernando Torres has scored 2.75 goals per Chelsea manager?”

That’s a funny statistic, of course, but overall it’s meaningless: Torres won the Champions League and a domestic cup last year. Messi, who had only 19 goals fewer than all of Chelsea in last season’s domestic league, won a domestic cup and was knocked out of the Champions League by one of those rare Torres goals. When Messi scored 31 goals in 2010-11, coming in 2nd in his own domestic competition, the team won both the Champions League and La Liga. When Barça won the Triplete in 2008-09, it was Diego Forlan who scored the most league goals (though only by 1). In 2009-10, Messi won the Pichichi and the La Liga title. The team went out in the round of 16 in the Copa del Rey and in the semis in the Champions League.

The question for me, quite a few years later, is if I actually care that McGwire broke that home run record (artificially aided or not) or whether I care about other individual achievements in team sports. Ask a Yankees fan if they care if no one on their World Series-winning and record-setting team (125 wins, 50 losses including post season) had more than 23 home runs that year.

Messi is incredible. He is beyond incredible, in fact. His numbers do attest to that, sure, but they do not make him a great player. What makes him great is that he makes others better. Let’s focus on that.

[Image source]

Posted in Statistics, Thoughts50 Comments

The Great Soci Debate

This could be you! Or could it?

One of the things that makes BFB so special is the level of discussion in this space. We can debate issues of importance to the club or to football in general respectfully, without it degenerating into a simple back-and-forth of which side is more wrong. Recently a few of the mods were involved in a discussion on twitter about whether FCB membership should be open to all who want it or if the club’s current policy of restricting membership has some merit. Not surprisingly, there were some strong differences of opinion on the subject. Today I would like to present the case for one side of the debate (with thanks to nzm for her contributions and suggestions!) . Afterwards some of the other mods will present the opposite view. We hope this will generate some interesting discussion and look forward to reading your thoughts as well.

When Rosell was elected club president, one of the first things he did was to change the official club policy regarding who was eligible to become a soci. Previously membership had been open to anyone who was willing to pay the fees, and socis had the same rights and privileges no matter where they lived, including the chance to be a delegate at the General Assembly and to vote in presidential elections. Rosell’s board passed a resolution restricting new memberships to a) children under 16, or b) relatives in the first- or second-degree to existing socis. You can find details here.

As you can imagine, when the board brought in these new restrictions, there was quite a reaction. Some saw it as a sensible measure brought in to preserve the essential character of the club in reaction to the ballooning number of foreign members that characterized the Laporta years. Others were outraged at what was seen as an elitist and xenophobic policy. Even many Catalans were disturbed that those who live there but happen not to be related to any current members would be ineligible. In reaction to this (or possibly as had been planned all along?), the Board of Directors quietly introduced a plan whereby eligible adults (even foreign ones!) could still qualify for membership after showing showing “commitment” to the club for a period of three years. Details on the “commitment card” can be found here.

The important points to note about the Commitment Card are that holders do not have voting rights, preferential access to tickets, or the chance to get on the waiting list for season tickets. Also, after the three years they do not automatically become members. The holder must make an official application, which “the Club will consider in line with general requirements laid down in the Club statutes.” In other words, he or she could still be rejected, although no ones knows on what basis that could happen, since the card has only been in existence for 2 years. It will be interesting to see what will happen if the club starts taking people’s money for three years and then turning them down as members, but we will have to wait and see.

So what do I think about all this? While I disagree with the way Rosell and his Board of Directors have gone about it, I understand the impetus behind this policy and in principle I agree with it. I don’t believe that all supporters of FC Barcelona should automatically have the right to become members. I believe that membership should be reserved for those who have roots in the community that Barça represents. That doesn’t mean that membership should be restricted to only Catalans, or even Spaniards, but to those whose daily lives are intertwined with the club, the city, the locality, & the culture. It seems strange to me that someone who may never even have visited Barcelona or ever be able to should have the “right” to vote for the club’s President. Or the chance to be chosen as a delegate to the General Assembly–which they may then have to turn down if not able to travel there. Even if they are able to attend, should someone in Buenos Aires, or Moscow, or Chicago have the “right” to vote on the daily matters of the club? I don’t smoke, and I would have voted in favour of making Camp Nou smoke-free, but is that my call? I’ve never been to a match there, and I don’t know when I will able to afford to go. Should my vote then carry equal weight to that of someone who regularly attends games?

Football has become a global sport, and FC Barcelona has become one of the clubs with the most global appeal, if not the most. People all over the world are enchanted with the way this club plays, with the brilliance of its players, and with the glimmer of the trophies it has won. Many of us have been so inspired by this club that we have researched its history, internalized its values, immersed ourselves in its culture, and even learned the language of its country. Is it any wonder that we want to formalize the connection we feel with Barça by becoming part of it? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But we must also remember that Barça is not just a football club. It is “mes que un club”. From the very beginning Barça has had a “permanent tradition of loyalty and service to club members, citizens and Catalonia” which leads it to be active in social, cultural, artistic, and political spheres. This club has history, it has gravitas, it has Catalanisme. We all know (or should know) what the club meant to Catalans and Catalunya during the Franco years, but with all the knowledge and all the love in the world, I don’t believe it is really possible for someone not steeped in that experience to really understand it. Similarly, can someone not living in the area really understand the impact that changes to the stadium, the training facilities, the sporting infrastructure would have on the neighbourhood, city, or region? I don’t think they can. I truly believe I love the club as much as any long-term soci could, but I don’t believe that I, as an outsider, have the “right” to vote on these things just because the club might take my money.

So what is the answer?

No solution is going to please everybody. There will always be those who believe that full membership should be open to anyone anywhere, and those who want it restricted to those who are Catalan unto the 10th generation. Ultimately I think the best compromise would be a two-tiered membership system, but not the way the club has it currently set up. The Commitment Card seems to me like a mean-spirited cash grab without conferring any real benefits until after the 3-year “probation” period has been completed, whereupon the club will “consider” your membership application. It’s demeaning, cynical, and does not address the problems inherent with non-local members having voting rights.

Instead I would prefer a system where a “Cule” membership is open to anyone regardless of location. This type of membership would offer access to deals on tickets, discounts at the botiga and the online store, entrance to the Camp Nou museum, and access to special “members-only” online content, apps, ect. In other words, all the current perks of membership except for the voting rights. A “Club” membership, with the voting rights and eligibility for the season-ticket waiting list, would be available to permanent residents of Catalunya, regardless of citizenship. The applicant would have to prove residency of Catalunya for a period of, for example, 3 years, or 5 years OR that they are related to a current soci (similar to the current eligibility regulations).

I hate to say it, but this is an area where Real Madrid is already ahead of Barça. Although eligibility to become an actual socio of Real Madrid is even more restricted than at Barça (next to impossible if you are not a direct descendant of a current socio), the club already offers two other levels of membership, “Madridista” and “Madridista Internacional” that entitle the holder to various benefits and discounts as well as online content, but without any voting rights or representation in the general meetings. Perhaps our tame Madridista, Bassam, can give us some insight on how this three-tiered system is viewed by Real Madrid fans?

What is clear is that Barcelona is behind the curve when it comes to keeping up with the times. To quote nzm:

“The whole Blaugrana organization really needs a shake-up to make it more modern.  Their marketing sucks.  They don’t even offer an electronic version of the club magazine which hits our letterbox every 2 months – now that would save on colour copies, no?  ;.)

FCB needs to shake up its practices when dealing with the fanbase and bring some more modern approaches into their business model.  All they’re really doing at the moment is opening up new fanbases (Asia and Middle East) but not changing the archaic systems.  When trying to appeal to younger members and a younger fanbase (which is where the growth will occur), their approach isn’t that attractive to that demographic.”

FCB was taken by surprise by the huge influx of foreign members, and in scrambling to protect the cultural heritage of the club, they have managed to offend and alienate just about everybody. I believe they need to take a different approach that more fully addresses the needs of their global fanbase, while ensuring that the club remains firmly rooted in the local community it represents. I fully expect that this point-of-view will be unpopular in this space, but I truly think a two-tiered system of membership would be the fairest way to solve this conundrum.

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And here is Kxevin with an opposing view:

For this soci, it’s simple: If FC Barcelona is in any way to be a closed society, then close it for real. Don’t bother with socis, supplemental members, commitment cards or any other such bollocks. Put the club out there as a closed entity that supporters can choose and become a fan of. Done.

But if it IS going to be a “club” that people can join, to parse devotion in any way is so much bullshit. The implication is that because a soci lives in New York, for example, he isn’t bothered every bit as much by who will be the next president of the club that he loves as a soci who lives in Perpignan or L’Hospitalet. If the club matters to them … all of them, then all socis should be the same.

I can see offering a choice of membership levels, from “Hey, I dig this club” to a full-monty soci that includes voting rights. People can then choose the level they wish, *not the club.* I can’t see or countenance someone telling foreign socis that just because the Camp Nou isn’t in their backyard and they can’t attend matches regularly, that they should be some sort of a second-class citizen. Raise the price of the full soci status, require a Catalan language test, I don’t care. People who want that level of commitment to the club, should have access to it. Period.

There are many kinds of socis, even in Barcelona. There are foreign socis who just love the club, and will never do anything beyond that. There are also foreign socis who visit the city, attend matches and even learn the
language. They follow the club’s politics and are every bit as concerned by what the club does and who runs it as anyone else.

But let’s be clear about this: FC Barcelona is a global entity that offers up sporting teams in many different disciplines, the most popular of which is football. That’s the way that it has always been. When that club was crowing about being the only club “owned” by its members, it was without caveats. Now that the barn door is open, so to speak, and those silly furriners want to show the same love and devotion to the club as any other soci, it’s becoming a contextual problem.

I consider that to be the profoundest nonsense. And as a black person and citizen of a country whose constitution for too many years said that I and my kind were but 3/5ths of a person, with no voting rights or very many rights at all because of that status, my views of “citizenship” and “membership” are shaped by that worldview. You’re in or you’re out*. Citizens
vote for this country’s president, whether their family has been American for generations, or just swore the loyalty oath to America.

As a sporting entity, does FC Barcelona represent something different to a supporter in Dubai as opposed to one who lives IN Barcelona? Both live and die with the club. Attending a match might mean even more to the soci in Dubai, who holds it up as a dream, than one who has a season ticket but rarely attends matches, like so many season ticket holders.

Deeper still, as a global sporting entity, FC Barcelona needs to figure out what it wants to be. If it wants to be Athletic Bilbao, then that’s fine. Dump all foreign socis, restrict it to Catalans only and circle the wagons at the social club. It won’t lose very many fans, even as it sows ill will among foreign socis, the critters who if you ask some, shouldn’t matter anyhow.

But if FC Barcelona wants to be a participant in the world with its multi-national conglomerate, then let the world in, up to and including foreign socis.

People misconstrue the “mes que un club” business as some sort of pious thing. In fact, it speaks to the tentacles that the club has sprouted, its deep roots in the community and its extra meaning to not only Catalans, but people who understand the before and after of the Civil War period. It was the only place that Catalans could be Catalan, and it only makes sense that
in this nationalist fervor, some should want to “reclaim” the club, shaping it into some sort of “for us, by us” deal.

Which, for an organization started by a Swiss businessman in company with English and Catalan athletes, is a pretty slick trick.

Now lets hear your views. Do you have a strong opinion either way? Or do you have a different solution to propose?

Posted in Barcelona, Soap Box, Thoughts24 Comments

Real Valladolid 1 – Barça 3, as Christmas came early

1. While we are going into the break with a staggering 49 points out of 17 games, EE is just staggering into the break. I know, I know… starting a match review talking about that other team betrays a lack of class and humility and is a sure sign of an inferiority complex to boot. What can I say? I am a culé, after all. For me there is no ying without the yang, and our rival’s misfortune makes me sing with glee. Besides, isn’t their story so much more intriguing than ours right now? Has Mourinho lost the support of his players for the first time in his career? Has Casillas lost the support of his coach for the first time in his? Christmas came early this year and it sure as heck ain’t a white one. After sixteen wins, sixteen points now separate us from our bitterest rivals.

2. Hold on… What’s wrong with me? We have just made the best league start ever and I’m talking about them??? Doctor, help me, I’ve got madriditis! Let’s talk about what we should talk about. 49 points out of 17 games is unreal. True, not all wins have been pretty – quite frankly, I almost fell asleep during yesterday’s game – but that’s how leagues are won. By winning both the games in which you play well and the ones in which you don’t. By winning regardless. We cannot say that the league is done and dusted, but none has ever been lost after going into the break with more than eight points clear. It would take a remontada of mount everestic proportions to knock us off of the top.

3. Did I say I almost fell asleep? Or did I almost stay awake? The first half, at least, was a snore fest. As VV, Dani Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Pedro, Messi and Alexis were struggling to find a way through Valladolid’s defense, I was struggling to keep my eyes open. And our opponents did not help – after showing some spirit going forward during the first quarter of an hour they went into the break with not one shot at goal, which brings me to my next point.

4. The first of the two most amazing things about our league run is that we have managed it with a defense more generous than Santa Claus in a Beverly Hills orphanage. Granted, we have had more injuries to deal with than a war zone hospital ward, but that is only part of the problem. Contract renewal notwithstanding, Puyol’s neck-breaking playing style will soon catch up with him… if it has not already. The problem is that Mascherano is playing like a back-up rather than an eventual replacement. Even in a game where our back line was hardly attacked, he looked unsure of himself at times and was careless with the ball. When Abidal finally makes his return upon our hallowed grounds, I will hail the king as loud as any, but whether he regains his previous majestic form remains to be seen.

5. Still, yesterday our defense as a whole held up fine. Valladolid played the toothless puppy and Barça, for the most of the first half, the sleeping dog. Then, after 43 minutes and barely a bark, we bit. Leo, whose danger had so far been leashed by timely pulls on his collar, dropped way back in midfield to initiate the attack. After combining with Thiago he found the Energizer surging into the box, who in turn slotted it neatly across goal for Xavi to finish off the move like a natural born poacher. Just like that, we went into half time with a 0-1 lead, and a distinct feeling that Messi’s brace was still to come.

There is more to come

6. It didn’t. He did score a beauty of a goal but hey, nutmegging a defender before striking the ball off the post into the goal’s bottom right corner is just another day at the office for the world’s favorite Argentine. The count finally stops, at 91 goals in this calendar year. And as much as I hope that he will score even more in 2013, thank God we have this record-breaking business out of the way for now.

7. The second of the two most amazing things about our league run is that we have managed it with our two most important wingers combining for the grand total of one goal. Yes, hats off to both Pedro and Alexis for working their butts off. And yes, I know that Alexis’ makes intelligent runs that create space for others to run in to and that Pedro has six assists so far. I do not question their importance to the team, nor whether or not they deserve their playing time. Our winning record speaks firmly in their favor. I doubt however that they would start if the Diabolical Flea weren’t treating us to 1.5 goals per game. Former hitman Pedro has lost his lethal touch so long ago one wonders if he has found religion, and Alexis is just plain scared of scoring. What is really scary? How unstoppable this team can be if those two find the back of the net more regularly.

Alexis’ donkey work helping Messi flourish

8. In the meantime, our second leading scorer, David Villa, continues to play only meaningless minutes. Anybody thinking el Guaje is happy about his current situation is kidding himself, but he is above all a good teammate and a professional. I have repeatedly stated that I would love for Villa to evolve into the role Larsson played in Rijkaard’s Barça. It is one I am sure he could perform to perfection, though I fear the Spaniard has too much pride to accept a lesser role at this point of his career. Fair play to David, of course. I do believe and hope he will stay with us for the remainder of the season.

9. It seems to me that Tello! is not only above the Kid in today’s pecking order, but he has also robbed poor innocent Pedrito of his exclamation mark by doing in one minute what our man from the Canary islands could not in ninety-three. Impressive, indeed. How we allowed a buy-out clause of only 10 million euros in his recently renewed contract is beyond me.

10. One of the causes of turning the match into a sometimes pedestrian affair was the midfield of Busquets, Xavi and Thiago. To complain about a threesome that is the envy of most other clubs in the world would be sacrilegious, but with neither Cesc nor Don Andrés in play a certain attacking thrust is missing. Thiago has a very bright future which I hope lies forever at the Camp Nou but, as any player of his age, he has plenty of room for improvement. Patience is key, both from us as supporters and from himself as a player, since now fit he might not get the amount of playing time this season as he was afforded by Pep last year.

11. A big shout of respect to Jordi Roura and the technical staff. True, we could have probably sent our players out on the pitch and they would have won the game without any mister stalking the sidelines, but Jordi represented F.C. Barcelona very well. How many coaches would have sent in Puyol to tighten our defense in the last minutes of the game after Valladolid finally decided to grow a pair and score a goal. Instead he took off nominal forward Pedro Rodriguez, who would track back in time if needed, for young gun Cristian Tello. A move rewarded mere moments later. Sometimes the best defense is offense.

12. So now that la Liga is all but ours, the question remains: how good is this team? Are we the best team of the world? I think so. Is that good enough to win the Champion’s League? I honestly don’t know. Our league record may be flattering us into thinking we are better than we really are right now. Our weaknesses are plain enough for everyone to see, and they can be exploited. Our forwards don’t score. Our defenders stand flat-footed against counter attacks. Our midgets can’t defend corners. Scorelines can deceive; we have snatched many victories from defeats this year. With the business end of the season yet to come, how will we fare against top opposition? How many clásicos will we have to endure? The jingle bells might not be ringing throughout the Evil Empire this December but our two clubs are inextricably linked, and nowadays more so than ever. The upcoming six months will tell, and this team is still a work in progress. Let’s hope this is a good thing and that the best is yet to come.

13. At this point of that season, a legendary Arsenal team went undefeated in their league. However, after seventeen games they had ‘only’ racked up thirty-nine points. They drew six games instead of just one. Incredible as is sounds, we are on our way to improve upon their achievement. To go into the break undefeated in a league of which four teams qualified for the second CL round, and a fifth spanked the current European Champions 4-1 at the start of the season is an incredible thing all by itself. We have seventeen games down. To not lose any of the twenty-one still ahead of us would make this team immortal. Anything is possible. But the most important game is played off of the pitch.

Anims, Tito!

14. While the players were in the dressing room, Tito left the hospital. We came out with shirts that read common sense, chest (strength) and balls (bravery). The greatness that is on stake in stadiums across Spain and Europe pales in comparison to the importance of the life of loved ones, whether they are yours, mine, ours or someone else’s. And just like they had when Abidal went under the knife, our most hated rivals wore shirts dedicating their best wishes to our coach and leader, Francesc ‘Tito’ Vilanova. A classy gesture indeed, as was Málaga’s who also wore a message of support. Life is greater than winning or losing a football game. For once, soccer unites hearts and minds rather than dividing them. Anims, Tito! Seny, pit i collons!!!!!!!!

15. Had anybody told me that at the beginning of the season that Adriano Correia would be injured half the games, I’d have been a believer. Had they told me he would be the team’s second leading scorer (together with Villa), I’d have checked for a fever. Note to our other Brazilian fullback, Dani Alves: we love you, but sometimes you take the tiki a taka too far. Chut the ball!

16. I don’t know if this was much of a review, but here you are. I’m gonna call it a review anyway, and as such, I will leave you with a quote:

“Liga season’s going great so far, it’s a shame there’s a break now…”

Xavi Hernández i Creus

 

Posted in Barcelona, La Liga, Review, Thoughts96 Comments

Football is important, but it isn’t Life, aka “Anims, Tito”

I have learned a lot from this edition of Barça, including that football isn’t just supposed to make you weep tears of happiness.

Life does stuff to us, all the time. One of the things at which it is particularly adept is leavening joy with sadness, a karmic yin/yang that, if you were to sit down for coffee with Life, you’d probably discover that Life does it to keep us balanced.

Two weeks ago on a Tuesday night, some friends and I gathered for our usual Tuesday evening trail ride. It was a magical ride. Smooth, fast, a little fog to make things fun, lots of chatter and everybody was feeling bull-strong. Awesome. Then, at the very end of the ride, a guy who was the fittest among us had a massive heart attack and died. Bang. Life.
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Posted in La Liga, Thoughts85 Comments

Barça 4, Atletico 1, aka “Not all that pretty, but so, so beautiful”

It must be the shoes!

This can be a cruel game, and I type this even as I am nursing a sore knee from having fallen off a barstool, thanks to Adriano.

Atletico de Madrid came out with a perfect game plan that they executed flawlessly. If we were to sum it up, it would be the same as all of our other opponents this season:

Don’t let that little guy kill you
Worry about other players when you have to
Get a early lead
Play on the counter, to take advantage of their slow back line

Check, check, check, and check.

To boot, Atletico received the added gift of Barça’s best player sleepwalking through the match, one wide forward continuing to wallow in mediocrity while the other alternated between delightful and vexing. They even got the first goal.

Perfect. So what the hell happened?
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Posted in La Liga, Review, Thoughts162 Comments

The Morality of Sponsors: Should Barcelona Wear Qatar?

A couple of weeks ago, I read a snippet of a story in that week’s Said & Done about Qatar attempting to rebrand itself. I thought it would be some glib statement about how Qatar Foundation was becoming Qatar Airways on the Barça shirt. Instead, it was a story that made me question the moral obligation of my club towards the sponsor it wears across its shirt. Should Barcelona be aligned with, allied with, or sponsored by those who trample on human rights?

The paragraph in question is this:

Qatar – still image-building ahead of the 2022 World Cup – reacting to union threats over “inhuman conditions” imposed on migrant workers by agreeing to reduce the number of them allowed to live in one room “from eight to four“. Also last week: poet Mohammed al-Ajami sentenced to life imprisonment for a poem satirising the ruling family. Al-Ajami’s key theme: an attack on “the repressive elite”.

And so I read up on this sordid tale of repression of freedom of expression:

In November 2011, al-Ajami was arrested during a meeting with Qatari security forces in Doha. According to Wikipedia, he was initially “charged with insulting [Qatari ruler] Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and ‘inciting to overthrow the ruling system’”. It also appears that these charges stem from one or two poems that al-Ajami wrote. During his incarceration, which has lasted since his arrest, al-Ajami has been held in solitary confinement for at least five of the last 12 months.

According to al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned and based news agency, al-Ajami was sentenced to life imprisonment for “attempts to destabilise the country.” For what it’s worth, al-Jazeera is owned by Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, a distant cousin of the Qatari Emir. There have been some accusations that al-Jazeera under-reports negative stories concerning Qatar and the Qatari government and certainly their inclusion of a quote from Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, makes little sense in the context of this piece other than to provide a weird distraction.

Further, CNN claims (and his lawyer, Najeeb al-Naimi, corroborates in a Democracy Now interview) that “[al-Ajami] was not in court when the sentence was issued.” Al-Naimi has promised to appeal the sentence and has mentioned an appeal hearing on December 30 in which the emir can personally intercede. It should be noted that some of this is obscured by the Qatari government’s refusal to publish the actual charges against al-Ajami.

Given that Barça’s current sponsor is the government of Qatar, Al-Ajami’s story is relevant. A poet being sentenced for using his speech–sometimes referred to as satirizing the royal family (The Guardian) and sometimes referred to as “attempts to destabilise the country” (al-Jazeera)–to promote the Arab Spring is actually no small thing.

One of the basic tenets of barcelonismo, indeed, one of the first things one learns when one studies the history of the club, is the legitimacy of expression. During the Franco regime, the Catalan language was banned, but the club and the stadium on gameday was often a place where it could be heard. The club was fundamentally changed by the Franco regime, as was Catalunya in general. Whatever your own views on that history, it would seem that a team opposed to its own censorship would be opposed to the censorship of others.

Whatever the positives of the Qatar Foundation, the team is no longer bound to it thanks to the switch to Qatar Airways. As such, the administration should attempt to live up to some sort of standard when it comes to financial support. A corporation that actively supported undemocratic and repressive policies would be turned down; why not a government?

Given all that, there is clearly a difference between the moral and political stances of Barcelona and Qatar. Any argument suggesting that this is a cultural difference may well hold water, but it misses the point: if there is a difference in stances, then the relationship should be terminated on the grounds that one entity is not striving toward the same goals as the other entity. I’m sure it’s not as easy as that, but to fail to mention it, to fail to put it out there as an idea, would be burying the club’s ideals in a sea of money.

Posted in Thoughts58 Comments

Betis 1, Barca 2, aka “The record that matters most is yet to be calculated”

So. History was made today, and will continue to be made each and every time this club goes unbeaten in La Liga this season. In this, the 15th week of the Liga season, our beloved club is still undefeated and has only dropped two points, in a home draw to its most bitter rival. And as the club approaches the holiday break it is home to a potentially dangerous Atletico Madrid side, then away to Valladolid, a match that won’t be a walk in the park, either.

Today was circled on the calendar for me as a danger. This Betis side defeated RM, and they would be home to us, in a match fraught with danger, not only because of the opponent. After all, another kind of history was made today, as Lionel Messi broke the Gerd Muller calendar-year scoring record of 85 goals with his brace, both absolutely crucial goals in winning this match today.

But that history concerns me little. Even Messi downplayed it, saying what matters is that the club picked up the three points.

Exactly.
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Posted in La Liga, Review, Thoughts102 Comments

Appearances and bullying, aka “Hee-hon better have my money!”

I will begin by saying that I understand precedent, I understand that legally, a deal is a deal, even if it might not be a deal. I get it. All of it.

But surely, there is a more effective way for our club to extract what it asserts it is owed from Sporting Gijon for the Alberto Botia transfer than to institute legal proceedings. For those who don’t recall, when Botia was tranferred to Sevilla, we were due 30% of the 2.5m transfer fee. That money wasn’t paid, so now we’re exploring the possibility of going after those deadbeats.

Gijon says that it doesn’t owe us anything, and everything was legal and by the letter of the arrangement. So preliminary proceedings have been instituted by us, and we’ll see what transpires. So as I said …. I understand all of the legal, globosocial and potentially nuclear ramifications of Sporting Gijon not ponying up. But there has to be a better way.
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Posted in Soap Box, Thoughts36 Comments

Your superstar and you, aka “Managing up”

“Was this trip really necessary,” muses the driver, gazing at the wrecked Ferrari after a trip to the local 24-hour grocery store for some chips became something much worse. Had chips at home, but wanted a certain kind, didn’t have to mash the throttle so hard, could have taken the Ford, dammit, dammit, dammit!

Here we all are, breathing an immense sigh of relief after the knowledge that our best player is going to be okay, and might even be fit enough to play on Sunday. But, for about an hour, from when he took the shot and crumpled to the pitch, everyone was thinking, This Is It.
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Posted in Injuries, Messi, Soap Box, Thoughts98 Comments

Barca 5, Athletic Bilbao 1, aka “Let’s get our minds around this thing here.”

I don’t have many wishes, nor do I really believe in the concept as a construct of anything that we know on this plane of existence. But if such things were so, if wishing something could make it actually happen, I would wish that people could understand exactly what in the star-crossed hell we’re seeing here.

Because it is fundamentally absurd. Let’s recap:

–FC Barcelona has dropped two points this Liga season, in a draw to its most hated rival.
–In today’s 14th of 38 matches in the Liga season, it dismantled a brave opponent.
–Lionel Messi, 14 matches into the Liga season, has 21 league goals.
–This club is off to the best start in Liga history, amid a back line injury crisis of Biblical proportions.
–The club is 11 points up on its most hated rival, and 6 up on the second-place club.

It’s pretty difficult to get my mind around, but I admit to having a pretty little brain.
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Posted in La Liga, Review, Thoughts55 Comments

The King Is Dead; Long Live the King (Dogma, Plan B and Barça’s Evolution)

Pep Guardiola was a firm believer in the permanent revolution. Not as Trotsky or Mao would understand it, but in the sense of never waiting around to be figured out. In a post now lost in the mists of time, I argued at the beginning of 2011/12 at the now defunct Spanish Football Info that Guardiola’s tactical tinkering was driven by the need to keep ahead of the competition. A theory of the game, like any other theory, is weakened by an insistence on permanence and dogma. It grows stronger through being questioned and tested, and evolving to meet the challenges posed to it.

The style and philosophy of Guardiola’s Barça was no less coherent for all the changes he implemented throughout his four year tenure: The false nine, an idea he tested in his very first pre-season and later put to use in the biggest games of that season; the holding midfielder as sweeper-centerback, which found its perfect vehicle in young Sergio Busquets; going from 4-3-3 to 4-2-4 to 3-4-3 to whatever that was against Santos that involved a team made up primarily of midfielders; and increasingly, towards the end, attempting to add more verticality to the side’s forward play.

Tito Vilanova’s work is a continuation of that philosophy. Much ink has been spilled so far this season on whether Vilanova was diverging from Guardiolismo by implementing a more direct style. Guillem Balague recently made this case:

Tito Vilanova realises that to win games he has to transform Barcelona and make them more conventional, and we are now seeing a side that plays more long balls, doesn’t keep the ball for as long, and defends more than other sides would do (less of the pressure in packs high up the pitch, more of the disciplined positioning and allowing teams to take a bit more of the initiative).

It is generally a more direct style, though this works against the strengths of Xavi and even Andres Iniesta, who need to pause and find themselves surrounded by team-mates to do harm.

Contrast with the following from a Sid Lowe column on Vilanova:

Barcelona still play a 4-3-3 based on possession and swift circulation of the ball. Statistics underline the similarities: under Vilanova Barcelona have so far completed an average of 696.8 passes per game, compared with 709 last season, with completion at 88.6% compared with 88.5%. They have scored 2.86 goals per game against 3.0 last season and taken 12.2 shots compared with 13.0. That control is about protection as well as penetration and they have faced 2.8 shots per game this season compared with 2.7 last year.

Vilanova has changed things; small details, nuances. Barcelona have appeared a little less elaborate and a little more direct, pushing a little higher up the pitch. Against Benfica on Wednesday they utilised the long diagonal to the left to open up the pitch and the only statistic that is markedly different between Vilanova’s Barcelona and Guardiola’s is the percentage of their passes played into the final third – 36.8% now, against 30.2% last season and 28.6% over the course of Guardiola’s time. But then against Benfica the second-half orders were the opposite: Vilanova preached patience.

What I find most interesting about the above two statements is this: although one seems to be condemning Vilanova for ideological impurity and one praising him for sticking to his guns, they don’t, in essence, contradict each other.

In the rest of this post, I’ll explain what I mean.

fundamentalism

Everyone knows that Barça have a very obvious, top-down, self-imposed style. This doesn’t happen a lot in football. Part of the bickering over the cantera in Madrid this season turns on their current lack of a ‘house style’. Castilla doesn’t play like the first team, Mourinho grumbled, and it should.

While us cules had a quick chuckle at the soap opera for once not playing out in our own house, I wonder if any regular watchers of Barça B felt a tiny shred of sympathy for his complaint. After all, it sounded awfully similar to our own complaints about Barça B under Eusebio, who sticks out like a sore thumb because the rest of the system at Barça strives to replicate the ‘house style’.

Having a long-term plan, a clear way of working towards consistent goals, tends to be a good thing for most organisations. Barça decided years ago that it was going to pursue success through a particular style of play. Setting such a course reduced the chances of short term, drastic lurches, which is a valuable check against our natural tendency towards volatility.

As Graham Hunter put it, with typical eloquence, very recently:

Barça play like this because they have for a long time had a dream, they’ve taken a risk. They have risked the idea that a single philosophy — owning the ball, doing quick, instinctive, intelligent things with it, and winning it back as quickly as possible — will endure all the fads, all the trends, all the changes in physique and financing which modern football can throw at it.

Barça’s tendency to go its own way regardless of consequences used to be endearing, back when it led to equal parts glory and spectacular falls. But then Pep Guardiola came along as a passionate evangelist for Our Way and bought incredible success with it. Suddenly the preaching, the perception of smugness, started to grate. The mutterings about “anti-football” and “justice” based on the balance of play became a fashionable thing to rail against.

For better or for worse, the ideology behind Barça’s style was never more obvious and explicit than during Guardiola’s time as manager. At times, it led to decisions that baffled outside observers.

“The perfect image of this game was that after the goal Víctor Valdés continued playing the ball,” Guardiola said. “Real Madrid steam-roller you. Most goalkeepers would boot it. But Víctor kept playing the ball. I prefer us to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play.” Valdés, he concluded, “had shown commitment to our approach”. “The key was not forgetting our philosophy,” said Xavi Hernández. “We don’t know how to play any other way – and Victor was brave.” [Source]

Remember the context: Victor Valdes had botched a short pass leading to a goal by Madrid in the first 30 seconds of last season’s first league Clasico. Others argue that playing out from the back isn’t as important a skill for keepers as, say, being commanding in the air.* What these pundits fail to understand is that playing out from the back is a crucial trait for a Barça keeper. Without it, the entire system fails.

Barça under Tito Vilanova has not retreated from its commitment to the system. Far from it. Tito might not be the evangelist that Pep was, but in practice he is every bit a son of the system.

When Victor Wanyama scored because tiny Jordi Alba was attempting to mark him at the near post for a corner, for example, it was seen as yet more proof that Barça had, to put not to fine a point it on, disappeared up their own arses.

Here’s what Tito had to say, when challenged about the size of his defense after the game:

“We could sign taller players but I like to have fun when I’m on the bench and this is the way that we play,” Vilanova added. “We have suffered from set-pieces after losing Eric Abidal and Seydou Keita but we can only try to attack more and not let them have any corners.” [Source]

Keep the second part of that answer in mind. It’s important. For now, though, we’re going to focus on the first. If that’s not commitment to Barça’s ideology, I don’t know what is. In comments to the press while he was still Guardiola’s assistant, Vilanova often came off as even more bullish, even more ideological:

“For us, winning alone is not enough,” he told El País’s Lu Martín in 2009, “we have an ideal of youth team players and attacking football, as Barcelona’s culture demands.”

“I have,” he continued, “seen Pep take decisions in which only we believed. It would have been easier to take political decisions, but we refused. We have our faults but being cowards will never be one of them.” [Source]

If Vilanova is every bit the ideologue that Guardiola was, then why are we seeing a more direct Barça this season?

seny and its importance

Catalans even have an expression for what makes them different to other Spaniards, el hecho diferencial – the differentiating fact. They prize sobriety, enterprise and hard work. They reckon that they have their own yin and yang; that they’re a mix between seny i rauxa, common sense and madness. Barça fans maintain that Guardiola is the quintessence of seny. – El Clasico, by Richard Fitzpatrick

In Guillem Balague’s new biography of Guardiola, he argues that far from being the style fundamentalist he was constantly portrayed as, Guardiola benefited from a pragmatic streak. I’ve consistently argued that this is the case. The ideology is very important. It may even be paramount. But it’s not the be all and end all – it has to be validated by success. When asked before the Rome final of 2009 whether, having come so far and played so well, Barça were just happy to take part in the final, his response was vehement. They weren’t there just to take part. They were there to win, because all the plaudits were useless without the titles to back them up.

“It’s not that now we are saying football is a science and playing this way you will always win,” Iniesta says. “The other thing is that we play the way we do because it suits us. We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way. People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.” [Source]

Moreover, the ideology wasn’t fixed in stone. Football is ever-changing. However brilliant a system was, there were going to be hundreds and thousands out there trying to find the magic formula that would unravel it. Guardiola knew that standing still was asking to be overrun by history. Some aspects of Barça’s style were non-negotiable. Others could – and must – evolve to match the demands of the competition.

That’s why Barça went through so many subtle little changes from 2008 to 2012, in tactics and in personnel. Towards the end, the possession stats crept up even further, the team sheets were increasingly dominated by midfielders, and it seemed as though Guardiola had become ever more fundamentalist in his commitment to a team with “the most Barça-ish identity of all Barças” (TM Jonathan Wilson). On the other hand, he also asked for the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, two players who brought a more vertical, direct element to Barça’s play, and promoted cantera products like Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca who offered similar qualities.

In other words, the transition to a more direct Barça currently overseen by Tito Vilanova had its roots in the experiments of last season. Part of this is a matter of both short- and long-term necessity. Short-term, injuries and suspensions have meant that Barça could not reproduce the same degree of control that was so central to previous successes; long-term, Xavi Hernandez, the player who enables Barça to exert total control over games, is not going to last forever. The other part is the conscious effort to evolve constantly, to never be caught napping by an opponent’s innovations.

Vilanova deserves huge credit for the brilliant results Barça have managed this season, during a period of change and experimentation. The shifts have not been seamless, far from it, but there has been visible progress without compromising the core ideology.

the plan b fallacy

Which brings me back to the insistence on ideology. Of course, it’s easy to trumpet an idea when that idea seems to be working spectacularly well. The true test of its resilience is what happens when the difficult times arrive.

My least favourite pundit cliche when it comes to Barça is the bemoaning of ‘the lack of a Plan B’ whenever a major setback occurs. This is often accompanied by a suggestion that Barça could perhaps benefit from having a proper no. 9 to lump the ball at in games where the intricate short-passing wasn’t cutting it. I think Dani Alves gave a very good response to this in the aftermath of the Celtic loss:

“Do not say anything to me about that because we lost the game,” Alves said. “That is our philosophy, which has enchanted the whole world. Barça and football have been united, but when you do not win, of course, the debate about a Plan B returns…The other year we had a Plan B, a big guy with quality, and what happened? He is not here because he did not suit our style,” he said. “What suits us is to improve our Plan A, not to have a Plan B.” [Source]

As Alves pointed out, the ‘Plan B’ argument misses the forest for the trees. What makes this Barça team exceptional is that they make a very difficult style work, and work brilliantly. Conversely, a team assembled to play in Barça’s style is not going to be very good at playing, say, a counter-attacking game based on long balls to a static center-forward. That’s true of any team. Stoke wouldn’t be very good at tiki-taka, and no one suggests that they try it when a game isn’t going their way. It just isn’t part of their game.

To go back to a point I raised above, very few teams have an identity as clear as Barça’s. The demand for a ‘Plan B’ sees this coherence as a drawback, one which keeps Barça from switching to something else when Plan A isn’t working. This just isn’t true.

“We want to have the ball and always attack, but we don’t always play the same way,” said the manager [Vilanova], who added: “Within our Plan A, we have a plan B, C, and D … we know how to win.” [Source]

I argued above that Barça under Guardiola and Vilanova have been and continue to be pragmatic in their implementation of the house style. This has involved the trial of many variations to the basic 4-3-3 template, and matches in which the formation or configuration of players changed 4 to 5 times to best exploit the circumstances. It briefly became an easy game in late 2009 and during 2010-2011, but with the exception of that season, since 2008 cules could have made a game out of guessing Barça’s starting line-ups.

That’s what Vilanova was talking about when he says Barça do have a Plan B, and a Plan C, and a Plan D. When the result isn’t ideal, it’s because they failed to execute those properly, as in the Celtic game, through individual errors like defensive howlers or bad finishing. Not because they “only know one way of playing”.

aura and reality

I’ve argued before that we all simultaneously hold two images of our team in our heads: the glorious, invincible Dream Team of our hearts, and the collection of human beings who actually trot onto the pitch every three days. Most of the time, for most fans, these two images are contradictory. The Dream Team (no pun intended) only ever existed in our heads, when we look back on the past with sepia-tinged nostalgia.

The brilliance of Barça under Guardiola was that the contradictions were resolved. For a time, it seemed as though our team really were that amazing. Through ruthlessly-earned victories, they attained an aura of strength that was hardly dented by the occasional high-profile defeat. The surprise losses, in 2009 to Rubin Kazan, or 2010 to Hercules, didn’t seem to matter. Even a truly damaging defeat like going out to Inter in the Champions League in 2010 felt like an aberration.

At their best, this aura was itself a tool in Barça’s arsenal against opposition teams. As Guardiola said in describing Barça’s approach to the Champions League final in Rome:

“I don’t know if we will defeat them, but what I do know is that no team has beaten us either in possession of the ball or in courage. We will try to instil in them the fear of those who are permanently under attack.

Whether this very usefully intimidating aura can be maintained depends on how well Barça evolves its Plan A.

[*Valdes gets a lot of stick along these lines, which ignores the evidence that he's actually an amazing one-on-one shot-stopper quite aside from being able to use his feet.]

Posted in Tactics, Thoughts45 Comments

Defensive mind, offensive thoughts: Barça – Alavés

This is not a review. I would just like to share some thoughts about the game with you.

2012-11-28 BARCELONA-ALAVES 43-Optimized

 

Alavés do not look like a Third Division side to me. They were supposed to have their butts handed to them in at least one of the two legs, but they simply have too much heart. The away game bored the monkeys out of me. As usual during midweek games I took an extended break from work (smile), but I almost fell asleep during the first half. So bad it was a struggle to get back to my job again. There is something about bringing an almost complete A-team to play a quarter-professional C-team that really fails to get my juices flowing. It’s like watching a UFC heavyweight champ fight a welterweight judoka, uhmmm….actually, wait, I would probably very much enjoy that. But you get the idea. The fact that it took us more than half an hour to score and that for every free kick or corner conceded we still looked worryingly panicked did not add exactly sprinkle the enjoyment factor.

The home game looked to be a lot more fun. And indeed it was. Hooray, we get to watch a midfield tandem of Sergi Roberto and Dos Santos, complemented by his outgrown buddy Thiago de Alcántara who we almost haven’t seen this season due to injury. What’s more, after scoring THAT goal against not-too-long-ago relegated Racing Santander, we could expect Gerard Deulofeu to get significant playing time too, and maybe even start (it was not to be).  Too bad Bartra and Cuenca are injured. And that the great Yaya is no longer with us to romp through Alavesian midfields. But again, even though we started mostly first team players with only one Barcelona B player plus Santos, Alavés kept the score relatively low. It is definitely worth mentioning that we did not play badly, but rather that they refused to go out like that. For that they deserve our applause.

Although neither looked like world beaters, Sergi Roberto and Dos Santos did reasonably well. I really liked Jonathan’s distribution. Still think he will get sold as soon as he allows it. I also believe it will be very hard for us to hold on to Sergi Roberto, who is a lot more talented than he showed in this game. It will probably come down to how much he wants to play for Barça and how much he wants to play, period. I hope he will be patient.

The Villa Situation.  While it is good to see el Guaje get two goals, he doesn’t exactly look thrilled to play meaningless cup games and to either eat pine or get taken off early in the ones that count. Or, in the words of a bad mofo: “You gotta appreciate what an explosive element this Villa Situation is. If he comes home from a half a season’s injury and finds a bunch of youngsters doing some youngster moves in his position, ain’t no tellin’ where he’s apt to go.”*

Adriano Correia scored his fourth goal in thirteen games this season. That is just as many as in the seventy-one games he played for Barça in his first two years with the team. Somebody’s out to prove something. When we also take into account that he played as a central defender for the first time ever in one of the biggest matches of the world, it is safe to say that this role player has played an exceptional role for us so far. Let’s hope he continues to do just that.

Some people are blessed with a chin. Others with a jaw. Yet others with exceptional talent for kicking round objects. Gerard Deulofeu belongs to the latter category. He started off like crap in a wet paper bag. A wayward pass. Some lame dribbling attempts that wouldn’t have gotten past Marcelo’s grandmother. But once he got going he showed some real skill. Kid got more moves than the Rock Steady Crew, and he almost scored a cracker. He has to learn to pass the ball. Hopefully we will bring him slow and get him some more minutes against tougher competition later this season. I wanna see how good he can become.

Were you as impressed with the defense as I was? Yeah, I thought so. Montoya let Borja Viguera nod in an uncontested header and the whole team looked vast asleep when a suspiciously on-side looking goal was ruled off-side. That would have been two (!) goals conceded against a Segunda B (!) team. We might have a comfortable lead in the Liga but unless we do something about our backache that big shiny Champion’s League trophy looks very unlikely.

Speaking of a comfortable lead, I would like to leave you with a question. Is our lead 11 points, or 3? Or better yet, is Atlético the REAL Madrid this year?

 

 

 

*yup, that’s my bad mo-fo

 

 

Posted in Barcelona, Barcelona B, Copa del Rey, Review, Thoughts46 Comments

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