When people talk about the erosion of that magic thing that makes this Barça so special, they often talk of a method of play, positional this and positional that.
For me, what makes this Barça something that should make us all wispy and nostalgic is that dying quality in football, something that exists even if it doesn’t exist in the quantities that supporters suspect or expect: loyalty.
In the past week, Diego Costa has been left out of the Chelsea team after a bust-up with his coach. Dimitri Payet won’t play for West Ham as long as the team’s current coach is there, and the club is seeking a transfer of the player. Now Fabian Orellana has been ostracised from the Celta de Vigo squad for undisclosed reasons, with another coach saying a player won’t be in the squad as long as he is there.
Football is a business, a machine that runs on money. Barça constantly seeks sponsors to pay the massive sums necessary to keep its players happy. As much as people howl about the club treating Messi poorly during his renewal processes and the unintentional hamhandednes of board members, it’s easy to forget that money makes that world go ’round. The club wants to make Messi the highest-paid player in the game, as fits the best player in the history of the game. But we forget how much money that is, we forget strictures, real and imagined, we forget a lot of it all becuase of the notion of loyalty as we scream that dammit, the club should pay him whatever he wants. Loyalty.
It’s here where Barça is so beautiful. This team has players who are not going to, who don’t want to play anywhere other than Barça. Sergi Samper, now on loan at Granada, said in a recent interview of an approach by Arsenal and its coach, Arsene Wenger, “I didn’t even want to listen.” He wants Barça.
Back in the days of Michael Jordan, in more Messi analogs, the Chicago Bulls couldn’t afford to pay him what he was worth to the franchise. It wasn’t that they didn’t have the money, as much as that they had to pay other players, as well. What could you possibly give someone who is priceless? More money? How do you establish the worth of players like Messi and Jordan? Unlike Messi, there weren’t hysterics who every time the renewal process began, ran around screaming about the possibility of him leaving. Jordan trade talk was vanishingly infrequent, and never taken seriously. It was always understood that he would play for the Bulls until he was finished playing the game.
Does anyone imagine Messi in another team’s colors? How about Iniesta? Xavi retired from top-flight football at his boyhood club, where he learned the game. Puyol left Barça as he arrived, a lion. When we consider loyalty and the essence of a club, these realities are magic. Ivan Rakitic said he would leap from a bridge for Luis Enrique. Would he? Probably no more than Dani Alves would have flung himself from the upper reaches of the Camp Nou had Pep Guardiola asked him, but quotes such as those are illustrative.
In these days of Payets and Costas and Orellanas, players who treat clubs as what they in effect are — a job, a place where an employee can seek a better position at a bigger company — Barça has a spine that is unique in many ways for a massive club. It has players who are fully committed to the club. Busquets isn’t going anywhere. Rafinha will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, from the club that raised him.
Supporters follow a club for various reasons. There are people who came to Barça in the tow of various players, Ronaldinho, Maradona, Ronaldo and now Messi. Their interest in the club ends when the player they revere moves on. But there are supporters who are, at their core, of the club. Every club has them. We hear them screaming, cheering and banging drums at away matches even as their heroes are on the wrong end of a drubbing by a big club. They wear the shirts, follow the club news and believe. They always believe. Loyalty is a weird thing, something that supporters constantly worry about. Even as we wonder why Neymar doesn’t get the love that he deserves, we understand why — he seems to the hardcore supporter a visitor more than a resident, someone who has come to get something and will leave when he has it. Puyol left only because he had given every last thing, every last limb and damaged joint that he could. Xavi dished out his last pass, his last seeing-eye through ball. Pique will leave Barça as Puyol did, on legs that can’t do it any longer.
Clubs don’t feel loyalty to players in this day and age, shipping them off as soon as their usefulness is gone. Players are increasingly like employees, sometimes even heading off to China for the massive payday there. The notion of a one-club player seems so quaint in these days of monied teams and huge TV contracts. How many contracts would have been thrown at Maldini?
The game wants to move on, but it also wants to revere its heroes and respect its legacy, opposing missions because heroes age and break, young phenoms come, big-money transfers happen. Loyalty is a concept as much an anachronism as black boots, but in many ways it’s at the core of Barça and this magic generation of footballers. The game is different now, even for the young ones being groomed for first-team spots, these wee professionals who scan the world for opportunities, who generate transfer rumors like seasoned pros. It won’t feel the same when they find their way into their seats on the Barça bench.
But even among those, such as Samper and Alena to name a couple, there is the idea that they want Barça, that they aren’t commodities to be bought and sold, that they are committed to the club and want to make it at the club that raised them. Are we naive enough to believe that if Barça wasn’t the club that it is, playing at the level it is they would be as committed? Valid ask, even as loyalty is a symbiotic relationship. Fans give love, players give love, clubs give love, all based on mutual need. But this group, this Barça group, feels special because it is special. It’s loyal, it’s players you don’t have to worry about. And that’s beautiful even as it is increasingly rare.