It’s a safe bet that when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography in assessing a case, “I know it when I see it,” he probably didn’t think his words would come to describe what some on Twitter labeled culer porn, the midfield of Sergi Busquets, Carles Aleña and Riqui Puig. Smart men can see a lot, but often can’t see a crazy, literary future.
And it ain’t just porn that we know when we see. It’s also talent in absurd quantities, talent sufficient to light up a football pitch, that no-brainer kind of talent that we rarely see, despite trying to convince ourselves otherwise.
The match against Cultural Leonesa at the Camp Nou, another tier in an obligatory Copa del Rey early round, happened exactly as predicted. Barça was always going to be too good for a third-division side. But the story of the match isn’t about the match at all, but rather a lot of lessons learned, notions challenged about things that so many think that they know as we batter on about Masia tradition, first team, blablabla.
Watching Riqui Puig play agaisnt Cultural Leonesa put that clattering into perspective. Think long and hard about the last academy product that was electric, that you watched and said to yourself, “Yep.” You don’t have to think that hard. The last one was Thiago Alcantara.
And not wishful thinking, or narrative, or “Well, coaches need to do this or that.” Just look at the list, the Deulofeus and Adamas, the Dongous and Grimaldos. All are professionals, because La Masia makes professionals. But rare is the Masia product good enough for the Barça first team, whose talent makes his ascension obvious.
Puig plays the game like a player raised in La Masia, who also has crazy talent. Think of the Suzuki violin method where thousands of kids train, learn to play violin with clarity and facility, by the roomful. Yet think about how many top-tier classical soloists or star players cite Suzuki training as their base. In every room of kids sawing away at wee instruments there will be one or two with that tone, that phrasing, that way of making music more than notes.
It isn’t fluency with the ball or coffeehouse tricks. It’s a grounded sense of rightness, the idea that when the ball comes to him he will do the right thing. Even more interesting was having him and Aleña on the pitch at the same time because you had not one, but two players with that same sense of rightness.
Puig seems to play on that weird tightrope like Iniesta, even as we should shun any and all comparisons. When he has the ball, he moves, makes the ball move with him as though they both have somewhere to go. Forward. You can’t teach it, even as you can teach proper play at La Masia. Aleña has the same quality. It’s a sense that they have seen the match before, and are playing into the future.
Various Barça coaches, academy coaches, club officials such as Pep Segura have been accused of so many things when a youth talent leaves. But the ones who matter, don’t leave. Aleña didn’t, Puig didn’t. And look at them now. It’s more than them loving the club. As Puig’s father said, it was support and understanding that the club was going to do the right thing. Segura wasn’t feeding him raw meat or protein shakes and hoping he would grow into somethiing big and strong. His talent was being nurtured for what it was, which was something extraordinary.
We blast coaches for not giving academy players a shot but do we really understand the high, high bar of the Barça first team, how good an academy player has to be to hurdle it? And when you see it, you know it. It isn’t that it was “just Cultural.” When Puig played against AC Milan during the pre-season tour, you could see it. And he’s better now. Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso, who should know, called him out as being an amazing talent.
Everything about the first team is a daunting, demanding barrier that excludes all but the best. And it should be. It isn’t charity or a birthright. Earn it, take that spot. What we saw with Puig and Aleña on the same pitch at the same time isn’t to be underestimated. We saw two talents who are no-brainers. And like it or not, that level of ability is what it takes to make inroads into the Barça first team. Sometimes, for the sake of a good fight or creating bogeymen, we try to tell ourselves that a lesser player has what it takes. Then we see the real thing, and understand.
The win against Cultural was a rote undressing of a lesser opponent. Denis Suarez got a brace, even as his play made it abudantly clear why he should be looking for a new forever home. Look at Puig play, then look at Suarez. They are barely playing the same game. There is talk of playing Suarez in the right positions, about coaches who have done him wrong. But look at how he takes the ball, then look at Puig. It’s different, and it isn’t subtle. One bangs the pass off a defender’s shin or loses the ball, the other threads a ball through traffic with just the right amount of pace and accuracy.
Being good enough is at the core of everything, and it isn’t a nebulous concept, isn’t up for debate. It isn’t wishing, hoping, or if only someone had done this or that. It’s talent and sparkle that are undeniable. That is a lot more rare than we think or expect, and it’s wonderful to see.