Sustained excellence is an extravagant thing.
Sustained excellence is also something that inures us to its majesty. Think of Lionel Messi, and how often he does things that would make another player pull off the shirt and retire, saying, “That’s it. I can’t do any more.” For Messi, it’s just another goal, just another moment. It messes up our capability to comprehend what we’re seeing because we always see it.
FC Barcelona clinched its eighth Liga title in the last 11 years with a 1-0 defeat of Levante, an outing that drew the usual brickbats from the cognoscenti. Over that time, this team has also won two trebles, and domestic doubles are almost routine, so much so that we start each season with the expectation of this magnificence. Coaches change, players come and go, but the only thing that doesn’t change is the success.
Some years they win a Champions League, some years they don’t. When they make the final, they always win. That’s what big-time players and big-time teams do.
What we forget is how amazing it all is.
When Ernesto Valverde got this team, it was after a desultory, season under Luis Enrique that ended with a Copa del Rey title. And when he got it, its second best player departed shortly after his arrival. Two additions came. One couldn’t play in European competition, and the other broke almost immediately. Valverde looked down the bench and had … Paulinho.
History won’t appreciate what an astounding job he did getting that team as far as it went, just as history won’t appreciate the work he did in getting this team to where it is. This is a team that has lost three league matches in two seasons, a team that has never lost to any of the top nine (current) teams in La Liga, that has turned the Santiago Bernabeu into a home pitch.
Week after week, match after match, this team wins. It has won another league championship, the bauble that coaches such as Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola say is much more valuable than Champions League. But for us, the league is so reliable — again, 8 of 11 — that we forget how special it is. There are almost certainly many Barcelona supporters who have never seen the team not win the league, children for whom an annual rite of passage is happy dancing, fireworks and giddy parents, capering on a manicured lawn. This is remarkable.
What do we do with this team, besides celebrate it? Can we even get our minds around when the championships won’t be automatic in our minds, when we don’t have the luxury of grumbling because it didn’t win a treble? How do we process this team and what it has done. Again.
One way is to look at the faces of the players as they celebrated, particularly the face of Messi, which was beaming with joy. Imagine what the young players have to be feeling, such as Alenya and Malcom. Or Lenglet, who was, before his phone rang in summer, looking at another season of battling for the top four places at Sevilla. Now he is a champion.
It’s hard for championships to matter as much as they should to most supporters when they come so often, like a utility, hard for us to understand what it means. Even those of us who are athletes, who have worked, won and lost don’t fully understand the magic. Week after week, three dozen matches, and you are the best.
Players and athletes don’t have memories. They don’t think, 8 of 11. They think of this one, this year, this moment, this now. And now, this remarkable team is the best. Gerard Pique, when Valverde took over, got stomped by Real Madrid in the SuperCopa, said that for the first time he felt inferior to Los Blancos.
Then Valverde got to work. His team beat Real Madrid by 15 points last season, and should be about the same margin this season. The lead over second-place Atletico could also be double digits. How did it all happen?
Solidity. Valverde always started with solidity, not giving up stupid goals, so that his offensive magicians had the opportunity to be decisive. That is what happened against Levanted, as it has been all season, and last season. And we haven’t always liked that, thanks to rose-tinted memories of swashbuckling cinema.
And all this team does is win. To hear us talk, an outsider might be surprised to see that Barcelona isn’t battling relegation, such is the misery that we are subjected to week after week. “They won? I didn’t watch. Too boring and ugly.”
Messi suffered a fractured arm, and the team kept on winning. It adapted. Opponents packed boxes, kept everyone behind the ball, and the team kept on winning. That a Messi free kick now has teams having a player lay down behind the wall is bonkers. So is football wracking its brain to try to stymie this Barcelona team. No go.
Form, age, erratic play. Formation changes, key subs, players who came out of nowhere to surprise us as they contributed to success. The value of players such as Messi, Pique, Alba, Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, players who don’t understand not coming through for each other. Teams are bonded units because they work for each other, support each other. We support them, but not like they do each other. This is why a league championship matters so much to players and coaches.
Messi scored an exquisite goal to provide the winning margin, and we went wild because we knew it would be the championship clincher. Only a few of us noted the defense-wrecking run that Dembele made. That run is what Dembele does, why the club paid so much for his talents. But that determination, the almost violent way he scythed through the opposition — Dembele gets it, because of where he is and who he is with.
When champions sustain excellence it is because of pedigree. It’s easy to think the club has money and access to great players. But so do lots of other clubs, that haven’t established a clock-like execution of excellence. So what do we do with that? How can we process it?
This is the most special football club that we will have the opportunity to love, in its pomp. The game changes time and again in an effort to stymie that execution. The teams, the managers adapt, and they keep on excelling. As supporters, we can celebrate the victory, can feel great about the team that we support winning again. But we won’t ever be able to understand it, not as we should, not as the players do. We can’t. And that’s okay. We’re human. Thankfully, our team isn’t.