Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
Aimé Jacquet is truly one of football’s coaching greats (and just greats, period), and in the course of a very, very belated catch-up with Albin Michel’s wonderfully compact and perfectly delicious “C’est quoi le foot”, I was again reminded that I had not sufficiently recognised this in the past. My very genevois and often very pig-headed opposition to all things French surely does not help – but I am aware of it and I change my mind (heck, I even drive a French car).
A short, light but highly informative and insightful read, it is essentially a long, interview-format conversation with one of football’s most intelligent and humble coaches, recorded back in 2000. A number of topics are covered through a series of some fairly basic – if not irritably naive – questions, but they serve as excellent bouncing boards for Aimé to expand on his vision and aspirations for the beautiful game. What is particularly endearing about him is the sense of passion for the game, but also balance in the way he discusses various challenging topics: even when commenting upon the odious hate campaign that was conducted against him by the influential dedicated sports magazine “L’Equipe” at the time, he shows no sign of personal bitterness or pettiness, instead managing to address the sense of injustice committed on his person in a factual and calm manner. He even manages to not make fun of rugby, while perfectly sensibly explaining why it and other sports such as basketball are not likely to be able to soon rival football for world dominance.
In this unassuming little treasure that has been gathering dust in my library for many years now, I also happened to find the following gem that perfectly resonates with the fundamental premise of this blog and that I just had to share, and which I especially dedicate to all my Barça brown-noising friends (Google translate for non-francophones, or write to me if you are really lazy, I might just feel like translating it for you):
Question: On a vu pas mal de scènes de violences ces dernières années. Croyez-vous que le foot devient trop violent?
Answer: Franchement, non. Il faut seulement avoir bien présent à l’esprit que les joueurs étant de mieux en mieux préparés, beaucoup plus athlétiques qu’il y a une vingtaine d’années, le jeu s’en ressent et devient plus engagé. Les duels sont plus rudes, plus impressionnants pour l’oeil extérieur. Mais, dans ce je plus dense, ce sont encore, et comme toujours, les techniciens qui vont faire la différence, hier un Platini, aujourd’hui un Zidane. L’erreur à ne pas commettre, c’est de croire qu’un Platini ou un Zidane sont décisifs par eux-mêmes et par eux seuls. Ils le sont parce qu’un incontournable, un considérable travail de conquête et de reconquête du ballon est accompli par toute l’équipe avant qu’ils puissent “entrer en scène”, si j’ose dire. Une certaine forme de perversité, voire de malhonnêteté, a longtemps consisté à nous convaincre qu’il fallait choisir entre un football physique, athlétique, bien sûr pas trop glorieux, et un football technique, léché, bien sûr plus noble. Faux débat! Discussion sans fondement! Il y a toujours eu dans le football. à toutes les époques, des duels à livrer, des défis physiques à relever, des “pressings” à assurer. On ne peut pas plus s’en dispenser aujourd’hui qu’hier et même plutôt moins, alors que les joueurs sont devenus de véritables athlètes. Si l’on refuse cette exigence, cette évidence, pas de salut! Après, place à l’imagination, place aux créateurs, et à tout ce que vous voulez.
A few words on the CL semi-finals… (now that the black armband has come off from Wednesday’s disappointment…)
Yes, it was very disappointing to accept that José will not be in the final, as well as to see him displaying some uncharacteristic signs of emotional weakness. Don’t really care so much for Madrid, but the mouth watering prospect of a potential double for JM was so compelling that it was hard to accept disappointment, hence the radio silence of a few days. In addition, the actual penalty shout-out, itself another emotional roller-coaster (my favorite concept at the moment), was about as impressive (from a technical standpoint) as Switzerland-Ukraine a few years ago – they are still picking up the birds that Ramos brought down from the Bernabeu side roof.
But in a way it is good for football that the two noisy and steadily more annoying favorites from Spain, generally held (except in the UK) to be the European country with the highest standard of football at the moment, did not make it through. It is a case of two mini giant-slaying feats, in the context of the Champions League. Though Chelsea and Bayern are far from being the Davids (of Goliath association, not Edgar) of the story, it is nevertheless good proof to the doom mongers and nostalgia bashers (of the football of yore) that modern football results can not be “bought” or predicted, and that at the end of the day it comes down to what happens on the pitch, the impact of micro-cosmic decisions made in split seconds, nerves, grit and concentration. In my view (and I said it at the time), the decider is the last minute goal conceded by Madrid in Munich – José’s face at the time said it all. Madrid still has some maturing to do, and perhaps it is reassuring (and calming to the nemici) to realise that the so called enemy of football is actually human after all, and sometimes vulnerable like the rest of us. But José please work a bit on the penalties for next year – it is most definitely your weak spot.
As for the “best team of the universe”, though it was delightful to see them lose their cool (and especially Busquets collapsing as Nando’s ball rolled into the net), they remain as formidable as ever. Though many pundits will now undoubtedly start turning their vests and adjusting their forecasts for next season, the whole thing was down to a few key misses that only a few months ago (and certainly last year) would have found the back of the net. In that sense, Chelsea may have been a fortunate beneficiary of the fatigue and lack of confidence that Barça have found themselves in due to the pressure piled on them by José’s Madrid. But this should not diminish the fact that the Blues’ old guard put in a formidable performance, largely inspired by the initial feat accomplished by their still present mentor and his Inter in 2010. And that IS football – as so well put by this contemporary in the ever reliable WSC (minus points for not being brave enough to own the “anti”).
Highlight of the two nights: the Ramires chip – a true golasso, and far from an isolated feat – he scored some beauties this season, including a very similar goal against Spurs at Wembley a few weeks ago in the FA Cup semi-final.
Yes, bitches, the venom is back.
It is true, it’s been a while though… arguably he should have stopped at Terminator 2, and left it there at undisputed classic status.
But back to serious matters, it has indeed been a lame and unproductive football season… I’m talking about this blog of course. About as consistent as Wigan (but… capable of some heroics – at least I hope). The reason? It is difficult to separate the heart from the mind – that’s why I don’t believe in football journalism.
It’s not yet officially an “annus horribilis”, and with the prospect of José clinching the title from the so called “best football club in the universe”, and Inter again being able to entertain ambitions of Champions League football, things are looking up a bit. If City can manage to squeeze out Man U and Chelsea edges out the reds in the Cup final, I may even pop a bottle of the ole’ bubbly (even if I can’t stand the stuff, in my view it is one of those bourgeois “tick the box” exercises that you have to partake in, like having expensive V-necks and pretending to be interested in poncy expensive watches). The Champions League final is a major conundrum – the Mou KGB is still locked in debate over the party line to be adopted.
So why the slightly down feeling? Well, it has been a heck of an emotional roller coaster, and importantly, it’s not over yet! Everything could still go completely wrong, and a lot certainly has. All my preferred clubs have suffered this year:
Where do I begin? Apart from beating the cousins in January and appearing to be threatening for the title, it has been a miserable 9 months. Nearly every game (there are some exceptions, like the 5-0 thrashing of Parma, also back in January) has been an interminable sufferance, with near ridiculous defensive howlers and last minute disappointments, the worst of them being perhaps the double affront against Marseille, who has arguably exceeded itself in its inconsistency – but at least they have a Cup to their name this season. I’m not even going to talk about the embarrassing home defeats versus newly promoted
clubs that in past times would normally have been overcome with at least clean sheets. Hopefully the next few weeks, with the all-important return derby, will provide some cause for joy. The horrible twist is that if we beat them, those even more horrible black & whites will surely clinch it then – but sometimes one has to be egotist and accept imperfection as happiness. Clinching a Champions League spot would certainly be an achievement after so much instability (two coach changes, significant player departures, injuries, disappointing recruitment), though again, I fear the other side of the coin that may be the President’s penchant for going for another recency effect propelled “big name boss” (e.g. Bielsa). The young Strammacioni in the meantime is showing signs of promise – who needs a wooden villa? Not us. Perhaps the Prez should really stick to his financial fair play related low profile, bottom-up approach, get Coutinho back from Espanyol (where he has been making a name for himself), release a few senators, and give a new generation a proper shot at building confidence through experience and a real sense of responsibility and accountability to the fans.
The slide from consistent top half table performances that already started last year, foreboded by the departures of key players like Luis Fabiano, Adriano and Renato, and previously numerous other – now illustrious – former colleagues such as Dani Alves and Seydou Keita – has shown now signs of decelaration. Sevilla could still possibly clinch a Europa League spot, but I wonder if it will do them any good – it could actually make matters worse. The recruitment this year has not been too bad, and at least there are signs that the defense has stabilised – it is worth noting that at this point (after 34 games), Sevilla has the 3rd best defence in la Liga (not far behind Madrid), thanks to the additions of Emir Spahic from Montpellier, and a greater role for the chillean pit-bull and midfield marshal Medel, who has been consistently clawing at other team’s suave dribblers’ ankles. But though Trochowsky has shown skills and adapted well, he – as many others, notably the underwhelming Rakitic – are no replacement for the caliber of the aforementioned former luminaries. But again one has to look at the bright spots, and one of those (that I should truly have posted about) was the 0-0 against the “best team in the universe” at the latter’s home ground, with my hero Freddy K. standing up for himself and all of those other teams who are constantly and systematically at the receiving end of the favors that the Spanish football establishment continues to bestow on the darlings of football. Perhaps the President is happy with this state of affairs (two-three coach changes per season) but from observing how others fare with such practices, the fans’ worry is that Sevilla could soon find itself involved in relegation battles. Has Monchi lost his flair for new talent? I trust not, but the signs are not reassuring. Let’s hope at least that we hold on to Negredo and Jesus this year, but there will be big shoes to fill (literally) with the now likely departure (possibly retirement) of Kanouté.
It has been a rotten time for Swiss football, and particularly the Swiss-Romand sides. While the immediate future seems to have been secured to a degree (I’m not even fully up to speed – please comment if you are), the newly promoted Geneva club has enjoyed its share of despotic folly of a megalomaniac president who, though not as bad as his counterpart at Neuchâtel Xamax, has undermined all the enthusiasm and ambition acquired following last year’s promotion.
4. Chelsea (and it is purposefully in this positioning of emotional relevance)
Needless to say that it has bit of a confusing season again, due mainly to the inconsistency of results, but the Terry-mania has not helped either. Predictably, the “team one” underperformed (in José we trust…) and subsequently got done by the team, though what the whole episode really helped to highlight is once again the short-sightedness and lack of sophistication of the owner and his current posse of henchmen, notwithstanding that there may have been serious issues in the Portuguese’s leadership. The Blues are still battling on 2 important fronts and, and should they clinch the ever elusive Champions League title, could suddenly find themselves the darlings of England (which will undoubtedly result in renewed self-delusion about England’s chances, though I am not sure about Terry’s inclusion in the squad). However at this point it feels to me like they’re more likely to repeat the loser feat of Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 (i.e. lose both Cups) than to surprise in Europe – and the 4th spot at this point appears like a bit of a challenge – key game next week against an ambitious and budding Newcastle side). Bright spot of the season? The steady and impressive growth of Ramires and his two beautiful chips against Spurs and Barça in the two cup semi-finals.
So, hopefully now you can at least sympathise (though I expect no mercy and no pardon) with the difficulties this emotional roller coaster has been providing yours truly in his self-appointed (and self-righteous) role of pseudo anti-football establishment bard. Despite some promising potential upsets (including the mancunian derby), I plan to keep my emotions in check over the next few weeks and invest sparsely. But hopefully the inspiration for writing will be all the better.
P.S. Hope Lille finishes 3rd (but would be nice if Inter could swoop for Hazard), and even more that plucky Montpellier pips PSG for the title.
P.P.S. note to self – consider choice of preferred Bundesliga club for next season – especially helpful for increasing hate focus against the noisy bavarians. And bravo Lulu (Favre).
It is very ambitious to hope to achieve the treble or even the double over consecutive years. For sure, this was not the greatest year for Inter Milan. The 2009-2010 season was it, and it has put the bar very high in terms of titles, incredible feats, valor, spirit and emotional ups and downs. How could one compete with that?
And yet they have done it. Like the Bride did to Budd, the nerazzurri’s cup win at the Stadio Olimpico last night (against Palermo) once again demonstrated to those who had hoped to bury this squad and be done with it (and notably certain people with a heavy spanish accent with a silly goatee to match) that they had another coming. One would have thought that the comeback against Bayern would have imprinted that clearly in most minds, but where there is a numbness of the will, there will be a way for bad faith. It does not matter to the fans though. That was a unique night for the fans, emotionally uplifting and up there with the greatest moments of 2009-2010. Even just for that, we are grateful.
Sunday night was also special and beautiful not only for the win, punctuated by yet another imperious performance by Eto’o and a glorious return to scoring ways for Diego! Alberto! Miiliitooo!, but also for a great game of two teams who both wanted the title and where the outcome hung in the balance until the dying minutes when El Principe sealed the win for the nerazzurris with a delicious tap-in from a well worked Pandev cross. Unlike the slaughter on Saturday night, which may have appeared deceptively balanced to some due to the Man U’s goal in 1st half, this was a true contest, with a bold and entrepreneurial Palermo side that refused to back down and who fought for it until the very end, thereby still giving their fans pride and joy even in defeat.
That performance was not missed on any who had observed it including Inter’s players, who quickly opened their arms to their opponents on the night for moral support and recognition, which was reciprocated in an emotional show of passion and respect that was glaring in omission on Saturday. This was a men’s moment, one which is not accessible to a bunch of emotionally undeveloped brats for whom winning is now an obvious entitlement, and for whom fair play and exchanging respect are perfunctory elements of protocol learned in school, performed with a cold heart of ones who have yet to experience major disillusionment. But it will come, don’t worry.
So now it is hopefully clear to all that Inter is not a squad that will give up the ghost easy. While most if not all of the talk in offices today was of Barça’s smothering of Manchester United, yet Inter again claimed center stage in Italy with this powerful and emotional win, undeterred by the chorus of the soft consensus around Europe’s new champions. And why should they be intimidated? With the lion king Samueeel Eto’ooo (grazie Recalcati) at the helm, the blue and black are still champions of the world, at least until November. And with the kind of performances that his teammates Milito, Pandev, Julio Cesar, Lucio, Wesley Sneijder, Chivu, Nagatomo and last but not least il capitano Javier Zanetti also put in, sprinting down the right wing at the end of the game like a fresh kid just subbed on from the bench, I think they have every right to want to claim it back very soon.
As Leonardo has himself framed it so well (watch here), the end of period accounts don’t look so bad after all: 1 Super Cup (won against Roma), 1 Clubs’ World Champion Cup, and to top it off, another Italian Cup. It is a mini tris of sorts, indeed. Joking apart, it demonstrates the extent to which this squad was committed to building on the successes of last year, not content to kick back and rest on its laurels. If you add to that a solid 2nd spot in the calcio as well as an exit in quarter finals of the Champions League, there isn’t many clubs who wouldn’t sign for such a season. Ask Arsène Wenger to start with, or Carlo Ancelotti for that matter, not to mention the Juve.
And if you didn’t quite get that point, think about the striking comparison with Palermo. Of course, the southerners had never won any title, so for them to be even present in the final in Rome was an achievement in of itself. Maybe the English press can convince itself that the same applies of Manchester’s showing in the final. That’s OK if low horizons is your cup of tea, my chummy chums. But the black and blue dreamed to achieve more: and the dream goes on.
So it’s now definitely over in the U.K., Italy and Spain and although there is still one more day left in France, Lille have definitely clinched the title (and thereby a double) with the key point squeezed from a tightly contested 2-2 against PSG. Excellent goals all around, see highlights here. I, like many, do feel that this was well and truly properly deserved, Lille showing both flair and consistency through out the season – as demonstrated by Eden Hazard’s graduation from “best hope” to “best player” at the French player awards show (UNFP). Marseille will finish second no matter what now, while Lyon and PSG will battle it out on the last day for the all important Champions League play-off spot. 7 sides are still hanging on to avoid the last remaining place for the drop: AJ Auxerre , Stade Brest, OGC Nice, Valenciennes FC, SM Caen, AS Nancy, AS Monaco will be wanting to get a win from that last game next Sunday to make sure they stay up. If I have to choose one, I’d put my money on Monaco as they are the worst off of all the above, and I trust Aulas will do everything possible to ensure that Lyon does not miss out on the CL spot.
In Italy, Inter finished off with a fairly convincing win at home against Catania, with 2 goals from Pazzini (a magnificent volley for the 1st) and a 3rd from Nakamoto – watch here. The nerazzurris thus comforted their position in 2nd spot with 6 points behind Milan AC but also 6 points in front of Naples, who drew with Juve in Turin. On the number of games in charge, Leonardo thus concludes his half-term with Inter as the best coach in Italy but more on that later. Udinese drew with Milan in the evening and thus secured the right for the Champions League play-off spot: let’s hope they do better than Sampdoria last year – the blucerchiati have been going downhill ever since that terrible night on August 24 last year when they went down in the return fixture against Bremen after they initially looked good to have qualified, and things really got tough after both Pazzini and Cassano departed. The two wolverine brothers Lazio and Roma will compete to regain some prestige in the Europa League next season, with the bianconerris looking enviously on with a lot of bitterness – “una stagione disgraziata, la peggiore degli ultimi 20 anni”. Even those words, albeit from La Gazzetta, are quite revealing of Juve’s profound malaise because what could be worse than the calciopoli and relegation? These words are also symptomatic of the lack of understanding of the causes of the stagnation of the club, which is primarily the responsibility of the club’s management that has been unable to create a sound basis for stability and the building of squad cohesion. Things are not likely to improve next season as the club looks on for another providential but probably inexperienced saviour from the past.
In Spain, Sevilla have incredibly managed to hold on to 5th spot despite achieving the same number of points as the two Atleticos, thanks to arelatively good recent run of results and last night’s victory against Espanyol, and in particular two magnificent goals from Alvaro Negredo – watch here. For a fairly chaotic season including a messy change of manager and the departure of one of the two main goalscorers (Luis Fabiano), that’s quite an achievement. Real Madrid finished 4 points behind Barça, evil José’s defensive outfit managing to put a paltry 8 goals past bottom placed Almeria. Cristiano Ronaldo thus finishes as top goalscorer. Valencia and Villareal confirmed their spots as 3rd and 4th, respectively, which they have been holding on to for some time, so it was only logical. On a sad note, Deportivo la Coruna drop down to Liga B: incredible to think that not so long ago they were challenging Milan, Manchester United and other European greats for European trophies.
In England also, the season came to a climactic finish with a mega relegation scrap between Wolves, Birmingham, Blackpool, Blackburn and Wigan. After a pretty thrilling 90 minutes of switcheroo for the drop spots, destiny settled on Blackpool and Birmingham. There will be general sadness for Blackpool who put in a very entertaining though defensively naive campaign, conceding far too many goals including on this final very important day, but not as much for general meanies Birmingham, and especially none from the Emirates. Smiles all round here though for Wigan and their coach Roberto Martinez, who would have to be top candidate to win the prize for the most positive coach in football today, maintaining a serene and positive outlook on his team’s potential through the most difficult of times. And I’d like to believe that it had a part in them finishing well – remember: not many people win away at Britannia. Elsewhere, Mancini’s Mancity (or the other way around) finished off in convincing style by seeing off Bolton 2-0. Arsenal settle for fourth place and will have to go through the Champions League’s play-off round to see some European football next season – I’d love it to be against Villareal. Well done to West Brom’s own Big Chief Tchoyi for grabbing a treble to save the blushes from his coleagues’ atrocious defending. I certainly wish I’d seen these ones coming for my Fantasy Football team selection but like Blak Twang, I ain’t done too bad. Following the day’s games, Chelsea have finally put an end to the least thrilling gossip trail of the second half of the season by confirming the dismissal of Carlo Ancelotti. All bets are now on as to who will be Roman’s next big money move – it would be nice to see Pep Guardiola trying out his skills in a different environment so the world can assess his skills outside the warm nest of Daddy Cruyff.
P.S. Speaking of Everton, thought Id mention that – thanks to a perceptive WSC reader’s letter a few years ago – upon watching MOTD tonight I was delighted to anticipate Everton defender’s Seamus Coleman’s second yellow and thus red card and thus confirm that the BBC’s golden rule “if they show you a player getting a yellow card, that means he’s getting the second later on” is truly and well still operational.
It’s all over in Italy as Milan have sealed their title win thanks to yet another clean sheet in Rome. Despite a rather insipid 0-0, the additional point was sufficient for Silvio’s crew to finally reconnect with some domestic success after many years of frustration. Congratulations might have been on the cards but after hearing about Gattuso’s rather lowly comments towards Leonardo the mood here just isn’t very sporty. Inter on the other hand dispatched relatively easily with Fiorentina despite breaking some cold sweat in the second half after Fiorentina pulled one back but youngster Coutinho’s first goal in nerazzurro (a fine curling yet sharp free kick à la Wesley) restored the 2 goal lead that Inter had confidently acquired in the 1st half. Lucio thought he would add spice and freak the fans out with a careless ball loss that brought the best out of Julio Cesar towards the end but the game (view highlights) finished on 3-1, thereby helping to reduce Milan’s lead to 6 points. The win and the renewed confidence (so good to see El Muro back on the bench), combined with that declaration, now means that we will be sharpening the knives in the hope to meet the red & black once again in the Cup final for a revenge opportunity, but in the meantime tomorrow’s official colour is pink: forza Palermo, we’re counting on you Pastore.
Napoli in the meantime lost away to resilient Lecce (see great 2nd collective goal punctuated by a superb strike by ex-Sevillano Chevanton here) and thus their gap with Inter has now widened to 4 points. On paper this would probably mean that the fight in San Paolo next Saturday against Inter would be quite bitter, but as things seem to be souring by the minute between the coach Mazzarri and his president Dino de Laurentis, perhaps the motivation won’t be as strong since in addition the azzurris are fairly strongly positioned in 3rd place and will furthermore missing their talismanic goalscorer Cavani, red-carded during this game. A fierce battle for fourth place is now on between Lazio, Udinese and Juventus (who again managed to draw tonight at home to Chievo).
In England in the meantime, Man U’s 2-1 win against Chelsea (view highlights) has given Fergie’s team the decisive 6-point lead that pretty much seals the title race. Mathematically the Red Devils can still drop the ball if they lose both of their last 2 games and Chelsea somehow cruise through both of theirs and end up with a better goal average (they would have to achieve a 3 goal improvement on Man U in these 2 games), thereby stealing the title on the basis of the latter. However the probability of that happening is fairly low at this point considering as well the two games that the teams have to play and the moral advantage that Man U have through this win over the current champions, as evidenced by the celebrations at the end. Arsenal in the meantime have failed to capitalise on the Blues’ defeat in losing 3-1 to Stoke City at the Britannia, as the “rugby team” (as they were affectionately dubbed by the Gunners’ faithful) coached by Tony Pulis put themselves in an excellent mindset for next Saturday’s FA Cup final against fourth placed Manchester City. The light blues lost away to Everton despite starting strongly as late goals from Distin and Osman keep them pegged in fourth position with an apparently very strong resurgent Liverpool challenging for theirs and Spurs’ European passes. The relegation battle also promises to go down to the wire as things remain very tight at the bottom.
Elsewhere, anti-José fans should note yet another defensive outing by the blancos as they humiliated Sevilla by a mere 6-2 away at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. That’s only 12 goals in the last3 games but it’s probably still too defensive for most. Barça in the meantime drubbed local rivals Espanyol with a defensively reckless 0-2 win.
In France, Lille’s bid for the title regained credibility through a tough but determined win away at Nancy on Saturday, and was further reinforced by Lyon’s emphatic win at the Gerland against 2nd placed Marseille (see video highlights here). Good to see Cris being decisive again and regaining some authority in the club. PSG will be delighted of course, although the Lyon win puts them back in fourth place as they only managed a point against a Monaco side that has finally begun to find some form. Rennes, who were previously competing for 1st place, have fallen off the rails and will be fortunate to finish 5th considering the strong performances from France’s most attractive side (by joga bonito standards, but actually they very creative) Sochaux, who again confirmed their potential with powerful win against Bordeaux (see highlights here) that has finished off Tigana’s mandate.
In the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund missed the chance to seal the title through defeat at Werder Breme but it’s now probably just a matter of 1 or 2 games. In the meantime, Bayern comforted themselves (for their miserable season, by the club’s lofty standards) with a 8-1 win over relegation bound St. Pauli.
P.S. thanks to Prince O for highlighting both Chevanton’s goal and Gattuso’s outburst.
More predictable than a rant by a bunch of old ladies’ waiting for a late bus, the wave of moral outrage at José Mourinho’s declarations (at the press conference after the Bernabeu leg of the Real Madrid-Barcelona Champions League semi-final fixture) just keeps on swelling. You thought you had seen it all after Rooney’s cussing at the camera (at the away game against West Ham United) led to hordes of eager liberal journalists being dispatched up and down the UK on a hunt for children whose tender and vulnerable psyches’ had been forever maimed by such an unbridled display of vulgarity. That was just a green salad appetizer for the big bloody meat dish that is on display now.
Indeed, following José’s expression of frustration at losing the game after going down to ten men for the fourth time in his career against the club where his career began, certain sections of the press have rushed in to voice their profound indignation at the Portuguese coach’s statements. One such poignant example is that offered by Simon Barnes, Chief Sports Writer at The Times, who dedicated a whole article to the matter in his column on Friday April 29th. In grandiloquent prose normally reserved for Sunday sermons or the prosecution’s closing statement at a Hague war crimes tribunal hearing, Barnes proceeds to paint the world in black & white with José in the role of the leading baddie. The Portuguese has not just gone one step too far: he is, according to Barnes, both Saddam-level crazy as well as truly evil and should be excommunicated from the civilized world.
What is amazing about this article (1) is that it is actually only scantly related to football. It barely mentions anything connected with football other than the obligatory reference to UEFA, the two clubs, granddaddy Ferguson and of course that famed predecessor and supposed spiritual father figure Brian Clough. Its main bone of contention and source of outrage is that “Mourinho blamed the defeat on the United Nations children charity, an organization that is more concerned with getting supplies to Libya and Ivory Coast than the question of who a bladder into a net more times on a balmy evening in Spain“. The writer then proceeds to develop a truly bizarre diatribe from this conclusion and reading on, one would be forgiven for thinking that the article is about the discovery of concentration camps in one of Africa’s current battlefields and/or another supposed genocide that the West should rapidly intervene in by deploying ground troops and missile strikes.
Three interesting things can be deduced from this article and in particular from this one key phrase above. First of all, that in order to have so completely misconstrued José’s cheeky and rhetoric questions, Simon Barnes either relies on extraordinarily poor translation services or is himself completely barmy. Secondly, that he is clearly using this situation as a platform for making his case for a bit of a promotion: it is clear from his offering that he would indeed be far happier in the role of chief political columnist or foreign affairs editor, or something of the sort, that would allow him to grandstand and showcase his excellent moral fibre and moving verse to the rest of the world. Most importantly, the article is proof that José’s comments are more pertinent than ever, precisely because they have touched upon the raw nerve of an elaborate and wide-reaching yet fragile general consensus that has formed around Barcelona football club in recent years.
By questioning the current near-universal legitimacy of Barça as the perennial “nice guys” and brand owners of “beautiful football” who can do no wrong, José has stirred up a much bigger hornets’ nest than merely that of protocol in European club football competitions. He has dared to question the symbolic status of Barça as the current universal darlings of football, a view that is interestingly today probably held to more passionately by those who are by and large outsiders to or only casual observers of the world of football like Simon Barnes (2).
This is because Barça have indeed come to represent something special in the modern game through their particular brand of identity that combines the following unique strands:
1. Exceptional individual and collective skill (there is no doubt about that), but this is actually the least important of the three – though it is certainly a necessary basis to be added to the next two key differentiators.
2. The (apparent) role of the victim, extracted from the association with the Catalans’ frustrated aspirations for independence, is perfectly fitted to the spirit of our age where being a victim commands the highest level of moral legitimacy. This is cleverly disguised too, since the sums Barça spend on their transfer signings are by no means small and an only slightly more careful analysis would clearly replace them in their real role as the other (with Real Madrid) pariah of Spanish football. Albeit actually used only opportunistically by the club, the peculiar parochial identity kit serving as the victim costume has been made palatable to a wider audience by a cosmopolitan veneer provided by the city’s and club’s European dimension, and notably – linked to the latter – the Dutch connection, that other beacon of enlightenment. This is a key feature that sets Barça apart from other similar clubs such as the Basque club of Atletico Bilbao, that goes much further with its identity-based approach to recruitment and as a result would clearly never fit the bill for the same kind of pan-bourgeois respectability.
3. The image of general nice guys (like Iniesta and Xavi), diametrically opposed to that of typical football heroes such as Maradona (general all-round druggie bandit with communist leanings to top it off) or Rooney (working class ogre); the latter are typically highly unacceptable to the middle classes and right thinking elites for their lowly origins, overall arrogance (of skill in their trade or sheer bravado) and excessive material wealth acquired too quickly and, as far as the elites are concerned, too easily. This is where the UNICEF logo comes in as an all-important proof of concept of the club’s moral high ground, as if eschewing base earthly material concerns.
The defenders of this image of Barça are all the more rabid and excited these days because, in the style of self-elected elites, they actually have difficulty dealing with others questioning their worldview and would generally prefer to resort to censorship based on the claim of moral outrage. But deep down they cannot completely disregard a growing awareness of the excessive exaggeration and dramatization (by their chosen symbols) on the pitch, which has been highlighted in previous important games in the current and previous recent seasons. The British football press themselves had their own little anti-Barça shout first with Chelsea’s elimination in 2009 and then once more earlier this year over Van Persie’s red card, but again this was mainly expressed within the football world: the “outsiders” were on balance still busy at work justifying Barça’s victories for their general greater uprightness, especially versus those nouveaux riches Chelsea (3).
What especially worries the defenders of the Barça myth is the possibility of their newly found shining symbol being sullied like its predecessors. In England, this recently came to fore with Thierry Henry’s “dirty hand” that not only decided in favour of France’s qualification to South Africa at the expense of the Irish, but also proved to be the undoing of many years of construction of a similar angelic myth formed around Wenger’s ideals and establishment favourites Arsenal, and which the French player was a key ambassador for. Delicious proof that these people are prepared to sink to extraordinary depths of contradiction was provided by none other than Wenger himself who, having railed at UEFA following Arsenal’s frustrating elimination from the competition and been officially charged for that rant, still proceeded to give Mournho a lecture on being a good loser without a hint of any self-awareness.
Hence it is clearly completely unacceptable that a representative of the garlic belt should have the temerity to suggest that anything improper has taken place, titled as he may be. Mourinho might even consider himself fortunate that no children were present to hear his statements and that the latest episode of the Osama Bin Laden show aired only after Simon Barnes published his article, short of which the latter might have invited the CIA to prioritise a new target.
(1) If you want a copy, let me know – send me your e-mail and I can forward.
(2) He apparently prefers bird watching and is “not an avid sports fan” – see link as well as his wiki post.
(3) It was a telling sign of the connection between these two clubs in the construction of the “new football ideal” that, despite Arsenal being resoundingly humiliated in play as well as through the unfair unfavourable refereeing decision, English journalists continued to try to emphasize the proximity in style of play – and therefore stature – between the two clubs.
Prince O from Subfoot.com has brought to my attention something of a pattern that has emerged in recent years and that seems to occur in situations when Barça are in difficulty: they get a little helping hand from the ref. Typically this takes the form of a red card against their opponents, which in turn produces not only numerical advantage but also doubt and probably at least some disorganisation in the opponents’ initial game plan. This is the case generally and though I have not trawled through the Liga results, it was certainly true recently against Arsenal, as it was in the final in 2006. But it is especially true in the case of games played by the Catalans against José Mourinho’s teams. It was so in Camp Nou in the 2004-2005 season against a rising Chelsea side coached by the newly anointed Special One, as Drogba saw red on the 56th minute. It happened again last year in the semi-final return game against Inter at the Camp Nou. following some fine acting by Busquets. And it happened once again the Saturday before last at the Bernabeu when Albiol got expelled too.
And what do you know? Once again tonight, just as the blaugranas seemed in difficulty at the beginning of the 2nd half, fumbling their passes like their opponents usually do when intimidated by their aura, they got their usual helpful prop to see them on their way to victory as Stark took out the most important man for Real Madrid, Pepe. Interesting coincidence, that: so, I’m not paranoid, but…
Convincing results for a number of favorite teams, and notably:
Calcio: Inter win at home (watch video highlights here) – following a convincing display on Tuesday at the Olimpico against Roma (0-1 victory for the black & blue in the 1st leg of the cup semi-final), it was always going to be tough to follow-up with another strong performance. And indeed it was not easy nor particularly graceful, but the result is there again: thanks to its character and resourcefulness, and aided a bit by the terrible state of the pitch (for once, though it has potentially cost us many points and also again Dejan Stankovic for another injury), Inter took all three points from a decisive confrontation with direct rivals Lazio. Down 1 goal and reduced to 10 men after yet another one of Morganti’s special favours that he mainly reserves for Inter – namely the red card for Julio César resulting in a penalty converted by Zarate – Inter seemed in a bad shape. But thanks to Wesley Sneijder’s free kick before half time and despite being one man down, the nerazzuri sourced serenity and skill from their deep stock of character and took the lead again through some cool finishing by Samuel Eto’o. Thought there were some close shaves in the 2nd half (Zarate going wide and/or hitting the crossbar on a couple of occasions), Leonardo’s squad were finally able to claim another important victory that sees them go second following Napoli’s second defeat in a row at resurgent Palermo (watch video highlights). Milan, meanwhile, maintained a clean sheet and grabbed a goal for another 3 points from Brescia.
La Liga: Sevilla win at home against fourth placed Villareal – initially knocked out by two quick punches in the 1st half (Rakitic free kick and another sumptuous goal by Negredo – see approx. on 13 seconds on this video highlight), the yellow sub marines (cheap pun intended) looked the more dangerous of the two outfits in the 2nd half. Subs Rossi and Cani both added potentcy in construction and Villareal came close on several occasions as Sevilla’s defense looked increasingly like its usual shabby self as the game went on. However, one important mistake allowed Sevilla to stretch their lead to 3-1 (Romaric) and despite Villareal pulling one back through Marchena, they ultimately held on to that one goal lead to claim 3 important points for a possible European place. It was not a pretty sight by any stretch, and by comparison the Barça-Real game on Tuesday way poetry compared to what went on (notably the new “ball-throwers” scandal which will undoubtedly go on for a few days despite condemnations by the president Del Nido and the coach Manzano). As noted earlier, Real Madrid won at Mestalla 6-3 against Valencia while Barcelona also got their 3 points away against Osasuna, winning 2-0. Atletico Bilbao is also doing quite well in 5th place thanks to claiming victory against local rivals Real Sociedad on Saturday.
Notable results / news from other championships:
The most fanatical club supporters of some of their main rivals aside, Barça is today universally held to be the best club team in the world. The sextuple title season in 2009 was the standout but perhaps more remarkably the consistency of results since then (if viewed from a short term perspective) and, from a long-term perspective, the achievements over the last 8 years (2 Champions League titles, 4 Ligas, 1 Cup and 4 Super Cups) all significantly exceed previous records from an all-European perspective.
There are several reasons for that, including the oft-discussed technical and physical quality of Barça’s players, but most important of all is the stability. Unlike Real Madrid, which has been plagued by endemic instability at all levels (president & senior management, technical staff, coach and players), Barça has consolidated a robust framework that has provided the platform for the current success, consisting in my view of three main factors:
1. Talent development: the youth training academy, where the current generation of players like Iniesta, Valdés and Messi were able to flourish and develop their individual skills as well as collective bond, is perhaps amongst the world’s best. But let’s not also forget astute recruitment: Messi himself was somewhat luckily (by his own admission) snapped up the early age of 13 by Carles Rexach; Villa’s recruitment from Valencia this year helped to cancel out the Ibrahimovic exception to the rule, while other past acquisitions of proven players such as Dani Alves, Seydou Keita and Adriano (all from Sevilla incidentally), have added depth and class to the squad.
2. Management stability: only two coaches in the last 8 years, first Frank Rijkaard (from 2003-2008) and since then Pep Guardiola, against the backdrop of a stable presidency of Joan Laporta, certainly help to steer the ship in one direction. Not as stable as some, but by Madrid’s standards, that is nothing short of extraterrestrial stability.
3. Guiding principles: Perhaps most importantly, Barça’s strong club culture, built upon its specific Catalan identity), has its expression of a certain vision of play and general philosophy, perhaps best embodied by that Khadafi-like non-elect demi-deity that is Johan Cruyff. Apparently it was he who suggested to Laporta to appoint Guardiola instead of a big-name coach. By virtue of his personal player credentials as well as managerial successes with the club (11 titles: 1 European Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 4 Leagues, 1 Spanish Cup, 1 European Super Cup and 3 Spanish Super Cups) Cruyff bestows upon Barça that air of timeless aristocratic confidence and entitlement to greatness that many other clubs wish they had – and he makes sure that others don’t forget it.
For all of the above reasons, it is a significant achievement and an especially delightful one (for myself and many others) that José Mourinho has already been able to deny this Barça team an important title, whose symbolic value has been rendered even greater by the continuing rivalry that exists between the Portuguese coach and the Catalan outfit. And it is indeed delightful due to the mistiming of Barça’s most titled coach deriding the current Real Madrid coach for being “merely” a “coach of titles and not a coach of football (following the 1-1 tie in the Bernabeu last Saturday on April 16). As many times in the past, the result (“the finger” was sufficient to defeat Barça, no “manita” needed) and José’s perfectly simple retort (watch video) will have El Flaco wishing he had kept his big mouth shut.
Another legend that probably now wishes he had done the same is none other than Madrid’s own Alfredo di Stefano, who was openly critical of Mourinho’s game plan in the Liga game at the Bernabeu preceeding the cup final. As Phil Ball from ESPN points out quite well, what di Stefano, Barça and pretty much everyone failed to see is that the formation and strategy deployed by Madrid in the 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu was a deliberate choice by Mourinho. Its success in containing the blaugranas gave him enough supporting evidence to extend it into a more attack-minded version the second time around in the cup. Barcelona failed to cope with either version. No surprise that not much has been heard from the 85-year old since then, and that only muted embarrassed approval was forthcoming from Valdano, another nemesis lurking in the backstage and scheming against the Portuguese but whose time at the club is probably soon coming to an end.
The shallowness of these two outbursts, the embarrassing tirade by di Stefano and Cruyff’s half-hearted snipe, is reinforced by a fact that any football specialist should be able to recognize, and that is that skilled football is not defined by any particular set of skills, but a balance of many. As the first incarnation of the galacticos at the turn of the century quickly learnt through defeat, Barcelona is only as successful as it is because it has an excellent defense (best of the main European championships this season <1>: only 17 goals taken in) and surreal-like pressing and ball recovery capabilities, which are key to allowing it to enjoy as much ball possession. At the other end of the spectrum, Real Madrid beat Valencia 6-3, away at the Mestalla, by playing some rather attractive football punctuated by numerous and spectacular goals, including this beauty by Kaka. The simplistic juxtaposition of “an all-attacking Barça” versus “a defensively pragmatic Real Madrid” is clearly only appealing to those who choose to disregard the facts.
Irrespective of what happens on Wednesday in the Champions League and thereafter, hopefully Madrid fans and management have now really understood (although it is not necessarily this writer’s wish), that which their own bizarre mindset and identity prevent them from grasping fully, which is that José can and will deliver more, but that he needs more time in order to reinforce the structure and mentality of his team in order to restore a modicum of stability comparable to that enjoyed by Barcelona. As was the case at Inter, with a little more influence on the composition of the squad and by building on the achievements accomplished this year, it is probably next season that could prove to be a decisive turning point in the club’s fortunes.
<1> Interestingly, Borussia Dortmund are a close second with only 19 goals in the Bundesliga so far, followed by Milan AC in 3rd place with 23.