Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
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.
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.
In a classic case of media-applied Murphy’s Law, ever since I visited Sevilla in October 2010 and wrote a report on the team proclaiming it to be the only outfit that could challenge Madrid and Barcelona for the title (which I plan to re-post here shortly), the Sevillistas have struggled to reproduce the kind of form that made them two consecutive UEFA Europea League Cup winners and Barcelona’s executioners in Monaco for the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 2006. This season they are performing even less consistently than last year despite the recruitment of experienced coach formerly with Mallorca, Gregorio Manzano.
But tonight all that has been forgotten and at least momentarily put to right with an outstanding performance against Barça at home in the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. Of course, it wasn’t without the customary dose of extreme suffering that all teams who face the modern football equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters must bear, which was mostly felt in the 1st half in the form of suffocating pressure by Barça and almost total lack of ball possession by Sevilla. Fortune was involved for sure as the night could certainly have ended in a humiliating defeat too, as both Iniesta and Messi once hit the crossbar each, and another timely clearance by feisty Chilean midfielder Gary Medel prevented Barça taking the lead.
But putting it only to luck would be completely incorrect as Sevilla did stand up to the bookies’ favorite and put on a formidable fight back in the 2nd half, powered forward by none other than veteran Frederic Kanouté who came on for an uninspired Zokora. The former Spurs man (standard Brit journos’ EPL-centered reference) was clearly feeling very confident as his deft single touches frequently made the difference and outclassed the now predictable one-twos by the blaugranas. Most importantly, he provided much needed maturity, intelligence and skill that was lacking in the first half and especially in midfield, by his ability to win, hold and distribute the ball. Combining deftly on the left with another 2nd half substitute, the Argentian Perotti, Kanouté and his teammates created numerous chances in the 2nd half following the quick equalizer by Jésus Navas on the 48th minute, and will surely rue the missed opportunities to put the game away, notably a Jésus Navas shot that had seen the Barça defense in tatters.
Guardiola will know that his team got away relatively lucky. Sure, they showed their usual brilliance and notably that midfield magic pair of Xavi and Iniesta shined in both delivering caviar crosses begging to be put away by strikers. But the powerful resistance mounted by the home team shook them in their confidence and thus they experienced a significantly long wobbly patch between the start of the 2nd half and 80 minutes that led their coach to take El Guaje for midfielder Seydou Keita, a sure sign of acquiescence to a draw.
A much needed inspiration for an otherwise sad week that has seen the departure of Sevilla’s providential striker Luis Fabiano back to his homeland. We will miss you but you shall not be forgotten, Faboloso.