"ARGH! How dare you twat my ideological superiority?"
Sid Lowe’s interview with Xavi earlier this year got us thinking, and not only because the outpouring of emotion on Twitter made us wonder if Sid had died (at the very least mind you, his back must be black and blue after all the slaps it received). In fact, it was that for all Xavi’s joyful enthusiasm, there was a sneaking hint of something else. A creeping sense that the line between admitting the clear fact that Barcelona are superb, and then being all arrogant and self-righteous about it, was getting a bit blurry.
It’d be churlish to try and contend that the blaugrana do anything other than regularly produce performances that astonish. The danger among fans is taking it for granted, expecting displays to die for on a weekly basis (though even in this context, we are generally spoiled). An even greater danger lurks in the vaunted heirs to the ‘Dream Team’ of the early 90s adopting a similar mindset, when as we know in football, something will eventually turn up and fuck you over – a 0-0 away, a scrappy 1-1 at home. The key, as any cliché-spouting manager in the game will be able to tell you, is in your response to such setbacks.
Jose Mourinho’s finest upstart performance set this conflicting tone. April 28th 2010 was a while ago, but Xavi’s reaction when quizzed in February? “Other teams win and they're happy, but it's not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football. You can do things really, really well – last year we were better than Inter Milan – but did not win. There's something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy. Inter won the Champions League but no one talks about them.” Maybe not in Catalunya.
In footballing terms of course, the response to the Inter Milan ‘setback’ of last season has been unequivocal. Results speak for themselves – a La Liga title, a 5-0 Clasico victory. But the identity seems to be changing. If the Inter game at Camp Nou became the blueprint, the Arsenal game too suggested that teams are immediately viewed as compromising football as a whole when having the temerity to show up and indulge in a spot of gamesmanship. But the gameship here was not rolling around after being felled by a particularly nasty gust of wind, it was Catalan suspicion that Arsenal had somehow broken an unwritten code in attempting to hold onto their first leg lead. An uppity assumption that principles had been compromised; something Barca would never do.
Barcelona have got to a point where the hyperbole and superlatives surrounding them are breeding a victim complex. Teams are lining up wondering how on earth to beat them and such is the swell of appreciation for the way they play football, Guardiola's players perceive any tactics designed to upset their rhythm as an unfair or unsportsmanlike slight, whether real or imagined.
Barcelona might have made the top table nice and shiny, but they certainly shouldn’t expect everyone else sitting at it to be satisfied with miserably chomping on onions while they have an elaborate apple party at its head. But have they really become a side of querulants? A group obsessively feeling wronged by minor causes; a team beset with a victim complex at every slight ill?
Having watched Barcelona on the rare occasions they find themselves under pressure, there seems an element of truth to the idea. Sergio Busquets’ cheeky peek from behind his hands as Thiago Motta was sent off for Inter last season. Messrs. Dani Alves, Eric Abidal, David Villa and Andres Iniesta swarming round the referee as Robin van Persie was riled into handbags at Camp Nou. Barcelona have developed an arrogance that suggests no one should dare attempt to beat them without playing a similarly aesthetic brand of football – a sense of entitlement mixed with the fact they are subject to others' efforts, automatically assumed to be unfair, to find an advantage. Being convinced everyone will try anything to beat them has bred paranoia.
“Some teams can't or don't pass the ball. What are you playing for? What's the point? That's not football,” Xavi opines. “It's good that Barcelona's style is now a model, not that.” And so meet Barcelona, football’s auteurs. Everything other than high art is pointless, remember, so if you mucky bastards want to get your hands dirty and shut the game down, if you choose to so pepper your footballing being with these imperfections and it actually WORKS, be prepared for a liberal dose of hubris. Celebrate your famous victory all you want, traditional storytellers - you who are no more than a club - but know it is ultimately meaningless as the narrative remains with Barcelona, the wronged, the inhabitants of the ethereal plane on which you have trespassed and by which your triumph will always be defined.
Even the world’s best is not immune from an attack of the righteousness. Upon hearing the Champions’ League quarter and semi final lineups, Lionel Messi opined that, “Ourselves, Madrid and Chelsea are the favourites for this year… here everyone knows their role and we complement each other. All of us make each other better and it is the greatness of this team.”
When they are good, they are very very… very very very good, but when they are bad they are gobshites. And while this is true of many footballers and football teams, it would be nice if one of the greatest club sides in existence in this or any other era - if they are to portray themselves as ideological vanguards - could do so with the grace befitting a team that is capable of winning pretty much everything.
"What frustrated me very much," Robin van Persie said after Arsenal’s defeat in the Camp Nou – proving, admittedly, that all footballers find it difficult to show grace in defeat – "was that the Barcelona players were trying to influence the referee from the first minute. They were talking and complaining all the time, without being punished. I don't like that kind of acting. It has nothing to do with fair play. The referee was clearly influenced by that. He lost the plot completely."
"Of course, every team tries to take some advantage by talking to the referee at crucial moments in the game ... you have to be smart in some way. But not all the time, over and over again.” Now obviously, the tautology of a footballer complaining about other footballers complaining is clear enough. But van Persie was right; there was no little skulduggery that night in Catalunya.
A skulduggery specialist himself, Jose Mourinho saw yet another of his charges sent off against Barcelona in the weekend’s clasico. The Portuguese’s frustration was clear: “They are a team that controls every situation that surrounds the game. When we got off the bench [to protest], we were told to sit back down; when they did it, they could do whatever they like. I would love to have the control of football that they do. I do not understand why they dominate the situation but they do.”
Complaining that Dani Alves should have been sent off for fouling Marcelo in the area – arguably a second bookable offence, he said, “It should be the same for everyone. If it is a foul, it is a foul; if it is a card, it is a card. But there is a difference in criteria that is absolutely incredible.” And alright, this is a bit rich given that his teams have been known to stay on the ground for ‘three or four days’ as Martin O’Neill famously said of Porto in the UEFA Cup. It’s also rich given Pepe’s propensity for brandishing an imaginary card with such regularity you wonder if he might dislocate his shoulder. But Barcelona, footballing reasons included, seem to dominate the game, in Spain and in Europe. The auteurs have taken over the asylum.
No team is able to transcend the parameters of football, but Barcelona seem to believe they do. They have the potential to enjoy an unparalleled period of dominance, but they should not be surprised when teams try to stifle them. Nor should they respond so haughtily when the going gets tough. The glorious thing about football is you can play it in whatever style you see fit (hence FA Cup finalists Stoke’s newest terrace song ‘We’re Stoke City/We’ll play how we want’) if you feel it will breed success. Barcelona have found a very special combination of players and an attractive style. However, they shouldn’t be surprised or aggrieved when the rest of football responds in a slightly less alluring manner.