29 Apr The Ineluctable Modality of The Barca
The Ineluctable Modality of The Barca
FC Barcelona, as their fans like to remind you on a regular basis, is more than a club. This is partly a political implication; tightly bound up as it with the Catalan identity and ever evolving relationship with independence. But it also refers to how it makes the 1.6 million people who live in the city feel like a small community. It’s a cliché but it’s absolutely true to say this city is football mad. Everyone has an opinion, everyone is grumpy after a big loss, everyone loves to talk about what they almost exclusively call “The Barca”. In the three weeks between the first and second leg against PSG, I watched the mood go from utter dejection, to “They-couldn’t-could-they?” seeds of hope, to defiant obstinance.
The Barca, they believed, could do it.
While endearing to a point, this romantic, holier-than-thou attitude can be grating. Most, for example, refuse to accept Luis Suarez’s history of racial abuse and mild cannibalism. They still think of the club as a bastion of local footballing values, despite paying over 100 million euro for the best Brazilian and Uruguayan players in the world. They talk irritatingly about Barca DNA. Their attitude actually, will not be unfamiliar at all to anyone who was unlucky enough to spend an extended period of time as a child with certain types of Man Utd fans: They assume they will win, and they assume they deserve to win, and worst of all, they do win.
And, last night, The Barca did.
This was the greatest comeback in modern football history (and we all know the thing didn’t start until the first Championship Manager game in the early ‘90s) because, unlike Liverpool in ‘05 and Man Utd in ‘98, Barca deserved it. Under the circumstances, they were pretty perfect for the first hour. As the game kicked off, I said to my friend “they need to get a goal in the first 10 minutes.” After 30 minutes I said “they need to go into half time at 2-0”. At half time, “they need to score in the first 15 minutes of the second half”. All of this they did, as if following a script. Indeed, at 3-0 with half an hour to go, Barca looked like big favourites.
Edinson Cavani changed that, with his excellent finish. Suddenly, Barca needed three more. In truth, PSG should have scored way more against Barca’s isolated three man defence. It hasn’t been lost in the rubble of this game that PSG were horrific. After the 85th minute, during which time Barca scored three goals, PSG completed four passes, three of which were from kick off. That might be the most damning statistic I’ve ever heard, especially for a team with all that passing talent, all that winning experience. A team with Marco Verratti and Angel Di Maria. I can’t remember a contrast in performance levels like this over two legs. If this was the greatest comeback ever, it was also the biggest bottle job.
A word though for the best player on the pitch. In the last twelve months, Neymar has overtaken Luis Suarez as Barca’s second best player. Ostensibly playing as a wing-back, the Brazilian was magnificent. Not in that everything he did worked perfectly, but he did so much. He got on the ball, he squirmed, he dived, he made things happen. Messi and Suarez were comparatively quiet but when you have the three best players in the world, only one of them needs to step up at a time. And step up Neymar did: his last 10 minutes were flawless. An inch-perfect free kick, followed by an ice cool penalty before, maybe most impressive of all, a world class assist for the winner. With 30 seconds on the clock and the ball at his feet, Neymar had the class to avoid slinging a more hopeful ball in, opting instead to skin a defender (disarming the PSG defence expecting an earlier cross) and dink a perfect ball over the top with his bad foot.
Finally, fittingly for all those romantic Barca fans, the winner was turned in by La Masia graduate (and reluctant right back) Sergi Roberto. Equally fittingly, for Barca’s detractors, the historic win was achieved with several very questionable refereeing decisions. As the forlorn French fan in the bar on Passeig Sant Joan last night kept telling me in incredulous, broken English, “two penalties? No!”. For me, the first one was correct and the second one wasn’t, and Mascherano was lucky to stay on this pitch.
More than a club, they insist. As romantic and conceited as their fans can be, on nights like this, you’d have to agree. It felt like this result required more than a club. It required a million people arrogantly assuming the impossible to be no more than they deserve.
Leaving the pandemonium of the bar last night and walking home through the city, the roads were a symphony of car horns. Apart from maybe Real Madrid, I can’t see another team pulling off what we saw last night. Six goals. Needing three more with 88 minutes played. Maybe most impressively, basically doing it twice. Not only did Barca have to win a marathon, they had to do it with a sprint finish.