Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Barca news round-up: from the sublime to the slightly ridiculous

It has gotten to a certain point in both my study semester and the season that my workload means I'm no longer able to keep up with all that goes on in La Liga. So no more general news round-up posts until I get the time again. There will be a couple of posts about transfers in general before the season starts, but I'm reverting to mostly talking about Barca, Argentina and sometimes Villarreal. Well, and Real. It is an interesting season from their perspective. So, onto the Barca news.

The first item is unfortunately an unhappy one, as a good man central to the history and development of Barca for many, many years has died. Honorary Vice President Nicolau Casaus, who was vice president of the club in the time of Nunez's long reign at the club, led an extraordinary life, much of it dedicated to the club he loved. He worked tirelessly to expand the network of supporters clubs exponentially in his time, and was the man who bought one Diego Maradona to the Camp Nou. His life story is well worth reading if you're at all interested in Barca. His time at the club was before I became a supporter and I was amazed and very impressed at the kind of life he'd led.

A great man by all accounts, and (as the Spanish King wrote in his telegram) a great ambassandor for the club, since he was a 'gentleman' who aptyl demonstrated the ideal face of the relationship Barca would like to have with wider society.

a few words on the tour

The positives and negatives of touring have been discussed to death by now, and I won't rehash all the arguments here. My own position is that I broadly agree with Lilian Thuram: commerical tours - let's not mince words here, that's their major function - are a necessary evil. They also serve a more positive function, with the charity work done by the club while on tour (yes, all the song and dance is a bit much, but at least it's doing some good) and the Catalunya tourism board apparently making use of the occasions to promote the region.

(Sidenote: I understand when people say that our conceit and self-righteous posturing annoys them. That's fair enough. But is it actually better to do nothing at all or to at least try to do something good, even if it's done in an obnoxious way, and perhaps not always with the purest of intentions? Reasonable people can disagree on this one. Sure, sometimes it can go too far, especially when Laporta opens his mouth, and seem like a parody of itself, but I personally find it difficult to cope with the idea that it's somehow bad to aspire to something. Anyway, rant over.)

Now, let me detach that chip from my shoulder. Ahem. Back to the original point: I can tolerate the idea of a tour this time around, because only a few of our players had an international tournament during the summer, but what I hear about next season does not make me happy, given that Euro 08 will affect almost as many of our players as the World Cup did. We'll see what happens, but my patience with the board is quickly running out over this issue, and I'm not the only one.

By the way, the Chinese press reports that none of the boys were caught out clubbing in Hong Kong, even with the extra time granted to them by the rescheduling of the game. If true, good for them.

Further positives, this time relating to the mini-tour of Scotland: according to at least 2 articles I read, our PR staff are excellent, and our players (Zambrotta and Thuram in this case) were courteous interviewees. These may seem trivial to you, but as I've said before, these things are important to clubs like Barca and Real, and it's always reassuring when I read that the club is run in an organised and sane manner, which is the memory of the chaos of the Gaspart years haunting me as much as anything else.

On the football front, the most widely-reported aspect of the tour has to be the emergence of Gio Dos Santos, who is so far top scorer of the pre-season with 4 and has impressed everytime he came on. He's undoubtedly talented, and I for one have been convinced that he's ready for rationed appearances in La Liga and perhaps starting roles in Cup games. It's funny how having Gio and the even younger Krkic on the first team has changed the role of Messi, who was used to being the youngest. He's now a role model and something to aspire to at the age of 20, which is a bit bizarre. About as bizarre as every up and coming young Argentinian player being labelled the 'next Messi', in fact. By the way, I hear that Gio's younger brother Jonathan is a pretty promising midfielder himself.

Besides the fact that the new legislation UEFA have bought in will increasingly force clubs to use more home-grown players (not a regulation Barca will have trouble with, given the number of canteranos in our current squad), it's nice to see players come through the system and succeed at the club. Barca has long been a proven source of midfield talent of a particular type - in fact, we produce so many that we end up 'exporting' some of our best, and we've had a few excellent defenders come through, but only now has La Masia really started producing world-class forwards.

Speaking of youth, our new 3rd choice goalkeeper Oier Olazabal was handed his debut in Beijing. The 17-year-old Basque player, who will spend the season with the B team, was surprised to be told that he would be playing against Guoan, and giving instructions to veteran defender Lilian Thuram, who is twice his age, which apparently prompted some good-natured teasing of the venerable Frenchman by the other players.

squad news

First, a quick tour-related comment: I feel quite bad for Henry, who is still coming back from injury and hasn't really hit form. The press have already started criticising him for not being sharp enough - no amount of reputation is going to protect him here. But guess who's coming to his defence and talking up his contributions so far? That's right, his longtime friend Sammy Eto'o. Not quite what the more cynical amongst us expected when the transfer went through.

With the conclusion of the tour, Rijkaard finally has all his players in the same place, including the 3 Ms (Messi, Marquez and Milito) who were in the Copa America and therefore came back from holiday later, and Deco, who has returned from the extra holiday the club gave him to go to Brazil and see his newborn son.

This is the squad of 25 that Rijkaard has at his disposal right now:
Valdes, Jorquera, Belletti, Zambrotta, Oleguer, Milito, Marquez, Olmo, Thuram, Sylvinho, Abidal, Motta, Toure, Xavi, Deco, Iniesta, Crosas, Dos Santos, Messi, Gudjohnsen, Ezquerro, Maxi, Henry, Eto'o and Ronaldinho.
That list excludes long-term injury victims Edmilson and Puyol, not to mention Bojan Krkic, off on international duty for the Spanish U17s, and includes short-term injury victims Sylvinho and Gudjohnsen. It also includes two youth team players who will go back to Pep Guardiola's B side when the season starts in Marc Crosas (reportedly a target for Liverpool) and frequent backup defender Jesus Olmo. The club are trying to offload 4 of the players on the list (Gudjohnsen, Maxi, Ezquerro and Motta), 3 of which are forwards, which is perhaps understandable given that we currently have 9 of them. That's a ridiculous number, even for a team that plays 4-3-3, especially given the fact that Rijkaard doesn't like big squads.

For interests' sake, this was the line-up for the 11-a-side game in training:

Valdes; Zambrotta, Oleguer, Thuram, Abidal; Toure, Xavi, Iniesta; Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Henry


Jorquera; Belletti, Marquez, Milito, Crosas; Motta, Deco, Ezquerro; Messi, Maxi, Gio.

The hilarious thing is that the second rag-tag side with no leftback and some players played completely out of position won the game 1-0, via a penalty converted by Messi from Oleguer - who else, bless him - tripping Gio.


Given Txiki's previous statements, this week is vital in terms of the 4 aftementioned players who the club are trying to usher out the door. The Spanish press reckons that deals for Motta (with AC Milan) and Gudjohnsen (with West Ham) aren't too far off, and Ezquerro has a couple of suitors himself, but although Maxi's agent assures us he is actually trying to find a team for his client, that is seen as the most difficult transfer.

This might be illustrative of the limbo the 3 forwards find themselves in.

Current list of forwards: Henry, Eto'o, Gudjohnsen, Maxi, Ronaldinho, Ezquerro, Messi, Dos Santos, Krkic

Current order of preference for center forward (1): Henry --> Eto'o --> Ronaldinho --> Gudjohnsen --> Messi --> Krkic --> Dos Santos --> Ezquerro --> Maxi

Current order of preference for wing forward (2): Ronaldinho --> Messi --> Eto'o --> Dos Santos --> Henry --> Ezquerro --> Krkic --> Gudjohnsen --> Maxi

The reason Henry is so high on that first list and so low on the second is that he's proven to be - how shall I put this - not very good when played as a wing forward. His performances as center forward have been much more convincing. On the other hand, Eto'o is pretty good on the wing, even if I personally prefer him in a more central position.

Gudjohnsen might not be too far down the pecking order when Rijkaard needs a big target man, but he's really not suited to the wing positions. Krkic is more of a center forward than Dos Santos, who is more suited to the wing. Ezquerro is also better played on the wing, although he can play in the center. Maxi just had an unimpressive season on loan and is unbelievably out of favour.

(I once saw someone on a Barca forum do a list like the above during our double-winning season in order to (jokingly) demonstrate how far down the pecking order Maxi was. It had Valdes and Jorquera (our two 'keepers, for those who don't know) ahead of him in the 'wing-forward' list. Says it all, really.)

Krkic is 16, and Dos Santos is 18. Understandably, nobody likes being stuck behind kids ten years younger. Just ask Ludovic Giuly, who spoke out about the 'unhealthy competition' at Barca from the safety of Rome. (I sympathized with your plight, Ludo, I really did, but did you expect any coach in the world to play you ahead of Messi when he was on the sort of form he had in the last couple of months of last season?)

Lastly, I'd like to draw your attention to this photo. That's Rijkaard's son Michele in the Abidal shirt. As El Mundo Deportivo wrote jokingly, we're not too sure what kind of line-up Frankie will put out, but we know who his son would have starting at left-back.

Posts forthcoming within the next week or so: a word about Barca's new boys, and more about how we're going to line up this season. My full squad preview for the season ahead is still in the works.

Edited: for starting line-up of the practise game and a photo.


Gonzalo said...

Nice long post, Linda - agree that summer tours are primariily there to extend the club's 'brand' (any charitable actions are secondary, and, to my overly cynical mind, just a bit of a smokescreen. You can do charity work - and indeed clubs and plaerys do - all season round)

Thanks for the link to the Guardian's post on the new quota system. I didn't realise it kicked in this year. I wonder whether any of the clubs are considering challenging the fact that nearly one third of your squad must qualify as 'home-grown'?

linda said...

Yeah, you're spot on with the 'brand' thing. I have to admit, my rant was precipitated by an only marginally related topic. :)

I hadn't realized the quote system was already in place either, having only followed it through the process of being proposed. Off the top of my head, the Spanish clubs who play in Europe won't have too much trouble, although once it gets to 8 out of 25 I'm guessing some clubs across Europe will start to chafe under the restriction.

Derek said...

Excellent and thorough post as usual, Linda. Thank you.

Off-season tours are always propaganda tours and Barca's extracurricular season is no different. But I wouldn't support Barca if I didn't believe in my heart that they weren't something a bit "more than a club" and symbols of something greater than simply guys kicking a ball around the pitch. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. First and foremost it is about the physicality of the game. Barca, I believe, is the finest exponent of playing attractive, progressive, attacking football--and I wouldn't support them if it weren't so, regardless of politics, etc. Simple as that. But the mystique--regardless of how it has been manipulated by the numerous regimes over the decades (including the current Laporta years)--attached to the club has always been about something more vital and expansive (as you and everyone who supports the team well know) than a mere eleven men kicking an inflated ball around. It's no doubt a devil's game, but you make your bargains where and when you can.

Anyway... sorry for my own rant. Maybe I'm just getting all wound up, sentimental, and anxious for the new season to start.... No one ever said that supporting a team was purely a cerebral endeavor--much like being in love.

linda said...

Derek: you're very welcome!

That's a very eloquent statement of support. I'd have to agree completely with you. The magnetism of that romantic tradition of attacking football is strong indeed.

A lot of football is irrational, I think, but that's part of the fun.