Saturday, April 30, 2011

in defence of el clasico

Contrary to the impression you may have acquired from the hyperbole feast that masqueraded as media coverage of this game, Wednesday was not the first time a football game got a bit nasty. In fact, compared to some of the glorious madness that has decorated El Clasico in the past we could argue that Mourinho gave the fixture a much-needed boost. Since the Guardiola era began we've had some great games, but there's been for the most part a conspicuous lack of morbo. For all the wringing of hands since Wednesday's game you'd think Real and Barca had stepped on the pitch and spent the entire game kicking anything that moved and falling down respectively.

But that's not what happened. Contrary to popular opinion, what did happen was not all that unusual. Exaggerated, perhaps, but not unprecedented. Nor was it unexpected, given the heights of tension this fixture had reached. Perhaps what turned the stomach of those watching was the suspicion that the unsavoury behaviour was systematic and tactical. Perhaps it's easy at this point for the relatively neutral observer to condemn both sides for ruining what could have been a glorious occasion.

The last three Clasicos have been hugely frustrating, I agree. But at the risk of pushing my contrarian tendencies too far, I would like to invite you, dear reader, to consider my defence of Wednesday's events.

#1. Be honest, we like a bit of drama with our football.

Would the magnificent first Clasico of this season in November 2010 have been quite as exciting without the niggly edge? I don't think so. Without the morbo it would have been yet another Barcelona procession, and I know how sick some neutrals are of those.

As I've discussed elsewhere, a stylish football team struggling along gets pity and admiration. Or as I think of it, Arsenal Media syndrome. A team playing open, attacking football, getting results and being smug about it inspires resentment and admiration in equal measure. Maybe more resentment and less admiration as time goes on. Nobody likes the appearance of effortless success, no matter how much effort actually goes into the process, and especially when you keep harping on about it.

[There's an argument to be made about the perception of smugness and how much of it is created by the actual words of actual people representing the club, but I've digressed enough and you can read about the fake quotes fiasco - just an example of the inadequacy of coverage outside the broadsheets - yourself. Certainly, sometimes Barca doesn't help itself. But there's more to it than that.]

#2. Jose Mourinho doesn't care about your eyeballs.

I hear people scoff all the time that Barca have it easy because teams let them play. Which is patently untrue, by the way. Managers aren't stupid. Barca only ever produce fantastic passages of play because they've worked to make them happen against teams doing their damnest to stop them.

Mourinho is fantastic at counter-strategies. He doesn't care what the crowd or Cristiano Ronaldo or even Alfredo di Stefano thinks. He has thoroughly evaluated Barca's approach to the game and devised the best strategy to counter it. If it had worked, precious few would quibble about the lack of flash. After all, there are other ways to enjoy football. I might not agree with them, but even puritan-in-chief Xavi agrees that other styles (or anti-styles) are equally valid. It's a matter of preference.

As the ever astute Jonathan Wilson wrote:

A good tactic is not necessarily a winning tactic, but one that manipulates the percentages...over the course of the season [Mourinho] has reduced the gulf between the sides, if not by imbuing Madrid with greater quality, then by making it harder for Barcelona to show its own.

Having proven in the first Clasico this season that he could not fight fire with fire and win, Mourinho turned to other methods. That is his right as a manager, so long as he stays within the confines of the rules of the game. I happen to think he made a mistake at the Bernabeu because Barca were there for the taking, but his general record speaks for itself.

#3. That said, his post-game ranting is irrelevant.

Discussing it would only serve to give his borderline libellous comments more publicity. So I won't, other than to say that phrasing defamatory statements as questions is a common enough technique - for unhinged political shouting heads looking to smear the opposition. His systematic attempts to discredit the success of Guardiola's team should be recognised as such, and no more.

Let's not be distracted from the game itself.

#4. Barca does not having a diving problem.

I suspect here's where I lose a number of you. If you agreed with the supremely hypocritical post-match comments of Adebayor, we're probably never going to see eye to eye. But hear me out.

The charge against Barca is that they were guilty of systematic cheating via simulation against Real. I'll start here, and go on to deal with the wider charge which has suddenly gained great popularity - that the team has a chronic diving problem.

We could start with Real's tactical aggression in all three Clasicos this month. Some Cules believe that systematic simulation is a legitimate (or at least reasonable) response to systematic aggression. Their reasoning goes like this: if referees are slow to punish dangerous play, leading to an unfair disadvantage for the less physical team, then the victim team should not be expected to lay down and die. They have the right to fight back, meeting illegality with illegality. It's all very well to be praised for fair play but a few pitying plaudits are no substitute for victory.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for that argument. We should be able to rely on match officials to police games so that a team playing on the edge of the rules doesn't step over the line. Unpunished fouls during the second league Clasico and the Copa del Rey final made me fume too. But inventing fouls where there were none only makes the job of the match officials harder.

I don't think Pep Guardiola told his players to go out there and get Real players sent off. If you can rely on anything, it's his desire to prove the value of Barca's playing style through winning. So what happened?

Barca went out there and tried to play their game in the face of expertly designed counter-measures aimed at stopping them. They were almost certainly emotionally affected by the memory of what had happened in the previous two Clasicos. For some, this did not manifest itself in any change of behaviour. Xavi was Xavi, Messi was Messi.

A few others failed to change their behaviour too, but in a less positive way. I'm not going to mince words: Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets are repeat offenders. Whatever their other virtues - they're both fine players and by all accounts interesting people - they both go down far too easily. For Alves it's long been one of the few blots on the copybook of a fantastic player, a habit he has made no move to correct. I have some (possibly misguided) hope for Sergio. He's young and it's only his third season as a professional - plenty of time to realize that his flopping is starting to work against him. Either way, it was embarrassing to see their antics on such a big night.

[A quick pause here to clarify an important subsidiary issue: Alves did not get Pepe sent off. Pepe got himself sent off for a dangerous challenge in a game where he'd spent much of his time running around making borderline challenges. Let's not get cause and effect mixed up here.]

Then there's Pedro Rodriguez, who let himself down with some uncharacteristic amateur theatrics, the effect of which is that the actual rough treatment he received is being overlooked. All of which will hopefully be a lesson to him (a relative newcomer to this Clasico business) to keep his head better next time.

And...that's it. There were individual cases of bad behaviour, not a pattern, and if individual cases constitute proof of a diving culture within a team then every single top-flight team around Europe (including the ever sanctimonious EPL) is guilty of one. Barca happens to be a team of mostly physically unimposing, technically gifted players. If Adebayor and Sergio Ramos really are confused about why they were booked, as their post-match comments suggest, perhaps they'd like to 1) consult the rules, and 2) consider what happens when a bigger guy shoves a smaller guy in the face. Or when the bigger guy bodychecks a much smaller guy while he's running.

So there you have it. Given the talent on both sides, high expectations for this fixture were inevitable. We got a goal for the ages, a supersub making his reputation, and enough drama to fuel a week's worth of talking points. All the essential ingredients for a memorable Clasico were present and correct. Just add a bit more actual football and we'd be all set.

Linda thinks five Clasicos a season is far too many for our collective sanity and would like to extend her sympathy to the English-speaking Spain-based journalists covering these fixtures. Your valiant efforts are much appreciated.

1 comment:

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