Friday, June 03, 2011

squaring the circle: from the 'Dream Team' to the 'Pep Team'

I'm not a big fan of forced narratives in sport. Often they require material facts to be ignored and result in faulty conclusions. This is possibly an oddity for a Cule - after all, Barcelona have built their identity on a strong sense of narrative, casting themselves in the same role in every story. All the more reason to be skeptical, I'd argue.

Having said all that, sometimes the stars align, and the narrative is absolutely irresistible. Unsurprisingly, they did so under the leadership of Guardiola, a man with a perfect sense of his place in the story, determined to write his own fairytale.

I've gone on about Guardiola as a creation of Barca before, so I won't do it again. The crucial point for the purposes of the story before us is his place as the most important connection between the 'Dream Team' of Cruyff and the Barca of today, a story nineteen years in the making, and one of such perfect symmetry that you wouldn't believe it if I made it up.

the steps of old Wembley and a jersey in green

As Zubizarreta recalls, Barça's so-called Dream Team (whose label was surely seized last night) were loosening up the day before the 1992 final when he heard his most gregarious colleague, the striker Julio Salinas, chatting to the most studious, the midfielder Pep Guardiola. "They were arguing about how many steps there were up to the trophy gantry, 31? Or 32? Or maybe 33?" remembered Zubizarreta. "I walked past and said to them, 'Why don't we just go and win the cup and then we'll find out more quickly'." - Ian Hawkey, the Sunday Times

Win the cup? It was easier said than done. Barca's history up until 1992 had been marked by its painful failures to capture Europe's most glittering prize, failures that had inspired a narrative of pessimism and victimisation, a sense that something was bound to go wrong. The words of legendary goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta reflected the hopes Cules had placed in Johan Cruyff's team.

We all know what happened that night. As Guardiola has been at pains to point out the past week, Barca's sense of its own identity changed with that victory, and with it the club's history shifted course towards an era of unprecedented success.

Zubizarreta's own Barca career was ended by the game that destroyed the Dream Team: their hubris and exhaustion-inspired 4-0 defeat to AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final. But his connection with Barca could not be severed so easily, and his figure loomed large over all attempts by Barca to replace him in the subsequent years, at least until a scruffy kid named Victor Valdes came along.

Valdes had often cited Zubi as one of his childhood idols. As the years wore on, he grew into the jersey of his finest predecessor. In Rome and Abu Dhabi, at the site of the greatest recent triumphs of Pep's team, Zubi had been a member of the press, transformed at the moment of victory into a fan again, with tears streaming down his face.

At new Wembley, Zubi sat in the stands as Barca's sporting director while his heir defended Barca's goal with distinction. After the game, he was seen being given Valdes' shirt - the same green as he had sported all those years ago.

"I see the space and pass. That's what I do."

Despite appearances, the comparison between Guardiola and Xavi isn't as easy to make. Positionally, Xavi has developed into a very different player, Guardiola would say a better one, with a greater range of passing. But the similarities in their roles in the Barca teams of the 90s and the 00-10s respectively extend beyond an affinity for dictating play to their function as the club's chief ideologue and evangelist.

Both men put their own unique spin on the job. Guardiola interpreted his role as the Catalan heart of Cruyff's Dream Team broadly, applying himself to the political and sporting aspects with equal gusto from a very young age. Xavi is less political, but he is even more of a fundamentalist when it comes to Cruyffismo, even more of an ideologue of football.

Just as Guardiola had been an extension of Cruyff on the pitch, so Xavi is now an extension of Guardiola, implementing the ideas of the manager through his prodigious speed of thought and the magic in his boots. But it hasn't always been so easy.

The transition between the two, which began a few years before Guardiola left Barca as a player, was not smooth. Xavi's first few seasons in Van Gaal's team were spent being buffeted around by the vicious politics of the club, which reached deep into the first team. One side faulted him for being Guardiola's replacement, and the other for not being not enough of one. Even after Pep departed, it wasn't until the arrival of Frank Rijkaard that Xavi finally freed himself from the shadows.

Ironically, it was Guardiola's return which precipitated Xavi's final elevation into the sort of status Guardiola himself had held in his heyday: chief spokesman, dressing room heavyweight, and the mind behind everything Barca do on the pitch.

'the first great player to come out of the Barcelona system with the Cruyff philosophy wired into his boots'

More importantly, Guardiola had the Cruyff philsophy wired into his brain. As a curious, studious young man, he was also interested in other ways of thinking about football. Therefore, it is possible overstate the similarities between the Dream Team of nineteen years ago and Pep's team of today. The latter is far more vigorously systematic, both in attack and in defence, leading to a more complete domination of gameplay. Nevertheless, they are still intrinsically linked. Pep's team has modified and built on a core idea, installed by Cruyff at all levels from the Under-11s to the first team.

The agenda of the club is dominated now by the manager's persona, just as it was then. Pep has traded Cruyff's maverick streak for a touch more tact, but the cult of personality around him now is almost as strong as the one around Cruyff, and his less abrasive manner has helped him stay on generally better terms with players and with the media. All the same, having witnessed Cruyff's own fall, he knows it can't last, and this awareness has made him cautious.

Guardiola will walk away on his own terms rather than let his work be destroyed or his name be besmirched. Cules have lived with this knowledge ever since his appointment, with or without the one year contract extensions. We can only hope he can keep the magic going a little longer and build a dynasty to surpass what came before.

Dream teams don't come along very often. Barca are fortunate enough to have had two worthy of the name in its modern history. When Cruyff, Alexanko, Zubizarreta, Koeman and Guardiola climbed the 39 steps of old Wembley, they set in motion the series of events which led to Guardiola leading his team up the 107 steps of new Wembley nineteen years later. With Barca's victory, the circle was closed. Whatever Pep's team achieve next, they do on new territory. I for one can't wait.

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