Sunday, June 22, 2014

Don't Touch That Dial: Leo Messi and Argentina

The story of Leo Messi and the Argentinian National Team has long been a story of criminal waste. The appointment of Alejandro Sabella changed all that, and gave fans cause for optimism leading up to the World Cup. After two games, I still feel mostly justified in that optimism. But I am sick of the dominant narratives surrounding the team. So, let's review.

  1. In 2006, Argentina were fortunate to be managed by the marvellous Jose Pekerman, a man who knows a thing or two about setting up a team, and about youth development. He did all the right things in bringing a young, budding Messi into the team. (The mistake he made against Germany had nothing to do with Messi and everything to do with a sudden loss of faith in his talisman. But I digress.) 
  2. But even then there was something strange in the way senior members of that team spoke about Messi. We heard stories about how the young, shy Messi was uncomfortable within the highly hierarchical squad, all of whom knew each other and expected him to behave like any other young Argentinian player - join in the banter, Leo, but don't you forget that you're a kid. Messi was isolated and alone, except for his room-mate Oscar Ustari, who'd been with him in 2005 at the U20 World Cup.
  3. This trend continued with Coco Basile. Again, I don't blame him - Messi was unfinished. It wasn't ridiculous for him to be junior to Riquelme and co in a team built to service Roman.
  4. As a supporter of Argentina, having Maradona as manager was what I imagine a bad acid trip must be like. Going from the perfect system of Pep's Barca to the chaos of his Argentina was a shock to me, just watching - I can't imagine what it was like for players. Quite aside from his ineptitude, his squads contained a lot of the same senior guys from 2006, who still treated Messi like a kid. Hell, some of them even felt free to brutally dress him down in the locker room. (Of course, none of this is ever spoken of now.) Despite what Maradona said to the press, this wasn't a team built around Messi. This was a team with Messi grafted onto it. The same squad dynamics persisted. To waste the best player in the world the way Maradona did in 2010 was just bizarre, bordering on criminal.
  5. Sergio Batista was spineless and clueless. Argentina won games in spite of him, not because. The ultimate reflection of his complete lack of ideas and/or principle was his decision to try and squeeze Tevez - who has almost never performed for Argentina - into the line-up, resulting in an unbalanced team.
Now Messi's managing the team? Don't give me that crap. Sabella is a very smart man, but his instincts tend toward the pragmatic. That's why, faced with the prospect of his first World Cup match, he fell back on old habits - the trusty 3-5-2 he'd employed for difficult away games, and many times as a club manager. I can't blame him for that.

I can only commend him for seeing the light at half-time of the first game and switching back to the 4-3-3 that had brought Argentina success in qualifying. That formation was tried and tested, it maximised Argentina's attacking resources, it worked. Going back to it makes all the sense in the world. So what's the problem?

Under Sabella's leadership, for the very first time Messi is surrounded by a group of players who aren't going to try to play stupid macho dominance games with the best player in the world. This group accepts his quiet style of leadership. A lot of them have achieved whatever international success they have with Messi.

Out of the current squad, Messi, Aguero, Gago, Garay, Biglia and Zabaleta were all in Argentina's 2005 U20 World Cup squad. They weren't the most talented team there. But manager Pacho Ferrano learned to put his trust in Messi, one of the youngest players at that tournament. The players on that team did, too, and that was how they won. Those guys remember.

Before, the only thing critics could say to dent Messi, given the completeness of his skill-set, was that he wasn't enough of a leader. Now he's a dictator because he actually gave voice to the transparently obvious? (Hell, we were all screaming it during that first half.) Give me a break. This isn't just shouting heads on twitter either - this is coming from respected journalists in England, in Spain, in Argentina.

Tito Vilanova called Messi 'the least autocratic of the greats'. (Hat-tip to Rory Smith of the Times for that one.) When everyone else talks about how the team plays, it's a normal day. When Messi does it, it's sinister. Seriously, everyone else does it. I've just picked one story, but it's really easy if you want to play that game. For them, it's called taking responsibility, being a leader.

Now compare Messi's behaviour to that of other star players of his class, or close to it. Look at how they behave on the pitch, how they relate to team mates. Then come back and tell me he's a dictator.

The absurdity is those acting like having Messi on your team is such a huge problem, that it makes life difficult. As a supporter of both Argentina and Barcelona, I have countless memories of game-winning moments that say different. Any team would be lucky to have him.

Messi is a solution. He desperately wants to win the World Cup. If he has to play in goal to make it happen, he will. Fortunately, Sabella is smarter than that. Give the man some credit. Not everything is a Machiavellian power struggle. You've been watching too much House of Cards.

Friday, May 31, 2013

questions for Sandro Rosell and the Barca board

1. What were the reasons behind your decision not to offer Eric Abidal a new contract?

2. Why has there been a lack of communication with soon to be out of contract staff and players at La Masia? 

3. Do you consider members of the board, particularly the board’s spokesman, to be under a duty not to say anything in their official capacity that casts the club in a bad light in the eyes of reasonable fans everywhere? 

4. Would you please explain why you lied about having an agreement with banned ultra groups to let them into the Camp Nou again in return for their support in the presidential elections of 2010?

5. Can you guarantee that there is no evidential basis for the fraud prosecution brought against you in Brazil? 

6. How do you think the prosecution of the lawsuit brought against Joan Laporta and his board for breach of guarantee benefited the club?

7. Was the intention of the Qatar Foundation deal always a permanent move towards commercial sponsorship on the jersey?

8. What is your justification for enthusiastically promoting novel ways of taking foreign fans’ money while denying them membership status?
3.6.- Pluralism: The Club, in keeping with its history and Catalanness, and given the diversity of the ideas of its members, directors, players and employees, will preserve and respect pluralism, and will always strive to avoid any Club policies or actions that are of an exclusive nature. - The Ethical Code for good governance of FC Barcelona, approved by the board in September 2010 [emphasis mine]
9. On balance, and taking a long term view, in what ways do the austerity policy and the decisions you have taken under it benefit the club?

10. What do you consider to be the obligations imposed upon you as president by the motto ‘Més que un club’?

[Thanks to @jazzagold for her helpful comments on this post.]

Edited on 14 November 2013 to add:

11. Why was Emili Ricart let go against the wishes of the playing staff?

12. Do you view Thiago Alcantara's departure to be a good piece of business? Who was meant to be keeping track of the release clause in his contract?

13. How do you justify the continued employment of Eusebio?

14. Do you think the Qatar Airways sponsorship deal was the best deal Barca could have gotten? Did you look at competing proposals?

15. How do you respond to the allegation that your claims regarding Barca's impeding bankruptcy during and after the presidential elections of 2010 were exaggerated at best?

16. Do you think there is anything you could have done differently to avoid alienating the two most successful managers in the history of Barcelona?

Edited on 23 January 2014 to add:

17. Were there any irregularities in the various contracts that bought Neymar to Barcelona?

18. During your election campaign, you dismissed the Sir Norman Foster plan to renovate Camp Nou as too expensive. How do you square this with the 600m cost of your plan to renovate the stadium? Why is your plan so costly?

19. You claim the renovation plans will not affect the sporting project. How is this to be achieved? Where is the extra funding going to come from?

Edited on 28 April 2014 to add:

20. Please explain why Barca acted in violation of FIFA Regulations on the international transfer of young players and justify the actions you took, if any, in response to being notified of violations by FIFA in 2013.

Monday, August 08, 2011

barca 10/11: the review

Some scattered thoughts on the season just gone, which like a good adventure movie had its highs and lows before the uplifting, happy ending.

the boardroom and the locker room

For all the talk of a steady transition, the election of Sandro Rosell bought about a revolution in the board room at the beginning of this season. While football affairs at the club continue to be held in the grip of Cruyffistas, the Rosell regime has shown a remarkable determination to dissociate itself from its predecessor in other areas.

I say remarkable, but of course it's not surprising that Rosell would repudiate his old friend turned enemy Joan Laporta at every opportunity. What has struck me is the extent to which the club has become a tool to further the vendetta between the two men, a trend clearly demonstrated by the extraordinary lawsuit filed by the club against Laporta for alleged financial mismanagement during the latter's presidency. However you feel about Laporta and Rosell, it is more than arguable that the legal dispute has had a divisive effect upon the entorno and general fanbase.

Rosell's big policy changes have proven no less divisive. I understand that many fans support the move to restrict membership. I've also heard that opposition to the shirt sponsorship deal isn't quite as staunch as it might seem amongst the online fanbase. Be that as it may, I remain opposed to both policies, and having spilled copious amounts of ink explaining my opposition (on shirt sponsorship and on membership) I won't go on again.

Given the above, the reader is entitled to take what I say next with a grain of salt. The only thing I can say is that I try to evaluate each aspect of Rosell's performance independently, with as much objectivity as I can muster. Right after the Osasuna travel fiasco (remember that?) an article appeared in El Pais questioning the public role Sandro Rosell had played that day and in the immediate aftermath. Namely, almost none, and nothing was forthcoming until Guardiola none-too-subtly called for more institutional support during his explosive post-match press conference.

If I have one major complaint about Rosell's work as the public face of Barca as an institution, it's that at crucial times this season, he did not step into the limelight and say what needed to be said. (The Busquets saga, for example.) There's no doubt that Guardiola is a brilliant spokesman for the club. But that's not his job.

horse race: extreme edition

As all involved with Barca are no doubt keenly aware, the chief enemy of a team operating at optimal capacity is complacency. Therefore, we have Real Madrid to thank for these past three years. Their Herculean efforts to topple Guardiola's team have pushed the latter to the limit and allowed them to show their true measure of resilience under enormous pressure.

In 09/10 these efforts mainly manifested themselves in Galactico-style spending. Pellegrini's team did almost everything right, only to fall agonisingly short. It was inevitable then that Florentino Perez would turn to the only coaching Galactico in world football.

The coming of Mourinho heralded a return to the most paranoid days of the Real-Barca rivalry after a few years of relative calm. Barca players will tell you that being questioned and provoked was an added motivation, and maybe they're right. Certainly, the level of unity bred by a siege mentality can be a powerful weapon, as most top class managers well know.

However, I don't think you'd find many Cules who truly enjoyed the Clasico series near the end of the season. Four games in 20 days was never going to bring out the best in all involved given how toxic the atmosphere had become.

clasico madness

Having said that, there were some unforgettable, wonderful moments amongst all the muck, too. Like Leo Messi's wondergoal, the one uplifting moment in a game best left on the cutting room floor, the kind of dazzling, did-you-just-see-that-how-the-hell move action replay was invented for. And of course there was that astonishing, brilliant, and deeply satisfying 5-0 victory.

It was Mourinho's first Clasico on the Madrid bench. Many expected it to be close, scrappy, an attritional battle. What happened instead was a slaughter. As Jonathan Wilson quite aptly said:

This was an indelible night, one that, whatever happens in the rest of the season, will echo through football history.

The manita has a special place in Barca's history - especially Barca's history against Real Madrid - but I dare anyone to think of a 5-0 to top this one in terms of performance. Just like Johan Cruyff's team winning 0-5 at the Bernabeu and the Dream Team's own 5-0 at the Camp Nou, it will be looked back upon as an era-defining game, one that underlined this Barca's particular brand of dominance.

At the same time, as the great Cesar Luis Menotti pointed out, the trauma of the 5-0 defeat dictated Madrid's tactics for the 4 later Clasicos. Some have argued that the improvement yielded in results vindicates Mourinho's aggression. That however unpalatable, his team's aggression on the pitch and campaign off it succeeded in breaking down Barca's game.

But here's the thing. Leaving morality aside, the main problem with that theory is that it didn't work. The 1-1 draw effectively cost Real the league, and for all the fire and brimstone of the Champions League Clasicos Barca were the ones left standing at the end. The only time Mourinho's tactics arguably worked was the Copa del Rey final, and even then it was very, very close.

Given Real's resources and Barca's sloppy run of form from April to the beginning of May, a more adventurous approach from Mourinho might well have yielded better results. That was certainly what this particular Cule was worried about, given Barca's injury problems in defence and shaky form up front at the time.

Anyway. Enough about that. It's over, and we all have to live with the results. (I have more to say on the ugly side of those games, but that's another post.)

to endure and to enjoy

This was not always the most sparkling of seasons but it was the hardest; before Christmas they had been graceful, smooth and precise, after Christmas they showed the competitive spirit that is too often overlooked. They had spent the year being constantly attacked and had withstood some of the bitterest and wildest of accusations. - Sid Lowe

As usual, Sid Lowe nails it. This was always going to be a challenging season. The coaching staff were worried about the physical and mental effects of a squad coming off a World Cup (many of them having played in the final) and two seasons of great success. The omens weren't good. Two of the greatest Barca teams of the past (the Dream Team post-94, and Rijkaard's team post-2006) had crashed and burned in post-World Cup years.

There were moments of doubt, times when alarmist critics alleged that Guardiola's team had come to the end of its cycle. The fitness and injury problems caused by hectic schedules appeared right on cue. While Barca were very lucky indeed with no major injuries sidelining crucial attacking players such as Messi, Alves, Iniesta, Villa, and Pedro, persistent injuries across the defence led to a season of uncertainty at the back. Not that showed in the number of goals conceded, and the remaining mainstays of the defence deserve great credit for that.

Furthermore, the two players who represent the brain and heart of this team both had a season blighted by injury. The loss of Puyol, who only played 28 games (as opposed to the previous 6 seasons, in which he never played less than 45) was huge - he was missing for every single game Barca lost during the season. On the other hand, Xavi's persistent achilles problems didn't stop him from racking up another 50-game season, but his absences were keenly felt, and the need to secure the midfield succession must feel ever more pressing to the technical staff.

And then, as Dr Lowe pointed out, there was the exhausting media war, fought on two levels. The first being Mourinho's own increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories about everything from the fixture list to Barca's opposition not trying hard enough to biased refereeing to, well, UNICEF; and the second being the far more insidious and frankly appalling allegations aired by Cadena Cope accusing Barca and Valencia of doping. Allegations which the radio station - under the threat of multiple lawsuits - claim to have received from a Real Madrid director. While the Barca-supporting media no doubt relished slinging mud right back, everything the players and the managing staff have said indicates that they found the attempts to taint their achievements exhausting, irritating and sometimes downright enraging.

But all of the above pales into insignificance when compared to the moment Eric Abidal was told he had liver cancer. The effect on the locker room was devastating. Without Abidal's remarkable spirit, which drove him to reassure and comfort his team mates when he was the one facing surgery, it would have been even worse. His amazing recovery is the greatest prize of this season, more than any trophy.

standout performers

Leo Messi: the greatest compliment I can pay Messi is that he improves by leaps and bounds every season, even though the season before might have made such an idea seem impossible. His greatest competition in the current generation is his own shadow, and if such an idea doesn't rob him of motivation (and it hasn't so far) we're in for something miraculous in the seasons to come.

Xavi: even carrying a chronic injury, he's still the best midfielder in the business. The level of control he exerts over a game only seems to grow each year. If I may steal a Dani Alves-ism, the rest of us live in the present. Xavi can see the future.

Eric Abidal: I need to make one thing very clear first. Abidal's place on this list has nothing to do with his illness. Even given his absence for six weeks, his committed and composed performances at centerback and leftback for the rest of the season has earned him a place. It's not easy to fit into the Barca system as a defender, especially a non-homegrown one, but he does it with aplomb.

Gerard Pique: a controversial selection, I know. Allow me to explain. Pique's performances this season have divided Cules into two camps. While I acknowledge that he has made some mistakes, he has also been the glue holding a constantly changing Barca defence together. I dare anyone else to go through a season with so many different partners at centerback, some of whom were never meant for the position and whose deficiencies he had to cover for, and come out having accomplished as much as he did.

Still finds time to make important contributions in attack, and despite all the tabloid attention, I happen to think he takes up his role as a representative of the club in the right spirit.

Victor Valdes: this coming season will be Valdes' 10th as Barcelona's number 1. Time sure flies, doesn't it? It took many years for the average Cule to go from barely tolerating the hot-headed, erratic kid to embracing the brilliant shot-stopper with feet so good he could play striker. These days, it seems hardly credible that the Camp Nou crowd used to boo Valdes for making the occasional howler. After all, he's the man we count on to do everything right, especially when the rest of the team are doing everything wrong. And that's what he does, every season.

Runner-ups: Pedro, Mascherano, Iniesta, Alves

in and out

Given the transfer business conducted so far, I strongly suspect that my transfer wishlist doesn't look a thing like the one drawn up by Andoni Zubizarreta and Pep Guardiola. For one, mine didn't have another winger on it. However, Alexis Sanchez looks like a great prospect, and if he can relieve some of the burden on Messi and come in when the likes of Pedro and Villa are off-colour, he'll be a successful signing.

As for the other name on Guardiola's wishlist, I will endeavour to be very brief. While I am very fond of him, I am not convinced that Barca need Fabregas. The funds required to buy him would be much better spent on other areas of more urgent need. (The defence, for example.) Furthermore, given Thiago's rapid development, it is highly possible that he is indeed ready to step up whenever Xavi's chronic injury problems force him to miss games.

Others have argued against signings in defence on a similar basis. While it would be nice to see more La Masia-produced defenders in the first team, I haven't seen enough of the current crop of prospects to feel safe relying on them as backup for Puyol's creaking knees. Having said that, the versatility of the defenders in the squad right now is reassuring, as is what I've seen of Fontas.

A very fond goodbye and good luck is due to first team departees Bojan Krkic, Jeffren Suarez, and Gabriel Milito. The three leave under very different circumstances. Bojan is essentially on loan, out to prove himself and perhaps await a glorious return in a post-Guardiola era. While still very promising, Jeffren has run out of opportunities due to his persistent injury problems, and is now a little too old to be a mere promising prospect at Barca. Gabi Milito is no longer a first team regular after suffering a string of horrific injuries, which robbed him of his pace. All three have played their part in the successes of the past three seasons.

(On a completely different note, in case you forgot, Alexander Hleb is still here.)

the triumph of pep guardiola

"Guardiola has put a target on me, in classic fascist style." - Eduardo Inda, editor of Marca [a little background]

This past season has seen the advert of unprecedented attacks by the Madrid media upon all aspects of Pep Guardiola's character. Inda may have accused Guardiola of fascist activity, but at least he didn't point the finger of blame at Pep for inciting violence against journalists, like a certain Madrid-based TV station (Telemadrid, as mentioned here). It seems that diplomacy and careful humility was no longer enough to forestall negative attention, the extremity and ferociousness of which will have come as no surprise to a man used to the complexities of the Barca-Real rivalry and not above hitting back when pushed.

Guardiola conducted himself with habital care this season despite the change in circumstances, at least until late April. His response to Mourinho came at the riskiest time possible, and without the backing of the club, who had urged him to keep silent. Even Barca fans wondered if he had finally snapped under continuous provocation. In fact, it had been nothing of the sort. The entire 'rant' - including the Catalan nationalism tinged, Lluis Llach quoting bits not mentioned in English press coverage - had been planned.

He is not a man who enjoys confrontation, but in the absence of another voice at the club, he is also not one to shrink responsibility. Anyone who remembers Guardiola as the club captain who screeched up into a ref's face and accused him of playing with the emotions of an entire country (Catalunya, of course) should have realized that there was steel hidden underneath the velvet gloss of civility and respect.

“Allow me to have faith in my players. They have achieved too much in a short space of time for me not to have faith in them.” - Pep Guardiola [Arsenal 2-1 Barca, post-match press conference]

The difficulties encountered this past season took their toll on Guardiola's health. He often looked exhausted, stressed, much older than his 40 years, and was hospitalized for a herniated disc. Players have since admitted that Pep's insistence on attending training and games while he really shold have been resting in bed was an additional motivating factor during a crucial stretch featuring games against teams such as Valencia and Arsenal. In the greater scheme of things, it may be a minor detail, but Guardiola has built his success on mastering minor details.

Compared to the thin, tired figure of earlier, the Guardiola we saw talking effusively in the post-match press conference at Wembley seemed a man rejuvenated. Having come through a season in which he had been up against a domestic rival of unprecedented strength and finished it with a game in which his vision had played out almost perfectly, it is the fond wish of this particular Cule that the experience has refueled him. He has often stated that he will walk away when his passion for the job fades. Hopefully that day is still far away.

the ultimate grace note

Make no mistake, this has been one more extraordinary season in an era Cules will be talking about for years to come. When we come to reminisce about the highlights, it'll be hard to go past the day of the Champions League final. Wembley was a blessed day, a day where everything went right.

Most important, it had this: on 17 March, Eric Abidal had a tumour removed from his liver. Barely two months later, he was lifting Big Ears as captain in the royal box at new Wembley, having played the entire 90+ minutes of a thrilling final.

Allow me to quote at length from Abidal's recent interview in GQ Italia (which you should read in full, because it really is wonderful):

An hour before the game against Manchester United started, he didn’t know yet he was going to play.

'Guardiola showed us the last videos, gave some last-minute advice, read out loud the players’ shortlist. No one looked surprised. No one but me, obviously.

I sought Puyol out, I walked up to him and asked “Why aren’t you playing? Did you know he was going to leave you out?”

He looked me in the eyes and said “I’m not important right now. You are what matters; don’t worry about me.”

Do you have any idea what a fucking badass we have as captain? Do you? Champions League final, they tell him he’ll be warming the bench, and he’s the one comforting me! This is Barcelona.

And of course I didn’t know I would be the one to lift the cup, everything happened in a blur, I could hardly grasp what was going on. Do you have any idea...? I had cancer, I had surgery, I played the CL final, and I lifted the cup, all in the span of three months. What more could I ask?'

What more could any of us ask for?

'if we are remembered in 10, 15 years time...'

From Wembley to Wembley Barcelona has undergone an extraordinary process of maturing...There is no better defence of an idea than victories, but there is no better victory than the fact that the stability of a club does not depend exclusively on a final result, but on a route map. That is the greatness of this Barça, which, make no mistake, will also be the principles that will enable them to vaccinate themselves in defeat. - El Pais

Personally speaking, it has been a privilege to experience this past season as a Barca fan. Whatever the future holds, I'm convinced that we'll look back on this team with pride and gratitude.

Bring on the next season.

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.

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.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

how to die with your boots on: Pep Guardiola's very bad year

"I remember when I received [Guardiola's] call and...I pick up and tease him a bit, but notice in his voice a serious tone. And then he says: 'I need a lawyer.'" - Manel Estiarte, translated by Total Barca

In the glittering, storybook career of Pep Guardiola, one bleak episode stands out from amongst the triumphs. I am referring to the competitive ban and suspended prison sentence he received due to two positive tests for the banned substance nandrolone. Years later, even this unhappy event became part of the Guardiola mythology, an illustration of his legendary obstinacy. But it wasn't always like that.

"I've been in front of the press many times but this is the first time that I've convened a press conference. After a meeting with President Gaspart, who can't be here today due to travel, I decided I have to announce something."

"I came to Barcelona without a penny and I'm leaving as a father, I'm proud of having grown up here but on balance I want to leave to get to know a new league, another culture, new friends and new rivals."

Pep Guardiola announced his departure from FC Barcelona at an explosive press conference on 11 April 2001. He had chosen not to renew his contract, thus ending a 17-year association with Barca. The club captain and figurehead, loved, respected - some would say feared by members of the club hierarchy who did not like the extent of his power - appeared alone. He had been diminished by a series of devastating injuries and equally devastating departures of key allies from what had been a great team.

In an emotional announcement, he informed the more than 100 journalists present of his intention to walk away, insisting that he had no particular destination in mind. Some were convinced that he was jumping before he could be pushed, a casualty of the the vicious power struggle at a dysfunctional Barca.

Five months later, to the surprise of many, Guardiola turned up at Brescia, in northern Italy. He spoke decent Italian at his first press conference and appeared excited by this new adventure, keen to leave his unseemingly departure from Barca behind.

Guardiola's new team mates included the great Roberto Baggio, with whom he formed a warm friendship, as well as a young Luca Toni, who still has great things to say about him. His manager was one of the great old figures of Italian football, Carlo Mazzone, who Guardiola eventually came to call his Italian father.

[Eight years later, at his most glorious hour yet, Guardiola remembered Mazzone. Facing the Italian press after the final whistle in Rome, he dedicated the victory to Mazzone, as well as the recently retired Paolo Maldini.]

The future looked bright. Then came the failed drug test.

"Thank you for being here. My name is Pep Guardiola Sala. I'm a football player. A machine says that I have taken nandrolone. Next to this machine there is a man who says it's not true."

Manel Estiarte, the man Guardiola refers to as his 'guardian angel', current Barca team liaison and retired waterpolo great, had been based in Italy for most of his professional playing career and knew the country far better than his old friend, who called him for advice in his time of need.

And Guardiola was definitely in need. He had tested postive for the banned substance nandrolone after a league match against Piacenza on October 21, becoming yet another entry in the rash of nandrolone positives returned by prominent players in Italy during and after the turn of the century.

In Spain, the news was greeted with incredulity. Old friends and rivals rushed to his defence, Real Madrid captain Fernando Hierro stating: "I believe in his innocence and his honesty as a sportsman." Former team mate Miguel Angel Nadal said that he would hold his hand in the fire to vouch for Pep's innocence.

Similar statements came from Mazzone and his new team mates. Nevertheless, the positive test led to Guardiola's suspension by the disciplinary commission of the Italian league.

A second positive test in November confirmed his sentence - a four month suspension from football and a fine of 50,000 Euros. Guardiola despaired and even thought of leaving football, but his path was always clear. It wasn't for him to protest his innocence, serve the ban and then get on with his life. As he told Estiarte, he was willing to spend every last Euro proving his innocence.

"If I am guilty, the punishment should have been four years. If I am innocent, as I will prove someday, then I didn't deserve a single day."

In May 2005, a Brescia court examined Guardiola's appeal. Far from exonerating him, the court affirmed his sporting sentence, added a seven month suspended jail term and fined him an additional 2,000 Euros under new anti-doping legislation.

But this outcome did not deter Guardiola. Over the next six years, as his career took him to Rome, the Middle East, Mexico, and back to Spain, he never stopped putting time and resources into the legal battle, vowing to take the case up to the highest levels of European justice if necessary. The ban may have been ancient history by then, but Guardiola would not rest until he had cleared the blot on his name.

In the meantime, his old friend Manel Estiarte had informed him of changes made by the World Anti-Doping Agency to their regulatory guidelines. New scientific findings had proven that some athletes' bodies naturally generated a certain amount of nandrolone, as Guardiola's legal team had maintained all along.

23 October 2007. The Brescia Court of Appeal clears Guardiola of all charges.* Pep tells the press that he feels liberated, as if a weight had been taken off him. He talks about his happiness in an interview with El Pais, while recognising that his relative wealth had enabled him to carry on an expensive legal process where other wrongly convicted people might have had to give in because of lack of funds.

Even out of the ranks of professional sportspeople with ample resources, Guardiola's persistence is remarkable. The announcement of his innocence came as he was embarking on his coaching career with Barcelona B, six years after the first positive drug test and a year after he retired from the game as a player.

That's the kind of person he is - a man obstinate enough to match his famously intractable mentor Johan Cruyff. This bloody-minded-ness has, I would argue, served him well in his current high pressure post, and will continue to mark his decision-making in the future.

[*The Italian National Olympic Committee attempted to reopen the case in 2009, but their appeal was rejected by the National Anti-Doping Tribunal.]

(On a different note, I now contribute regularly to Barcelona Football Blog, and recently wrote a piece on - topically enough - youth transfers for In Bed With Maradona.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If Pep Guardiola didn't exist, we'd have to invent him

In a way, that's exactly what Barca have done. As ball boy, trainee, player, captain and now coach, they've shaped the skinny kid from a small town into the charming, well-spoken man in a sharp suit he is today.

In recent years, everyone from players, club management, Catalan politicians, entertainers of all stripes and Jose Mourinho have called him the perfect manager for Barca. And he is. 99 percent of the time, he reflects the way Barca and Barcelonistas would like to be perceived. (And the remaining 1 percent - well, the post of Barca manager is enough to drive anyone a little dotty.)

As Simon Kuper pointed out in one of his ever-perceptive columns:

The key point about Guardiola is that he has been identified with Barcelona almost from birth. He comes from a Catalan village and has spent most of his life in the square kilometre of the Nou Camp. As Jimmy Burns writes in Barça: A People's Passion , locals still remember Guardiola as a skinny 15-year-old ballboy illegally running on to the pitch and hugging a player during a European semi-final in 1986. They remember him as a skinny playmaker, standing on the balcony of the Generalitat building in 1992, holding aloft the European Cup, and saying in Catalan, " Ja la teniu aquí " ("Here you have it"). The phrase gave many in the crowd goosebumps, because it deliberately echoed the legendary " Ja soc aquí " ("Here I am") of Josep Tarradellas, the Catalan president, when he returned from French exile after General Franco died.

In other words, Guardiola, a reader of Catalan poetry, is such a perfect Catalan hero that he is practically a character from a 19th-century poem himself.

The story goes that when Guardiola was scouted for La Masia one of the coaches, having witnessed his less-than-impressive speed, tackling and dribbling ability commented that the only outwardly remarkable thing about the boy was that he had a very large head for such a skinny, frail-looking body. And that's precisely the point - it was what went on inside that big head that was so valuable, even as a young player.

Johan Cruyff is said to have once compared Guardiola's speed on the pitch to his grandmother (unfavourably, if you're wondering). Nevertheless, he too saw something in the young Guardiola that pointed to the capacity for tactical intelligence and evolution necessary to become the midfield fulcrum of the team he was building. Years later, it was Cruyff's endorsement once again that proved crucial in (now ex-) president Joan Laporta's unexpected - some would say reckless - decision to appoint Guardiola as first team manager at a time when Barca desperately needed direction.

Off the pitch, Guardiola has an equal reputation for intelligence and introspection. As the late, great Sir Bobby Robson once wrote:

"He knew the game and knew how to conduct himself. Some footballers wouldn't stand for anything. They can't see beyond themselves. You'd have no chance of engaging them in any kind of sensible debate, but Pep had class. He had bearing."

This reputation as a sensitive intellectual makes his many touchline antics - up to and including the red card inducing ones - all the more amusing. Guardiola can come across as somewhat long-suffering and infuriatingly non-committal, especially when placed next to his old associate Jose Mourinho, but it would be a grave mistake to regard him as the blandly polite angel to Mourinho's entertainingly incendiary devil.

While it is true that Guardiola's default setting seems to be Diplomatic (and he seems to feel that it would be unseemingly to complain outright about perceived injustices), he is also not one to shrink from a little controversy - witness the incident preceding the away match against Dynamo Kiev last season, when he spoke frankly about his prominent use of Catalan in press conferences in response to a question from an Ukrainian journalist - or from using the aftementioned press conferences as a bully pulpit, against his own club president if need be. He is admired partly because his actions embody the signature Catalan concept of seny (wisdom/sensibleness). In some ways he and Mourinho are more similar than they are different. One is simply more of a showman than the other.

Pete Jenson writes that Jose and Pep went for canapes together after the recent FIFA World Player Gala. I wonder if the over-the-top, almost cartoonish devotion they inspire from their players came up as a subject for discussion. The Mourinho Effect is well known. His players - Drogba being the chief example, but there are many - tend to look upon him as an almost omnipotent figure. Tributes to Guardiola from his players run along curiously similar lines. My favourites, though, don't speak to omnipotence so much as persuasiveness:

"He's a passionate perfectionist. So if he believes something is white and you think it is black, you will end up believing that it is white." - Xavi

If Pep told me to throw myself off the 3rd tier of Camp Nou, I’d think ‘there must be something good down there'. - Dani Alves

This bond with his players suggests that behind the demanding disciplinarian lies a brother/father figure to whom the players can relate, in some cases very closely. Again, is this starting to sound familiar? All of the above was dramatically illustrated in that comical episode during the latest Clasico, when Cristiano Ronaldo sparked a 23-man brawl by pushing Guardiola in the chest under extreme provocation. Well, a little provocation, but with the backdrop of everything else that was happening Ronaldo's annoyance was understandable. And you can't deny that seeing mild little Andres Iniesta lose his rag is hilarious.

Reading about or watching Mourinho's antics, one often gets the feeling that we're watching mythology being created - there's a certain unreality about the media character of Jose Mourinho, genius manager. Equally, I'd argue the same applies to Guardiola, the man they called 'the myth' (as in too good to be true). If he's a myth, he's an engrossing one, dreamed up and produced by Barcelona. Long may his reign continue.

[Written on the occasion of Pep Guardiola's 40th birthday.]