My guilty love for imperfect Barcelona
If football is all about pride and identity and tradition and history, then is it truly possible to claim support of one club in addition to another? And when the club in question has all the pride, identity, tradition and history of Barcelona, does it make it easier or is it more risible?
There are many Englishmen who, like me, will be desperate for Barcelona to win the Champions League final this evening. Some because they have some historical tie to the Catalan region, some because they enjoy attractive football teams prevailing over those they perceive to be aesthetically inferior and some because they simply dislike Manchester United. For me, there is something much larger at the heart of it all. I think I might actually support Barcelona.
Until four or five years ago, the very notion of supporting another team would have been crazy. The concept of another club sitting alongside the English club to which I have devoted so much of my life was unthinkable back then. Now, as Barcelona prepare to take to the field at Wembley, I realise it has become reality.
Let’s start with pride – I am not proud to support Barcelona. It is not something I take pride in. It has just gradually happened and now I have to admit it. If that all sounds like a confession, then it is probably because the origin of my support for Barcelona is so diametrically opposite to the way I began supporting my English club, when my Dad started taking me along to games when I was 5 years old and there was no other option. There was also no other option to the way I began supporting Barcelona – via Sky Sports.
There were glimpses of what was to come before it took hold. In particular, I remember reading a brilliant book about the club by Jimmy Burns – Barca: A People’s Passion. This is where the identity, tradition and history come in. Burns tells you everything, from the origin of the name “Cules” to the presidential wranglings that dictate the club’s direction. The latter is an alien concept to most English fans and, along with the infamous director of football role, often carries a negative connotation on these shores. To me, it just added to the intrigue. By the time I had finished the book, I wanted to visit the Camp Nou immediately. Parts of the book were so evocative that I almost felt like I was already there.
But I had to wait. It would be many years before Barcelona’s hold over me eventually resumed. And, at odds with the emotional pull of the Camp Nou as a safe haven for the Catalan language during the Franco regime, it was all because my best mate got Sky Sports.
This paradox sums up the modern FC Barcelona. You have to accept that modern football has no place for the perfect club. Everyone knows about the socios, the Unicef sponsorship, the faith in little Lionel Messi from an early age, the beautiful football and the beautiful city. But no club is perfect and there will always be a backlash against anyone in football that presents themselves to be cleaner than clean. Because, inevitably, there are always chinks in the armour. For Barcelona, the current Achilles’ heel is perceived to be gamesmanship among their players although the attention will soon switch to the Qatari sponsorship of the famous Blaugrana stripes next season – the first commercial shirt deal in the club’s history.
So it all began with Sky Sports. My weekly date with Barcelona in fact began not with today’s all-conquering Guardiola side, but his predecessor Frank Rijkaard. And although Rijkaard achieved great things with Barcelona, his Barcelona was often painful to watch by the end. My memories are of an impotent side, restricted to goalless draws and defeats with what would now be termed alarming regularity. Sure, there was a pretty handy Argentinian kid on the right wing who I enjoyed watching and the likes of Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez and Samuel Eto’o gave good value too. But they weren’t invincible.
The next season, they were. Pep Guardiola was promoted from the B team and, an opening-day defeat at Numancia aside, Barcelona changed. I don’t think anything could ever top 2008/09. My English club won a league title and Barcelona won everything. It wasn’t just the fact they won everything – it was the manner in which they did it, steamrollering teams while playing an incredible style of football that I had never seen before or since. The monolithic Yaya Toure loping around the centre circle and seizing the ball back from any opponent who dared to take more than one touch, Xavi unlocking seemingly impenetrable defences with one pass, Eto’o buzzing around the penalty area maniacally and Messi out on the right touchline, waiting for the ball and casually beating four or five men whenever he got it.
So far, so perfect. The paradox came back on that astonishing night at Stamford Bridge. It was the one time when watching a game on television didn’t seem wrong. This wasn’t a Shakespeare play. I wouldn’t have benefited from sitting in the stalls and watching it all unfold on the stage in front of me. This was a trashy soap with a fairytale ending despite everything that had happened beforehand.
If the game had mirrored Barcelona’s performances that season, they would have swept Chelsea aside. Instead, there was a mesmeric quality to what transpired. Barcelona were beaten to a pulp, their passing ineffectual, their chances minimal, their goal under siege. Yet, with moments remaining, Chelsea only had a single goal to show for their dominance. Tom Henning Ovrebo had kept Barcelona in the Champions League and now all they needed was a knockout blow.
I can picture it now without resorting to video streaming websites. Dani Alves made one of his lung-busting runs down the right flank and crossed the ball deep into the penalty area. Eto’o’s darting run, a headed clearance, Essien’s frantic stab at the ball, Messi’s calmness in possession and his pass across the edge of the area. Did time stand still? No, of course it didn’t. It never does. Did it feel like time stood still? Probably not. These things are just a trick of the mind. How did it feel when Andres Iniesta swung a boot at the ball and it curved perfectly into the top corner beyond Petr Cech’s outstretched hand? Indescribable.
“KAISERSLAUTERN! KAISERSLAUTERN! KAISERSLAUTERN! KAISERSLAUTERN!”
So shrilled the Catalan radio commentary, referring to Barca’s late semi-final victory over the German side en route to their 1992 European Cup victory. Here is a club to which history means so much that it can be hauled back into the present in an instant, even when the present itself is offering up a moment of history. Guardiola ran down the touchline in his suit, Iniesta ripped off his shirt and hurtled towards the gathered Barcelona supporters. I danced around my mate’s house like a lunatic. I then danced around my parents’ house, again much like a lunatic, when Messi headed Barcelona’s second goal in the final against Manchester United and provided another great moment – Cristiano Ronaldo’s aerial prowess having been lauded in the English press as the main weapon that Messi didn’t possess. Everyone expects from Barcelona – possession, brilliance, victory – but they are at their most enthralling when dishing out the unexpected.
Not that there was anything out of the ordinary about the way they played when I actually went to the Camp Nou. I headed off with my brother to Barcelona – one ticket to their game with Atletico Madrid in hand. My brother doesn’t like football, so the trip began to feel even more like a rite of passage than if he had come along to the game too. The time came – he went for a walk around the city, I made off for the stadium among thousands of Barca fans. I tried to take in as much of it as I possibly could: the sights, sounds and smells of a typical Barcelona home game. I took my seat nearly two hours before kickoff just to make the most of my opportunity to be there. Barcelona won 5-2. Messi scored twice.
Over the next two days, my brother and I saw as much of the city as we could – we walked about twenty miles in those two days, the pinnacle of the journey coming when sitting at the top of Montjuic, the hill that overlooks the city. Bathed in sunshine but with lightning forking across the horizon, we looked down on centuries of history – and a gigantic advert depicting Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the side of a skyscraper just off the Avinguda Diagonal. Again, the paradox.
Throughout the rest of the season, my flatmate, my girlfriend and I would sit and watch Barca each week on the television after returning from trips to see our English clubs. I lost count of the amount of times my girlfriend and I drove back from crushing defeat at some northern outpost into the welcoming arms of another Barcelona masterclass. Watching Barcelona became akin to demolishing a delicious dessert after forcing our way through mouthfuls of something we had been taught was the only way. She hasn’t been to Barcelona before, but that is something we intend to put right very soon.
On those long, tiring days, Barcelona offered something different – a style of football that felt both unique and something to which all sides should aspire. This is the element that a lot of English fans don’t like – the preaching. I completely understand and over twenty years of obsession with English football has certainly ingrained an acceptance that the game can be played in an attractive way without having to ape Barcelona or Spain. Sooner or later, though, you also have to accept that watching Barcelona is usually far more palatable than most English games, particularly in the lower leagues I love so much.
Much of the focus at the moment is on diving and gamesmanship from Barcelona. Again, I can understand and appreciate the antipathy here. But when it’s your team, you learn to accept the flaws and see the bigger picture. You learn to laugh when Sergio Busquets throws himself to the floor for the 45th time that season. You’ve seen it all before and you will see it all again. But you never see another team with a full-back who spends most of the game in an advanced right-wing position. You never see another team with Lionel Messi in. I never see another team that makes me question what I previously understood to be the limits of possibility in football. And, in the case of Eric Abidal’s swift return to the game following the diagnosis of a tumour, I very rarely see any other players that make me question what is possible in life, never mind football.
So there it is, a confession laid bare. Like one of those car stickers you never see any more – my other team is FC Barcelona.