December 18, 2012

Poster Series: Riscone 2012

These are three of what was supposed to be a five-poster series on Roma's training camp in Riscone di Brunico, a place in the mountains where the team traditionally holds a training camp every summer. Ideally it should have gone up before the team left Riscone but I didn't want to post it before it was complete, and since I never did get around to the last two posters it just never got posted. I'm putting up the existing three now, even though months later they're now outdated both in terms of content and my own technique; not to mention the way the once-exciting Zemanlandia has sort of blown up in Roma's metaphorical face.

 Zeman's (in)famous Gradoni were first introduced when the team was at Riscone, awaited in fact, as we all knew this was an aspect of training that would eventually make its appearance. When I watched the video of the first Gradoni day the players reminded me hugely of oversized red frogs hopping up and down the stairs so that's what I tried to portray.

Another trademark thing Zeman put the players through while trying to whip them into shape was running with these big watersacks over their shoulders, something I haven't really seen with other coaches so that made up the second poster.

The training camp couldn't be complete without Zeman setting the players to 100 meter races almost daily, and there Coco Lamela was the undisputed star coming in first time and time again.

There were two more posters planned, one on the famous bromance between Dani Osvaldo & Francesco Totti, quickly labeled Danesco as the two were inseperable that summer; and a second making fun of the way Taddei wore his shorts, with Roma fans constantly mocking/groaning about it. Alas, those two never happened.

April 25, 2012

On Style & Sustainability

Copa Del Rey 2009. La Liga 2009. Champions League 2009. Spanish SuperCup 2009. UEFA SuperCup 2009. Club World Cup 2009. La Liga 2010. Spanish SuperCup 2010. La Liga 2011. Champions League 2011. Spanish SuperCup 2011. UEFA Supercup 2011. Club World Cup 2011.

I don’t know about you, but just reading that makes me dizzy. It doesn’t stop at a loss. Or a tournament. Or even an entire season.

What this team has given us in the Guardiola era, what we have been extremely privileged to witness, to celebrate and to take pride in as supporters of this club, is far gone and beyond being incredible. There aren’t words for it. Our club has been, for over three years now, the best club on the planet and arguably the best of all time. That it has lasted this long is astonishing in itself. It was never going to last forever.

Not that I’m saying it’s over.

What I am saying is that you have to look at things from the bigger picture. We can stop at this loss or at the one to Real Madrid last weekend, and we can say that it went wrong because of this and that, and that Guardiola should have done this and that, and if only this and if only that, but in the end none of that matters.

Because Barca is not invincible. These players have limits. And this is where those limits have caught up with them.

Barca has been playing the same way for four years now. The first three were teeming with success. This fourth one, not as much. So we start to lambast the style. It’s getting old, it’s been figured out, we need a plan B.

I see so many people criticize Guardiola and lament that Barca has had no plan B, but I don’t see any of them attempting to suggest exactly what this plan B should be. What style do you really expect, or want, Barca to play other than its own attacking, passing philosophy? The one that this club takes so much pride in, the one that the club took so much time and trouble to implement and develop, the only one that all the players who have and will come through this club’s academy are trained to play –  this academy that has been absolutely mind-blowing in its success at raising talent?

The evidence of the importance of this style and keeping true to it, and the fruit that it yields, is right there. We’ve been witnessing it firsthand for years. And this is why you have to look at the bigger picture, why you absolutely cannot stop now and say it needs to change. The thirteen trophies this club has won in the space of four years came about thanks to that style. Thirteen out of a possible eighteen, with a nineteenth still in play – it is too enormous a figure to let the two trophies recently let slip demand that we abandon the style.

Especially because you have to look at things from other angles. Or rather, from every angle. One is that no one can get everything right a hundred percent of the time. We can go back and talk about signings that shouldn’t have been made and ones that should have, players that shouldn’t have been sold and players that weren’t given the chances they deserved at the club, but in the end, most of this is acceptable. Because these mistakes will always happen, at every club and at every time. To expect otherwise is ridiculous. If you were looking for infallibility, you came to the wrong place.

Another is the physical condition of the team. The previous three seasons have been enormously successful, but they have also been enormously taxing. The more trophies the team wins the more trophies it gets to compete for, which means the more matches it has to play. This in turn means a huge toll on player fitness. Especially at a team like ours. Players like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, players who are Barca’s heroes, are ones that at many other clubs would have been deemed too small and scrawny to be able to make it in the game, as they and their coaches have pointed out. This club’s advance to placing technique ahead of physicality has meant the rise of some fantastic players, but ones with lesser endurance.

Most of the team is small and injury prone. Several of them are getting old as well. All have been the victims of a horribly grueling match schedule. Before every Champions League draw Guardiola has only wished for Barca to be drawn against a team not too far way, as travel has always made the team suffer. This season moreso as Barca’s away form has been a far cry from their dominance of matches at home. Guardiola has resorted to having the team travel to away venues one or two days before, something they have never had to do before. And as the season is pulling to an end, the team is even tired at Camp Nou.

That is, those of them that are left.

When everyone is fit, Barca’s squad is still small. This season, the team has been injury plagued like never before. They lost a starting forward in David Villa in December. This counts for something. The pillar of our left flank, Eric Abidal, was distressingly forced to bow out of the season in need of a liver transplant. This counts for something. The long-term injuries of Afellay and Fontas, even if they are less important players, count for something. The frequent, incessant injuries of crucial players like Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique, Alexis and Cesc all count for something.

They don’t just count for something. They count for something huge. This season in particular, the team has been fatigued and injury plagued to a drastic extent. Are we forgetting that at one point Barca had no more than thirteen fit first team players? That almost every time a player has returned from an injury, it’s only been for two others to be sidelined in his place? I doubt that at any point in the season Guardiola has even had the same squad to choose from for two weeks in a row.

It’s not about the style being flawed. It’s about the team not being able to carry it out properly. It’s about players being unfit and out of form, players being unable to run as much they need to or pass the way that they need to or give as much as they need to, or simply being unable to play at all.

After last night’s game against Chelsea, I am unconcerned with the Champions League. The image in my head is Pique colliding with Victor and then not moving, and what I want is to know that he’s okay. The image in my head is Messi looking completely exhausted all night, and what I want is to make him sleep for a week. The image in my head is Xavi looking tired and in pain while still racking up more passes than the entire Chelsea team, and what I want is for Barca to able to rest him for the remainder of the season, even though the team needs him.

It goes without saying that this applies everywhere else, not just last night’s match. Tito’s empty seat on the bench week after week, Guardiola losing his head and cursing on the pitch after Alexis picked up an umpteenth injury, Villa looking dazed in a wheelchair with his wrapped leg propped up before him, Abidal continuing to train with the team right up until he was hospitalized for surgery – these are the images that endure, and the ones that are most concerning. Seeing Abidal come out of his transplant all right is more important than seeing Xavi make the right pass or Messi make the right finish. The team has been through more than its share of pain this season, and things must be kept in perspective.

When it comes down to it, falling short in the two major competitions has had to do with the fact that the squad, although hugely talented, is small and fatigued to begin with and has further been chopped down into limited pieces of a puzzle that Guardiola has had to attempt to piece back together. Injuries have broken the squad both physically and mentally and Guardiola has been under the enormous burden of figuring out how to go on after that. Figuring out what is going to happen to the left flank without Abidal, and who can play at centerback when both centerbacks are injured, and how much can Xavi give anymore at the age and condition he’s in, and who is going to attack alongside Messi when Alexis is injured, and is it better to play Tello or Cuenca in their inexperience rather than start Pedro or Cesc in their dubious form? And on and on and on, I don’t have to tell you.

A lot of us like to think we know a lot about how all this should be done, about how to plug in the holes and who to play where, but the truth is that it isn’t simple at all. I, for one, would not have traded places with Pep for the world. And after the thirteen trophies he’s already led this team to in such a short space of time, I think he deserves from us all to trust and admit that he kinda, sorta knows what he’s doing. It’s an enormous task he’s had this season, more than any of the three previous ones, and frankly, I don’t see that he’s done too bad of a job with it.

We made it to the semi final of the Champions League for an all-time record fifth year in a row. We fought far and hard for the Liga. We’re in the final of the Copa Del Rey. And before any of this, we already picked up two Supercups at the beginning of the season and the Club World Cup in December. Not a bad season at all, and a far cry from one that demands for the club to discard its style and come up with a new one. After all, this style is what defines Barca and if we’re going to die, we’re going to die doing what we believe in.

Let’s not let the success of recent years blind us into a false sense of invincibility or entitlement. It’s a game. You win and you lose. This has been our turn to lose a little. We still have a hell of a lot to be proud of.

April 6, 2012

Conspiracy Claims & The Mourinho Influence

This fad that Jose Mourinho started a year ago of screaming CONSPIRACY! off the rooftops every time a Champions League officiating decision seems to go in Barcelona’s favor has become utterly ridiculous. Following the way that, after Barca’s 3-1 win over AC Milan, fans of the defeated club as well as general Barca haters have not let up with their UEFAlona wails, please allow me to address the issue. 

Whether or not the penalty given against Nesta was deserved is debatable. Some professionals have explained how it can be considered correct, others have argued that it was not. What is definite is that had that penalty not been awarded, Barcelona still would have gone through on a 2-1 aggregate. Further, with the stats of that match showing that Barca had twenty-one shots to Milan’s two (a mere three over the entire two legs), that Milan racked up a foul count of nineteen that more than doubled Barca’s nine, and that Barca dominated possession with sixty-one percent to Milan’s thirty-nine, it’s crystal clear which team is the one that truly fought for and deserved the win. Milan’s approach cost them the qualification more than anything; that the Nesta penalty was undeserved is hardly an excuse for the result.

Why, then, are people so hipped on the subject? Is this the first instance of a wrongly awarded penalty? Don’t be silly. Is it righteousness that spurs the conspiracy cries – that irrespective of the situation, fans simply cannot bear to see such injustice? I mean it, don’t be silly. If that were the case, then rather than be so selectively enraged over Nesta’s penalty the other day, Van Persie’s second yellow in 2011, Pepe’s sending off the same year and Chelsea’s unawarded penalties in 2009, fans would be equally furious at Barca’s unawarded penalties at the San Siro the other day, Barca’s unawarded penalty and cancelled goal against Inter in 2010 as well as Inter’s offside goal, Barca’s unawarded penalty and the incorrect sending off of Abidal against Chelsea in 2009, and indeed the wrongly allowed goal that put Chelsea through against Barca in 2005. And why only pinpoint the instances for or against the Catalan team – surely in the throes of this passionate rampage against all that is unjust in football, misdeeds unrelated to the Catalan club should be lambasted as well. Unless the case is that Barca are the only ones ever involved in officiating controversy?

I’m begging you now. Don’t be silly.

What fascinates me most is a question we will never really know the answer to, although I’ll attempt to analyze it: Would this be such an issue if Mourinho had not spent the better part of the 2010-2011 season crying conspiracy at every chance he got?

It began with his claim that other Liga teams were losing to Barcelona on purpose, where it’s worth mentioning that the only time a team ever owned to such a thing that season was when Malaga let Real Madrid trample them 7-0, as their (ex-Real Madrid) coach, Pellegrini, admitted after the game. Then Mourinho declared that the actual Liga calendar and the organization of the matches was explicitly designed in Barcelona’s favor and against Real Madrid’s. The Clasicos were punctuated with his sorrowful moans to the press that he was forced to train with ten men since referees always sent his players off against Barcelona – for example when Raul Albiol got a red card for putting a headlock on Villa and dragging him down in the box. It didn’t deserve a red card, the Special One explained, as it was “a foul that was nothing.”

By that logic an elbow from Pepe to Messi’s chest or a forearm to Pique’s face must also be “nothing”. Him stomping on Messi’s hand is surely “nothing”, just as Marcelo stomping on Pedro’s leg or kicking Messi in the ribs or brutally scissor-tackling Cesc are all “nothing”. Similar to how Coentrao shoving Messi’s face into the pitch after tackling him also falls into the “nothing” category, right there beside Ramos slapping Puyol across the face and, of course, “nothing” at all being wrong with Arbeloa and Ramos helpfully dragging Villa to his feet after Arbeloa had brought him down and then stomped on him while getting up.

The above instances and others as well largely went unpunished save the Ramos slap on Puyol and Marcelo’s tackle on Cesc, which were both met with red cards. Both of those red cards were also inconsequential, as Marcelo’s came during injury time at the very end of the match and Ramos got his in the dying minutes also, when Barca had already sealed the game at 5-0. But poor Mourinho, the referees hate him and force him to play with ten men. His players never actually deserve the cards they get; the calls really have nothing to do with the way he himself is having his team approach these matches.

When you cry conspiracy that many times, eventually it starts to get to people, particularly the ones being pinpointed. It holds extremely plausible that the referee at the 2011 Copa Del Rey final was intimidated by Mourinho’s words, and that that was why he chose to overlook Real Madrid’s truckload of offenses that night. Most notably ignored was the instance of Ramos and Arbeloa dragging Villa off the ground, something that Del Bosque, ex-Real Madrid coach and the man managing all three of those players on the Spanish national team, said was “against the principles of a football player, even against their own morals.”

The peak of Mourinho’s fuss about the referees was after Barcelona beat Real Madrid 2-0 in the Champions League. Both by Messi, the goals had come following Pepe’s sending off for a foul on Dani Alves. Madridistas hooted to no end that Barca would not have scored had Pepe still been on the pitch. They also crowed that the red card was undeserved. The Madrid media backed them, with Madridista TV host Punto Pelota flaunting a video that showed that Pepe hadn’t actually touched Dani at all. Madrid wailed and whined and Mourinho bleated por que, por que, por que? As Barca celebrated Messi’s drop-dead beauty of an opening goal, the Special One tagged Unicef onto his list of who to blame. It fits in nicely with rigged calendars and generous opponents, don’t you think?

Then, it became apparent that Pelota’s video was tampered with. Frames had been removed to make it seem like Pepe’s boot hadn’t touched Dani – unsurprising from the Madrid media that has also been known to photoshop entire players out of photos to fabricate instances of Barca being offside. The real video surfaced and the real media revealed the Madrid version to be a sham: Pepe’s offense was a studs-up open tackle.

Logically speaking, seeing the way Dani practically flew at the contact and the way his body turned when he fell, it’s not possible, physically, for him to have simply thrown himself. His comment on the situation is believable: "I was called a teatrero [Spanish slang for play-acting] but what amazed me the most is that people simply forgot the fact that Pepe came all studs up against me. I know and he knows how hard he hit me. The only reason I don't have a scar or something worse to show is because I wear carbon fibre shinpads to prevent injuries. If you listen to the audio in the Spanish TV, you can hear the impact of his studs. Maybe if I had broken my leg people would stop talking." It is true that he has a history of exaggerating some fouls but that doesn’t mean that no foul on him is ever a real one. Doesn’t Pepe also have a history of violence? Pundit opinions such as Sid Lowe’s suggested that Pepe did have the red card coming in that situation; a professional referee also said that it was a correct decision. But for Mourinho it was a robbery by UEFAlona – or UEFAcef, whichever you prefer.

Let’s delve a bit further into that term, “robbery”, which Mourinho as well as his players used to describe the match. To say that Real Madrid were robbed of the win is to say that the win was rightfully theirs, that they deserved it. Did they?

For Madrid the statistics from that game are, quite frankly, embarrassing. More than the fact that they couldn’t manage more than 28% possession at home and that Barca dominated the shooting, just look at the passes. Can Mourinho’s team really be given any credit for playing a proper game of football when Barcelona’s keeper accumulated more passes – 24 – than any Real Madrid player on the pitch that night? Xabi Alonso, who many like to say is to Real Madrid what Xavi is to Barca (ha!) was the closest with 21 passes.

Xavi had over a hundered. Busquets had over a hundred. Pique was up in the seventies. Xavi’s passes alone nearly amounted to all of Real Madrid’s. Overall, Barca racked up an average of over two hundred passes more than Real Madrid across each of the four Clasicos that were played in the space of those three weeks. The four-Clasico frenzy was also the key period of Mourinho’s conspiracy campaign: In essence, what he did was cover up the fact that his team was completely outplayed by attributing Barca’s success to conspiracy.

He’s one of the most famous coaches in the world, managing one of the biggest teams in the world, in the top footballing competition in the world. This means – unfortunately – that what he says holds a lot of influence. When he says it repeatedly the impact is enormous. He declared conspiracy: Real Madrid fans declared conspiracy. He dragged separate instances into it, saying that he would be “ashamed to win a Champions League the way Guardiola won it in 2009”, because of the controversial decisions against Chelsea at the time: Chelsea fans began chanting conspiracy after their former coach as well. That fact that Mourinho’s Inter won the Champions League in 2010 after quite similarly eliminating Barca with the help of controversial referee calls, or the fact that Mourinho’s Porto won the Champions League in 2004 after eliminating Manchester United in a situation where United would have been the ones to qualify had a Scholes goal not been ruled offside very obviously incorrectly, are not talked about because no one ever held them against Mourinho. Pep did not go into a por que rant about conspiracies after Barca’s loss to Inter in 2010, nor did he drag up the United instance of 2004, because he is a professional who accepts the realties of the game – Mourinho seems to forget that it is, at the end of the day, a game – rather than look for excuses.

By spinning a few unwarranting referee calls far out of proportion and reiterating his conspiracy mantra often enough to get his fans parroting it after him, Mourinho succeeded in what was always his intention. The man hardly says these things for the sake of justice. It’s extremely clear that the media to him is nothing more or less than a means of manipulation. Calendars, conspiracy, Unicef - frankly put, he will say absolutely anything that he thinks will get his team ahead and that will get him sympathy and support. Regardless of whether or not there is actually a point to what he is saying; regardless of whether or not he has the right to be saying it.

As a result, we’re now in this really stupid place where any controversial referee call for Barca, despite existing ones against them, is solid proof that one club has control over a continent-wide governing body.

I mean honestly.

It’s true that I myself have recently written a piece that argues that the Spanish La Liga this season has been swayed into Real Madrid’s favor. You might ask how that is any different from the UEFAlona claims. I’m happy to answer. It comes down to three main things:

1 – The frequency and imbalance of controversial decisions in La Liga, as well as the heavy concentration of so many suspicious calls in a single season, is far more drastic than in the Champions League. We can pinpoint enough recent Champions League decisions against Barca to match the ones in their favor, something that is not so in La Liga. On the contrary, for every (non-Clasico) decision given against Barca in the Liga this year we can also name a (non-Clasico) decision given in Real’s favor.

2 – What is happening in the Liga has gone far beyond familiar things like debatable penalties – Spain is witnessing situations where a referee actually gets a ban if he doesn’t do things Real Madrid’s way, while Real Madrid’s coach and captain can insult match officials freely without seeing so much as a reprimand. On the other hand, the single instance in which a Barca player has ventured to give an opinion about a referee – and not even an offensive one – saw legal proceedings opened against him (with the judge appointed to the case being a former member of Real Madrid). I think we can all agree that referee decisions on the pitch in the heat of the moment are a different matter entirely than (discriminatory) studied bans and punishments – or lack thereof – on the part of a governing body.

3 – The reality of the Barca/Madrid political situation is something that sadly cannot be ignored when it comes to football. Bigotry against Catalunya in the capital is prominent, for example in the way Spanish police confiscate Catalan flags from Barca supporters during Clasicos at the Bernabeu. This feeds into the influence that the royal club has over the country’s football federation. What seems to be the case is that this season, Real Madrid have taken the decision to use the sway they have within the governing bodies of La Liga, no doubt pressured into it by Mourinho. For one thing, Real Madrid have bestowed Mourinho with an unprecedented amount of power, with the extent of the control he has over things at the club. I’ve never seen the like of it. An example of just how far the club will go to satisfy his whims is that Jorge Valdano, who worked at Real Madrid for a faithful eleven years and who was always loved and respected – to the extent that Real Madrid icon Raul Gonzales named his firstborn son after him – was sacked shortly after Mourinho became coach, because Valdano questioned The Special One’s methods. This tells you something about Real Madrid’s desperation for silver and the extents they’ve been willing to go to in order to get it. Three hundred million euros worth of players, three different coaches and still Barcelona was winning it all – for Real Madrid, Mourinho was the man to change that and they were going to let him do it any way he wanted. Mourinho’s first season with Madrid also fueled his own obsession to beat Barca; come the second season he will have exercised his influence over the club and they in turn will have exercised their influence over the federation. It’s not something I put past him. The man has a history of dishonorable methods, the aforementioned manipulation being part of it – and really, you have only to look at how his time at Porto was embroiled with referee-bribing scandal.

All these factors provide good reason to believe that the Spanish football federation may very well have been influenced by Real Madrid this season. In comparison, what justification could really be given for UEFA to favor Barcelona over any other team on the continent, or for Barca to be able to have such an influence over UEFA? The in-debt Barca could hardly be paying them off; not with color copying banned at the club to save on costs, for heaven’s sake.

In the end, all I have to say is that after writing this I’m more horribly sick of the entire conspiracy story than ever. I sincerely hope I’ll never write another thing about it after this. I hope I’ve been successful at least in getting something across, and if not, then I think the last words to be said are the ones Kxevin of BFB already wrote three days ago.

March 5, 2012

Who Wants To Win The Franco League?

Many times I’ve considered writing a piece on this and then discarded the idea, deciding it better not to get into something so controversial. But now it’s gone beyond the point where I can take it. I don’t even have the time to be writing this but I am so infuriated right now that I have to do this, to vent everything.

Barca has been less than perfect this season. They’ve had off matches, tired matches, matches where no one really showed up and the team didn’t do well; they’ve been plagued with a vast slew of injuries and endless fatigue and fitness problems and they’ve suffered for it points-wise. This is normal. Especially since they have a shorter squad and more competitions and players with weaker physicality than most teams. All of this goes towards accounting for them dropping some points, which is the normal thing for any team to do. No one can win all the time. In the season of 2008-2009, Barca’s fantastical season of the unprecedented treble, of the six cups, of the tiki-taka and the stunning football, the season in which they soared high above any team in the world – even that magical season saw them drop their fair share of points, most notably during a ‘mid-season crisis’ consecutive five-match period consisting of three draws and two losses. That was normal. Like I said, no team can win all the time.

Yet it seems that Real Madrid can. After a stumbling start to the league that saw them drop points twice, once in a draw against Racing and once in a loss to Levante, they went on to win every single Liga match thereafter bar a 3-1 loss at the Camp Nou. Barca showed their superiority to Real Madrid in that Clasico, yet here they are struggling to scrape up their three points as each Liga weekend comes and goes while Real Madrid cruise past every opponent. And now Real Madrid sit 10 points clear of Barca on the league table.

If Real Madrid were surpassing all their opponents thanks to any kind of football display befitting to the results they’ve been getting, with anything like the stunning performances that account for these kinds of victories, like say, Barca in their treble season, I would shut right up admit they deserved it. But when the reality seems sadly to be that their success is thanks to the people who run this league going far past the obvious in blatantly helping Real Madrid to the title, I can’t sit quiet.

In all my six years of watching football I’ve not seen anything like this. Is it normal that Real Madrid can hardly go two matches in a row without getting penalties dished out to them like candy? Or without opposition players getting sent off against them for non-fouls? While their players can repeatedly commit the ugliest of offenses and not get carded, let alone sent off when deserved, little less concede penalties when they’re called for? That in three instances where Real Madrid’s opponents managed to score against them first – Atletico, Bilbao and Levante – the incident was each time followed by a sending off for the opposition and a penalty for Real Madrid to level the score? That Real Madrid have received by far more penalties this season than any team in Europe’s top five leagues, and one fifth of all the penalties in La Liga – in a league of twenty teams? That they’ve been awarded at least twice as many penalties as any other team in the league, and not a single penalty has been given against them? Referees make mistakes, yes, but the possibility of so many calls wrongly going in Real Madrid’s favor being merely coincidental is, at this point, no longer reasonable.

Week in, week out Real Madrid are flagrantly supported by match officials. Look just a week back, for example, at the visit they paid their Madridian neighbors, Rayo Vallecano. It makes me sick just to think of how the heroic Rayo were, like others before them, disgustingly robbed of their right to compete fairly. For their repeated offenses that should have gotten them both sent off in that match Ramos and Pepe went unpunished, with Pepe not even getting a yellow card before the 90th minute. Ramos elbowed a Rayo player in the face inside the box, an offense like the one, it is worth noting, the Spanish federation once gave Patrick Kluivert a five-match ban for as a Barca player. Yet here Ramos was not shown so much as a yellow card. His victim received one instead, for protesting, and Rayo were denied the penalty they should have gotten. It was only a matter of time before a Rayo player got sent off altogether for what was nothing but a clean tackle. Ronaldo scored Real Madrid’s only goal in the second half, off what was their first shot in a game in which Rayo was superior, and Real Madrid took home the three points. After which, in his post-match press conference, Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho actually complained about the refereeing, insulting the fourth official.

This he had the nerve to do although it was a near crime that his team won that match. But it’s nothing new, is it, that Mourinho should complain about the refereeing – and a lot of other things – even when he has no reason to? We’ve seen him do it countless times before and his endless accusations have intimidated referees into tip-toeing around his team in the past, but what is going on right now is a little more than intimidation. It’s enough to point out that Barca’s triumph over Real Madrid over the past three years and Madrid’s inability to overcome them  – despite going through more than three different coaches and more than three hundred million euros’ worth of new signings – has been quite frustrating; that Mourinho has been driven to the edge with the personal battle he’s been waging against Barcelona; that he is not a man of honorable means and that his time at Porto was embroiled with referee bribing scandal; that Real Madrid’s administration have bestowed him with more power than a coach ever had at a club and buy into all of his whims; and that the royal club has a certain amount of influence within the forces that run Spanish football.

Rayo player Piti, who was lucky to escape serious injury after suffering a gruesome stomp on his ankle from who else but Pepe, was not afraid to point out the imbalance in the Liga officiating after the farce of a match that joined his team with Real Madrid: “It’s frustrating Madrid players can do what they want. You can’t understand why the referees are afraid to give them cards. The referees favour Madrid week after week. Someone should act, this can’t continue like this.” The reporter he was talking to then asked him if he thought referees were afraid to call against Madrid because Mourinho would wait for them at the parking lot (which we are coming to), to which Piti responded, "Apparently."

Sadly though, not everyone can afford to be so honest with their words, even those with more reason to be fed up than Piti. Just as the wind sways in Real Madrid’s favor, it simultaneously goes hard against Barca’s. Week after week the Catalan team sees its goals cancelled, its players called offside when they aren’t, its opponents allowed goals that are offside and its penalty claims repeatedly denied. Many of the occasions in which Barca dropped points this season came down to such decisions, and neutral observers have pointed out how this repeated bias in officiating is to thank for the extent of the gap between Barca and Madrid. Yet as the ones with the most to complain about, Barca’s members keep up an honorable stance of refusing to comment on the situation, even as week after week they are endlessly prompted and pushed by journalists who see what is going on asking them what they think about the unfair decisions.

The referees have a tough job, we should overcome any wrong decisions, we will not talk about them, there is no point in talking about them. This is the Barca consensus. Mourinho and his men may comment and complain about the officials liberally, but Pep and his players stay reserved. The most they’ve done is for Pep to reflect that Barca have not done so badly to be ten points behind, and for Mascherano to point out that talking about the referees is a lost cause beforehand. Masche is right in that if Barca did try to complain it would be futile. The officiating would not change. But I wonder if he also knew, when he said that, the full extent of what damage would be caused if a Barca player were to say something about a referee, as happened for once after Barca’s game against Sporting Gijon two days ago.

The match was a more than frustrating one for Barca. Once again, everything was going against them. After Barca had already had a goal disallowed and two penalties denied, the second half saw Pique get sent off for an offense just like two already committed by Gijon players on Keita and Dani Alves – the difference being that Pique had committed it outside of the box while the other two instances were inside of it. If it weren’t enough that Barca was denied penalties both of those times, it stood to reason, at least, that if Pique’s instance deserved a red card than so did the other two. Yet only he was shown one. Barca were denied another penalty when a Gijon player pulled a handball inside the box, and the referee didn’t let the match go without giving a yellow to just about every Barca player, and Pep too, for who knows what. Yet despite the adversity Barca pulled through and triumphed with a hard-earned 3-1 win, one that felt so much greater than the scoreline because of what the team overcame to obtain it.

Following the match the press were on Pep and the players like hawks. Say something about the referee? Wasn’t he unfair to you? This same referee denied you two penalties against Valencia, what do you think? What do you have to say about so many ref decisions against you?

We don’t talk about the referees, we just have to overcome. The Barca boys repeated their mantra. Pique however was a little less reserved in his words, and suggested that the red card he was shown had been premeditated, saying that the referee had probably wanted to give it him because he’d protested for Keita’s penalty claim during the halftime.

Now let’s pause here and wind back a little to the last time Barca and Madrid faced each other, the 2-2 match on the Camp Nou in the Copa Del Rey quarterfinal. Any neutral will tell you that Teixeira, the referee in that match, was equally horrible towards both teams, making bad calls that harmed them both and clearly not favoring one over the other. Ultra pro-Madrid paper Marca even suggested that he wronged Barca more than he did Real Madrid. Yet Real Madrid somehow seemed to see that he had been purely biased against them, and their captain and coach didn’t mince their words in telling him so. Casillas insulted him in the tunnel and told him to ‘go celebrate with his Barca friends’, and later admitted to doing so, writing it off as ‘the heat of the moment’. Mourinho surpassed himself by actually going to wait for Teixeira in the parking lot to insult him, something that was caught on camera as well as confirmed by his own spokesperson. Meanwhile, Barca kept reserved as usual.

Such disrespectful behavior by Real Madrid’s captain and coach towards the referee surely warrants some form of punishment, yet the federation didn’t seem to think so. Then again, they didn’t think Pepe’s ugly stomp on Leo Messi’s hand a week before should be punished either, treating it like a joke with their claim that they might have looked into it had Messi had a finger amputated. Rather, the federation seemed to agree with Real Madrid that the referee, though his decisions had caused as much harm to Barca as to Madrid in that game, had been unfair purely to Madrid. Subsequently, Teixeira was banned from officiating any more Real Madrid, and only Real Madrid, matches again.

This is more outrageous than I can say. At this point they’re no longer just helping Madrid forward, they’re messing with people’s jobs, with their livelihood. For a referee hoping to move forward in his field and go European and perhaps eventually international, this black mark on his record has now stumped any progress. He’s been unfairly sentenced with bias and handed this ban as lightly as if it were a slap on the wrist, when it is in reality a grave, grave matter.

Let me tell you the story of another Copa Del Rey quarterfinal Clasico, back in 1970. A referee named Guruceta officiated the match between Barca and Real Madrid in which a Barca player committed a foul three meters away from the penalty area. The most dim-sighted person in the world could not have taken it for a penalty, yet that’s just what Guruceta did – awarded a penalty to Real Madrid. That, kids, is an example of clear-cut unquestionable bias. Gureceta was banned from officiating any Barca match ever again and rightly so - but by Barcelona themselves, and not the federation, even though this instance was far worse than Teixeira's. (Incidentally, did you know the current award that Madrid sports paper Marca bestows on the best referee of the season, along with the Pichichi and Zamora awards and the rest of them, is called the Gureceta award after that referee? He's favored and celebrated in Madrid... surprise, surprise.)

After this preposterous ban befell the unfortunate Teixeira, it’s not hard to imagine that the rest of the referees in Spain would hardly dare make a decision out of Real Madrid’s favor. That has been illustrated quite well, week after week. But that’s not the end of it. Returning to Pique’s words after Saturday’s match: the referee’s association, the same blokes who gave Teixeira his ban, are now planning to sue Pique for his words, deeming them disrespectful.

Really? Really, are you serious right now? Mourinho can wait for a referee at his car and insult him and Casillas can mouth off to him in the tunnel without so much as a reprimand, but Pique can be not merely punished, but sued, for something like this? Those being just two instances out of many from Madrid, even while everything is going their way; yet after endless silent endurance of officiating decisions against them, the first time a Barca player opens his mouth, bam, lawsuit? Where do they come off? Where does the crap end?

My favorite part is that the judge to oversee the lawsuit is an 85-year old ex-member of Real Madrid. You just can’t make this shit up. Honestly, I’ve had it with this fucked up Franco league and the dimwits who call themselves a federation. Take your fucking league trophy, we don’t want it, and just leave Barca the hell alone.

January 19, 2012

On Thuggery Versus Heart

This must be the millionth time I've said this, but I can't say it enough, because this team keeps on giving me reason to. I am so fucking proud of them. I love them so fucking much. This team is just something else. Such pride, such heart, it's unmatchable. After the last Clasico, where we beat them 3-1, I was talking to a fellow Culita about how Barca play these games and win them with their hearts. For a team of players that have been bred with the beautiful Barca philosophy, these Clasicos are more to them than just matches, and they are passionate about playing them. It's something inside them, something you can't find in a Real Madrid team of players that don't have such a strong tie with their club. The Clasicos are impersonal for many of them and you can tell from the detached, haphazard way in which they play. Homegrown or not - because even the players who join Barca from other clubs are quickly caught up in the beauty of the Barca family, and form the same sense of pride for this club - these players cannot play a match like this without showing up to it and giving it everything they've got. It's the heart that wins these games.
There is no heart, or even shame, in a team that plays the way Real Madrid did last night.  I see that the Madrid media and even some Real Madrid fans are calling the club out on their despicable behavior; for example Palomar, journalist of pro-Madrid extraordinaire sports paper Marca, wrote: Pepe cannot continue staining this shirt. Pepe's behavior in the clasico, and many other games that comprise for him a true criminal history, is intolerable. Does this mean we will finally see something done about it? Perhaps, perhaps not. After all, it is nothing new. I, for one, truly thought that Mourinho was abandoning his shady tactics and finally instructing his team to play actual football, after the more favorable way in which they played the most recent Clasicos before this one, namely the two legs of the Spanish SuperCopa. But alas, he was back to his old tricks and more. 
It is a miracle of epic proportions that Real Madrid finished this game with 11 men - they deserved to be down to 7. Pepe, Coentrao, Carvalho and Alonso all should have been sent off for their repeated offenses. It was simply disgusting. I don't understand how Pepe is even allowed on a football pitch looking at all the crap he's pulled, from his kick-fest on Getafe captain Casquero a few years ago to his foul spree of last night, including the lower than low instance where he knocked his knee into Messi's shoulder and then stomped on his hand after Messi was already down from an ugly foul from Callejon. He deserves a lifetime ban. The most maddening part? When he's not the one committing the fouls, Pepe puts on an angel's face and plays peacemaker, going to talk down the other players and the ref after a foul, which is what he was on his way to do when he stomped on Messi in passing. Dirty thug and hypocritical. Worse still is that his teammates would defend him, as Carvalho did: "Pepe always try to play fair. It was hard but it's clean. He always try to play legally." This is beyond bias. This is a downright lie. Or else Carvalho is just blind. But we know he isn't, his aim at the Barca layers' legs last night was near as impeccable as Pepe's. Fellow thugs got each other's backs?
Someone put together this video compilation of all Pepe's offenses from last night - I didn't watch it, as seeing it all the first time was quite enough, but I've linked it for your perusal. What I do wish is that someone would do a compilation of all of Alonso's offenses from last night - not because I want to see them again either, but because I am absolutely fed up with the way so many people call him a classy player. Xabi Alonso is anything but classy, at least since he joined Real Madrid (playing under Mourinho seems to have that effect on players - look for example at how the formerly upright Ozil was shoving opponents left and right when Barca beat Real Madrid 3-1 in the league) and it's time people stopped overlooking his buffoonery. Let's not overlook the rest of the dirty moves exhibited by Real Madrid last night either, like Coentrao shoving Messi's head into the pitch after he had already fouled him and brought him to the ground.
I stress that these incidents not be overlooked because sadly, they are being disregarded by match officials and the people who actually have the power to do something about it. The only thing more sickening than a team going through a match as dirtily as Real Madrid did last night is that they manage to get away with it. And last night's instance is unfortunately nothing to be surprised at, looking at how the refereeing in Spain has been going lately. The last time we faced Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey, last season's final, was also a foul-fest from them with the referee letting it slide. Does Mourinho still believe that Barca are behind a grand conspiracy through which they control all of the referees in Spain and Europe?
Mourinho's gameplan of parking the bus, attacking only off the happenstance counter and kicking the crap out of the Barca players is disgustingly old. I don't know why he persists in having his team play this shameful form of non-football when they are, thuggery aside, a fantastic group of players capable of so much more. They aren't even getting anywhere with it. Sadly, Mourinho has the club wrapped around his finger and it seems no one, be they players or administration, has the balls to tell him to cut the crap and have the team just play football.
The beauty in all of this is that despite all of Mourinho's philandering tactics, the thuggery of his players and the shameful way in which they approach these games - shameful to themselves as well as to football as a sport - Barca still manages to overcome them, time and again, against all odds. As every new Clasico approaches pundits say, this is the one, this time Real Madrid will win, this time Mourinho has figured it out - only for Barca to triumph over and over again. They fought back against Real Madrid's early goal and their parked bus and their kicking legs and put two beautiful goals past them to take themselves to the top, and how amazing was it that Puyol and Abidal were the ones to score those goals? Amazing is an understatement. I am fucking in love with the fact that Puyol and Abidal scored those goals. I would not have it any other way, none of the other players scoring would have thrilled me as much. 
When Capita scored the equalizer off of the gorgeous classic header from a corner that should be named after him for all the amazing times he's repeated it, I was literally yelling at the TV that he is the greatest player alive and there is nobody that can touch him. And by greatest I don't mean in terms of technical skill, but in terms of skill and heart and pride and soul all wrapped into one, there will never be anyone like him. I am beyond ecstatic at his goal. And then for Abidal to score the second, it was just too much. Too much beauty, because players like he and Puyol represent what this club stands for and they are not players who score often, but these goals came at the right time. This is only the second goal Abidal has ever scored in 178 games for the club. Perfect time for it to happen. Puyol's goal was the first Barca had managed to convert in 196 corners. Perfect time for it happen. These things don't happen just like that. It's the heart in Barca's game that makes them happen. 
A few last words on individual performances before I leave you with some yummy stats. Alexis was incredible. He was ruthlessly targeted with fouls from the Madrid players but nothing could hold him back, he was all over the place, chasing balls, going for the attack, even clearing balls in defense. Pep put it beautifully: "Alexis stole my heart. He's an extraordinary transfer. He adapted well, gives us something we don't have. I'm very happy for him." We hit the jackpot in signing him, especially given the blow of Villa's injury. Grande Alexis. Iniesta was also fabulous last night, just a breath away from scoring with all the runs he was making and several superb chances. Shame that he didn't find the net. Dani impressed me with his liveliness up front and lack of rolling around when taken down, but he's got to watch out for his defending. Cesc and Messi were a bit on the low-down but had their moments. Busquets played up to the praise Pep deservedly gave him last week, including this delightful little moment. I will continue to say he is drastically underrated. He deserved to be in the world 11 in place of the currently overrated Xabi Alonso. Xavi is amazing as always, it can't be said enough. Pique is getting back to his best which is great to see, we've missed his prowess this season. And Pinto is a beast. Pep is amazing for keeping his faith in him and playing him in the Copa and he played a great match. The goal that we conceded was an excellent one from Ronaldo and I'm not sure Valdes would have saved it. Maybe, maybe not. It was tough. As Pep said: "Pinto is a fantastic goalkeeper. Maybe people have doubts because of his looks, but I have a lot of confidence in him." The goal Ronaldo put past Pinto in last season's Copa final was also a superb one and anyone who blames our cornrowed keeper for that loss is extremely narrow-minded.
And now the stats:
- For the first time since 1933, Barca have as the same number of Clasico victories as Real Madrid: 86W - 45D - 86L 
- Pep has now won more matches against Real Madrid than any other side since he became a manager: 9
- Pep has equalled Johan Cruyff as Barcelona coach with most Clasico wins: 9
- Messi has equalled the all-time record of Real Madrid's Luis Molowny of most Clasico assists: 9
(looking at the last three stats, 9 is the magic number - also the amazing Alexis' shirt number! )
- Barcelona are the first team in history not to lose any of 7 consecutive away games against Real Madrid. 
- The last time Barca and Real Madrid met in a 2-legged Copa Del Rey tie Mourinho was Barca's assistant coach and Pep was Barca captain.
- Pep is the first Barca coach ever to win a Clasico on his birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY EL MISTER, VISCA BARCA Y VISCA CATALUNYA!
I leave you with the epic goal celebrations.

January 3, 2012

Soriano Promoted?

Ever since Pep said this: "Because of the injury of Villa we're thinking about promoting Soriano. Problem is he then can't go back to the B-team" in his press conference today, I've been getting a lot of questions about Soriano and his possible promotion. I'm going to address hopefully everything here, adapted from the transfer piece I wrote last summer.

As Pep said, the club is considering promoting Soriano to the first team since Villa is injured. It would have to be a direct promotion and not just call-ups when needed, like for example the way Cuenca sometimes gets called up, because Soriano is 26 years old and players over 25 aren't allowed to get called up. It has to be a promotion or nothing.

If you don't know Soriano's story you may wonder why he is still on the B team at age 26, why he never got called up or promoted before. The thing is that he was not raised in Barca's academy like the rest of the B-team. He joined Barca B at age 24, and before that he was a first team player at first-division Liga club Espanyol. First team, as in he took a step back to join Barca B, who were then in the third division.

Soriano had a rough time of it with Espanyol. They dragged him out on loan after loan and never gave him a real shot, and in the end let him go without renewing his contract or caring to look into taking offers for him.

Barca, as Soriano puts it, ‘saved his footballing career.’ Not one to be daunted by his bad experience with Espanyol, he came to Barca B and started over. His first season with Barca B saw him score 36 goals (31 league goals), finishing among the top scorers in all four sections of the Segunda B and leading Barca B into promotion to the Segunda A, the second division. He scored another 36 the next season (32 league), claiming Pichichi, top scorer of the entire second division, and leading Barca B to finish third place in the league ranking. An incredible achievement for a B team in the second division.

His history with Espanyol and his performance with Barca B over the past two seasons invalidate any doubts based on his age. Last season, only the rule claiming that players over 25 can not be called up from the B team to the first team if they haven’t been called up from the start of the season prevented Pep from calling him up (he did try).

Pep included Soriano in his preseason squad prior to the start of this season, and Soriano played 2 or 3 matches with the first team in which he was very impressive. Then he received a massive blow in the form of a calf injury that would sideline him for two months. The injury meant that he was dropped from Barca's preseason squad and also stood in the way of a possible transfer to another club.

So Soriano would be stuck on the B team for another season. This season started with him still sidelined, recovering from the injury, and his absence was greatly felt by the B team as they started the season poorly. When Soriano returned to the playing field Barca B's form immediately picked up.

Recall that when Nolito, who is also a striker, decided he wanted to leave Barca B last season and join another club, he was offered a first team contract. He’s only one year younger than Soriano and Soriano’s performance has been more impressive, so if Nolito is/was first team material than Soriano most certainly is.

As for Soriano’s own willingness to join the first team – he doesn’t share Nolito’s stance. Nolito left because he saw no future for himself at Barca, insisting that he needs to go somewhere where he’ll get more playing time and make more money; seeing as he’s married with his own family as well as his parents to support, and no one can blame him.

Whereas Soriano… he did an interview for Sport last summer where he talks about his time at Barca and what the future may hold for him, saying how grateful he is to Barca and completely at peace with whatever may happen, if he leaves or if he stays. If he leaves he will miss Barca very much, but he will accept it, thought his hope is to stay and be promoted, in which case he would give it everything he’s got. “I’ll be grateful for any opportunity Guardiola gives me,” he says. As his soaring season with Barca B last season neared it’s end he said, “I’m fighting for the first team.” More than anything he just wants to play football, wherever that may be. He was close to quitting the sport before Barca ‘saved’ him; now he says he wouldn’t dream of leaving it.

That Soriano would be a viable and effective replacement for Villa, that he would work for it and give all his effort, and that he deserves the promotion, is undoubted. The question then becomes, if Barca promotes him then what happens once Villa returns?

Well, Villa is out until the end of the season. Soriano will be leaving Barca at the end of the season if he doesn't get promoted to the first team. At his age and talent, it is shame for him not to be playing first division football, and only injury stood between him and a transfer last summer.

So since Soriano would be leaving at the end of the season anyway, it makes sense to promote him now. Better he spend the remainder of the season with the first team than with the B team. Then at the end of the season when Villa returns, if the consensus is that Soriano is no longer needed, he will transfer to another club - as he would be doing anyway, if he hadn't got the promotion. That's why the way I see it, there is no reason at all not to promote him. And now that Pep has brought it up it seems probable, so fingers crossed.