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.