July 18, 2013

Viva La Vida (or the story of the faraway land of Barca under the reign of RoSell)

One grey-haired Zubiza wipes a tear with the tip of his glove – quite lovely gloves too – and mutters, “If dear Cruyff were only here.” The pair of beady eyes at his side turn on him sharply. “What’s that Zubiza?”

“Nothing sir, I said if my dead wife were only –”

“Quit moping Zubiza, we’ve got my personal agenda to attend to.”

A flare lights up outside the window and a voice yells, “LONG LIVE CRUYFF!” Zubiza watches as ten guards built like barrels promptly body slam into the protestor and drag him off.

“If they’re so lovelorn after him they can join him in banishment,” RoSell says cheerfully, slurping up a spoonful of blood-red jam.

“DOWN WITH ROSELL THE IMPOSTER!” someone yells outside the window. Zubiza listens to the thud-thud-thud of bodies as RoSell cackles and licks his spoon.

When Zubiza meets with the army generals later they’re all unsettled. “Zubiza, did Cruyff really deserve to be banished?” asks Lucho, commander of the B squad soldiers in training, looking sad.

“Zubiza, RoSell in charge doesn’t sit well with me at all,” says Pep, leader of the head army, looking angry.

“Zubiza, I’m worried about his interference with our armies,” says Tito, Pep’s second-in-command, looking tired.

Zubiza sighs. “Gentlemen, please. We’re at war and the Merengue’s new general is really nasty. I can’t have you distracted. Take care of our soldiers and let me worry about RoSell.”

The generals heed him gruffly and Zubiza wishes he knew what to do.

On a restless night there is a faint knock at Zubiza’s door and he approaches it cautiously. “Who’s there?” he demands in a loud whisper.

“I used to rule the world, seas would rise when I gave the word,” comes a distantly familiar voice. Zubiza’s heart takes off, racing in his chest, and he swings the door open. “Cruyff!”

“Don’t let anyone hear you say that,” Cruyff says, throwing back his hood, “I hear it’s akin to a swear word around here. Now let me in quick.”

They talk and drink and even laugh a bit like old times, but a dark cloud hangs over them and Cruyff has not snuck back into the city merely to make merry with an old friend. “Tell me Zubiza, is it true? Is RoSell no longer allowing immigrants into the city?”

“Barca used to be a beacon for all those searching for a place to belong; I’m afraid he’s closed it off now, yes,” Zubiza says sadly.

“But he doesn’t hesitate to bring in foreign soldiers, how is that?”

“They are a means for military success, they are an exception.” Zubiza shrugs, hardly understanding it himself.

“But surely the B squad men coming through our ranks are more than capable? We’ve reared them for this for years and Lucho trains them so well.”

“RoSell hasn’t much regard for them, and they are getting fewer and fewer calls to the head army. Lucho is frustrated – I fear he may resign his position.”

“Oh, Zubiza. How did we let this happen?”

They exchange sad looks, and then Cruyff steals away.

When Lucho resigns, RoSell’s cackling seems louder than ever. “About time too! He and his little B squad. What a pest.”

“But sir, we count on the B squad. Who will train them now?”

“Don’t you worry your grey head Zubiza, I’ve got a man who’ll do for the job and make no fuss. It’s not like the B squad are a priority, anyway.”

When Zubiza next meets with the head army generals they’re both upset. “Zubiza, this Eusebio is a joke. The B squad are hardly developing under him,” Pep says, still looking angry.

“And for the love of Cruyff, why are our soldiers wearing jam sponsors on their armor now?” Tito asks, still looking tired.

“I’m suspicious about that jam,” Pep adds, crossing his arms. “It’s... unnatural. And way too red.”

Zubiza shakes his head and walks past them both, rubbing his temples.

When Pep resigns, RoSell is infuriated. “That arrogant twit! Who does he think he is, walking out on me? Zubiza, where am I going to find someone to replace him?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Zubiza says miserably. “I mean, I think Tito capable but after that scare with his illness – ”

“Tito! Of course!” RoSell settles back into his seat and digs into a fresh jar of jam. “Oh, it’ll be perfect.”

“Well, sir, hadn’t we better see that he’s up to it?”

“Shush now Zubiza, of course he’s up to it. Now go and take these – uh – tax announcements – to the local news crier.”

When Tito falls ill again Zubiza is at a complete loss. “I don’t know where we’re going to find a replacement,” he moans.

“Replacement? Ha!” RoSell takes a gleeful slurp of jam and wags his spoon at ZubiZa. “So he’s laid up in bed, who cares? Roura will report to him and he can still give orders.”  He licks some jam off the rim of the jar and grins. “Pep gone and now this. No more generals getting all up in my face about things. Oh, it’s perfect.”

“Sir, Roura is not prepared – ”

“Bah! Roura’s fine.”

“The soldiers won’t – ”

“I’ll talk to the soldiers. Now hush your mouth and go take these – uh – updated immigrant regulations – to the local news crier.”

“… and though dear Tito is laid up in bed and can’t possibly be able to run things properly or be anywhere near as involved as a proper general should, who are we to turn against him in finding a replacement? Tito needs our support right now and we trust him to lead us to success, no matter how ill he may be. This is a sign of our devotion to him. Isn’t that right?”

“The nerve of that man! I tell you Zubiza, some people just have no sense of respect.”

“Sir, it was only natural Pep would take up a post somewhere else.”

“Well he’s gone and made himself our enemy!”

“We have no quarrel with – ”

“And have you been hearing all those stories about him? Why, it doesn’t seem like he’s the man we knew at all.”

“Surely you can’t believe – ”

“He’s just Cruyff all over again, isn’t he? Such a shame. Now then Zubiza, go and take these – these – uh – jam advertisements – down to the local news crier.”

Zubiza can’t quite believe his ears when Pep speaks against RoSell in public. At first he’s just defending himself against all the stories that have been circulating about him, which Zubiza had always found fishy, but when Pep suggests that RoSell is behind planting the stories Zubiza is flabbergasted.

“If he wants to say something about me let him show his face and say it, and not hide behind anonymous news tips,” Pep says firmly. “There have been many things, and things I can forget, but using the health of my friend Tito against me? That’s just low. They said I never visited Tito when he was sick but I did, and if I didn’t see him more it was because I was kept from doing so.” He pauses, and yawns. “Look, I really don’t get why RoSell is so obsessed with me, or threatened or whatever. But he needs to get over himself and focus on his own people and leave me to do my job here. All I ever asked of him was to leave me alone.”

“LIES!” RoSell squawks, hurling a jam jar in Zubiza’s general direction. “LIES AND DECEPTION, EVEN!” Zubiza sidesteps the jar and scratches his head nervously. “There, uh, there’s actually more, sir.”

“What MORE could there BE?” RoSell bellows.

“He – Pep – uh – expressed a desire in drafting one of our soldiers, sir. Thiago is one of our brightest young men – ”

“Never heard of him.”

“Well, he was promoted from the B squad when – ”

“AGAIN with the B squad!”

“Sir, the situation is a bit dire. The B squad men are frustrated that they’re barely getting called into action. Several have already left. Three have joined up with the army Lucho’s taken charge of down in Vigo.”

“When the heck did Lucho take an army in Vigo?”

“And Thiago, he’s also frustrated at not being called into action and now I’m afraid the chance to go and serve under Pep will entice him away. I feel guilty about this myself, I should have paid more attention to the terms of his service when we agreed t – ”

“Am I supposed to be losing sleep over this?”

“Well, I – sir, I firmly believe Thiago is crucial for the future of – ”

“Good riddance is what I say. Bloody B squad.”

The negative stories about Pep don’t stop, and just when Zubiza feels like he’s about to strangle the local news crier, RoSell decides to come out in public and respond to Pep.

“Lies, you know. Deception, even. I honestly don’t understand, after all I’ve done for Pep? I’m like his biggest fan. Pepisme, that’s my motto. Cruyffisme, even. Although Cruyff is a doorknob and I hate him. Frankly, I am hurt – in my heart – that he would accuse me that way. And then he went and poached one of my soldiers. Thiagoisme – no wait. Look, what I’m saying is, Pep is a liarpants and RoSellisme is what it’s all about.”

The two things Zubiza hates the most about the war going on between Pep and RoSell are that it’s distracting people from the actual war they have at hand, with the Merengues making all kinds of radical improvements to their own army, and that Tito is caught in the middle of it. His worst fears concerning the latter are realized when RoSell decides to put Tito in front of a crowd.

“Look, sir, Pep is my friend of over twenty years and I’d rather not do this.”

“Look, Tito, you went and got sick on me and I stayed devoted to you. Devotedisme! No wait. Uh, jam?” RoSell holds the jar out to Tito.

“No thank you.”

“The point, Titoisme, is that you do what I tell you. I’m always righter than you anyway. Just like I was right about getting rid of that annoying soldier who kept getting sick – what was his name?”

“Abidalisme,” Zubiza mutters to himself.

“Anyway,” RoSell says, taking hold of Tito and steering him to the door, “time to make papa proud.”

“Um yes, Pep’s words surprised me and – yeah, I don’t know why he didn’t come to see me, he’s – but Pep is my friend and I – what? What the heck is Thiagoisme? Look, if one more person says the word ‘isme’ I’m going to kick them. Can we just focus on our soldiers and this war?”

Somewhere distant, a soldier treks alone through field and wood until he reaches the high walls of a city, not unlike the one from which he came, although this one doesn’t seem to have the same darkness hanging about it. And there at the gate is a familiar face, one he’s not seen in a long while.

“Ah, Estiarte!” It is none other than Pep’s right-hand man, there to greet him just like old times. “Thiago, welcome,” Estiarte says warmly. “We have been eager for your arrival. Pep is waiting, and we’re going to go to dinner with Cruyff.”

Thiago feels the smile spread across his face and everything feels better already, despite the twinge of sadness that comes when he glances back at the horizon and what he left behind.


My sincere apologies to Zubizaretta and his wife, who is in fact very much alive. Here are some notes on some of the real-life things the story references, hopefully you will have picked up on most of them:

1.    RoSell’s first act after being elected president was to strip Cruyff of the honorary title that had been awarded to him by the club during Laporta’s presidency.

2.    Cruyff’s “banishment” references the above as well as the impression we’ve gotten that RoSell doesn’t like anyone from the club associating with him; Estiarte’s last line is also a direct nod to a line from Pep’s ‘Just leave me alone’ presser: “If I want to have dinner with Cruyff then I’m going to have dinner with Cruyff.”

3.    Manel Estiarte, for those who don’t know him, is indeed Pep’s right-hand man, did indeed follow him to Bayern, and was indeed the one to greet Thiago at the airport in Munich.

4.    The line by which Zubiza recognizes Cruyff is the first line from Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, from which the title of this story also comes. Best known as one of Pep’s favorite songs, I feel that it well reflects the mood of the current situation.

5.    RoSell closing off the city to immigrants is of course, a metaphor for setting restrictions against non-Catalans becoming Barca socis, while having no qualms over bringing in more and more foreign “soldiers” or players, while youth players get disregarded.

6.    Lucho aka Luis Enrique, Barca’s former B team coach, has recently become coach of Spanish club Celta Vigo and his team includes former Barca B players play Fontas and Nolito as well as Barca B’s Rafinha on loan.

7.    You’ll have heard RoSell’s recent Barca TV interview; he blathered about “ismes” among other things and the next day Tito said in his presser that the only “isme” he wanted to hear about was Barcelonisme.

So how about we all just listen to Tito now...

February 6, 2013

In Appreciation of David Villa

 You're probably going not going to like much of what I'm going say in this piece, but here is my take on things.

To put it plainly, Barca have been callous to Villa since before they signed him. I’m not trying to pick on the club in order to defend the player, and Barca is after all my club that I love and have loved through thick and thin. The thing is, nothing is unconditional and I don’t buy into mantras about the shirt being bigger than the player as a way of disregarding the latter as a mere pawn of the club to be used and tossed and bandied about. The players make the team and there would be nothing without them, and they deserve consideration as it is due. That is not to say that once a player is no longer of much use to the club that he should be kept on and played out of respect for his feelings, or that I’d want that to happen or argue for it. That is actually the opposite of what I am saying. I don’t put Villa on any pedestals he doesn’t deserve and would not be so upset at his continual benching if I weren’t firmly convinced of how utterly unwarranted it is. In turn, it annoys me that my club should treat him in a manner that I find both unfair to him and disappointing from them.

But you might say Barca have a bit of a history of taking Villa for granted, starting from when he was still a Valencia player. I refer of course to the summer of 2009 and what Villa was put through in the transfer window. For Barca to spend the entire summer negotiating with Valencia for his transfer, for Villa to leave his pregnant wife at home and spend days at a time in Barcelona hotels for the negotiations, for Villa to offer to take a pay cut (the way Cesc did) to make up the difference between Valencia’s 50m asking price and the 40m Barca were willing to pay, for Villa to get into a publicized row with Valencia president Llorente over the latter’s unwillingness to budge from his price – only so that Barca could then turn around and quite literally ditch him overnight to pay 44m + Eto’o for Ibrahimovic? Hypocrisy is one word that comes to mind.

Disappointment is another.

I remember the day as clearly as if it just happened. I’d woken up that summer morning, gotten breakfast and milled about a bit before deciding it was time to read up on the latest transfer developments. Thinking perhaps Villa’s transfer may have finally been agreed – that’s how advanced negotiations for him were at the time. When I got online it was to the utter shock of finding ‘IBRAHIMOVIC FICHADO!’ plastered across every newspaper. Disappointment is actually too mild to describe my reaction – I was gutted to the core. Let’s not even ask, then, how Villa felt to be suddenly tossed aside.

It was not, of course, ‘fichado’ right away, but the papers were heralding what came to be over a mere matter of days – days in which Laporta had the gall to blather to the press that the club was weighing the options of both Ibrahimovic and Villa. The only thing being weighed was Ibra’s ridiculous price, as Barca willingly forked over more than what they’d been offering for Villa and threw in their season top scorer for good measure.

I was upset for Barca because we weren’t signing Villa and because Ibrahimovic was all wrong for the team. I was upset for Villa because of the way he’d been treated and upset at Barca for being the ones to treat him that way. I was upset because we’d paid a price for Ibrahimovic that was both ridiculous and hypocritical. I hated – still hate – every single thing about that transfer transaction and I consider it one of the club’s worst moments – maybe just under selling the shirt – since I started supporting in 2006. Worse than any kind of loss or awful or humiliating performance on the pitch, because it was deliberately, calculatedly stupid.

And it’s on Pep as much as it is on anyone at Barca, because the whole affair only happened because he was hell-bent on getting rid of Eto’o that summer. In effect, negotiations for Villa were dropped because Eto’o was not getting sold. The transfer deadline was looming and the way this trade was devised, Barca would be able to offload Eto’o as well as replace him, all in the same transaction. One in which Barca very much ended up getting the short end of the stick – both in terms of the price they paid and in the utter trainwreck that was Ibra’s Barca stint. I always wonder if Pep really thinks that tolerating Eto’o (plus his buckets of goals and how well he fit in at Barca) for one more season wouldn’t have been more worth it. Say the Ibra money had been spent on Villa that summer and he’d been brought in alongside Eto’o, and we’d had the two of them for that season instead of Ibra, after which Eto’o would have left on a free as his contract would have been up. What would the season have been like? I wonder if Pep wonders about that too.

But I digress, as the point here is not to nitpick on Pep. As soon as the 2009-2010 season ended, Barca raced to make up for that disastrous transfer and forked out another 40m for Villa (Valencia quickly agreeing to the price this time because they needed the money), closing the deal even before the World Cup began and without much concern for Ibrahimovic or what would happen to him. That, of course, I do not consider an injustice to Ibra because he had his shot at the club and dug his own grave. He left Barca in a huff of snooty comments and the floor was Villa’s for the taking.

It’s not easy for a player not taught in Barca’s system to fit in with how this team plays, and new signings always have to put in a lot of effort to adapt. That is what Ibrahimovic was not prepared to do and what Villa poured his heart into. Taking the young kid on the opposite wing as an example, Villa – fresh World Cup & Euro champion and top scorer of both those competitions as well as his old team – took pointers from Pedro and, as he put it, re-learned the fundamentals of football. He arrived at Barca harboring no resentment for the events of the previous summer but only humbleness, enthusiasm and hard work. The attacking trio he made up along with Messi and Pedro was fantastic, with Villa certainly putting the V into MVP. He scored in big games, including a Supercopa goal against Real Madrid in what was his first official match, also putting two past Real Madrid in his first Liga Clasico and the same past Espanyol in his first Catalan derby, and ended the season on a high note with a goal against Manchester United in the Champions League final.

When Villa got sidelined for the better part of the 2011-2012 season after picking up a fracture at the Club World Cup, Barca suffered for it. Performances dwindled until the three consecutive deciding matches of the season, a straight run of Chelsea/Real Madrid/Chelsea, saw the team tired and lost for options, especially up front. Cesc experimentally played as a forward and blew more chances than I think anyone cares to count, Pedro was kept on the bench after not having had much of a season (which I will return to), Alexis’ fitness was dubious and Pep resorted to playing an ill-prepared Tello in the Clasico. In the end it wasn’t much of a season, results-wise, and no one is to blame because the team was having a fitness crisis – barring Abidal, no part of it hurting so much as losing Villa.

That’s why his return to the team for this new season should have been cause for joy and relief. But it is not, as this player who has done so much and given so much is reduced to an ungratified benchwarmer. Yet even as Pedro, Alexis, Cesc and Iniesta start ahead of him in attack, get more playing time and more scoring chances, Villa still has more goals than any of them and is Barca’s second top scorer this season. He converts chances at a better rate than any of them and in fact has the sixth best conversion rate in all of Europe’s top five leagues this season (out of players who have scored 5+ goals), where the putting away of chances has ironically been Barca’s main worry this season. They’re creating plenty but the number and variety of missed chances has been appalling. You’d think that given how decisive Villa’s finishing has been that Barca would take advantage of that, yet here he is, benched match after match while Alexis, Pedro and Cesc take turns missing.

When Villa got one of his rare starts against meager Segunda side Cordoba in the Copa Del Rey, he quickly scored two goals to assert how much he deserved to be there and helped the team along to a 5-0 win in which Alexis finally scored, also two goals, after a long drought. Pedro had also scored brace in the match before, also following a goal drought, and it bewildered me how many people made comments about the three players ending goal droughts at the same time. The other two had been playing and not scoring whereas Villa had been benched; or does not scoring while benched count as a goal drought now? He has at no point this season had a scoring problem, unlike those who start ahead of him; yet his continual benching seems to have disillusioned people into thinking he’s off form and lumping him into the same category as players struggling to score.

Even worse is the attempt to dismiss his continual benching with a vague “he’s off pace” which makes little sense given the quality of his positioning and his speed. The fact of the matter is that an off pace player would not be able to put away chances with the efficiency that Villa does. People also like to nitpick at the fact that he doesn’t defend as much as Pedro does, but nor does Pedro have his same prowess on the wing and the point is that Villa offers something different. He and Pedro each play their roles, and none is expected to be a copy of the other. And it’s not like Villa has been any kind of detriment for the team when he has played – the fact that every match in which he’s scored this season has had a minimum of three goals shows how good he is for the attack.

In terms of flank completion, if you look at Pedro-Dani on the right and Alba-Villa on the left, the left wing will appear to lack defensively – we had Abidal there before and Alba is much more of an attacking fullback. So yes, playing Iniesta on the left wing and then slotting Cesc into midfield instead is a more solid option in that regard, and lord knows Iniesta’s creative contribution is invaluable. But what I’m trying to say is that that isn’t the only option.

What I’m trying to say is that rotation this season has not been any kind of valid. Especially over the past few matches. Against Malaga, Real Madrid and then Valencia, played almost consecutively, Roura has put up practically the exact same lineup, only changing the keeper and/or one defender while keeping Iniesta/Messi/Pedro up front with Xavi and Cesc behind them in midfield. All three were away games too and by the time Valencia came around it showed how tired this “choice lineup” was getting. Roura stated after the game that he’d kept the same lineup because Valencia was a difficult opponent. This assumes that the last performance – Real Madrid – had been so exceptional so as to put out the same lineup for a repeat. It was not. He went on to add that he put Villa on at the end (for fifteen minutes) in hopes that Villa would win the game for them “and he almost did”.

All I know is that Roura has got a bench full of great players that he continues to keep on the bench while the same twelve or thirteen continue to start, and it doesn’t make any sense. Maybe if he starts Villa the game is won instead of almost won? Maybe sometimes Alba is rested and Adriano or Montoya share the wing with Villa to give a more balanced left flank? Maybe Iniesta goes back to midfield – where he is more effective anyway, in my opinion – and Xavi, who needs it, is rested, or maybe Cesc gets a turn on the bench? Maybe Roura takes advantage of all the quality he has on his bench – not limited to Villa – and does some real, actual rotation? I’m not saying anyone should be benched for Villa the way Villa is being benched now. I’m saying Villa deserves to be playing at least as much as the next guy and we need to be seeing a more valid distribution of playing time.

There isn’t a team out there that wouldn’t be featuring Villa as a regular starter if they had him on their squad – it’s a shame that here at Barca a player like him is made to be a benchwarmer, and a crime when you consider how he still manages to outscore those starting ahead of him. I was disappointed in how Barca dealt with Villa in 2009; now when Roura and Tito reiterate their faith in him but do not back their words, it brings back all of that same disappointment. He doesn’t deserve to be marginalized like this.

Think back on last season and how Pedro’s playing time dwindled after an injury and a run of poor games, to the point where Pep was barely playing him at all. He sat the bench for most of the three matches against Real Madrid and Chelsea, coming on for twenty five minutes in the first leg against Chelsea and for the last fifteen against Real Madrid. Only after Barca was out of the running for both the Liga and Champions League did Pep start to feature him more, and Pedro was back with a definite bang and scored twice in the Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao. Pep then conceded in a press conference that he probably should have played Pedro more during the season instead of disregarding him as he did. Now, Pedro is nowhere near being doubted as he was then. I only hope that Roura, or Tito, or whoever is currently making these decisions doesn’t end up with similar regrets.