November 26, 2019

More Than A Player

I’m not sure what exactly I expected from the Messi10 Cirque du Soleil - I’d never been to the circus before, I am in Barcelona where this show is playing and so it seemed like the right time to go. The idea of building a 90 minute circus performance around a single player in itself is a bit of an odd one, but such is the way of things with Lionel Messi: extraordinary. 

Messi has expressed his own initial surprise from when the concept was first brought to him, specifically that such adulations of legends don’t usually occur while they are still active. But Messi has so utterly, thoroughly blasted every high standard for a player completely out of the exosphere that it feels natural, even necessary to build the highest cathedrals of adoration to him, in these precious, waning years of his career, slipping away from us, slowly, but all too fast. 

And the Messi10 show does this: woven across magnificent set pieces, trapeze acts, ball tricks, an entire “match” played out through flips and pirouettes on a massive trampoline, humorous skits and solemn drama, all executed with a precision, skill and dexterity that echoes Messi’s on the pitch, is an uplifting celebration of the career, fortitude, brilliance and beauty that is Leo Messi. From fast-paced acrobatic flourish to dreamy ballet-like sequences, you get the highs, triumphs, lows, challenges; and above all, perseverance, and joy. 

Drumbeats straight out of Camp Nou’s Gol Nord against an intense tribute to Messi’s scoring excellence flow into Ray Hudson soundbites crowing about Messi’s grace and balance while an acrobat exhibits the same onstage. A somber “Messi” with a mountain of balls piled high on his back, gives way to a high-energy set piece juxtaposed with a screen counting up his nearly 700 career goals, gives way to choreography celebrating teamwork and locker room camaraderie, gives way to dizzying sequences of Messis weaving through opponents and conquering obstacles. A tightrope walker meticulously balances herself, a unicycle and a ladder on a climb to reach a high-hanging ball, no feat insurmountable; an uproarious injury skit starring a contortionist has the audience in fits; a glorious lion (formed by two acrobats) appears and dances across a maze of precarious platforms, ever triumphant; massive Barca and Argentina shirts unfurl over the crowd as flag-bearers again echoing the Gol Nord salute the fans. A tall hooligan who occasionally shows up, takes his shirt off and makes a fool of himself is… inspired.

But through the laughter, wonder and marvel of it all is an underlying inescapable hit of emotion. It’s a celebration of Messi’s excellence and a narrative of belief and overcoming challenges, yes, but also for me in the moment, a vibrant reminder of everything Messi stands for and embodies as the singlemost undyingly beautiful exemplification of a footballer. Everything that has consistently given me so much joy and blown my mind and overflowed my heart for years and years. Everything that currently has me in Barcelona for the Dortmund match during this, the most dismal form the team has exhibited in over a decade, paling in the face of urgent need to take in as much of Messi as possible as time flies by. 

In one segment voiceovers of a few people say what Messi means to them, and I find myself mentally adding on: 

Messi is beauty. Messi is truth. Messi is joy. Messi is genius. Messi is Barca (which I have never known without him, and dread to). Messi is grace. Messi is light. Messi is earnestness. Messi is magic. Messi is inconceivable, inexplicable, indescribable and try as I, or anyone might the words will never be enough. 

At the end of the show, the clownish referee who has been brandishing his red card all night pulls it out a final time, and unfolds it into a heart, to massive applause. Maybe that’s the only sentiment you need: Messi is love. 

November 2, 2018

Magic & Mayhem: My First Visit to Camp Nou

This is a guest post I wrote for Barcelona Football Blog on my experience finally making it to Camp Nou for the first time in October 2018 for the Sevilla and Inter matches. Full article at the link below; enjoy!

Magic and Mayhem: My First Visit to Camp Nou

July 7, 2018

On Neymar & Empathy

I think we often need to remind ourselves that players are humans, who have so much pressure placed on them as they perform in front of the entire world. And though they do their jobs in the spotlight, they have so much going on in their lives that we really know nothing about. We are witness to maybe 5% of it. We have no way of knowing what they are going through, what they are struggling with and how they feel. These pieces in the Players’ Tribune, that some people have been rolling their eyes at, are treasures in that they give us a glimpse into some of that. We realize that Di Maria hit such a breaking point that he needed to see a psychologist and that when he cried on the pitch it was because of his daughter. We find out that Paulinho’s wife was in hospital delaying her labor for weeks to fight for their children’s lives and gave birth prematurely while he was on Champions League duty in Greece, followed by the babies spending two months in an incubator. Or Bojan, after his once-promising career has dwindled into a series of struggling stints and faded into obscurity, does an interview shedding light on the crippling anxiety that paralyzed him from going to the Euro or living up to expectation. Or Valdes, after he’s retired, speaks out about the depression and bitterness that clouded much of his career. All of them while dealing with so much pressure and so much criticism and vitriol from us and the press. All of them, and many, many other players, pointing to points in their careers where they felt like they wanted to quit football. A sentiment I don’t think is out of place from any player in a moment of pain, of loss, of pressure, of struggle, whether personally, or professionally, or both. And this is no different for Neymar.

You could roll your eyes at Neymar for saying “This is the saddest moment of my career and it’s difficult to find the strength to want to play football again”; call him a diva and a drama queen, blast him for being dramatic. Or you could read his entire statement, notice that he appends it with “but I'm sure God will give me enough strength to face anything” and speaks of the dream only being interrupted, and leave him to process his pain.

I am not Brazilian, only someone who has been a Brazil fan for over a dozen years, and I have felt dead since yesterday over Brazil’s loss. Then think about Neymar, and what he has been through.

The history of Brazil and all the huge legends in whose footsteps he follows, all with careers defined by World Cup success, the pressure for him to follow suit. 2014, his World Cup, and Brazil’s, cut short by a gruesome tackle so dangerous that it could have paralyzed him and ended his career forever. The devastating 7-1 loss while he watches from a wheelchair. 4 years of waiting and working to get to the next one. 4 years of being the most fouled player in Europe, of opposition players continually hacking him down to stop him. A move to Paris and subsequent attacks and drama and false stories about him in the press, nonstop for an entire year. In a new city, separated from his son in Barcelona, endless scrutiny and criticism in the media, tension and turmoil at his new club. The World Cup approaching. Brazil rebuilt, refreshed, players at their peak, Neymar and Coutinho the stars, both the same age Ronaldo was when he led Brazil to glory in 2002 (they will be 30 by the time the next World Cup comes around). All the expectation in the world on them, their time if it’s ever going to be. Three months until the World Cup: Neymar suffers another bad injury. Has to have surgery and is sidelined again. Barely works his way back to fitness in time for the World Cup. Works on building up to his best match by match in the group stage, scoring, assisting, creating, pushing, all while still enduring endless fouls and being the most fouled player in the tournament. The nightmare of the 2014 tackle hanging there. Embellishes his fouls to try and get some protection/reaction from referees and not have the nightmare repeat itself; is made into the laughingstock of the World Cup. A horribly unlucky match against Belgium where Brazil push so much, create so much, Neymar equalling the record most chances created by a single player in a match this World Cup. Brazil falling just short at 2-1. It hurts more than something like a 7-1, when you come so close, when you know you could have done it, that 9 times out of 10 this is a match you win, that this was your biggest and best ever chance at the World Cup, this was it, and now, after such a difficult year and so much struggle to get here, it’s over.

To be in such a moment of crushing pain and say it’s difficult to think of playing again, is more than understandable. To those attacking him for being dramatic, I would ask you to contextualize a little bit and not be so reductive.

The worst part is that despite Neymar giving everything, with the numbers to back it up, and trying his hardest while coming back from injury and dealing with all the excessive fouling, while some of his other teammates gave much more disappointing performances, he is made to be the villain of Brazil’s loss, blamed and attacked.

Suddenly he is the first person ever to dive or embellish, he invented it, Mpabbe learned from him. All the other forms of cheating and deception players carry on with in every match, all match long – the dangerous fouls, calling for handballs and penalties when there are none, crowding and arguing with the referee, trying anything to get any call in their favor; all this we are fine with, and – particularly, bizarrely, in the case of the ugly fouls – even celebrate. But this one case of “cheating” in which a player’s own wellbeing is at stake, this inconsequential rolling around, that is the evil of all evils.

Really, this is a deeply twisted way for us to look at football.

And even in that match against Belgium, where he was still constantly fouled but barely spent any time on the ground and kept leaping up to go for it and push for his team, still all anyone could talk about during and after was Neymar the playacting diva.

He wins, he’s attacked. He loses, he’s attacked. He scores, he’s selfish. He doesn’t score, he’s a flop. He rolls around, he’s a joke. He gets up, he’s still a joke. He gets injured, he’s a wimp. He cries, we laugh at him. He posts what is really a mostly postive instagram message after his team has lost, he’s scrutinized a million ways up and down and lambasted as a drama queen.

Honestly, I would feel like quitting too.

It is absolutely true that Neymar has made some bad choices in his career and can be frustrating and annoying in his behavior. His move to PSG I do believe was a detriment to himself (as well as to Barca) and his attitude problems seem to have worsened from there. He is two days younger than me, and I am often acutely aware of this as I follow his career, and can’t tell you how many moments of “boy, you are the same age as me, you cannot be this immature” I have had. I wish he would embellish less and grow up more, of course.

But it's important to keep in mind, first, that many of the stories about him in the press are either extremely blown out of proportion, twisted around or entirely invented (such as claims that he asked for Barca to be suspended from the Champions League; or the spread of images from this interview in the media with captions saying he began crying when asked if he was happy in Paris, when the reality is that he got emotional over his coach Tite's words of praise and support). Second, that he has been put under an insane amount of scrutiny and attacks in the media, especially over the past year, on top of all the singular pressures and struggles he faces on and off the pitch. If he seems to act out or get very emotional at times, there is so much beneath the surface and we don't know what he's going through.

I can get so frustrated at his antics, moreso because I love him as a player, but more than anything I am just so saddened by how convoluted his career has become, how much of a ruthless media circus surrounds him, how it is obfuscating the joy and beauty of him as a player, and more than anything, how it is making people leap at him every time he breathes, and dismiss his human struggle.

To those criticizing him for being too dramatic while you simultaneously make a mountain out of every little thing he says or does: I would say the same to you, and ask you to have some empathy.

April 25, 2014

Tito Vilanova

I’m sitting in a cab, best friend at my side, on our way to a friend’s surprise bachelorette party. My phone pings with a twitter notification and I swipe it. Read the tweet. My heart gives a physical jolt, my hand presses onto it and I can’t breathe. “Oh my God.” My friend asks what’s the matter. I don’t know what to say. She doesn’t watch football. How do I put into words how much the death of Barcelona’s ex-coach is anguishing to me. I don’t want to go to a party. I want to go home and cry. I want to hug someone who will understand what I’m feeling. All my close Culé friends are people I met online. I’m in the middle of a party, people celebrating. I’m just kind of sitting there in shock. Unable to process. And there’s this party going on. I resort to twitter, where there are people who understand but ultimately what is that going to do. I want to go away and be alone. The bride-to-be arrives. Surprise. Surprises all around. There’s dancing and I can’t be prevailed upon to get up. I’m watching my beautiful bride-to-be-friend sing along to Pharrell Williams’s Happy and it’s the embodiment of the pinnacle of joy of life as the grief of death overwhelms me. When everyone’s fist-pumping to C’est La Vie I start to cry. This is where I’m beginning to absorb the news. This is where everything Tito means to me wells up and hurts. This is where I’m alienated completely from my surroundings, from all of these elated people who have never supported a sports team and would find me ridiculous to take the death of a football coach so hard. I don’t want to answer when they ask what’s wrong. Tell them I received some bad news on the way here and leave it at that. Leave them to their celebrating. Celebration is a thing I tie heavily to football and the last I truly celebrated for my team was because of Tito. Was at a moment of similar dichotomy, of joy in the face of grief, and I have never in my life gone from absolute despair to absolute elation so rapidly and completely as when Tito was named new coach after the confirmation of Pep’s departure. How do I explain Tito. How do I explain how much that moment meant to me, how it lifted me, how much I felt and will always feel that this assistant coach who had a career of nothing but background coaching was the only way to replace the irreplaceable. How do I explain that the mere of idea of him coaching Barca was so incredible that I had to continually stop and re-absorb the fact for months after he was appointed. How do I explain how it comes from the singular beauty and meaningfulness of his entire Barca history even as very little of it was in the spotlight. How do I explain his largely unrecognized integrality to Barca’s excellence. How do I explain that even what short, turbulent time that he was coach was perfect and a privilege. How do I explain how much it hurts that he was so deserving of being Barca coach and never got to truly fulfill that dream. How do I explain the unbearable brutality that his life of merit and humbleness and quiet brilliance should culminate in years of painful struggle and a too-early end. How do I come to terms with that and with the fact that he deserved more.

What I can say, in the end, is that grief is a reflection of joy, because it’s the happiness that Tito has brought me and the esteem I have for him that make his passing so devastating. I can barely grapple with it at this point, but rest in peace, dearest coach. You are celebrated, mourned, and loved.

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.

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.