There’s a pretty important soccer game tomorrow. Ryan O’Hanlon and Max Ornstein are here to make sure you watch it.
Ryan O’Hanlon: For all you sad, sad soccer agnostics out there, the biggest soccer game of the year (I can’t convince myself that the Gold Cup actually really matters) is this Saturday. It’s the UEFA Champions League Final, which determines the best club team in all of Europe. It’ll be on Fox and if you want to have any faith in the future of soccer in the United States and, really, just humanity, steer clear of the pre-game nonsense. Curt Menefee would be just as comfortable sitting in a high chair at the Westminster Kennel Club. And the other announcers—while often well-tanned and well-coiffed—prefer the sounds of their own voices to actual, genuine, not-cookie-cutter insight.
But if I haven’t ruined it for you yet, the game itself will be great. Barcelona is involved, and Manchester United won’t hack them off the field like Real Madrid did, so, at the very worst, you’ll see some great soccer. Tiki-Taka!
Even if you’ve avoided the sport to the detriment of your own personal growth as a rational, worldly, legitimate human being, you’ve heard of FC Barcelona. You know they’re great. Over the past few years Spain has taken over world of soccer with Barcelona and the more-inclusive Spanish national team becoming interchangeable, analogous entities. Sparcelona (am I the first one to think of this? Should I copyright it?) has become more of an ideal than an actual functional team. Yes, it’s still a team filled with great players, winning trophy after trophy. More than that, though, it’s the way the game is meant to be played, as we’re told. It’s Arsenal without the existential angst and with actual victories. It’s pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass until the goal is open, and then pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass until the whole product—the process and the finish—is something justifiably beautiful. It sounds absurd—and it is, I’m exaggerating—but the players openly talk about playing this way. Listen to Xavi, the center of the Sparca machine:
I’m a romantic. I like the fact that talent, technical ability, is valued above physical condition now. I’m glad that’s the priority; if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be the same spectacle. Football is played to win but our satisfaction is double. Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football.
They assume their way of playing is the best way. That it’s been written! And for me, that got kind of old. Barcelona won everything for three years and so has Spain. They were still great to watch, but it was like they were patronizing me with each touch. I ‘d always been about enjoying the games and teams winning by playing, not by sitting back and hoping for a well-placed free kick. But I knowingly went against that. I rooted against Barcelona in the Champions League last year and against Spain in the World Cup. I wanted something else, wanted a different way to win. Fuck the aesthetics. I wanted someone to show these assholes—and they were only assholes because they kept winning—that their way wasn’t the best.
But, I really think it is.
When you’re rooting against Barcelona or Spain, you find yourself rooting for karate kicks to the chest, 90-minute hack fests, and buses parked in front of the goal. As obnoxious as that this-is-how-you-play ideal is, it’s not wrong. And I don’t see it going away any time soon. Remember, it’s an ideal. It’s ingrained in these kids the second they touch a ball, and as long as they’re willing to give in—and why wouldn’t they? You’re giving in to something that promotes personal expression and ability—the machine will go round and round and round.
Max, give me a reason to think Barca won’t be raising—and not dropping—another trophy this weekend. Please.
Max Ornstein: I feel like a lot of the recent backlash against Barcelona, aside from the more conspicuous issues like the diving, whining to refs, and alleged race baiting, comes from the fact that their motto is “Més que un club” and they shove it in your face while pointing to the UNICEF crest on their shirt. The narrative is that they represent the spirit of Catalonia, a separatist people who fought against fascism in Spain for almost a century, yet in their own dictatorial way, FC Barcelona are trying to tell the world how soccer should be played, and that’s hypocritical enough to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Real Madrid might be managed by a megalomaniac and rely on a guy who bleeds aftershave and organizes orgies for his teammates to create a large number of their goals by himself, but they don’t try to tell us otherwise, and I like them more for it. They play soccer (and do it very well) without making me feel like they’re simultaneously telling me how I should feel about watching them play soccer. It’s fine to have an ideal, it’s another thing to blast it through a megaphone (especially if they’re not necessarily living up to it).
I can’t stand the phrase “negative soccer,” which seems like it’s become an umbrella term to describe everything that isn’t Barcelona’s “total football.” I don’t root for karate kicks, 90-minute hack fests, or parked buses, and I get really offended at the idea that, since I don’t fawn over Barcelona’s style, I must. I find it immensely exciting to watch an impenetrable wall of defense in front of a goalie so good his fans refer to him as “Saint” absorb everything kicked at them, and then turn that on its head with a lightning quick counterattack. If I like it ever-so-slightly more than I like watching Barca’s keep-away, does that make me less of a soccer fan—or my concepts and tastes in soccer flawed—in Barcelona’s eyes? If so, they can take their perfectly rotating quadrangles somewhere else.
Maybe this is a very American perspective, but hard fouls, just like dives, are part of the game and so is getting up from them. Barcelona seems to inspire, among its supporters, an entitled perspective of “that foul was awful because it stopped something potentially aesthetically beautiful from happening, so they shouldn’t have done it because that’s morally wrong.” When in reality that foul might have stopped a goal, which, as Luis Suarez proved in the World Cup, is the whole point of the thing. This reaction makes me like Barcelona less, even if my issues lie with the soccer-mommy (no pun intended) exceptionalism of their supporters (both in bars where I watch soccer and in the media I read) more than the club itself.
It’s also complete bullshit. In their recent four-game gauntlet, Barcelona was dirtier than Madrid, just subtler about it. Since Barcelona retains possession in such a lopsided way, it’s always going to look like their opponent is dirtier than they are. Because how can you be dirtier when your opponent only has the ball 37% of the game? And everyone on Barcelona is so small! While Madrid played a more physical style, it was consistent with their play all season. Look at Barcelona outside of that series, then within that series; they sharpened their cleats up a whole lot more than Madrid did (with the exception of Lassana Diarra, who might as well be Baraka from Mortal Kombat in shin guards).
It’s hard not to go back to Barcelona-Madrid, because it’s so fresh, they’re so diametrically opposed, and because Jose Mourinho is the only person to create and then execute a how-to-beat-Barca blueprint in two meaningful tournaments, when his Inter team undressed them at the San Siro and held on for the win at the Camp Nou in last year’s Semifinal and this year’s Copa Del Rey.
To answer your question, here are a few reasons: Sir Alex Ferguson is Jose Mourinho with thirty years more experience and less enmity towards his opponent. This Manchester United team is built a lot like the Inter team that beat Barcelona last year, except they’re more versatile, and Barcelona doesn’t know what look Manchester United is going to throw at them, while Manchester United knows exactly what Barcelona wants to do. Wayne Rooney is one of maybe five players in the world who can be better than Lionel Messi on a given day. Chicharito has been on fire, making runs as incisive as David Villa’s. Dimitar Berbatov is a loping, inconspicuous assassin. Barcelona’s defense is going to be patchwork at best, rusty and disjointed at worst. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have been, like, really, really good.
All that said, I thought that we were watching the final when we were watching Real Madrid-Barcelona, and I still feel that way.
RO: Wow, so there you have it, folks.
In short: Barcelona is a lighting rod.
However much they disgust you, though, you can’t question that, on their current three-year run, they are one of the greatest club teams we’ve ever seen. And they’re definitely at the top right now. Someone needs to knock them off their perch before we even begin to think otherwise
Will it be Manchester United, though?
The narrative now is “Can FC Barcelona win and cement their place as maybe the greatest team ever to play the sport?” It’s not that Manchester United is playing for something. Rather, they’re trying to prevent another team from achieving something great. But wouldn’t a Manchester United win be pretty great, too? (Well, obviously Manchester United doing anything other than losing is never “great”, but you know what I mean.)
This is United’s third Champions League Final in the past four years. And a win would be their second in twice-as-many tries. That’s, dare I say, a better four-year record in “Europe’s Premier Club Competition” than “Europe’s Premier Club Team”.
By all accounts, United’s team is considerably less talented than they were two years ago, when these same two teams met in this same final, and Barcelona won 2-0. But, somehow, they’ve kept winning. Or have they?
After the 2009 Champions League Final loss to Barcelona, Manchester United sold Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, both of whom have cases for “Player of the Year” in their respective leagues this season. (Well, Ronaldo really doesn’t, but that’s only because he plays in the same league as Messi. More on that later.) Last year, they sputtered out early in the Champions League and F.A. Cup. Their only trophy was the basically meaningless Carling Cup.
This year, United won the Premier League, which is no small feat. But, it’s the smallest that feat has been in a long time. It was a down year for English soccer and all of United’s contenders weren’t really contenders. The title wasn’t handed to them, but everyone else kind of just left the trophy sitting there for the Mancs to come along and grab whenever they decided they were ready. As a Liverpool fan, it was painful to see, as the title was United’s 19th, setting a new English record.
Yet, in the league, they only won five away games. That’s five wins in 19—not very good. They tied 10 more and lost four. Away form, I think, says something about the true league-transcending quality of a team, but then you look at United’s form in the Champions League, and your heads starts to hurt. They haven’t allowed a single goal in six away games, and they’ve won four of them.
Are they on the brink—like the San Antonio Spurs— of a sudden, shouldn’t-be-shocking collapse? Has it been obscured by a favorable Champions League draw, as big late-season losses to Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester City might suggest? Or has United found the perfect balance between European and domestic play? Are they now set to give Barca a game and move on to further future success?
MO: FC Barcelona doesn’t disgust me at all. They’re probably my third-favorite team to watch behind Liverpool and Madrid. My Madrid fandom is based on over a decade of them being a go-to team in FIFA and, playing goalie in middle school, I marveled that Iker Casillas was four years older than I was and in between the posts at the Bernabeau. Zidane’s (my favorite player of all time) Champions League-winning volley sealed it for me, but I don’t have the same partisanship that someone who grew up in Madrid, or even someone who really cared does. I’m a liberated fan in every sport except the NFL. I’m typing this while wearing a Curtis Martin jersey.
Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves kind of annoy me, and Barcelona stealing Mascherano from Liverpool really pissed me off (though that was more on his wife wanting to be in Spain than anything else), but that’s about it. I like watching Puyol, Pique, Xavi, Messi, Villa, and love Iniesta’s game. I feel about Barcelona the same way I would feel about watching a great movie with some film geek behind me explaining to his friends why its such a great movie. I’m not getting annoyed at the movie, I’m getting annoyed at the pretentiousness taking place within earshot as a result of the movie, which makes my movie experience less pleasurable.
Arguing about Barcelona as the best team to ever play the sport, though, is like arguing about the best player to ever play. Ask a Brazilian, and it’s Pele. Ask an Argentinian, it’s Maradona (or Messi). Ask someone from the Netherlands, it’s Cruyff. France, it’s Zidane, etc. The fact that Barcelona are the definitive team of this decade and feature prominently in the conversation should be good enough. Are they better than Pro Vercelli was in the 10s? Or the Madrid squads of the 50s? Or Cruyff’s Ajax? Or Liverpool under Shankly? Or Milan during the late 80s and early 90s? Or Barcelona under Cruyff?
I don’t think Manchester United cares one iota about Barcelona’s legacy. They’re not a team playing spoiler, taking victory in denying Barcelona some metaphysical accolade. They’re playing for the same trophy Barcelona is, and, as you say, the title of “Most Winning Team in Europe” (if not the most visually pleasing). They’ve got just as much at stake.
It’s tough to say either team is better or worse than they were two years ago. If you could, wouldn’t you swap out Pedro for Samuel Eto’o? I know I would. Although David Villa is a definite improvement over Thierry Henry. And likewise, while Manchester United lost Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic took the next step (to a lesser degree, Nani did too), and they’ve reloaded with Fletcher, Chicharito, Berbatov, and Valencia.
It feels like Manchester United backed into the EPL title because of the losses you mentioned, but Liverpool notched the most points in the EPL since February, and Arsenal and Manchester City are no slouches. I think that speaks to the degree that Manchester United had the league sown up and were able to set their focus to Europe. They won the Premier League while trailing at home once all season. And your point on away form is interesting, but isn’t playing at Wembley a de facto home game for the Mancs?
RO: You can make the argument both ways. A bunch of guys on Manchester “took the leap”, but a bunch of guys are a lot older and just not as good anymore, either. And you mention Berbatov and Nani—the goal and assist leaders, respectively, in England—-but I have as good of a chance of starting on Saturday as they both do. Now, stats are misleading in soccer, but Manchester United is a team that doesn’t regularly play their leading goal-scorer and leading assist man. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about them: they win, it just happens, and no one really knows why. As Barcelona has a system, Manchester just seems to have this way of going about things, and when the dust clears, they’re always on top. At least in England, that is.
Allow me to now go vomit in a trashcan.
I’m not gonna bore any of our readers with tactics, but when you play Barcelona, you have to adjust to what they do. And this is the kind of thing Alex Ferguson will get right. I can’t stand that bastard, but he’ll pick the right players and play the right formation in so far as it’ll semi-negate that whizzing-and-passing-and-making-your-head-spin thing that Barcelona does. It’s a chess match to a point, until you realize that certain chess pieces are just better than others. My queen is better than yours, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s where Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s manager—also, one of the best and most progressive coaches in the world—looks down at the game from, every time.
He has Messi, and no one else does. That’s almost always enough (unless Diego Maradonna is coaching your team). Messi is everything. Everyone’s written about how great he is, and, for me, it’s still not enough. I really don’t think there’s anyone in the world who’s better at doing what they do, than Messi is at playing soccer. He’ll always be underrated until we build a shrine for him on the moon. He’s not allowed in the conversation for the greatest player ever because he hasn’t “done enough at the World Cup”, but I don’t buy it. He’s the best player ever. Oh, and he’s 23. What have you done today?
If you want to be happy, watch him play soccer. It’s a guarantee. If that doesn’t work, your heart probably stopped beating a long time ago. Every time he touches the ball, anything can happen. You know a few million others are holding their breath just like you are. No one knows what he’s going to do. I’m not even sure he really does, and that’s his genius. He’s painting masterpieces as he goes.
Acidic politics, legacies, and all that nonsense aside, the game is just another chance for us to enjoy Leo. We’re lucky to have him. And Barcelona’s even luckier. They’ll win Saturday (3-1, mark it down) for reasons other than him, but really, do we need anything else?
MO: We don’t agree on Leo Messi. You’re right. He’s not allowed in the conversation yet, and it’s because of the World Cup. Let’s just say, hypothetically, Barcelona wins on Saturday, then on Monday Leo calls a press conference, and tearfully—like the greatest of all time in another sport did—says it’s been great, but his true love is tennis. He’s going to pursue that now, thanks for all the good memories. Then he commits fully to tennis*, and never comes back to soccer, and all we have is this white-hot four-year stretch with Barcelona. Can you really put him up against Pele, Zidane, Cruyff, Maradona, Beckenbauer, or even someone like Ronaldo? Messi’s breathtaking, but who on that list wasn’t when they were in their early 20s?
*In this hypothetical, he ends up having a career better than anyone expected, even pushes Nadal to five sets in a surprisingly competitive French Open final that shatters ratings for Tennis around the world. He never wins a major and leaves everyone wondering what could have been as conspiracy theories about why he really left obliterate Twitter.
To paraphrase Kevin Durant: This is [soccer], man. [His] youth has nothing to do with [it]. It’s not that he hasn’t done enough at the World Cup, it’s that all he’s done is get locked down by an upstart German team. He’s spent the majority of his life, as you said, practicing a certain type of soccer, and he plays within a team that has as well. It’s a team that would probably be favored in a friendly against any current national team except, maybe, Spain’s. If he’s only the best player of all time when he’s playing his preferred style on the most talented side in the world, then he’s not actually the best player of all time. How he fares playing with players that he hasn’t spent over a decade with, in a style he hasn’t spent over a decade playing, speaks to where he stands historically. The World Cup is important because it’s a theoretically level playing field in that it throws together players that have nothing more in common than a flag and forces them to make something out of what might not be a perfectly balanced team or ideal situation, without the competitive advantages—like La Masia—that Messi has at the world’s second richest club.
Until he wins the World Cup, he’ll be on Charles Barkley’s soccer shit list—that is, the list of best players to never win it all—with Johan Cruyff. It’s good company. Cruyff inspired a tactical revolution in football, became the symbol of a cultural revolution in the Netherlands, and is one of the major reasons Barcelona plays like Barcelona. He’s totally legendary, but he never won a World Cup, and it’s something that will always be missing from his body of work. Casual fandom in soccer is so removed from statistics, so best player of all time conversations come down to personal preference among greats, and I would argue Zinedine Zidane over anyone until the end of time, but while Cruyff is one of my favorites, I wouldn’t make the same argument with him because he came up short in 1974. If I was arguing Zizou over Messi, I’d just point at 1998, 2000, or even 2006, because to quote that hilarious line in the Bad Teacher Trailer, it’s the only argument I need.
I think we pretty much agree on Manchester United and Barcelona, though, so I’ll say Manchester United wins on Penalties 2-2 (5-4 on Penalties, with Dani Alves missing and Ryan Giggs knocking in the clincher) just for the hell of it. I have no idea what’s going to happen and can’t wait to see.
Max Ornstein is a freelance writer and screenwriter in New York. Follow him on Twitter.
Ryan O’Hanlon is the sports editor for the Good Men Project. He used to play soccer and go to college. He’s still trying to get over it. You can follow him on Twitter @rwohan.
—Photo AP/Manu Fernandez; AP/Jon Super