Blasphemous though it may seem, for all the dazzling array of skills which they bestow upon me as a mere spectator, I do not worship at the altar of Barcelona. I worship at the altar of football. Despite the Catalan club’s increasingly jubilant marketing campaign, there is a distinction between the two.
As much as a magical Messi run, an angled pass from Iniesta, or Xavi ‘dictating the tempo of the match’, or whatever it is they call strolling around with the ball, looking up, passing it sideways and getting it back again dozens of times, there is something nagging at me when I watch a team many people claim as the best ever strutting over all manner of opposition.
Unlike some of their detractors, the reason why I find the whole spectacle slightly vacuous is not the fact that I am simply bored of seeing them win; last year’s impeccably-drilled Inter Milan side showed they were beatable and, as I shall argue later, Jose Mourinho’s new club, Real Madrid, are a match for the Catalan side when bizarre decisions do not go against them.
No, as much as I admire them, I can never fully enjoy watching Barcelona because of a repugnant air of false humility which saturates everything they do on the pitch; it is exhibited by the sheer petulance of their players on the rare occasions when things don’t go their way and it is fanned about the international sports media by a senior management who have cottoned on to a few historical facts and weaved them into an overarching myth.
The Barcelona myth is the first great difference between the Catalan club and Manchester United. Whilst both can lay claim to being among the most universally supported and admired clubs in the world, the manner in which the clubs present themselves contains a crucial difference: Barcelona do not point to their glorious history, their medals and their trophies; rather, a sentiment of independence and resistance inherent in Catalonia since the Spanish Civil War which has always informed the club’s particular stance towards, well, Real Madrid (if nothing else) has finally found a release in the football Barcelona play. It works something like this:
1. Barcelona, as the centre for Catalonian resistance to centralised control over Spain from Madrid, symbolises resistance against oppression and the expression of freedom. (Editor’s note: As @sidlowe stated on Twitter earlier this week, the city of Madrid resisted Franco more than the city of Barcelona).
2. Barcelona’s history, while great, is overshadowed by that of Madrid.
3. While Madrid win more trophies, Barcelona play a ‘purer’ form of football, with a freedom of expression, dignity and grace which mirrors the revolutionary fervour of point 1.
4. Therefore, it must follow that the freedom espoused by Barcelona on the pitch is being oppressed by the injustice imposed by the megalomania and egotism of Madrid. Barcelona love freedom, art, expression; Madrid love to win, with the ends often justifying the means.
5. Every Barcelona victory is a victory for ‘freedom’, which translates as a victory for ‘football’ because, as we have accepted point 1 – that Barca play the game as it ‘should’ be played – all opponents of Barca must embody the anti-football, the anti-freedom, of Madrid.
The flawed logic is apparent here, but people buy into it because Barca’s football is simply that good. It’s an easy sell. The problem is that Barcelona’s idea of ‘freedom’ involves poaching the best players from other teams and weaving them into the fabric of their admittedly brilliant youth system.
Despite the idea that Barca are some kind of miracle club, where all the players simply hop off the player production line and remain loyal servants to the beautiful game, the truth is that Barcelona are the highest paying sports team in the world. They are also by far the second biggest spenders in the Spanish game – players like David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and Dani Alves did not come cheap.
Rather than being martyrs to the purity of the game, I would suggest that Barcelona are as ruthless a capitalist institution as Madrid. So are Manchester United. The difference is, United don’t try to dress it up (except, of course, when Sir Alex Ferguson loses his temper).
However, the fruit of the Barcelona myth, beyond the perception of the purity of the club, is the perception of the purity of the team. The matches with Real Madrid are the strongest examples. Whilst Barcelona’s apparent desire to play the most aesthetically pleasing football in the world whilst auditioning for parts as extras in a Hollywood war film has been well documented, the gaze of the mainstream media appears fixated solely on Jose Mourinho and the supposed shortcomings of his Real Madrid.
The sheer hysteria surrounding everything Barcelona do leads fans to abandon their reason, much like the violent revolutions with which we come to associate the ideals of ‘freedom’ peddled by Barcelona’s hard-working PR department.
Let’s look at the facts of Barcelona’s ties against Real Madrid in the Champions’ League, the matches which propelled them into the final against United. Mourinho was roundly criticised for his supposed defensive approach in the home leg, which finished 2-0 to Barca, yet before the ludicrous sending-off of Pepe, Madrid were comfortably holding the Catalan club to a goalless draw.
Can even the most die-hard of football romantics deny that with Pepe on the field, occupying the gigantic gap in which Lionel Messi was able jink this way and that before leaving a hapless Raul Albiol in his tracks, Barca would have ended the night on such a spectacular high? And how can anybody in their right mind deny that this is a legitimate goal?
Though it may seem as though I have sipped from the same bitter font as did Arsene Wenger following van Persiegate at Camp Nou, the fact is Mourinho had Barca sussed. Nobody is good enough to outplay them, so why not sit back and absorb the pressure, frustrating them into the very sort of behaviour which I am trying to denounce here?
The attacks on Mourinho are nothing short of deluded romanticism, the kind of self-righteous neighing that would have a true sportsman like Danny Blanchflower turning in his grave. The result? The Barcelona parade marches triumphantly on and, like subjects of a tyrant, we put up with disgrace so as to enjoy the glory.
Maybe it’s because I don’t support an English club, maybe it’s because I’m old-fashioned and think it wonderful that a manager can stay in the same place for nearly three decades and build successful teams year after year, but I like this Manchester United. Lacking as they do the artistry of previous years, their resilience and professionalism on the pitch encapsulates the attitudes which Sir Alex Ferguson has instilled in his teams for years on end.
The club, as any great club would, exudes arrogance; but it is not the ‘us versus them’ mentality of the little Catalan rebels. It’s a sense of grandeur echoing through history, the idea that United are, simply, MANCHESTER UNITED. Besides, can a side containing Nani, Rooney, Berbatov and Valencia really be all that dull?
The Champions’ League final will be billed as a battle of approaches between beautiful Barca and menial Man. United. It isn’t. It is to be a fight between football and politics, which, oddly, might be paraphrased thus: it is to be a fight between reason and madness. I may be alone outside of Manchester United’s admittedly large camp, but I will not be cheering if Xavi makes a grand speech about football being the winner. Because this is the sort of thing that happens when they don’t win: