By Paul Gardner
Is Barcelona simply too good? Too good to the point where our expectations of what it can achieve know no limits?
I suppose that’s possible, though I doubt it. That sort of transcendent power doesn’t happen in soccer -- well, not for long anyway. Barca is bound to let us down at some time with an unexpectedly sub-par performance. We can prepare for that -- indeed, I was prepared for it to happen this weekend in the clasico against Real Madrid.
It didn’t happen, rather the opposite. Barca was simply too good for Real, dealing with them mercilessly and efficiently and almost too easily. Barca made Real look like an ordinary team -- and when you tot up the money that has been spent on its players, Real ought not to look ordinary.
Inevitably, that has led to a salvo of chortling from commentators telling us how this proves that you can’t just buy success in soccer. Maybe it does, but I don’t see it. You have only to look across the English Channel to see what Chelsea has achieved since it was taken over by the Russian skedillionaire Roman Abramovich in 2003. True, Chelsea has yet to win the European Champions League, but it has become a dominant power within the English game, and could well win both the Premier League and the FA Cup this season. Success that is entirely down to Abramovich’s lavish spending. And the likelihood is that -- if he keeps up the spending, or maybe even if he doesn’t -- Chelsea will win the European trophy sooner or later.
Do I like that way of building a soccer team? Frankly, I can’t see that it matters whether anyone likes it or not. I can’t imagine that any pro soccer team of any consequence has ever been created without money, so the notion that the more you spend the greater your chances of achieving something seems logical enough. I should add the usual bit about spending wisely , of course. Yes, of course. Now, if only someone could come up with a cast-iron definition of what wise spending is, we could more or less insure that big bucks would mean a winning team.
Someone will have to work it out some day -- the upper limit to spending, the mark at which wise, and necessary, spending on a team brims over into the irresponsible and “unbalances the market place.” Then, once we know that ... well, what? We ban further spending? Not possible, we’d just have to satisfy ourselves that, from that point on, it was OK to heap calumnies on any team that kept on spending. Which would likely be all the successful ones, which would show us that money does buy success.
Would we accept that verdict? Doubtful, I’d say. Because money implies that it was easy -- any rich guy can turn up and just open his check book. And money taints and tarnishes ... will this rich guy get tired of the whole thing and simply move his money elsewhere? Do these rich players really love their club or their sport, or are they mere mercenaries? Do they really merit our devotion, or are we being conned into joining them in the worship of Mammon?
Difficult, rather unpleasant, questions to face up to, which is why it is easier and much more pleasing to ignore them, and turn instead to the way that Barca do things. Here we can see not only the wonderful results -- the superb soccer -- but we can feel good about the methods used to achieve that perfection. We can see evidence of hard work, and of an unswerving devotion to the sport.
We can sense the excitement of a rich and wonderful soccer tradition, for a start. Maybe it was Johan Cruyff who started the Barca way, back in the 1980s, though my feeling is that Barca was playing with style and grace well before that -- the artistry is surely more Spanish, or Catalan, than Dutch. Actually, that’s a bit off the mark. Because Cruyff was never a typical Dutch player; he was a supremely skilled soccer artist, and such players always break the bonds of nationalist labels.
The remarkable thing is how Barcelona has found a way to make the Cruyff-inspired vision of attacking soccer flourish in this age of dull defensiveness. The club’s ability to bring young players through its system, players who have learned to play soccer “the Barca Way,” is what has given us the Barcelona we are seeing today.
Of course it takes money -- but no one is going to allege, or even suggest, that money is at the heart of what Barcelona does. We can admire and praise Barcelona without reservations because this is a soccer achievement, one made possible by people devoted to a particular vision of the sport. It is an intelligent vision of the sport based on a clear understanding of the sport’s own history and traditions, of its strengths and weaknesses, and not least of its potential and its beauty.
All of which takes time and patience. Two qualities that are rare in modern sports, which are all about winning now. That has been the driving force at Real Madrid, to create an instant world-power by buying the likes of Cristian Ronaldo, Kaka and Xavi Alonso. It hasn’t worked, Barcelona reduced such a hope to shreds this weekend, so it’s all right to laugh at Real for its presumption.
For the moment. The sad thing is that spending money, buying players, is the way that most rich teams operate. It is easier, and it is quicker. Barcelona, for sure, is a glittering beacon of soccer brilliance. It is lovely ... but it is lonely.