Soccer success: the Barca way ... or the money way?

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.

7 comments about "Soccer success: the Barca way ... or the money way?".
  1. The Real Pico, April 12, 2010 at 8:28 a.m.

    One thing that Real fans and media will not let people forget is the fact that Barcelona has spent a hefty amount of money to get players, which is partly true. But somehow they cannot come to grips about the Catalans' ability to field up to 8 players from their system in the first team.

    More than anything, the Barcelona way is a testament of the true commitment to a philosophy that was laid out by Mr. Cruyff himself. That commitment has required the money and the patience to bear the fruits we are now enjoying. Let's hope it does not go the way of the Ajax system.


  2. Walt Pericciuoli, April 12, 2010 at 11:42 a.m.

    Are we sending USA instructors and trainers to FC Barcelona to learn their scouting system and their training methods? Should't we be. Isn't their model a perfect fit for were we are now with our current youth programs?

  3. Brian Herbert, April 12, 2010 at 12:32 p.m.

    Real is still a tremendous team, and two lapses along with a poor showing by Casillas accounted for the difference. But - with Barca you do see a trust in "the system" and teammate trust, with Real it seemed that as the game wore on, they got more tense, and players like Ronaldo and Higuen felt like they had to carry the team on their individual shoulders. Ronaldo just looked like he was putting way too much pressure on himself to carry the team, you could see it in his face. Hats off to Guardiola on another brilliant strategy and player selection for the game.

  4. Charles Ritter, April 12, 2010 at 12:56 p.m.

    Barcelona spends 20 million dollars a year on player development where will that kind of money come from to develop players here in the United States. We need to have more resident academies located in regions across the United States rather than 1 in Florida for players. To rely on elite clubs and academies who all have their own ideas on player development this doesn't create a system that we can nurture players in a style of play that is expected with the senior team. We need to identify players and have more resident academies across the country where players can thrive and learn the game without the pressure of competition and the cost to participate. We alienate players from poorer areas of the country who really look to sports as a way of making a living. We are not developing enough players with skill and confidence on the ball. When the need to win is # 1 that doesn't allow players the time and patience to to become quality players.

  5. Marc Satterly, April 13, 2010 at 7:11 a.m.

    The difference between Barcelona and most big clubs in European football is like the difference between your mother's homemade cooking and Olive Garden. Olive Garden (Real Madrid, Chelsea, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Internazionale etc.) hires a manager and brings in a staff from outside. Their ingredients are grown hundreds of miles away and pre-packaged by unseen hands. Then they are shipped in at great expense and provide pleasing consistency. But the emphasis is on presentation, marketing and turning a profit. Barcelona, on the other hand, cultivates their ingredients by hand from their own garden,supplement their menu with a few spices grown overseas to create masterful blend that has a home-cooked taste. No restaurant can match it. Then the seeds are sown into the ground to help grow the future year's crop and continue the harvest. It's beautiful, sustainable and delicious.

  6. Edward Porter, April 14, 2010 at 10:41 a.m.

    Two comments:
    First of we should remember that if it weren't for Barca, Real Madrid would be the best team in La Liga. Also some members like C.R. 9 can't be faulted for their play in El Classico. (Some members can play well but they all needed to play 100% to beat Barca.) Being second Best, Like the Red Sox - Yankee comparison for many years isn't really fair to Real Madrid and/or the Red Sox.
    I will say Real Madrid would have to have been in their 100% mode to beat Barca - which they weren't - missed passes, hesitation during play, and bad luck - being a few examples of what went wrong for RMA. (when Higuain and CR9 are in sync -they are great, but they weren't in this match).
    Secondly, money can make the difference in a team's success. Example: Imagine how much better MLS would be if they had the money and money backers that some of the European teams have.
    However home grown talent, as Marc so nicely put it, can make a difference too - one of the Red Sox's strong points.

  7. cony konstin, April 15, 2010 at 10:23 a.m.

    We need a soccer revolution in the USA. This revolution must occur in the inner cities of America. It is our last haven where we can develop magical players. Don't waste your time in suburbia and college soccer. Let those two environments continue what they are good for and that is to give kids a place to toy with the game. We need create a NEW SPARTA and it's not going to come from suburbia or college soccer. The HOOD is our last frontier. Now we need to get in there and develop soccer play grounds that are free, safe and accessable 7 days a week.

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