I had trouble sleeping the night before Barcelona was to play Santos in the Club World Cup. As often happens before a big match that I am nervous about, I dreamt about the score after the match. In my dreams Barcelona won 4-2, 4-1, and 3-1 (the score never stayed constant.)
Of course, Barcelona won the match 4-0. It was probably the most flawless Blaugrana performance in a big match since the 5-0 result last year against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou. (When will non-Madrid teams learn not to wear white when playing Barcelona? It only enrages the Blaugrana.) Even the Champions League final against Manchester United, beautiful as it was, was not quite that perfect. To the naysayers (who tend to be British) the Club World Cup is inconsequential. Martin Rogers of Yahoo Sports and World Football Daily is particularly vociferous in his dislike for the tournament.
The critics do have a point. The Club World Cup is a FIFA invention, and like all FIFA inventions, it is deeply flawed and designed primarily to make FIFA money. For example, although confederation champions, the likes of Aukland City and Al-Sadd would not be competitive in the Copa Libertadores let alone the Champions League (not that clubs from San Marino and Malta are world beaters.) Calling Al-Sadd the third best team in the world is grating when the club is at this tournament solely by accident of geography.
Nevertheless, that does not negate the value of the Club World Cup. What the critics don’t get is that there is a larger world outside of Europe. Just because non-European clubs compete at a lower level than the European super clubs, that does not make them worthless. The South Americans feel this snub most acutely because the success of the Champions League is built largely on the shoulders of their best players at the expense of the South American leagues which lack the money and resources to keep the best players. The Club World Cup is a a way for the non-European leagues to get a foot in the spotlight, even if just for one or two matches. Sometimes there is even a pleasant surprise. Remember TP Mazembe? Internacional of Brazil will never forget them.
The Mazembe upset aside, the Club World Cup is otherwise just an updated version of the old Intercontinental Cup, the champion of Europe against the champion of South America but with some preliminaries. The real difference though is that during the International Cup era sometimes the world’s best teams really did play in South America, especially in the early years of the competition. The Europeans (specifically the Northern Europeans) gave up on taking the Intercontinental Cup seriously, but the South Americans never did. The Intercontinental Cup was a way for them to prove that football was their game and the Europeans were only playing it. The Europeans’ disdain for the Intercontinental Cup and the Club World Cup enrages the South Americans.
The recent results however, have only proven the European correct. The European clubs have won the last five Club World Cups. The two before this run, won by the Brazilian clubs Inter and São Paulo, were both won by lesser sides. The Brazilians parked the bus, waited for the right counterattack, got their one goal, and then parked the bus again. It was their way of acknowledging their opponents’ technical superiority.
Ever since it won the Copa Libertadores, Santos planned for the final against Barcelona (not an unusual tactic for a Brazilian side after it wins the Copa Libertadores). Unlike its recent–successful–predecessors Santos wanted to play Barcelona the “right” way because it believed it could beat Barcelona. Santos let its Brasileirão form suffer safe in the knowledge that already qualified for the next Copa Libertadores.
Santos bought into its own hype, probably because of all the historical coincidences following the Peixe on this campaign. Santos won its third Copa Libertadores title ever, the first since Pele played. The opponent in the Libertadores final was Peñarol, whom Santos beat for its first title way back in 1962. Next year is Santos’s centenary year (as Tim Vickery is so fond of saying, the club was founded the day the Titanic sunk). And in O Fauxhawk, the Santos faithful believe they finally have an heir to Pele (a real one this time, not some false messiah.) The Brazilian press (followed by the world press) went overboard in its estimation of Santos for reasons I have explained previously. Pele himself opened his mouth (never a good thing), and claimed Santos was better than Barcelona and Neymar was better than Messi. Neymar, of course, was Pele’s stand-in for himself, for Pele is a jealous god who sees Messi as a false idol.
Santos made a fatal error; it underestimated how much Barcelona wanted this title. This was not an unreasonable assumption because the European teams have historically not cared about the tournament. It also came a little over a week after the most significant match of Barcelona’s season. This assumption was even made by Tim Vickery, perhaps the most astute observer of football anywhere. Last week in his BBC column, Vickery wrote:
Barcelona… have been in competitive action right up to Saturday night. Compared with the trip to Real Madrid, this tournament in Japan is almost an afterthought. For Santos it has been in every thought.
Yes, last week was the latest installment in the eternal struggle between Barcelona and its arch-nemesis, and yes, there was much at stake for Barcelona. But the Club World Cup was never an afterthought for Pep Guardiola; it is a tournament he is obsessed with. If you doubt that, watch his reaction to Barcelona’s victory over Estudiantes de la Plata two years ago. Granted, Guardiola is not a taciturn man. Once a match begins he scowls and yells, and gesticulates until it is over. Barcelona could be up 5-0 and he never loses that intensity. Only after his team wins the trophy does he smile. He never cries though. Nevertheless, after Barcelona beat Estudiantes, Guardiola broke down and sobbed.
Before 1992, Barcelona had never won the European Cup, the predecessor of today’s Champions League. In fact, Barcelona was probably the best club never to have won. Barcelona had won European glory elsewhere but never the biggest prize of all (although it lost in the final round twice). All the more galling was how many times Real Madrid won. In 1992, under the guidance of Johan Cruyff, Barcelona finally won the European Cup. Among the players on the field was an elegant Catalan midfielder named Josep “Pep” Guardiola. That year, Barcelona lost the Intercontinental Cup to São Paulo. In 2006, when Barcelona (sans Guardiola) finally won the Champions League a second time, again it lost the Club World Cup, this time to Internacional. Knowing that Real Madrid won three such titles only added salt to the wound. Without the title, Barcelona could never truly call itself the world’s best team. Ergo, Guardiola craves this title and what it represents. What he wants his devoted players (particularly those who, like him, were brought through La Masia) want so badly to give to him. He was, after all, the childhood idol of several of them.
The other way to judge managers is qualitatively. What were their teams like while winning? What imprint did the manager leave on the game? This is how to best judge managers such as Rinus Michels (considered by many the greatest ever), César Luis Menotti, Béla Guttmann, Herbert Chapman, Hugo Meisl, Valeri Lobanovskiy, and Johan Cruyff to name a few. As managers, they were successful, but as thinkers, innovators, tacticians, and philosophers, they were in a class by themselves, and the game remembers their contributions. The football philosophers offers something beyond a full trophy case. Rather than just being remembered, they will be studied. Most importantly, they touch the heart of the football romantic.
It is the football romantic who remembers the beautiful losers as much as, and sometimes more than, then winners. Everyone knows the Hungarians of 1954, but who outside of Germany remembers the winners? It is the same with the football philosopher. We want Marcelo Bielsa to succeed because he is so innovative. He singlehandedly gave Chile an identity. That same romantic impulse is why Arsenal fans still adore Arsene Wenger even though they have gone so many seasons without a solitary title.
However many trophies Guardiola ends up with, he has already joined that second group. He is the Aristotle to Cruyff’s Plato and Michel’s Socrates. Guardiola’s Barcelona is steeped in Dutch perceptions of space, yet it is radically his own. The midfield is the kingdom, and possession and passing are rule of law. This season Guardiola has pushed the boundaries of his philosophy even further by experimenting with a three-man defense and a more expansive midfield–as much Bielsa as Cruyff. The fruits of this labor paid off thus far in Barcelona’s two most important matches of the season; in the match against Madrid last week he outthought and outwitted Mourinho by adapting his tactics. Yesterday Barcelona side demolished Santos. So thorough was his side’s domination, that after the third goal, just before halftime, Guardiola allowed himself a smile. On his watch, Barcelona joined the legends, teams who like the Ajax of the early 1970’s, Milan of the late 80’s, and Pele’s Santos, are spoken of with a hushed reverence. (Yes, I know. Wednesday night. Stoke. Funny.)
The emergence and consolidation of the Catalan school has shaken Brazil, robbing it of something seen as a birthright – Brazil’s place as the spiritual guardians of the beautiful game. Be honest now – who would you prefer to see – the Barcelona of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, or the Brazil of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo which Dunga took to the last World Cup?
Last week Rio played host to the eighth annual version of Footecon, an annual conference of coaches organised by Carlos Alberto Parreira. As a veteran of all eight, I can confirm that this one was different.
Last year Parreira gave a splendid lecture dissecting the football of Barcelona – inspired by the excitement the team generated in the players he had been coaching with the South African national side. This year Barcelona’s presence was not confined to one lecture. Their shadow hung over the whole event – a process enhanced by the fact that one of the club’s directors had crossed the Atlantic to explain their philosophy of youth development.
It was a lecture that packed the hall, and to which Brazil coach Mano Menezes paid special attention. The debate afterwards – indeed much of what followed over the two days of the event – focused on similarities and especially differences between approaches in Barcelona and Brazil.
The whole article is a fascinating read, and it’s a theme he continued this week in his column for the BBC. What Vickery did not mention, and what I would love to bring up with him if I ever get the chance is whether he thinks Santos’s defeat to Barcelona will be a turning point in the evolution of the Brazilian game the way that the loss to the Netherlands in 1974 was. Following the latter, Brazil abandoned its ethos as the guardian of the beautiful game. Perhaps now, Brazil will try to reestablish it. What better compliment could a club and its manager be paid than understanding that they changed the football culture of the world’s most prominent football nation?