Spanish Fly

When I first started following football, the English Premier League was on top the world.  Most of the best players played in the EPL, and English clubs dominated the Champions League.  Three of the four would regularly appears in the Champions League semifinals.  This culminated in the 2008 Moscow final when Manchester United beat Chelsea.

That final, it turned out, was the beginning of the end for EPL dominance.  In hindsight the change came a couple of months later when a Xavi-led (and Raul-less) Spain won the 2008 Euro in spectacular fashion.  Around the same time, Barcelona’s coach Frank Rijkaard was sacked.  This ushered in the Pep Guardiola era, and the rest is history.

As Barcelona won trophies at an unprecedented rate, its eternal enemy Real Madrid got very jealous and scared and did what it always does when faced with a problem: throw money at it.  Madrid acquired arguably the best player in Italy (Kaka) and the best player in England (Cristiano Ronaldo) and when buying expensive players wasn’t enough, Madrid got the man who the media claim is the best coach in the world (Jose Mourinho).  Barcelona for their part doubled down on their Cruyffian philosophy and put more energy into the youth academy system with the occasional purchase, both good (e.g., Sanchez, Fabregas, Villa) and bad (e.g., Ibrahimovic, Chygrynskiy, Hleb).

As the arms race between Barcelona and Madrid escalates to an almost nuclear level, it is unquestionable that the best two teams in the world are in Spain (save for the occasional “Tuesday night in Stoke” comment, the other remark that Andy Gray will never live down).  In denial fans of the EPL tried a new tactic to prove how superior their league is.  It goes something like this, “Well maybe there are two great teams in Spain, but the rest are lousy, so it’s really just the Scottish league on steroids, and therefore boring.”  Even people who should have known better (I’m looking at you, Sid Lowe), repeated this fiction as though it were gospel.

As it turns out, this year’s two European competitions have completely undercut this argument.  Yes, Barcelona and Madrid are still the best of the best, but it turns out that the rest of Spain isn’t all that bad either.  Advancing to the semifinals of the Europa League today were Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Athletic Bilbao.  The latter club beat up on Manchester United in the last round in thrilling, Barcelona-esque fashion.  Who knew that Athletic could do that?  Certainly not the English.

So to recap, in this year’s two European competition, five of the eight remaining clubs are Spanish, the top four players in the world play in Spain, eight of the top 20 players in the world play for Barcelona, the defending Champions League and World Club Cup champion is from Spain, the Euro and World Cup champion is Spain, Spain is the top ranked nation in the FIFA rankings, and very shortly it will be the top ranked national league according to the UEFA coefficient.

Maybe Barcelona and Madrid rule the roost, but right now the also-rans in Spain are superior to the best of everywhere else.

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Another Day, Another Clásico

Thanks to the luck of the Copa del Rey draw, this season could potentially have even more matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  I think by this point everyone who is not Graham Hunter is suffering from Clásico fatigue *(can something really be a classic if it happens so regularly?), and I imagine the biggest sufferers of all are the Madridistas.

For the third time this season at the Bernabeu, the fans of Real Madrid watched their team go up a goal.  And for the third time this season, they watched their team squander the lead.  The first time ended in a draw, the last two resulted in Barcelona wins.  The Madrid are finally fed up (sort of), they whistled their team off the field.  It’s not surprising really; since Jose Mourinho, the Great Merengue Hope took over, Real Madrid’s record against Barcelona has been one win, three draws, and five losses (and in fairness, two of those draws meant absolutely nothing because Barcelona won the round on aggregate).  Since Pep Guardiola took over, his record against Madrid has been nine wins, three draws, and one loss.  At the Bernabeu, Guardiola’s record is five wins, two draws, no losses.  (The one loss came at the Mestalla in Valencia in last year’s Copa del Rey final.)  Only Johan Cruyff beat Madrid that many times, and the Dutch legend did it over a much longer period of time.

Despite the short-sightedness of the football media**, which tends to see the present as the always, much can change in the course of a season.  Madrid is still leading the La Liga table by five points, and there is no reason to think they will or will not win the league.  Furthermore, today’s loss can be negated next week at the Camp Nou (no easy feat but not impossible).  The real prize, the Champions League, looms large on the horizon, and by no means has a winner been decided there.

Tonight’s victory was both incredibly meaningful and incredibly meaningless in terms of the rivalry.  It is meaningless because the win was not comprehensive enough for Barcelona to sit back and relax in the next leg at the Camp Nou.  The Copa del Rey is the least important tournament of the European season (not counting the pre-season exhibitions that are the Supercopa and the UEFA Super Cup), and this match was just the quarterfinals.  Whoever wins the round still has to play two more, and that is not necessarily a good thing given that the winner will have to continue playing in the Copa del Rey instead of concentrating solely on La Liga and the Champions League.

On the other hand, this win was fraught with meaning, because it solidified the message Barcelona gave to Real Madrid in their match last month: “We own you!”  The reason that Madrid have a five point lead in the league table is because Barcelona have been woeful away from home, that is by Barcelona’s own exacting standards.  Too many draws.  Yet every time Barcelona traveled to the Bernabeu this season, the Blaugrana played their best football in the second half and won.  No matter what tactics Madrid tried, it blows up in their collective faces.  Last month Madrid tried to take control of the match instead of letting Barcelona do it.  Madrid started well, lost badly, and Cristiano Ronaldo became a pariah to the fans.  This time Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal while a team of big bruisers (particularly the loathsome thug Pepe) tried to outmuscle Barcelona and cut them down.  Barcelona tied the score with a Carles Puyol header off a set piece (set pieces are rare from Barcelona) and then Eric Abidal of all players scored the winner.  When Madrid shut down the  Blaugrana attack, the defense took up the scoring instead.

(A moment to cherish Carles Puyol.  In the last 50 games that he played, Barcelona have lost none of them.  In fact, the record is something like 42 wins and 8 draws.  It’s pretty incredible.  Forget Steven Gerrard, Puyol is the real Captain Fantastic.)

This brings us to the Mourinho factor, or more accurately the lack thereof.  Mourinho was brought over from Inter Milan for one reason, to beat Barcelona.  Two seasons ago he won the Champions League including a semifinal victory over Barcelona (aided by an Icelandic volcano, an ill-fated bus ride, and a terrible offside call at the Camp Nou).  Madrid saw a knight in shining armor, and ignored all the potential pitfalls.

Now it is true that Mourinho has been much more successful than the last three coaches of Madrid, none of whom got so much as a draw against Guardiola’s Barcelona.  But in many ways, Mourinho’s humiliation has been worse  Unlike his predecessors he faced Barcelona far more than twice a season.  At the Camp Nou in 2010, he suffered his worst ever defeat.  He destroyed whatever aesthetic style the Madridistas demand from their team, and created a loathed team of bullies.  He has created a world in which Madrid concedes it cannot play with Barcelona (a shocking admission from so storied a team), so it have to break the Blaugrana down through dirty play.  And then Mourinho has a ready-made excuse for when he loses: the referees and diving.  Mourinho is simply not used to being second best, and like any narcissist confronted with the reality that he does not live up to his own hype, he is cracking.  So far there have not been calls for him to go, but the criticism has been heavy nonetheless.

Mourinho’s response was fascinating.  His team played dirty, yet all 11 players remained on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.  His team suffered no egregious refereeing decisions (and benefitted from a few misses) so he could not blame anyone else.  At the post match press conference he stated, “The responsibility is mine, especially when my team loses. Victory has many fathers; defeat only one. I’ve been in football a long time and I understand this.  The cup final victory we all celebrated, but in defeat I am the only parent.”  On one hand this could be read as Mourinho finally taking some responsibility as manager.  On the other hand his words also carry this underlying message: “The coach gets no credit for victory but all the blame for the loss.  It’s unfair.”  If that were what he really meant, it was a quite an abrogation of his responsibility.  Unfortunately, this latter scenario seems more like the Mourinho that the football world has come to know.  I claim no neutrality.  I despise Mourinho, I want him out of Spain, and I want this Special One nonsense done with for good.  I wonder how many more losses to Barcelona it will take before the Madridistas agree with me.

Footnotes: 

* More ammunition to those who say that La Liga is turning into the Scottish League.  Those critics conveniently forget the following the following facts:  (1) Barcelona and Madrid are the best teams in the world playing in the top footballing nation in the world while Rangers and Celtic haven’t won anything of note in ages and Scotland’s days as a footballing power were over decades ago.  (2) Nevertheless, Rangers and Celtic are not exactly hurting for fans.  (3)  So long as Barcelona and Madrid compete for the Champions League title every year, the top players will always want to go there no matter how good or how poor the other La Liga teams are.  (4)  The other La Liga teams are still of very good quality.  For all the talk of La Liga becoming a weak league overall, it is the supposedly more equitable EPL that has precipitously dropped off in quality the past couple of years.  So much so that mentioning Stoke and Barcelona in the same breath should be made illegal.

** Tomorrow on World Football Daily, the hosts will no doubt gnash their teeth that Madrid lost.  The show is getting near impossible for a Barcelona fan to listen to between the Madrid propping and the Barcelona bashing.  I am beginning to miss Steven Cohen a lot.  For all his shtick, it was nice to have someone on the air who actually like Barcelona.

Elephant

Two days after El Clásico, the postmortems have almost all been given, and what strikes me is how different they all are from one another.  Perhaps this is because Real Madrid had been so heavily favored by… everyone really, but especially by the media.  This was to be the year they broke Barcelona’s stranglehold over Spain, and proved the Blaugrana were no longer the world’s best side.

Obviously things did not go the way thy were expected.  Rather than beat Barcelona, Madrid lost.  3-1.  At home.  While this was not quite as bad as the 5-0 from last year or the 6-2 from a few years ago, make no mistake, this lost was just as distressing.  This year was supposed to be Madrid’s year (it still might be; a season is a long time.)  Yet, this “Madrid’s year” meme was exactly the same story that was told last year when Jose Mourinho arrived at the Bernabeu.  It was the same story two years ago when Manuel Pellegrini, fresh off his successful stint with Villareal, arrived alongside two overpriced superstars: Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka.  It was the same story the year before that when Juande Ramos took over in the middle of the season and restored Madrid’s swagger following its collapse under Bernd Schuster.  Yet since Pep Guardiola took over three-and-a-half years ago, his Barcelona met Real Madrid 12 times.  The results?  Eight Barcelona victories and three draws (and two of those draws were all the Barcelona really needed.)  Only once did Madrid win, in the final of last year’s Copa del Rey.  During Guardiola’s reign, Barcelona won 12 trophies; Madrid won one.

Believe it or not, I come neither to praise Barcelona nor bury Madrid.  I actually plan to write about the fact that I have yet to read one consistent explanation for why, after being given virtually no chance, Barcelona still beat Madrid so convincingly.   On one hand there is the theory that Barcelona have a never-say-day attitude that comes from their philosophy, conviction, and belief.  This is the reason put forth by Sid Lowe and by Barcelona players and personnel.  Conversely, there is the Madrid choked explanation, which Phil Ball alludes to and which Graham Hunter put forward on today’s World Football Daily.  Naturally the tactics wonks like Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox of Zonal Marking credit Guardiola’s tactical acuity and subtly blame Mourinho.  Mourinho, who never fails to take the credit or parry the blame, naturally claimed it was all luck, and nothing separates the teams.  The Madrid faithful (including Marca, the club’s Pravda-like media mouthpiece) blame Cristiano Ronaldo, formerly been their golden boy.   Goal.com’s explanation is all things to all people (and can’t go without mentioning Messi v. Ronaldo).  No doubt Bleacher Report has some idiotic fan boy explanation, but the days are too short to see for myself.

It’s the like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  Everyone can describe a bit of the phenomenon, but cannot realize any greater truth.  Sports journalists (including commentators and bloggers) are a funny breed.  On one hand they know everything about the history of the sports and the individual and collective statistics of all teams and players there have ever been.  The sport is their lives.  On the other hand, they struggle with the concept that history is not destiny.  When something happens, these same journalists live so much in the present that they cannot or will not see the possibility that this occurrence could be a mere temporary phenomenon.  They rush in to judge the greatest this or the best that because of this myopia.  It’s what leads to declarations that in hindsight prove to be very foolish.  (“This is Madrid’s year.”  “Manchester United will undoubtedly beat Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final.”)

It’s a stark reminder: never look to sports journalism for any great truths.  No one knows what he (or she) is talking about.

An Open Letter to Neymar

Dear Neymar,

Congratulations on winning the Copa Libertadores.  You are on your way to Superstardom, although you didn’t need to win the Libertadores for that.  Congratulations to you for helping bring Santos its greatest prize in nearly 50 years.  Santos is one of the truly legendary clubs in South American (and world football in general), and they have been away from the top for too long.  And congratulations for making the Club World Cup in December, where no doubt you will take on Barcelona.

You clearly have great potential, because already the great ones are talking about you.  Maradona is insulting you (or maybe he’s not.)  But what really concerns me is that Pele is giving you advice.  Run. Run the opposite way.  Run far and run fast.  Pele has no interest in helping you.  In fact, he is probably secretly devastated that Santos won the Copa Libertadores.  Pele will not accept anyone impinging on his legacy, especially a Brazilian, and even more so a Santos player.  He may smile and talk sweetly, but all the while he will try to stab you in the back.

I admit that I am a Barcelona fan, but that is not why I am advising against moving to Madrid.  In the whole of Brazil you are now the biggest fish.  At Madrid you may not even get off the bench.  You want to be known as the best. Better than Messi?  You have the Club World Cup and the Copa America to prove it.  Madrid was a disaster for your idol Robinho.  Now it is Cristiano Ronaldo’s club, and he will not allow interlopers, especially ones who think they are better than he is.  He will make sure that you never outshines him.  Stay in Brazil, at least until January 2012.  Then if you want to go to Madrid, all power to you.  But beware of Pele’s advice.  He is always wrong, and there is a reason for that.
Sincerely,

Solitary Muser

On Diving

Listen to a s0ccer-hating American complain about football, and you find that several complaints come up again and again.  “It’s boring!”  “There’s not enough scoring!”  “The players go down without being touched!”

Football is far from boring.  Nevertheless, learning any sport is like learning a new language.  Without a basic grasp of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, what you hear makes no sense.  The Iliad is one of the greatest works of literature the world has ever known, but listening to a recitation of The Iliad in ancient Greek makes no sense unless you (a) are ancient Greek; or (b) know ancient Greek.  It’s the same with football.  Although the game looks simple, that appearance is deceptive.  Even with some basic knowledge, football can still be impenetrable because of the history, culture, rivalries, and tradition that are integral to the sport. It takes time and effort to learn football, but once you learn even scoreless draws can be tense and exciting.  (Or they can be boring, as individual games in any sport can be.)

Diving though is a more complicated topic, or at least it should be.  The perception of diving changes depending on where you live and enjoy the sport.  The English, for example, despise diving.  In the Latin countries, diving is not castigated so much.  The Italians are infamous for diving, as are the Spanish.  (This is a humorous but generally accurate depiction of how the English see the rest of Europe.  Notice who are the divers.  Subscription may be required.)  Diving is also fairly common in South America, especially Brazil.  Despite a move to Europe, Robinho still down at the slightest touch, and Neymar is following in his footsteps.

I do not write to defend diving, at least not entirely.  I do not really enjoy watching the deceit, the overacting, and the downright bad sportsmanship of diving.  But this is because I am American, and my outlook has been shaped by and American reaction to diving.  In many ways, the American football fan considers himself the younger brother of the English fan.  It makes sense; the cultural and linguistic ties make it far easier for the American to enter the game through England and the EPL than any other major world football power.  (It is a little surprising though, given how much less impatient American fans are when there is similar playacting in the other major American sports, such as basketball and American football.)

Nevertheless, diving is not the hand-wringing evil that the British press makes it out to be.  There are many ways to cheat in football, and it’s only cheating when your team was wronged.  (To wit, had Gary Linker scored the Hand of God goal instead of Diego Maradona, one can imagine that the English fans would laugh about how their boys pulled one over on “the Argies” while Argentinian fans would still be complaining about the cheating English.)

In my opinion, the worst form of cheating the method of stopping the team not through on-field superiority, but rather by aggressive fouling and constant disruption of play.  The reason this is such a horrid form of cheating is because (1) there is no on-field way to overcome that; and (2) it destroys the flow of the game–the very reason why people watch in the first place.  When a side with superior talent faces such tactics, there is no other alternative but to dive.  The more the referee disciplines the cheating side, the more that side is forced to play the game.  Diving forces the referee to act (although diving is also a punishable offense.)

The English do not understand this.  Diving offends their sensibilities and their ideal of fair play.  While they claim to hate tough, fouling sides, that does not offend them as much.  In fact, such a team may be lauded for how tough it is.  (Stoke City is the quintessential example.  While not may like Stoke exactly, they held up as the paradigm of the toughness of English football.)

While I can not give a definitive answer as to why the English feel this way, I imagine it has something to do with the game’s origins.  Since its inception, football in England was very violent sport.  English kings tried very hard throughout the years to suppress this proto-football game but with little success.  The Industrial Revolution succeeded where the English kings failed and as the poor moved from small towns to overcrowded cities, the game was virtually eliminated.  The British public schools saved it, as headmasters adopted it as a way to exhaust their rioting students by having them take their aggression out on each other rather than on the faculty and local townspeople.  The games were very violent, a test of manhood, “Muscular Christianity.”

There are still remnants of that violence in the modern game, but more so in its various cousins such as rugby and the various football codes of the United States, Australia, and Ireland.  (The rugby code was created, for among other reasons, to keep that violence that the Football Association outlawed.)  In South America though, it is the skill rather than the muscle that is prized.  Furthermore, authority is distrusted rather than respected.  Therefore, a successful dive not only strikes out against an opponent who is stopping beautiful play, it also is a way of deceiving the authority figure.

The greatest exponent of this ultra-defensive, fouling play in the current era is Jose Mourinho, although he would surely resent that depiction (and, although he will not admit it, he is not above getting his players to dive.)  Like Helenio Herrera before him, Mourinho uses such tactics to great effect.  Herrera’s catenaccio has, almost since its beginnings, become shorthand for everything wrong with defensive play.  Which brings us to the football wars that Real Madrid and Barcelona engaged in this past season.

The roots of this war lay with Mourinho and Chelsea.  As Chelsea manager, Mourinho was heavily criticized for his (very successful) defensive tactics.  Chelsea won titles, but they sucked the joy out of the sport.  When Chelsea met Barcelona in the Champions League, Mourinho used those same tactics on the Blaugrana, thus earning a man who was once a well-liked Barcelona assistant coach the eternal enmity of the cules.  The next year, Barcelona exacted revenge en route to a Champions League victory.  Two years ago, a Mourinho-less (but still extremely defensive) Chelsea nearly derailed Barcelona, before the Blaugrana finally moved on thanks to the 11th hour goal of Andres Iniesta, and lots of complaints about the referee.  Last year, Mourinho practiced his dark arts at Inter, and brought them the treble, beating Barcelona in the semifinals.

Each time they met, Barcelona were the better side.  Mourinho (and the Mourinho-less Chelsea) stifled Barcelona’s attack only through antifutbol and fouling.  The idea was that if Barcelona were allowed to play, Barcelona would win.  Therefore stop them from playing by any means necessary, and to hell what it does to viewing pleasure.

The truth is that using such tactics is actually a very risky strategy.  It involved a lot of contact, fouling, violence, and frankly, cheating.  There was more contact with the Barcelona players than with the ball.  As a result, players on Chelsea, Inter, and Madrid were red-carded for their on-field actions.  Which is not to say Barcelona were innocent victims.  They adapted their game, and engaged in their own cheating: diving.  Diving fits into their game though, because while Barcelona can out-skill anyone, they lack the physicality of other top sides.  Because of that size disparity, Barcelona’s diving is a way of fighting fire with fire.  And as with their tiki-taka, Barcelona are very good at what they do.

The pressure from this year seems to have sent Mourinho over the edge (and it clearly wore on Guardiola.)  He has ranted and raved about conspiracies, while the Madrid papers dutifully followed suit.  For the first time, diving became an issue in La Liga.  The fact that diving is now as issue is less about a dislike of diving, than the fallout of Barcelona’s recent domination of Real Madrid.  The truth is that the Madrid fans and the media do not see diving as an evil; if they did, they would howl about Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the sport’s greatest actors.  What Mourinho and the Madrid papers hate is that diving gives Barcelona an effective way to combat Real Madrid’s stifling tactics.

The irony is that while diving is not an evil in the Spanish game, Mourinho-type tactics are.  It is why many in the Real Madrid hierarchy (Di Stefano, Valdano, Butragueño, and the disgraced former president Calderon) hate Mourinho, and spoke out against him.  Had Mourinho been the manager at any other club, or if Madrid had been more successful over the past few years, the Madrid papers would be calling for his head.

This is why I do not understand the hysteria over diving.  Like many things in football, it is all about where you are from.  It’s as much a tactic as anything else, a darker tactic and one to be used only in the case of emergency, but a tactic nonetheless.  Love it, hate it, it’s not going anywhere.  Therefore, one might as well understand it.

The Price Of Success

Following the first leg of their Champions League semifinal, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are on the verge of open war.  (UEFA has fined both of them, and the clubs are filing complaints against each other.)  Bitter intense hatred between Barcelona and Madrid is not a new thing; they are archrivals.  Their rivalry is among the most (if not the most) storied in world football–club or country.  For years each has tried to outdo the other.  They are the yang to each other’s yin.  Eternal enemies locked in combat.  One ebbs when the other flows.  Additionally, they embody two completely different ideals about Spain as a nation: centrality vs. regionalism.  They hate each other but cannot survive without the other.  It has always been like this.

Yet in the past few years something has been different.  The matches have been even more tense, if that were possible.  The hatred all the more palpable both on and off the field.  Whatever good feelings were created by Spain’s World Cup victory, they have been completely eviscerated.

Past of that is because of Barca’s, beginning with the annus mirabilis during Pep Guardiola’s first year as manager (coupled with successive humiliations that Real Madrid suffered at Barca’s hands.)  This led to Real Madrid’s futile attempt to recreate the Galacticos.  When that failed, Mourinho was brought in, and he escalated the growing arms race by injecting psychological warfare and his own pathological hatred (and fear and jealousy) of Barcelona.  Meanwhile, Madrid, desperate for a 10th Champions League title, has watched Barcelona win two titles since Madrid last won in 2002.

These are merely symptoms though.  The root problem of all the increased and frenzied tension is the money.  Madrid and Barcelona are the two leading superpowers of world football–like the United States and the Soviet Union were during the Cold War.  No one else mattered, only each other.  But this is more than ideological warfare; it is financial.  Both clubs spend exorbitant amounts of money–the kind that in the football world is justified by only instant success.  The pressure that this puts on coaches, players, and even the management (who, along with the fans, creates this pressure) is absolutely overwhelming.  With this pressure comes even more worldwide media attention which ratchets up the pressure even more.  Therefore, it is absolutely no surprise whenever Barca and Madrid meet, someone cracks.  The pressure quintupled this year because of the five meetings, four of which coming in close succession.  Rangers and Celtic have nothing on Barcelona and Madrid this year.

The irony is that whoever wins the Champions League semifinal could still lose the final–there are other rich and competitive superclubs, Manchester United at the top of the list.  But neither side can afford to think about Manchester United now, at least not until after next week.  After all, whoever faces United will meet them in a football match.  There is only time for football when the war is over.