We are living in a golden age of on-field performance. But the purity of the game is gone and no club embodies this like FC Barcelona.
We are living in a time when football has never been more popular. In the 2014 FIFA World Cup held in Brazil, the average attendance of 53,592 was the second highest in history, only beaten by the USA in 1994, a country which prides itself on “big is best” and also holds four of the world’s top ten largest sports stadiums.
With “big is best” in mind, British Sky Broadcasting has just signed a £5.136bn broadcasting deal for the Premier League and the recent “El Classico” between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid had an estimated viewership of 400 million people. At a time when football has seemingly reached its peak, why then does it feel like the splendour of the sport is gone, the love of the game lost and the purity of its roots deserted.
In order to understand the impure nature of our modern football, it is necessary to examine the team who proclaim purity more than any other team in the world. “Mes que un club” dons the crest of FC Barcelona and its meaning (more than a club), suggests the idea of something more, obviously, something pure and something better, better than results and money.
In 2011, as Eric Abidal, having just recently overcome liver cancer, lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy, he did so wearing the stunning claret and blue of an FC Barcelona jersey emblazoned with the bright yellow UNICEF logo across its front. In this moment, the world witnessed the purest representation of football. It is a night which will be remembered as much for Abidal’s powering arms lifting the trophy as for the performance by FC Barcelona on the night. This moment was everything which “mes que un club” represented. This was not however, the beginning of a new hope, but the end of a false dawn.
Now, looking back on a week in which FC Barcelona have knocked Manchester City, the reigning Premier League champions, out of the UEFA Champions League, as well as beating Ancelotti’s tepid Real Madrid, it appears that we are witnessing a culmination of the Catalan clubs revival. Since losing to David Moyes’s Real Sociedad on January 4th, Barcelona have won seventeen of their eighteen games including as previously mentioned, victories both at home and away to Manchester City, as well as convincing wins against Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao.
Rumours of unrest and unhappiness have been quashed by the sublime nature of their play, guided by their talisman – the magic man Messi – who is tasked with the unenviable feat of leading the team which are “mes que un club”. What is different from this team and the team of 2011 however is that results are the most important thing. On Sunday, the 22nd of March, FC Barcelona beat Real Madrid 2-1 and as Luis Suarez wheeled away, fists clenched in furious joy, the cameras trailed a man not with UNICEF as the main point of focus, but rather Qatar Airways. As the camera lingered, it captured the coming together of Suarez and Neymar Jr., two pieces in a three piece jigsaw of wonder.
It is this jigsaw however, which is undermining everything that FC Barcelona prides itself on, and it is this trio which has turned the club, and everything it represents, from “mes que un club” to just a club.
The purchase of Neymar Jr. from Santos in the summer of 2013 has been fraught with controversy around particular payments to particular people. Likewise, the decision to buy Suarez faced rabid criticism from the media and the footballing world, as they were signing a player who had just wrapped his teeth around a fellow footballer for the third time in his career.
These signings signalled the end of FC Barcelona as we know it. They signalled the death nail in the coffin containing pure and simple football. The purchase of these two players as well as an ageing Jérémy Mathieu and an ever-injured Thomas Vermaelen were buys to buy the league. Unsuccessful successors to Pep Guardiola were the stepping-backward stones to where we sit now.
The purest FC Barcelona was built on simple foundations. Push high, win it back within 6 seconds, pass quick, work hard, work together and win or lose, these never changed. These have now been replaced by the push-apparently-high, the win it back whenever, pass long, work hard, work to-get-the results and win philosophy.
On Sunday night, Gerry Armstrong declared on Sky Sports coverage of El Classico that the Barcelona starting 11 contained only 4 players who were brought up in their famous La Masia academy. Compare this to the unforgettable image of Eric Abidal as he raised the trophy above his head, above 7 of the La Masia graduates, above the rest of the world and their watching eyes of wonder.
The nature of FC Barcelona’s wins against Manchester City and Real Madrid is the reason that they are now a struggle to watch. In both games against Manchester, they performed exceptionally well for a first half, and then relaxed, content with a win of solid structure as opposed to substance. Neymar and Suarez were rarely seen defending in both second halves of these games.
In contrast, they were deeper than ever against Real Madrid. The problem here however, was not defending, but rather defence, and self-defence. As the touches came, the towers fell. The actions of Suarez and Neymar exemplified where this club has gone. Greedy, unaware, weak and modern, their simulation was evident throughout. And in our modern game, it seems that simulation is the most real thing. But for the light of one light, I see night in their game.
But for the joy of an inner child that only wants to play, I get angry. In a modern football where acting is real and reality is rare, Lionel Messi provides the one glimmer of hope – Football is pure, “Mes que un club”, “Messi – un club”.
Ben Twomey, Pundit Arena