The Very Best Of Friends

It’s La Liga’s winter vacation, and Lionel Messi hasn’t scored a goal in more than two weeks. Which, after Messi’sbarca real era-defining, award-winning, 91-goal 2012, comes as a bit of a relief. He’s good, but enough already. Messi’s Barcelona is undefeated in the league, and with two Champions League titles, four La Liga championships and the odd Official FIFA Triumph[1] under its belt, the team is arguably (because these things are always arguable) the greatest of modern times.

At this point, the ins and outs of Barcelona’s recent history are common knowledge: how homegrown players like Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Puyol, Valdes, Pedro, Busquets and Messi gelled in Barca’s legendary academy; how Zlatan Ibrahimovich, one of the most talented players of his generation, simply couldn’t adjust to Barca’s selfless passing style and eventually fell out with Pep Guardiola (supposedly the nicest man in football, so the joke was definitely on Zlatan); how Spain, a perennial underachiever for most of its history, suddenly became world and European champions, thanks mostly to the same homegrown players (minus Messi) who boarded together as kids. It’s impossible to understand the last five years of football history without first understanding Barcelona. Since 2008, virtually everything that’s happened on the European football scene has happened because of Guardiola-era Barca.

Even Real Madrid – the nine-time European champion that, for most of its history, specialized in bullying smaller, less powerful clubs (which is to say, clubs like Barcelona) – has succumbed to the brutal reality of Barca’s dominance. In the 2008/2009 season, Barca beat Real 6-2 at the Bernebeau. In November 2010, Guardiola’s team blasted five unanswered goals past a struggling Madrid back four whose obvious frailties played right into Messi’s hands[2]. Times have changed. And how.

Real Madrid is all about winning — about nine European Cups, about the Quinte del Buitre, about Los Galacticos and Raul and Di Stefano. Barcelona can deal with the occasional fallow period because Barcelona’s an inherently political symbol that ultimately transcends football. The 5-0 “Super Classico” was significant not just because it was as emphatic a victory as Barcelona could have hoped for, but because it forced Real Madrid and its fans to accept Barcelona’s dominance, which required some not insubstantial mental gymnastics.

Frankly, however, no one felt much sympathy for Real Madrid, which benefitted from Francisco Franco’s oppressive dictatorship in all kinds of unsavory ways and has spent the last 50 years winning and then gloating about it. The city of Barcelona, on the other hand, was the heart of anti-Franco resistance. Traditionally, the Real-Barca rivalry is framed as “la cartera versus la cantera” – the wallet versus the youth system. But that’s always been only half the story. With its Fascist connections and thuggish central defenders[3], Real Madrid isn’t just rich, powerful, and somewhat annoying; it’s downright evil[4].

Last year, Real Madrid won the Spanish league playing a lethal counter-attacking game that threw Barcelona off its stride and put Guardiola in the unfamiliar position of Coach Trying To Explain Losses To A Suddenly Not-So-Enamored Media. Mourinho became the first manager in football history to win league titles in all three major countries, and he added Pep to the list of managers he’s driven to resignation/insanity, a list that also includes a certain Rafa Benitez. Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona assistant whom Mourinho once literally poked in the eye, took over from Guardiola and immediately went out of his way to insist that the whole eye-poking debacle had been laughed about and forgiven and forgotten a long time ago. But you could tell he was lying.

This season, however, Barcelona is sitting pretty at the top of the league. Real, the defending champion, has slid from one embarrassing loss to another. And if you believe Spanish sports newspaper Marca, a cohort of first-teamers led by club-captain Iker Casillas, who was mysteriously dropped from the starting XI that lost to Malaga, is plotting against Mourinho[5]. That this is all happening while Barcelona plays some of the most beautiful football ever just makes everything ten times more embarrassing for Real Madrid fans[6].

Which, if you’re a Barcelona supporter – or just a liberal, anti-Mourinho football aficionado – is all part of the fun.


[1] I’m referring to the Club World Cup, an annual tournament that pits the champion of Europe against the champion of South America (and, in theory, a couple of other champions, but the competition’s really about Europe versus South America), and whose ludicrously inappropriate venue (Qatar, Japan, Morocco – it changes ever year) strips the tournament of what little prestige FIFA events have to begin with.

[2] Hands Messi once used to score an illegal goal, a misdemeanor that football has conveniently forgotten. Which makes you wonder whether Maradona might have been forgiven for The Hand of God had he taken a leaf out of Lionel’s book and conducted himself with a little humility – like, you know, had he not claimed that Argentina’s World Cup quarterfinal victory over England was an act of divine will.

[3] Portuguese defender Pepe once stomped on Messi’s hand. (Yes, that hand.)

[4] Mourinho, Pepe, and, to a certain extent, Ronaldo have turned the obnoxiousness up to eleven because they’re dying, just dying, for a little attention. And if you think it’s strange to suggest that one of the most talked-about teams in arguably the world’s most talked-about football league wants moreattention, consider Barcelona’s role as a paragon of footballing beauty, a club whose success has won fans on every continent and spawned a whole slew of uniformly awful copycat attempts. Wouldn’t it be kind of awesome to have that level of influence on the world’s most popular sport, to be recognized as the most Total Football-ish incarnation of Cruyff’s legendary vision? Isn’t that just the sort of power that God and possibly Diego Maradona were supposed to have designated as Madrid’s and Madrid’s alone? How would you feel if your upstart rival usurped your rightful place at the top of Spanish football, in the process winning legions of fans who might otherwise have supported your football team? The Madrid players (plus Mourinho) throw toddler-style temper tantrums because they’re experiencing toddler-style envy.

[5] Back in the Galacticos days, Real chairman Florentino Perez would sack managers because they had bad breath, or because they gave Raul funny looks, or because their Champions League-winning teams won the final by a mere two goals. Perez only needs the slightest excuse…

[6] And, of course, Real Madrid thought that last season’s title success had ended Barca’s dominance once and for all. It didn’t.

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