THE man who took me to more GAA games than I can remember once described soccer as “a decent distraction when you are reading the newspapers”.
His remark certainly applied to the first leg of the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Like many GAA fans, I like soccer but often struggle to watch an entire game.
But there are exceptions, and I was thoroughly looking forward to watching El Clásico at the Bernabeu.
Sadly, the riveting duel I had anticipated failed to materialise.
It’s a sorry indictment when the flashpoints of cheating, provocation, and harassment provide the actual highlights.
And yet, while the match was utterly dull, the same cannot be said of the analysis and debate that it generated.
If we examine many of the conclusions and opinions that have surfaced since last week, then it tells us much about sport, its protagonists, and the people who comment on it. Take the example of Pep Guardiola’s pre-match press conference in which he delivered an expletive-ridden rant at Jose Mourinho.
The following day we were informed that Guardiola had fallen into Mourinho’s well-laid trap.
Apparently Mourinho’s off-field tactics had taken their toll on the Barcelona manager. Various newspapers revealed how Guardiola had either “cracked,” “lost it,” or “taken the bait.”
Comparisons were made with Kevin Keegan’s outburst in 1996 when he made his famous: “I would love it if we beat them” speech. Evidently, the media were anticipating a home win at the Bernabeu and a repeat of Real Madrid’s sterile victory over Barca in the Copa del Rey.
And make no mistake, if Real Madrid had won, we would have been told how Guardiola’s breakdown had contributed to his team’s defeat. Once again, Mourinho’s mastery of mental warfare would apparently have helped him to get under the skin of the brittle Catalan.
One of the more predictable outcomes from the first leg was the manner in which Guardiola’s press conference was completely shelved. Something which would have been seized upon gleefully if Madrid had won, was totally erased when Barcelona triumphed.
Instead, the media put Mourinho in the middle of their crosshairs. His conspiracy theory that Barcelona’s relationship with Unicef has allowed them to enjoy sympathetic refereeing has been roundly attacked.
He was depicted as a paranoid, unscrupulous manager incapable of accepting defeat.
But, in this respect, Mourinho has much in common with the much-lauded Alex Ferguson. If we go back to Kevin Keegan’s famous outburst, we need to remember that Keegan was responding to Ferguson’s allegation that Leeds United didn’t try as hard against other teams as they did when playing against his Red Devils.
It was a scurrilous accusation about professional footballers, all the more so as Ferguson was once a member of that union himself.
By questioning the honesty of the Leeds players, Ferguson was casting a slur on both the club and the English Premiership. It was a despicable comment.
It was also a remark in which Ferguson betrayed the same paranoia and lack of scruples recently exhibited by Mourinho.
But Manchester United won the League that year, so all that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Kevin Keegan cracked and Ferguson won the mind games.
They say that in war, the victors write the history. Yet even the most jingoistic historian would be objective when compared to your average sports reporter.
What Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson appreciate most is that winning is a forgiving business. It’s the losers who never receive absolution.
And if there was an element of tragedy to last weeks El Clasico then it was the confirmation that Pep is as treacherous and calculating as any of his peers.
At the Bernabeu, Guardiola’s players dived repeatedly. That is to say, they cheated repeatedly. They also committed four times as many fouls as they would have in an average Champions League game. The gifted Lionel Messi committed six fouls. Even Paul Galvin and Noel O’Leary would be blushing after the third.
Maybe we should admire Guardiola for not being naive. But this is the same manager who repeatedly talks about the importance of playing the game with grace and skill. This is the same man who says he believes in the beauty of football. And ever since Barcelona have emerged on the scene, many genuine football fans have admired their jaw-dropping precision and technique. Barcelona have been proclaimed as the saviours of football.
Yet, when they came up against Mourinho’s men, they responded with their own brand of witchcraft.
The depressing message that emerged from the Bernabeu that even a team like Barcelona can’t overcome underhand tactics without employing them as well. Barcelona may have beaten Read Madrid in the first leg, but both clubs sullied their reputations.
But having steered his team past their fierce arch-rivals, Pep Guardiola will not be too bothered. Like Mourinho and Ferguson, he understands that a victory in the European Cup can remove even the most stubborn stain.
When it comes to how sport is remembered, it’s only the black mark of defeat that stays forever.
* Contact: email@example.com
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved