IT’S the morning of Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final first leg at the Bernabeu, and Pep Guardiola has a special DVD for his players.
This isn’t a medley of goals and Gladiator clips like the movie he showed before the 2009 final though. It’s a very different kind of motivation.
The Barcelona squad grow gradually more enraged as they watch a montage of unpunished Real Madrid fouls from the clubs’ recent Copa del Rey final. In one moment, there’s an overzealous Pepe challenge, the next an Alvaro Arbeloa stamp on David Villa.
The implications of this are clear. As were the results.
That night, Barcelona undoubtedly contributed to a petty, pitiful battle that sullied the entire Clasico series. Pedro, Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets were caught on camera grossly exaggerating the effect of challenges. And, when decisions didn’t go their way, the rest of the players crowded around the referee to try and force his hand. Guardiola evidently wanted his squad to fight fire with ire.
On the one hand, the antics were merely a response to the aggressive approach other clubs require to stop Barcelona’s passing. Certainly, no side faces the kind of ferocious challenges they do. But, on the other hand, they were merely an escalated variety of the cynical tactics that Barca had already perfected. You can’t touch this. In every sense.
Diving and dramatics are, of course, a universal issue in football. One Premier League manager talks of how Alex Ferguson and Mark Hughes are among the worst for badgering officials at half-time as they walk down the tunnel. It’s a very common tactic to try and influence the result of matches.
But it’s the levels to which Barcelona take it on the pitch that stand out. Most obviously, there are the images of a grounded Busquets peeking through his fingers for the referee’s reaction, or holding his face after a knock to the chest.
It all adds up to a more unpleasant side of the club. Because, just as their exquisite football doesn’t make them unbeatable, neither does it make them irreproachably admirable.
There are a few traits that, far from making Barca “more than a club” as the Camp Nou’s motto goes, make them all too typical.
On a most basic level, there’s that sanctimony. It’s not just that you have to see them beat you with such beautiful football. It’s that you have to hear them talk about it. On any occasion when an opposition side has found the formula to eliminate them, Xavi — among others — has alluded to the moral wrongness of that result and the rightness of Barca’s football.
But they also go to lengths beyond diving to try and condition the continued superiority of that football. Most obviously, Real and Barca — for all their differences — form a self-perpetuating duopoly that is to the detriment of the rest of Spanish football. Although they recently agreed to renegotiate their television rights, all it did was consolidate the increased cash flow towards the Camp Nou and the Bernabeu. Not exactly the socialist principles many within the club like to associate themselves with.
But there’s also a double effect here. Both Barca and Real get more money to buy the very best players of the rest of Spain, strengthening themselves while simultaneously weakening the competition.
And yet, despite this, it’s not as if Barca’s financial position has been glowing of late. Just last year, the club had to borrow €150m to pay players’ wages. But it still didn’t stop them talking about €40m deals for Cesc Fabregas.
The so-called tapping-up is probably the least of Barcelona’s flaws though. Because, on average, they’re no worse than any other club. And, with Fabregas himself the most famous example, they were also victims of it.
As to how far that will go to stem the club’s huge debts, the truth is that it depends on whose accounts you believe. There is evidence that Barca’s financial problems aren’t that bad.
It’s just that, in a move characteristic of the club’s often ugly internal politicking, new president Sandro Rosell indulged in a bit of interpretative accounting to present the outgoing Joan Laporta in as bad a light as possible. In that sense, the otherwise admirable socios supporter-membership scheme isn’t always as utopian as perceived.
Either way, the club recently sold sponsorship space on the front of their jersey for the first time in their history. It follows what many thought was an initial soft-sell period by paying Unicef to appear in that space. To others, this was exactly the kind of hypocrisy that offsets all of the highlight reels.
The question is really whether Barcelona’s football philosophy on the pitch and commitment to youth off it is enough to counter their more unpleasant traits? Or whether, in contrast to their motto, they’re no more than a normal club. Just a spoiled mega-rich one.
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