A Perfect Season
December 17, 2009 4:51 AM   Subscribe

At the beginning of the '09 season a young rookie coach named Pep Guardiola was appointed manager of FC Barcelona, one of the top teams in European football. One year later, the team plays 19th December in Abu Dhabi against Estudiantes for the Club World Cup, the cusp of association football season. Guardiola had taken a talented but stagnating team to the top, a prometean figure that brought the philosophy he had inherited playing for historical player Johann Cruyff almost 20 years before.

For a European club to get there, you have to win the UEFA Champions League. But Barcelona did more than that. After exhilarating moments like Iniesta's overtime goal (Spanish narration) in Champions semifinals, in May 2009 the team obtained the continental treble winning the Spanish Liga, Spanish Cup and UEFA Champions League. Minutes before the final Champions match, Guardiola played this video to his players (starts a 2:06). In August 2009, Barcelona conquered both the Spanish Super Cup and UEFA Super Cup, that pit the winners of the top trophies in Spain and Europe respectively. So Saturday in Abu Dhabi, Barcelona takes aim at a record-breaking perfect season, to bring home the sixth out of six possible trophies.

Meanwhile the beauty of the team's play is recognized by awards and records. Messi got a Ballon d'Or, with four Barcelona players in the top five spots of the award. Pedro became the first player to score in all six trophies. The team was only the fifth ever to obtain the european regular season treble, Pep Guardiola was the sixth man to win a European Champions League both as a player and a manager, and some think Andrés Iniesta is the best player in the world.
posted by valdesm (18 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Man, I've got to say that, while I haven't seen Barça play every game this season, that game they played against Real a few months ago what the best goddamned football game I've seen in years. Fucking classic stuff. That team is the shit-hot best team in Europe.
posted by koeselitz at 5:04 AM on December 17, 2009

And here is that video Guardiola played to his players, all queued up directly to the spot you're talking about, in case anybody wants to click straight through to it. Heh, I hadn't seen that before. Gladiators all!
posted by koeselitz at 5:09 AM on December 17, 2009

Yeesh, that game was only two weeks ago. A good game, anyhow.
posted by koeselitz at 5:15 AM on December 17, 2009

I have to admit I'm a Barça supporter, but even if I wasn't, it is a wonder seeing these guys play. It's a whole team playing with the naturality of Zidane, Maradona or Pelé. I don't know if any other team has ever played liked this. Not even the classic '92 Barça under Cruyff, which was in many aspects a revolutionary team. The way in which Xavi never makes a mistake, that's amazing if you enjoy this sport.

yeah, both last games against madrid, but the one months ago that ended 2-6... that was harsh
posted by valdesm at 6:00 AM on December 17, 2009

Another good piece about Iniesta.

The quality of the football only the third most amazing thing. The second most amazing thing is that they won everything last year, while staying true to possibly the most pure expression of football ever seen, and still retaining enough robustness and guts to beat teams like Chelsea.

But the most amazing thing is they've done this on the backs of players that have been at the club since they were kids, and who have never been anywhere else. 7 of the 11 players who started the Champions League final came through Barca's youth system. To put that achievement into perspective, Real Madrid was forced to spend over €200m on just four players to try to beat them this year.
posted by daveje at 6:04 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know if any other team has ever played liked this.

Brasil in 1970?
posted by the cuban at 6:32 AM on December 17, 2009

I like watching Barcelona, and admire their principles as a club. The current team in particular is great to watch. I just find that the media coverage of Barca is a little grating in its monotone fawning.

The results of the Barca youth system are admirable, but so they should be. This article suggests that the annual budget for the youth department in 2007 was $10million, which is a significant sum. It's probably beyond the reach of anyone outside the big five European leagues. They also spent pretty heavily on transfers this year, around EUR40million net if you count Eto'o/Ibrahimovic as a swap. So they're not some mom and pop operation competing against EvilGlobalMegaCorp Inc, as many like to cast the Barca-Madrid rivalry.
Youth development systems have a tendency to be cyclical, with outstanding players arriving in bunches. It will be interesting to see if Barca stick to their guns when they hit a barren spell, or if there will be a return to the days of debt-financed spending.
posted by Jakey at 6:43 AM on December 17, 2009

I've lived for more than 20 years in Europe, but didn't get interested in football until last year, when I started watching some Barça matches with friends just to see what it was like. I wound up having such a great time watching them that I followed the whole season. I figure that one day I'll discover that football isn't always like this, but for the moment I've become a raving culer. Visca el Barça!

As for Iniesta, he asked to be substituted during the match yesterday because of a hamstring problem. It doesn't look like he'll be playing on Saturday. It'll be interesting to see what kind of a lineup Guardiola uses, since Iniesta's usual substitute Keita has also been injured lately.
posted by fuzz at 6:47 AM on December 17, 2009

To be fair, the Club World Cup is not the "cusp" of club soccer. It's more an exercise in marketing; a chance for teams to promote themselves to whatever market they happen to be playing in. In fact, key players don't even always travel to these games. But a trophy is a trophy.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:16 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I watched a fair chunk of the rebroadcast of the Barca vs. Atlante FC match in the FIFA Club World Cup last night. It was reminiscent of what happens when the little brother gets angry at the big brother - the little brother sneaks in a shot just to signal his intentions, but then the big brother just keeps his outstretched palm on top of the little brother's head while the little brother, unable to reach, just furiously windmills his arms. It was a clinic.

Pep Guardiola's sideline demeanor, though, seemed positively bored. Is he usually like that? He looked like he would have rather been anywhere else, and I can't say I blame him exactly as the match was a bit of a cakewalk for his side. But he seemed *really* bored.
posted by the painkiller at 7:24 AM on December 17, 2009

As you can see in the first video he's not always like that, but i did notice too that he seemed much too tranquil yesterday. he usually is kind of twitchy, on the field too.

> yes. you could argue that today's barça is somehow the grandchild of holland 74, through cruyff.

> also yes. cusp was meant in the sense of 'the point where there's no more possible advancement'. It's definitely not the most important, but it's there, it's an official major and losing it would mean *just* 5 out 6.
posted by valdesm at 8:12 AM on December 17, 2009

This is the best version of Barca that I have ever seen, and that includes the Dream team and Ronaldinho's CL winner. The Dream Team never played defense and Ronnie's team was, well all about Ronnie.

This version plays much stouter defense with Puyol and now Piqué covering the center and a ferocious Alves (shades of Roberto Carlos) sprinting up and down the right side and a much improved Abidal on the left. Puyol is the "cojones" of this team and he fucking loves it. He is the prototypical captain: fiery, loyal, local product, gung-ho. He showed that he's still a dominant defender against Real Madrid in the recent "El Clasico" where he singlehandedly destroyed at least 3 clear goal chances and was like a wild man running around the pitch. Valdes, the GK is a too much of a risk-taker and prone to lapses in concentration to ever be considered world class, but he is very good in one on one situations and usually plays best in the big matches.

The strike force has been very good so far this season but uneven, Ibra has been a huge boost, giving them a physical presence in the box that they lacked last year (they were really weak on set pieces) and more than making up for Eto'o's production (he has scored something like 14-15 goals already). Messi has been great, although not Godly as he was last year (although his role on the team is changing a bit from wing to center) and Pedro! has been a revelation on either the left or right wing. The only negatives have been Henry, who sadly looks like he may be done, and Bojan who showed so much promise two seasons ago, but has been totally passed by Pedro!.

The strongest aspect of the team is the midfield, obviously, with Xavi and Iniesta being perhaps the greatest pairing of attacking midfielders ever. Xavi is the brain, calm, precise, in control, Iniesta is the artistic creativity, they simply dominate the midfield. To give you an idea how great these two are, Arsenal Captain and wonder boy Cesc Fabregas can't even get a start on Spain's NT because these two are too brilliant.Back at Barca, Yaya Toure is a monster at DM, but he has been supplanted recently by an emerging Barca youth system player named Sergi Busquets (20 years old) who often pairs with Keita when Iniesta is forced into a forward role (because Henry sucks). It should be noted that Guardiola has been playing Messi in a more central position this season, which is...interesting. It seems to make him less of a goal threat but more able to dominate a match, like he did at the end of El Clasico, when he, Xavi and Iniesta put on a dribbling and passing clinic that eventually led to Lass Diarra's red card as he fouled Xavi out of pure frustration because he couldn't catch up to the ball.

But what makes this squad so special is that they have all bought into the "total football" concept. That means that each player is expected to attack, defend, pass, play as one unit (as opposed to three segmented units). It's amazing to watch how they swarm to the ball when it's in the opponents possession and when they inevitably win it back, even more amazing to watch them dominate possession, literally wearing out the opposing side physically and mentally as they weave the ball back and forth forward and back, with crisp short passes until they eventually create a goal chance. Here watch for yourself:

Barca Tiki Taka

After you watch the beautiful triangulated, one-touch passes for a while, focus in on the defenders, consider how they desperately and fruitlessly chase after the ball either giving up a goal chance or fouling out of frustration. As I said, it's exhausting and psychologically punishing.

The fact that this version of Barca depends heavily on players from their youth system means that you have a lot of players with "Barca DNA", players that have grown up playing total football and even though the team still needs to spend on players like Ibra and Alves to win titles, it's nice that the majority of their stars (Puyol, Piqué, Valdes, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pedro! and Messi) are home grown.

Did I mention that I'm a fan?
posted by sic at 12:39 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Jakey: “The results of the Barca youth system are admirable, but so they should be. This article suggests that the annual budget for the youth department in 2007 was $10million, which is a significant sum. It's probably beyond the reach of anyone outside the big five European leagues. They also spent pretty heavily on transfers this year, around EUR40million net if you count Eto'o/Ibrahimovic as a swap. So they're not some mom and pop operation competing against EvilGlobalMegaCorp Inc, as many like to cast the Barca-Madrid rivalry.”

Yes, but that's not the point - the really astounding thing about Barça is that, for a huge club with plenty of money, they actually seem to stick to their principles in a really wonderful way. $10 million on a youth department? Sure, only the richest teams can afford that, but none of the richest teams do it. I guarantee you won't see Man United or AC Milan shelling out that kind of cash for youth departments when they know they can hire out a star player or two for that. Those other teams are collections of international superstars from around the world who are all hired at outrageous sums to play in the same club; but amazingly, the players at FC Barcelona are actually part of the club, with real personal connections to it, in the same way that, say, the Scottish teams had a connection to their clubs in the 1940s, and sacrificed playing for richer English teams to play where they wanted to. FC Barcelona is a legacy, a team which has actually maintained and built on its roots for decades. This rarely happens in any sport, and it is a very real distinction between the styles of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona; it has been a real distinction ever since the 1950s, when the disputes over Alfredo di Stefano and the meddling of the fascist regime in Madrid really crystallized the way people at Camp Nou see the sport.

Football was the defining public face of Catalan resistance to the fascists, and as such it became a way of being, a philosophy about life, above and beyond the simple sport. In Barcelona, it is still true, after all these years, that football is actually and practically an ethos; and it's clear that everyone, from the owners to the coaches and the players and trainers and even groundskeepers, sees it that way. That's why money goes back into the youth leagues rather than into hiring expensive nationals; and that's why players and coaches see things in terms of the glory and greatness of the sport, rather than in terms of cash or marketing or anything like that. It's amazing because I know in my heart of hearts that winning isn't what's paramount to them - this is clear in the fact that Barça's willing to sacrifice the comfort of having star players for the benefit of building for the future - and yet they simply keep getting better as a team. I know there will come years when they don't do tremendously, and of course now that they're perhaps the greatest local team in the world (I really believe that) there's really not any higher they can go, but I love them because I know that, whether they win or lose, they insist on doing it in the best way, the most human and most decent way. Football at Camp Nou is about what it means to be Catalan - cosmopolitan, optimistic, open, friendly, equitable and self-governing by instinct and tradition, and resolutely aiming for greatness despite whatever other limitations the world may impose on you.

I don't harbor any real ill will toward Real Madrid, either - some people get het up about them, but really I don't think anybody can harbor the actual ire toward that team that they might have been able to in the 60s and 70s, and it's unfair now to seem them as the team of the fascists, especially since it's come to light that many of their players suffered just as much under that regime. But over the last two years particularly Real has been the club which has sort of demonstrated to all of Europe the very perils of the high-flying, high-spending football club and the celebrity-based method of putting together a team: cycling through dozens of really great and talented players, sometimes in a single game, whilst never actually meshing their talents into a coherent offense and defense, and hiring plenty of great personalities but not knowing really how those personalities can fit together. That's why Real Madrid's performance over the last few years has been a bit disappointing, especially given that they have even more money than FC Barcelona does. Barcelona's difference, their advantage, is cultivating a real belief that the sport is an expression of what it means to be Catalan and what it means to be a human being. I have no doubt that Madrid will get better as a team, and I think there have been times when they've played inspiring football, but there's a reason Barcelona has an edge right now.
posted by koeselitz at 3:55 PM on December 17, 2009

Football at Camp Nou is about what it means to be Catalan - cosmopolitan, optimistic, open, friendly, equitable and self-governing by instinct and tradition

That sounds basically right to me, except for "optimistic". Xavi gave an interview the other day where he said that "Not just Barça is pessimistic, but the Catalans are also a bit like that; they tend to dramatize. In Madrid, they're more for 'This will work'. They're more positive and that gives the energy to win championships. Historically, Barcelona would have won more championships if we had been more positive and optimistic."

That fits with my impression of the Catalans, who always plan for the worst and almost never let themselves get carried away with boasting or overconfidence. You can see that every week in the cautious and respectful way Guardiola talks about the opposition and keeps his team focused on the hard work they need to do to actually win the match.

Still, your point about Barça reflecting Catalan values is a good one. The Barça slogan is "More than [just] a club", and the team is structured as a cooperative with the fans as shareholders. It also shows when you look at the jerseys. Barça pays millions to Unicef every year for the right to use their logo, while Real Madrid takes in money to advertise for an online gambling outfit.

On the other hand, I'd be careful about going too far with that story. Barça's president Joan Laporta has gone public lately with his ambitions to use Barça's success as a launching pad for his political ambitions as a Catalan independentist. I'm happy to see Barça as an ambassador for Catalan values, but I'd hate to see it get caught up in the political stresses between Catalonia and Madrid, which have been heating up again this year. Personally, I hope the anti-Laporta forces win the election for Barça president next year.
posted by fuzz at 4:42 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have been a bit disappointed with Laporta's swing toward politics, but I guess I should have seen it coming; under his regime the club has made numerous pro-independence gestures that seemed a bit too much.

Also agree that Catalans are not optimistic, but I would say that most people here in Spain are pessimists, especially when compared to say Americans.

In light of this discussion about the team's philosophy, it will be interesting to see what Barca does at the LW position. Unfortunately I think that Henry will have to go, but their youth system player Pedro! has done such a great job there - will he win the starting position or will they bring in a mercenary like Robinho or a more established young star like Luis Suarez or David Silva? Keep in mind that the have another very promising winger in the youth ranks at La Masia named Gai Assulin who will be looking to break into the first team in the next two years, so if they buy an established young star, he may get squeezed out. But given Pep's preference for La Masia products, I suspect that Barca will look for a short term solution to fill in (a quality player who is pushing 30 - my dream would be David Villa, but that's not going to happen) while Pedro! cements his credentials and Assulin matures.
posted by sic at 1:05 AM on December 18, 2009

Just gotta say that I love Pedro! as a nickname, especially since he doesn't want to be called Pedrito anymore.

I'll be watching to see who starts the final tomorrow at LW. If Pedro! starts instead of Henry, that would be a pretty strong signal that Henry's days in blaugrana are over and he'll be off to the US next year. More likely, the old man will get to play the first half. It's the only title he hasn't won yet.

For next year, agreed that Assulin doesn't look ready yet from what I saw in the Copa del Rey, and Jeffren seems really exciting but chaotic and immature. Today they announced that Robinho is definitely not coming, but it seems reasonable that they'll bring in someone else to reinforce a starting attack of Pedro!, Ibra, and Messi. But that's going to make the Bojan problem even more complicated.
posted by fuzz at 3:14 AM on December 18, 2009

I'm pretty sure that Henry will start tomorrow, and he'll stand around offsides for a half and frequently complain for no apparent reason to the ref with that bug-eyed in disbelief face that he uses to complain (*sigh*) and Pedro! will come on in the second half. Also, with Iniesta out Keita and Busquets will start in the midfield along with Xavi and Yaya Toure will sit. From what I understand Estudiantes is a "tactical" team, which means they will be parking the bus and playing kick the shin and counterattack football. If that is the case whoever scores the first goal will have a huge advantage.
posted by sic at 4:21 AM on December 18, 2009

Well, they finally did it, and man was it agonic. First half was boring as hell, good second half and again Pedro, minute 89!

Verón might be old, but he's great and an example of how experience does count. pity that he couldn't end the match in good conditions.

And Ibrahimovic is so so great, what an awesome presence.

so now what?
posted by valdesm at 2:26 PM on December 19, 2009

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