A person’s creativity is known to ebb and flow like the tide.
A person’s creativity is known to ebb and flow like the tide. For a writer this amounts to the much lamented ‘writer’s block’; a dearth of inspiration coinciding with a stagnant vocabulary.
This would be an apt billing of my mindset last weekend. A grey, non-descript day courting a grey, non-descript mood. To an extent, the sporting climate of the hour seemed to reflect this. Distant were the halcyon memories of a Paris-storming Wiggins and an all-conquering heptathlete named Jennifer, supplanted by the unprovocative promise of a bruising, mid-winter encounter between Stoke and Reading. In my mind, staleness had beset the sporting domain.
But I am wholly glad to report that my short-sightedness had overlooked the regenerative qualities of sporting theatre. For participants, there is an ever replenishing stock of targets to rivet the mind, and a higher plane of performance to reach. For fans willing to search resolutely, there will always be another act of sporting artistry to behold.
Never is this tenet so breathtakingly salient, than in a pocket of Spain known as Catalonia.
Here, a team of eleven players engage in football of an unparalleled technical proficiency. The practitioners of this brand of the game seem to be operating on a shared intuition; each piercing run and each penetrative pass seemingly following a pre-scripted routine rehearsed earlier that day. There is a puppetmaster called Iniesta who serves the ball to order, and an unerring marksman known as Villa. But, their showpiece is a character dubbed as ‘Messi’ – an impish conjurer of ability only witnessed once in a lifetime. What is a more, these icons ply their bewitching trade in a steeply banked coliseum hosting a legion of zealous worshippers; they hold vigil with the reverent gaze synonymous to those attending Sunday Mass.
To any self-respecting endorser of the beautiful game this scene is perfection, and is of course the backdrop to the inimitable FC Barcelona. Thankfully for British viewers, a window into this continental idyll can be sought every weekend via Sky Sports’ welcome packaging of La Liga coverage. It should not so much be voluntarily chosen, as mandatorily prescribed as a maximal dose of colour and verve to the uninspired drones of Britain.
The contest that transfixed me, if an exhibition of single-handed excellence really warrants that term contest, was Barcelona’s 6-1 drubbing of perennial mid-tablers Getafe. The gulf in class was palpable, as the apparent rank amateurs of Getafe were twisted and coiled by the rippling incursions of a far superior opposition. Starved of possession from haunting interplay, they were mere schoolboys being toyed with.
What was disarming about the performance was the expression of institutionalised celebration worn by both the adoring crowd and their feted heroes below. Only in the Nou Camp have instances of blissful football become so expectantly commonplace.
At the outset of the article I asserted that creative flair is fleeting, but Barcelona do their utmost to dispel this. Historically, they have always been a decorated side whether fronted by the wizardry of Johan Cruyff in the Seventies, the mastery of Diego Maradona in the Eighties, or the impeccability of Romario in the Nineties. Yet, during the past half-decade the current crop of Barca craftsmen have established a groundbreaking precedent.
Their accomplishments in this period boast three La Liga titles, plus five visits to the semi-final stages of the Champions League including two victories. All are indicative of their calibre, but only inform so much. They are not unbeatable as the valiant Chelsea unit evidenced last year, but whilst they can be outworked they are impossible to outclass. Irrespective of result, Barcelona unfailingly impart moments of footballing majesty – Iniesta’s deft chip to Jordi Alves in the build-up to Barca’s third goal against Getafe will be the indelible recollection endowed to me, not the result.
But eulogies of their style are abound. Luminary Sir Alex Ferguson perhaps depicted Barca’s play most evocatively when he put forth the analogy of a dizzying “midfield carousel”. As indescribable as the Catalan club’s prowess is, their attuned passing and fluid movement is not god-given or preternatural; so what is the blueprint of their success?
The mythical, ‘La Masia’, or the farmhouse as is its direct English translation holds considerable sway in the manufacture of Barcelona’s supremacy in the modern game. Every team has an academy, but La Masia is the Hogwarts of the sporting landscape, with gruelling schedules of intensive academic study garnished by prolonged practice, as youths as callow as eight are cast into the precocious prodigies of Barca’s hereafter. Each starlet’s tuition is centred upon the values of concise interplay and incendiary movement as they are taught to espouse an aesthetically pleasing variant of the game. When indoctrinated over adolescence, this eventually bears fruit in that characteristic one-touch play that the Nou Camp exhibits.
This schooling also explains Barcelona’s relative inactivity in the transfer market; why purchase brilliance when you when it can be harvested in-house?
Equally the academy set-up debunks the almost extra-sensory nature of Barca’s passing. Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique are a spine of the team that have coexisted through the years and tiers of the Youth Academy. Off the pitch they prevailed over puberty together, sipped their first San Miguel in unison, whilst on the pitch they correspondingly tuned in to each other’s style.
Evidently, such familiarity has fathered such methodically accurate interplay.
But what fuels Barca’s swaggering virtuosity is not confined solely to the pitch. The club operates upon the premise of a democratic board with Presidents elected via ballot, a farcry from the anonymous Eastern takeovers which have alienated the faithful of Blackburn and Nottingham Forest. Concurrently, the second-highest grossing Nike store seated in the bowels of the Nou Camp is a Non-Profit organisation. It is owned by the club’s members and represents a bold feat of self-sufficiency.
Seemingly, the more you unearth about the configuration of Barcelona, the more parochial and less corporate life at the pinnacle of football appears. Emblazoned on the team’s crest is the motto “more than a club”; following the outfit you advocate a culture, a passion and most starkly, the Catalan’s war.
The heralding of the club as an extension of Catalan life has developed the strongest sense of identity, and an empowering raison d’etre. For many Catalans nothing is more self-affirming than the battle for independence, and championing an autonomous Catalonia. At times, the Nou Camp’s terraces have staged controversial politicised rallies during matches, as FC Barcelona is leveraged as exposure in a campaign for self-governancy by jingoistic fans.
As if the lure of winning was not sufficient, the likes of Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes and Dani Alves are paraded as the foot-soldiers of a revolution. For the Catalan pulse of Barca this is a national team, and how this stokes the will of the players should not be underestimated.
Nevertheless, as engaging as these justifications for Barcelona’s perfection are, no insight into their imperious play is complete without a passage on Lionel Messi. Guardiola likened his input to that of Michael Jordan’s with the Chicago Bull’s; Maradona anointed him as his successor, whilst Juan Sebastian Veron emphatically highlighted the need to preserve his genius by “putting him in a drawer of my bedside table.”
I would elect to depict him as a ritualistic scorer for his goals haul, and telekinetic in his omnipotent control of a football; however, you have to question my right to express this when at the opening of this article I complained of oppressive writer’s block.
But that is what a trip to the church of FC Barcelona will trigger in you. Football is as art, not a trace of pretence and the game in full health – sporting apathy, consider yourself purged.