Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Messi Game

Last Saturday, the world’s greatest soccer player, Lionel Messi, led FC Barcelona to the UEFA Champion’s League title in a convincing 3-1 win over Manchester United. The Champion’s League final is Europe’s version of the Super Bowl. Only it’s bigger. This year’s final match was a true clash of titans. Man U and Barca both have storied histories and massive followings and have been the class of Europe over the past several years. By capturing its 3rd European title in six seasons, Barcelona can legitimately claim to be one of the greatest teams of all time. But more than that, Barca’s win represented an aesthetic triumph of style and skill. Something like beauty.

Soccer fans in Europe and South America (especially Brazil) call their sport, “the Beautiful Game” a name that might seem ironic to soccer haters in the U.S. To be fair, many American skeptics do give soccer a chance every four years. They’ll watch a game or two at the World Cup. They’ll see long-haired foreigners flopping to the ground and kicking each other as often as they kick the ball. They’ll see players moaning in agony at real or imagined injury. They’ll see more yellow cards than shots on goal. They’ll see a 1-0 game decided by questionable refereeing and a penalty kick. And they’ll say “Beautiful Game? Are you kidding me?”

And they have a point. The last few World Cups, though thrilling at times, have delivered more clunkers than gems. It’s not surprising to discover that the best professional clubs often play soccer at a higher level than national teams playing in International Tournaments. When Brazil, Argentina, France or Italy, send a team to the World Cup, it’s a bit like the U.S. sending a basketball team to the Olympics. Some of the player selections are political, the players are often spent, they have little history of playing together, and there is little time to practice. You get a collection of superstars, rather than a truly cohesive team.

But to watch Barcelona is to watch soccer at its finest. When their players have possession of the ball, they rarely lose it. They attack relentlessly with a short, one-touch passing game, constant motion and one daring give-and-go after another. The blend of technical proficiency and sheer artistry is, at times, breathtaking. It’s a style that is embodied in the play of midfielders Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and above all, Messi. The diminutive Argentine is only 23 but he looks even younger. With his floppy bangs and impish grin, he looks like a slacker skateboard kid. But when the ball is at his feet, he is magic.

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan author of the elegant Soccer in Sun and Shadow laments the way money and the pressures of winning have all but stamped out the poetry of the game. It’s a complaint that will resonant with fans of other sports too. But in Messi, he sees a shining ray of light.

“No one plays with as much joy as Messi does,” Galeano told the New York Times. “He plays like a child enjoying the pasture, playing for the pleasure of playing, not the duty of winning.” But of course, he also wins.

FC Barcelona’s motto is mas que un club (more than a club). Because soccer fanaticism is a world-wide phenomenon, this motto could well describe any number of teams with a rich history and rabid supporters. But it carries special meaning in Barcelona, where the football club is tied to a certain political or cultural identity and is regarded as the flagship of Catalan nationalism. For decades, under Franco’s rule, Barca became a powerful source of Catalan identity and a vehicle for political expression. (The fascinating history of the club is well-documented in Barca by Jimmy Burns).

The attraction of FC Barcelona extends far beyond Catalonia and Spain. In his book How Soccer Explains the World Franklin Foer, an editor with The New Republic, describes his first visit to Camp Nou, Barca’s stadium, where the museum dedicated to the football club had just opened in 1994. A young American abroad, he marveled at the enthusiasm shown by visitors, young and old, for artifacts and sepia photographs.

“I felt like a nonbeliever watching a religious pilgrimage,” wrote Foer. “And the sheer depth of their faith made me a believer too.”

I know what he means. I had a similar experience when I visited Camp Nou eight years later. When you walk amongst the trophy display cases and old blue and red striped shirts and the ghosts of the stadium, you may as well be walking through a cathedral. You are left with the unshakable feeling that FC Barcelona, no less than Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the Barri Gotic or the Picasso Museum, is a part of the city’s soul. You couldn’t hope to understand one without the other.

But Foer was also drawn to Barca for other reasons. For soccer happy Americans, it’s easy to be enticed by the quality and excitement of European soccer, but it’s more difficult to actually find a team to support. Within every large club, there seems to lurk a strain of xenophobia, racism or nationalistic fervor that strikes an ugly chord. One is drawn to the passion and the energy and the idea that here is a game that actually matters. But there is a dark side to this passion. Under the colorful banner of a club, national and ethnic pride turn easily to chauvinism or worse, especially in the terraces of stadiums where alcohol and unemployment levels run high. But in the blue and red of FC Barcelona, Foer found a balance, between Catalan provincialism and liberal tolerance, between local pride and cosmopolitan openness. This tension produces a unique and creative energy that is an indispensible part of the city of Barcelona itself.

Liberals also love an underdog. Never mind that when Foer visited Camp Nou , Barca was already the second most successful team in the history of Spanish football. Barca’s fans and players all saw Real Madrid’s historic dominance as yet another part of Franco’s oppressive dictatorship. To root for FC Barcelona was to cheer against totalitarianism. No wonder Foer joined the ranks of the blaugrana faithful.

Today, it seems absurd to imagine Barca as an underdog. On the field, they are imperious. They’ve won 21 Spanish League titles including the last three. Only Real Madrid, AC Milan and Liverpool have won more European championships. Like any other giant club, they spend enormous amounts of cash buying international stars (though they still retain a nucleus of local Catalan players – Xavi, Carles Puyol, etc.). And if their fans were merely prideful, these days, they can be arrogant and overbearing. But the way their team plays, I can hardly blame them.

Like Foer, I too became captivated by the style and legacy of FC Barcelona but unlike him, I already had a European team. When I visited London in 1999, I got my first taste of English football. I watched Arsenal play in their old ground, Highbury (which struck me as the Wrigley Field of soccer) and I was hooked. In recent years, Barca has made life difficult for Arsenal, defeating the Gunners in the Champion’s League finals in 2006 and knocking them out of the tournament in each of the past two seasons. A quarterfinal match in April of 2010 saw Barca dismantle Arsenal 4-1 with Messi scoring all four goals. It was the finest display of soccer I have ever seen.

It called to mind Eduardo Galeano, who, as a boy in Montevideo rooted for Nacional. But one day, he found himself admiring the brilliant play of Juan Schiaffino and Julio Abbadie even though they played for the hated cross-city rival, Penarol. Galeano then had a realization:

“I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: “A pretty move, for the love of of God.” And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”



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