Come Wednesday, they’ll beat from a different heart. For the first time in 17 years, Barcelona will make their Champions League bow without Xavi in their midst but if he’s been the pulse of the on-field revolution, then he’s been the mouth of the off-field arrogance that has become unbearable across that time as well. Too often, when evaluating them, that’s overlooked. We’re not questioning their achievements, but we are questioning the balance of historical vision. All in all, they’re the genius artist who knew his worth, took a drink away from the canvas and had a real bad temper.
Some snippets from an interview Xavi gave to the Guardian back in early 2011. “Some teams can’t or don’t pass the ball. What are you playing for? What’s the point? That’s not football… Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education… Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football… Arsenal aren’t the kind of team that come to try to putear you [piss you off, break up a game, destroy the match]… If it was Chelsea, you might think ‘Madre mía, they’re going to leave the initiative to you, wait deep, close up’…”
They were words that exuded the self-congratulatory attitude of a club that have taken it upon themselves to define and then proclaim themselves guardians of the beautiful game. But there’s a ruthless hypocrisy. Indeed two years before that interview, Xavi was there when Chelsea were denied up to four penalties when going out on away goals in the Champions League semi-final. A year before, Sergio Busquets cheated to try and turn the tide against Inter at the same stage. And two months after, he was part of a team that had Dani Alves dive to ensure Pepe was sent off while Pedro feigned facial injuries as his club took over a semi against Real. His response on that occasion? “If Madrid had won it would be a footballing injustice. It is a shame Madrid justify themselves like that.”
There’s no doubting Madrid were every bit as bad and they and others usually are but it goes against the ‘our beauty and those beasts’ ideal that Barcelona allow themselves to be enveloped in. And while we can go through any club’s bending of the rules and come up with a lengthy list, any club doesn’t purport the holier-than-thou myth in the name of marketing. In that regard, too many cheaply buy what they expensively sell, never realising all that makes Barcelona any different is their denial.
Across the seats at the Nou Camp it reads “Més que un club” which is Catalan and means “More than a club”. For most, it would seem a gimmick but within Barcelona they see themselves as the national team and a representation of regional identity. It’s the reason why for 111 years they’d no shirt sponsor so as not to besmirch the Catalan colours. But perhaps better than anything, the tale of that sacred shirt fits the narrative of what the club was and what they now pretend to be.
Back in 2006, Barcelona came to a deal with Unicef to run their name across the jerseys in a gesture that was supposed to be an exception based on an honourable notion. Instead however it became a hard and fast rule about money. By 2011 the Qatar Foundation – a non-profit organisation – came on board and started donating €30m a season. There began the grey area for Barcelona president Sandro Rosell was widely believed to have played a key role in building support for the emirate’s controversial 2022 World Cup bid. Today that shirt deal has been taken to a new level by Qatar Airways paying around €60m. Més que un club? Of course, they are yet another massive football business.
All of this has slotted in with a trend in recent years, with a transfer ban coming about due to the long-time flouting of Fifa rules in places to stop the trafficking of children, to the ongoing fraud lawsuit that it’s claimed saw millions withheld in the transfer of Neymar, to the whipping up of Luis Suarez as soon as the pressure came on Liverpool to offload a player of low-morale standing because of his biting.
It’s naive to think a club would behave differently but it’s arrogant to sell a lie. And yet it’s snapped up and that’s a horrible insight into how football and Barcelona work. A couple of years back in south-east Asia, landing just before the team in Kuala Lumpur, kids were bundled aside by parents to get pictures with cardboard cutouts of Xavi and company while television screens played videos of goals where the product had been polished to the point it shined.
But if Barcelona’s off-field ways have become questionable at best, their route to winning on the field isn’t what they’d have you believe in those montages either. For sure they can still do what no other side can, be it the audacity of Suarez’s two goals against Paris Saint-Germain last season or Messi’s strike in the semi-final where the human mind was coming to terms with his destruction of Jerome Boateng when his nervous system had him flicking the ball to the net. But there’s long been a yin of bullying referees to that yang of the supernatural.
As far back as 2006, Jose Mourinho was drawing attention to their dark side, commenting, “Sometimes there were seven or eight players… It’s not easy for the referee to be always under pressure from the players”. But it’s gotten worse since then from Victor Valdes’ long-time game management to the 2-2 draw in Paris in 2013 right up to last year’s final. Then, just compare the Juventus reaction to Paul Pogba’s 66th-minute penalty claim with Neymar’s false celebration that led to him, Dani Alves and Andres Iniesta forcefully accosting officials when the handball was clear. That’s become a trait every bit as much as their tiki-taka.
Nobody is saying Barcelona haven’t been great but that and being bad for the game aren’t mutually exclusive. And while they kick-off their defence in Rome this week, it’s perhaps fitting that Xavi will be in Qatar where he took a massive pay cheque from Al Saad and, inexplicably, another to sign up as an official ambassador for a World Cup laden with human rights atrocities. With him, Barcelona will tell you the wholesome tale of how he signed for them at 11, earned €24 and bought his mother a toaster. But just as with the club, that’s now only part of the story.
Sunday Business Post
13 September, 2015