Category Archives: Barcelona

Capità

I wrote a eulogy for Barça two years ago. It’s possibly more appropriate now that the era is finally ending with Carles Puyol announcing the end of his time as a Barça player. While this Barça era’s high point were the teams built around Xavi, it’s an era which has really been dominated by Puyol’s spell as captain.

It’s even more personal for me. My time as a serious Barça fan has coincided with Puyol’s time with the club. I became serious in the late 90s and went through a lot of growing pains and heartbreak in those early years. As a former defender, I’ve naturally been inclined to prefer defenders when it comes to picking favorite players. Puyol quickly became my favorite player with both Spain and Barça in those years just based on how he played on the pitch.

When Puyol became captain in 2004 though, everything fell into place. We finally won La Liga again and went on to win a lot more. I also got to see that there was a lot more to him than how he played on the pitch. There are lots of highlight packages on the webs right now—thundering headers and crunching, yet clean, tackles that I’ve been watching and rewatching. But what I’m really remembering is everything else that Puyol embodies—none of which can be YouTubed. If Xavi is the brains of the team, Puyol is the heart, soul, and engine. And the moral compass.

It’s been an honor to just watch him set the example of everything we, as fans, want our favorite athletes to be. He’s a loyal fan of the club he plays for and cares about the colors more than any other fan could. He’s never rocked the boat regarding salary or anything else. He’s been a consummate professional regarding fair play and respecting opponents. He’s always working his ass off for the team and exhorting everyone else to do the same.

He’s even more impressive off the pitch.

The way he’s gone out of his way to honor teammates, ex-teammates, and coaches—giving the armband to Abidal after the 2011 Champions League Final being the best example here—has been beyond classy. His quiet funding of Miki Roqué’s cancer treatments is even more impressive.

I’ve never been embarrassed by anything he’s done—even his exit is perfect. He’s not hanging on too long. He’s recognized that he can’t maintain the level he needs to maintain for the club. He’s giving the club enough warning and time to really look for a replacement.* He’s even kept the club from having to make any difficult decisions here.

*In some ways, he’s forcing the club’s hand.

It’s not supposed to be like this. Aging player situations are messy and emotional even when handled well.* But Puyol is different. He’s always been different and we’ll never see another player like him.

*It’s even worse when they’re not.

I’m thankful and lucky I picked him as my favorite player over a dozen years ago. I’m going to miss him a lot when he’s gone.

Només un negoci

Today’s Eric Abidal news has me re-reading my head versus heart post. I’m typically cold blooded with how I expect the business side of sports teams to be run. I certainly don’t like to pretend that I have any business commenting on an player’s contract situation. But today upset me more than I expected and it’s taken me a while to figure out why.

I’m not upset with the decision. I’m upset with the way it was handled and the callous disregard to human decency that it reveals. There are perfectly good reasons to conclude that he was no longer a reliable Barça-quality player. This is cancer we’re talking about. A best-case scenario has him being available for only 33% of  the time. He’s not a young player.

None of those reasons are new.

Yet the team appears to have led everyone on for the past season and has been using the Abidal story as a way of claiming a moral high ground about how the club has a soul. All that appears to now have been opportunism.

None of those reasons were mentioned.

Instead we got “sporting” reasons and nods to consensus among the staff—essentially sharing the blame. It’s telling though that no one could articulate any reasons. It’s especially telling that the president of the club actually dodged answering specific questions about the reasons. So we get an extra layer of dishonesty to go with our disappointment in seeing a beloved player leave.

For a while it looked like Barça was indeed more than a club and could be counted on to take the moral high ground. This was a club with a heart and a soul which I could be proud to be a fan of. Even though I know that both the heart and the soul were new phenomenons,* I wanted to believe it would last.

*Historically, Barça has never done well with end-of-contract stuff.

But things have slowly been chipped away. We now have corporate advertising on the shirts. Club membership is no longer open to the world. Players are released with little warning and without regard to any prior service or commitment.

As much as I joke about my team being back, I’m feeling the betrayal of so much of the positive direction I thought we were headed in. And that stings more than any sporting loss.

Més que un club has turned out to mean només un negoci. Only a business. Not even a good business at that. Barça has turned into the kind of business which demands employee loyalty but constantly reminds its employees that company loyalty is a one-way street. I wouldn’t blame any player for being on the lookout for other offers. Nor would I hold it against him if he left for those reasons.

Today’s news serves as a reminder about how we should enjoy the truly special teams. That special team is truly done now. Many of the players remain but the soul of the team is gone. Soul is not useful from a sporting point of view so we’ve let it go on a free transfer.

I only kept two recordings from that team—the manita against Madrid and the Champions League Final where Abidal lifted the cup. It’s time to watch them again.

Head vs Heart

Fans, have absolutely no right to have any say in the terms and conditions of players.

—Marvin Miller

When Marvin Miller died in late November, I was prompted to begin a blogpost about my attempts to be a rational sports fan. Sports, and sports fandom, is inherently irrational. We root for laundry and hate any reminders that players are mercenaries. At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly obvious how important market forces are to the sports landscape and smart fans have to be aware of their team’s budget situation when it comes to maintaining the roster as well as the needs of the players.

We tend to forget—and hate being reminded—that the players are people and playing sports is their job.Instead, we hold them to unreasonable standards based on what we want. When it comes to my expectations from players, it takes my best efforts to balance my heart with my head.

Whenever a player approaches the end of his contract things always get weird. If the player is important to the team, things get really weird. If the player is approaching retirement, things get extremely weird.

Is the player still invested in the team if he doesn’t have a new contract?* Is the team going to overpay him to stay?** Is he holding the for ransom?*** Is the reason I want him to stay more sentimental than reasonable?****

*Yes. As long as he’s not flying all over to negotiate.

**Overpay in this case refers to what portion of the team’s income is being spent on this player. This is not a reflection of what the player could get on the open market. If a team overpays a player, it means that it’s allocated too large a portion of its resources to that player.

***Essentially trying to be overpaid.

****Especially players approaching retirement.

I’ve been sitting on this post though because I haven’t felt much like finishing it. Thanks to Victor Valdés, I feel like I have to. The reactions to his announcement that he doesn’t intend to renew his contract have baffled me and provide a perfect case study for the kind of irrational behavior fans fall into.

Victor has given notice that he doesn’t intend to sign another contract for Barcelona once his current one expires in 2014. The reactions from a number of Barça fans has been to treat this as a betrayal which hurts the team and indicates that he should be sold today.

I don’t get it.

The only way announcing his plans early hurts the team is that it supposedly means other teams can try and extract higher transfer fees since they know we have to buy a keeper. And that assumes that there aren’t multiple keepers who we’re going after.

Oh, and it also means that we lose out on any transfer fee when we sell him. If we sell him. And if there’s only one team interested in him (or one location where he wants to go).

I’m going to categorically dismiss any claims that he’s unsettling the team or no longer committed. He is a professional. He’ll do his job as long as he’s under contract.

The Valdés situation is an example of how irrational and impossible the situation is for players. Fans want him to stay. Anything else is unacceptable. If he’s decided to leave, is he supposed to lie for the next year and a half?* Is he supposed to string the team along and not tell them what the plan is?** Is having a discussion about “Is he or isn’t he?” every press conference somehow less disruptive?***

* I can understand the outrage if fans feel like they’ve been lied to. That sucks indeed. But in to kill someone for telling the truth? 

**As if that wouldn’t unsettle the team. Uncertainty is always more unsettling than certainty.

***Also much more likely to unsettle players is having to be reminded of things which aren’t related to the games they’re playing.

I applaud him for telling the truth and not making trying to extort the team for too much money. And I thank him for making it perfectly clear what situation any new keeper Barça signs is going to be entering.

I also don’t begrudge him, or any other player, seeking the biggest possible payday. Though I tend to believe that the largest paydays are often indications that an organization isn’t run well and so, should be treated with some suspicion. Likewise, I don’t blame any player for refusing to renegotiate his contract down in order to make up for a club’s stupid business decision.

The flip side of this is that I find myself becoming somewhat cold blooded when it comes to aging players. Aging players are typically overpaid in that their skills are in decline and they can’t be expected to maintain, let alone increase, their levels for future seasons. It makes no sense to pay them as much or sign them to long-term deals. Yet they’re typically the ones which get the largest, and longest-term deals.

If an aging player also happens to be a fixture/icon of the team? Look out. Heartbreak dead ahead. It’s true with baseball and it’s true with any other sport. There is an age at which everyone is expected to get worse. What do we do with those players? Do we sell an icon of the team a year early? Do we keep him a year too long and let him embarrass himself? Is the break up amicable? Are we paying him too much? Could he get one last big payday somewhere else? Lots of questions. No good answers.

I tend to fall into the sell early and give him an option for one last big payday somewhere else camp. Yes, this means that I would be willing to sell Xavi or Puyol right now. But that’s my head talking. My heart will root for the team no matter what.

Winning

It’s been a couple weeks now since the Giants won the World Series and I’ve been thinking about the difference in my reaction to the Giants’ continued success than  the way I react to Spain’s or Barcelona’s.* With the Giants, I’m still in the afterglow of the 2010 victory and treating 2012 as a bonus. With Spain and Barça, I find myself wanting continued success and being disappointed in any hiccups.

*Since my last post, I’ve watched Spain win Euro2012 and the Giants win the World Series.

I’m tempted to chalk these differences up to a baseball vs soccer thing but they’re not. I enjoy both sports as much for the down time as the exciting moments. Soccer is perhaps a bit more passionate but not enough to really explain the way I feel.

A large part of this is the expectations game. I still don’t expect the Giants to win. Every year I hope for the best and expect the worst. But Spain and Barça begin each competition as THE favorite now where the expectation is winning. I won’t reach the point where I start rooting against them because of the expectation. But I can admit that while the past six years have been extraordinarily special, they have taken some of the shine off winning.

Another part is the nature of the teams themselves. Baseball teams have a lot of turnover now. The Giants are no exception. There are only a few important players on this year’s team who were also important in 2010. While I root for laundry, the connection to the players is still important. And continuity is key here. The Giants are in the position to start a great thing. We’ll see how long Posey, Cain, and company can maintain the core of the team and forge a connection with the fanbase.

This hasn’t been Barça or Spain’s problem. The core of those teams has been constant for longer than they’ve had success. And it’s my connection with those players which drives a lot of my desire for continued success. I want to see them do well and I dislike it when they play poorly. As a result, I find myself caring a lot more about their games.

It could also be that it’s the amount of my life I’ve invested in each team. I’ve invested twice as much time in the Giants as I have in Barça. And while Barça was always good, the Giants have been all over the map. Maybe the longer you watch a team not win a championship corresponds to a longer afterglow when that win finally arrives.

Homage to Xavi

My internet behavior tends to be positive. I try to contribute to discussions rather than attack people. I even avoid trolling.

Most of the time.

But there’s something about the “best player ever” discussion in sports which brings out the worst in me. I suspect that it’s the myopic fanboy nature of the arguments where they degenerate into trying to tear down players as “not being that great” rather than making a case for which player is actually greater.

Recently, I was reading* a “Messi is the best ever” thread which degenerated into a Messi vs. Maradona showdown. Since the thread was in a Barça forum, I decided to troll with a “you’re all wrong, Xavi is the best player ever” comment.

*Well, skimming.

Yes, this counts as trolling for me. Any time I make a comment which is intended to provoke rather than be an accurate reflection of my opinions? One step toward the dark side of the internet. Only in this case, I surprised myself by posting a disingenuous comment which ended up being so convincing that I ended up believing it.

Soccer is a team sport. In many ways, it’s the team sport since it can’t be distilled into stats which show what individual players contribute. You have to really watch and see how the teams play and there’s still a sense of connoisseurship in recognizing brilliance and quality. At the same time, results do matter. And sustaining results over years make a statement.

In 2006, after coming back from his injury, Xavi became the key player for both FC Barcelona and the Spanish National Team. He had already been a very good player* but he was always playing on someone else’s team. Between 2006 and 2008, both teams became indelibly his—despite the fact that he was not the marquee star of either of them.

*I remember at the time being ecstatic that he’d make it to the 2006 World Cup. Yes, this is me being a hipster.

It’s easy to focus on the star goalscorers in soccer. It’s the only stat we really have and it is important. But it’s the rare player who can actually take control of a game and dictate the way it’s played. Xavi is such a player. Barça and Spain both made the commitment to play games centered on him, his playing style, and his philosophy. He, and his ethos, embodies both teams and he remains the player which both teams need right now in order to play their best.

We forget this now, but in Euro 2008, the only Barça players getting regular minutes were Xavi, Puyol, and Iniesta. Spain looks like a Messi-less Barça now, but the similarities started when both teams built around Xavi.

As a fan, I’m most concerned when Xavi is not available since I don’t have the confidence that the team will be able to control the match without him.

So if we’re talking about players who take over matches and embody/espouse the philosophy of their teams, we have to look at the teams and how they play. And what they’ve done.

Xavi’s teams? Since 2006? He has won every team competition possible. Twice. Except for the World Cup—a competition only two men have ever won more than once.

Not only that, but Xavi’s Barça is arguably the best team of all time. And Xavi’s Spain is arguably the best national team of all time. Not just because they’ve both won, but because of how they’ve won and the fact that the style in which they play and win is both ruthless in how it get imposed on opponents and astoundingly beautiful to watch.

At the center of all the success is Xavi.* Dictating play. Demanding the ball. Holding the ball. Sending passes into spaces players—and the rest of us—never realized they should be running into.

*Do yourself a favor and read both Sid Lowe’s and Grant Wahl’s interviews with him.

The sad thing that that we’ll only realize how great he was when he retires and his teams have to figure out how to play without him. I do not look forward to that day.

The only silver lining is that Xavi’s retirement will allow us to see how truly great Messi and Iniesta are. As Spain and Barça have to re-invent themselves, we’ll see two great players have the opportunity to stamp their own philosophies on the teams. Right now, both players are playing on Xavi’s team. I hope Iniesta’s team and Messi’s team bring me the same joy. But matching Xavi’s teams is an extraordinarily high standard.

Xavi’s teams.

Playing his style, his philosophy of soccer.

If I get to build a team around one player? Xavi. How is that NOT the definition of best player ever?

“Eulogy”

Winning is hard.

Repeating is harder.

Being the favorite is even harder.

Expecting to win everything is irrational and impossible.

And it takes the fun out of actually winning. It’s not the end of an era. Yet.* But this Barça season has felt like a return to form for me. The Barça I fell in love with was a great team which constantly came close and specialized in breaking fans’ hearts. Yes, it did win a lot. But not nearly as often as it came close and lost.

*That comes when Xavi and Puyol retire—yeah, I don’t want to think about it either.

The double-whammy of effectively losing La Liga and then getting knocked out of the Champions League in back-to-back games is especially harsh—especially to new followers who aren’t used to the spastic panicky Barça which broke/stole my heart so often a decade ago.

Many of those followers are now leaving. To those that stay, welcome to the club. This season is much more in-line with expectations. Compete well in everything.* Play beautifully. Break our hearts anyway.**

*That the Senyera symbolizes everything Barcelona is perfectly fitting. Its origen may be a myth but the club’s colors represent the blood, sweat, and tears that come from competing fully.

**Though to be honest, that everyone is despondent after a season where we’ve won three trophies and are in the final for a fourth goes to show how spoiled we all still are.

I’m pleased though to see so many fans who are reacting to the losses with pride. They should be proud. We should be proud. The past week of Barça soccer has put the past four years in perspective. It reminds us how much we should remember and enjoy this team. We’ve been so dominant and played so beautifully that people have forgotten how hard it is to maintain that quality.

Any fan would kill for a period of success like we’ve had.

Despite all the eulogies we’ll see in the press this week, it’s not like things are over. Next season just got really really interesting. The rivalry with Madrid will take on a new face where Barça may be the underdog. Similarly, we’ll be playing the entire season with a chip on our shoulder and something to prove.

There’s nothing like losing to remind us how good winning is.

I’m looking forward to next season. A lot. Fewer bandwagon fans. More dark humor where expecting the worst isn’t considered patronizing. And another chance to make history.

Hipster or Gloryhunter?

There was a blog post recently on the 5 stages of sporting—specifically Barcelona—success. It went off the internet surprisingly fast (EDIT: it’s posted again now) but the five stages are as follows:

  1. Skepticism
  2. Jubilation
  3. Evangelization
  4. Defense
  5. Acceptance

I found it to be almost 100% correct. You start off as a fan hoping for the best but expecting the worst. So when things keep going well, you’re just waiting for the hammer to come down and crush your dreams. And it usually does.

If it doesn’t? On to stage two. Celebrate like crazy. Buy something.

Stage two is the best. You appreciate winning and everyone else is happy for you and indulges you in your happiness.

Then you keep winning and things get complicated. Stages three and four come sort of intermixed. Stage three involves you being so excited that you tell anyone who will listen about your team. Stage four involves other people who are tired of hearing all about your team trying to tear you down.

Stage five is for after you’ve decided you’re through with all that crap and are just going to enjoy the team as it is.

Back to stages three and four. Any of us lucky enough to support a dynasty has gone through both of those. And those two stages sort of feed on each other. Stage three implicitly involves converting casual fans to become bandwagon fans. Even though those fans end up annoying us later.

As a result we turn into sports hipsters in stage four. We defend our credentials as fans by saying that we’ve been around before success and liked the team before it was good. We also feel compelled to defend our team against everyone who goes beyond rooting against the frontrunner and starts making accusations of referee bias, etc.

For any of us non-locals though, the sad truth is that at the end of it all, as long as the team is winning, we’re stuck as either bandwagon gloryhunters or hipsters who remember the times before the current success.

I’m in stage five now and accept that I’m a hipster.

Anti-Duke

I used to really like March Madness. I was lucky enough to attend Stanford when its men’s team went to the Final Four. And I was smart enough to know that that success wouldn’t stay around forever. So my interest has waned a bit as my rooting interests have stopped being competitive. Coupled with Taylor Branch’s article last October, I was half expecting to not be interested in the tournament at all this year.

But as always, once the brackets came out and games started being played, I found myself lapsing into old habits and following the scores, supporting the underdogs, and rooting against Duke.

This year though, I found myself questioning why I’m anti-Duke since, in many ways, Duke embodies what I like seeing in the teams I support.

At the same time, there’s something which turns me off. Still. To the best of my understanding, it’s a reaction to how Duke is constantly portrayed as having the best coach, best fans, and what the sport should be about. Which makes me realize that I would probably root against Barcelona now had I not jumped on the bandwagon before they were the “greatest team ever.”

This isn’t just about gloryhunting or being a sports hipster. It’s about the sense of entitlement and expectation of success which accompanies certain teams* and their followers. And I’m disappointed to see that Barca is one of those teams now. When a fanbase takes on the persona that it feels entitled to victory, I instinctively root against that team. Same thing when the media hype machine seizes on a team or athlete.

*e.g. The Yankees, or Real Madrid

In many ways, I think this encapsulates a lot of my approach to all sports. I tend to root for the comeuppance storyline. People feeling entitled to a win?* Root against. People making the storyline about something bigger which has nothing to do with sports?** Root against. Big time media hype? Root against.

*This includes conspiracy theorists, referee blamers, and the irrationally angry since those are all manifestations of entitlement—i.e. we only lose unfairly.

**Basically any story except plucky underdog (e.g. Jeremy Lin) or redemption (e.g. Ghana’s 2012 ACN)

Especially with those sports where I don’t care as much about the style of play. I would have a hard time truly rooting against the current Barça team because of how they play the game. Ball movement, the use of space, pulling defense out of shape, etc. are all what I consider beautiful about soccer.* It’s what I like about hockey too. And what I enjoy when I watch basketball.

*I used to dislike North Carolina even more than Duke but I don’t anymore. I’ve found myself enjoying watching UNC play, mainly because the secondary break is closer to what I enjoy watching.

With basketball though, things too often degenerate into one-on-one play, impatient three-point shots, and tunnel-vision fast breaks. It’s too easy for one player to take over. So my interest wanes and I end up rooting for the team in dark jerseys.

I suppose this also explains why I can’t stand watching the NBA.

Enjoy it

The score never interested me, only the game

—May West

Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football. [...] There’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.

Xavi

Expanding a bit on my comment to a post on the Barcelona Football Blog about how we should take the time to enjoy the team as it is right now.

As a college sports fan, I know that great teams only last a couple seasons before everyone graduates. And I know how infrequently the truly great teams come along. I’ve learned to enjoy the teams as they come and not rue any lack of ultimate success. Winning championships is great. But so are cinderella runs into a tournament. Upsets hurt. But they don’t negate a great season. They can’t. There’s never a “next year” with a college team. Each year is always a new team to appreciate and remember.

In the professional realm, we live in an age of mercenary players with international fan followings who support the players rather than the teams they play for. Having a dynasty of a team with a core of long-term homegrown players isn’t how things are done anymore. Fans of big teams expect success immediately and don’t tolerate anything less than winning everything. And the method of achieving that success often doesn’t matter. In fact, lack of success is often taken as an injustice rather than a legitimate sporting outcome.

Yet for the past 6 years, the Barça universe has existed in its own stolen season outside of the typical professional sports world. The core players and philosophy have been consistent and the style of play is a joy to watch. I know that it won’t last. It can’t. It’s not how sports works. Xavi and Puyol will retire soon. Messi and Iniesta will age. Others will take their places but the magic is doomed to eventually go away.

This is a team I’ll be telling other people about in 20 years. I’m glad I’ve recorded a couple games for posterity since I’ll want to be able to pull them up and demonstrate why people are still rhapsodic about FC Barcelona from this time period. Did they win? Yes.

But they’re remembered for how they played the game.

Rivals

True to his word, Miguel followed it up with a post which has me thinking a bit both on why I started following Barça as well as the greater implication of what it means to take part in a rivalry.

I’ve told my Barça origin story before but I haven’t been completely honest about it. I’ve always had an affinity toward the underdog and a tendency to avoid the most-popular choices. When I chose to be a Barça fan, it was with the full knowledge that the team I was choosing was somewhat dysfunctional and carried a lot of historical baggage. Yes, it was also a successful big club with big stars, but it wasn’t the big bandwagon club.

This is also due to soccer’s relative unimportance in America at the time. But I really came of age as a fan during the Gaspart years and learned a lot about how the club is expected to sabotoge any success and can break the hearts of its fans in the cruelest ways possible.

Where Real Madrid was the Yankees, Barça was the Red Sox.

While this analogy still holds, it means something completely different now than it did before 2004. I kind of miss the previous world even though I enjoy the current one where the former ne’er-do-well teams are now yearly contenders and the former top dogs have had a long run without ultimate success despite their payrolls.

In short, I miss the Real Madrid from the early 2000s. It was nice to have a rival which I respected and which I knew would approach the game in the correct manner. There were no players I actively hated for how they played the game* and I looked forward to the clásicos even though I was never at all confident of a result.

*The Figo situation was about betrayal, not about playing style. I understand the fan anger but I do not condone the pig tossing and abuse.

It was an honor to be able to call them our rivals and contrasts greatly with the current situation where there is so much bad blood between the players and in the press that it’s almost impossible to stay above the fray. All of us risk getting pulled into the trap of fanaticism and hate and it’s getting to the point where many of us are actively wishing to avoid playing our rival.

It’s not even too much of a good thing. It’s just too much.

Some of my thinking may be helped by the fact that I’m not Catalán and so do not understand the history and hatred which resulted from the Franco years. Barça is not a proxy for any of my politics. But most of my sense of what a proper rivalry is comes from my college years.

Stanford and Cal are rivals, but they don’t hate each other. Not really. The rivalry cuts across all aspects of the universities—sports, Nobel Prizes, Robber Barons, etc.—and most of the people associated with the schools realize that maintaining a rivalry like this requires mutual respect. It’s no great achievement to do better than something which sucks. The quality of your rival should push you to do even better.

Which means that I root for Cal whenever they’re not in direct competition with Stanford and appreciate Cal’s academic achievements since I know that they’ll force Stanford to keep pace.

Where’s the fun in a rivalry dominated by hate and cheating? It’s far more enjoyable to be better because you were pushed to do so.