Monday, May 30, 2011

An American Culé in London

So I'm back, with my ears still ringing.

Why I Went

I've been a member of FC Barcelona since 2007, but in that time, I haven't been to a game. (Insert standard reference to wife, kids, and job.) The only Barca match I had attended before Saturday was on September 9, 2001, the home opener against Rayo Vallecano. I had proposed to my wife in the city two days before, so my political capital was high. This was not a good period for the club, as they had finished fourth the previous year only by virtue of one of the all-time great clutch goals:

and they would finish fourth again. The match was a harbinger of a pedestrian season, as the team drew 1-1. The result flattered Barca, as their goal was an own-goal by Rayo and Rayo also managed to hit both posts with one shot late in the game. Before Saturday, that was the sum total of Barca matches that I had attended in person.

As a member of the club, I get e-mails on a fairly regular basis regarding the process for applying for home and road Champions League tickets. Typically, when I get the e-mails, I forward them to my Delta employee brother to ask about flights, he responds, and then I invent a reason not to go, usually because it would involve missing 2-3 days of work. When I got the e-mail about applying for tickets to the Wembley Final, I finally grew a pair. The fact that the game was on a Saturday instead of a Tuesday or Wednesday helped. I was aided by asking three different friends “how much would you pay to see your favorite team in a championship game?” and received a uniform response of “$1,000.” I was also aided by my saint of a wife telling me that she supported the decision because, as she put it, “you work hard and it’s not like you spend a lot of money on clothes.”

I was also motivated by the historical implications of the match. For Barca, this was the chance to make their definitive case as one of the greatest club sides of all-time. Three Champions League titles in six years is no small feat, especially when no team as repeated since the creation of the Champions League from the European Cup in 1992. Winning the third of those titles against Manchester United – the kings of England – at Wembley would be a colossal exclamation mark at the end of a season that was preceded by the nucleus of this Barca side winning the World Cup and included the famous 5-0 win over Real Madrid that kicked the “greatest team ever?” discussion into high gear. Additionally, the number of players and coaches involved made this a target rich match in terms of telling my grandkids “I saw this guy live”: Sir Alex Ferguson, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar in their final games,* Wayne Rooney, and the Ferdinand-Vidic pairing on one side; Pep Guardiola, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, the Xavi-Iniesta fulcrum, David Villa, and Leo Messi on the other. As a history major who still has regrets over my decisions not to go to the Braves game that turned out to be Randy Johnson's perfect game, as well as the 1996 Michigan-Ohio State game in Columbus (I sold my ticket thinking that Michigan was going to get slaughtered and that anyone wearing maize and blue would be drawn and quartered), this was too much to pass up.

* – The first Champions League Final I ever watched was Ajax 1 Milan 0 in the 1995 Vienna Final. Van der Sar was the goalie for Ajax in that match and the announcer (JP Dellacamera, I think) made a point of noting that he was young and would be nervous playing against a Milan side that was in fully dynastic mode. Van der Sar had a nervous moment or two in the first half, but settled down and ended up with a clean sheet against the defending Champions League winners. There was a nice closing of a circle that van der Sar played in the first Final that I watched and then his final match was the first Final I attended.

The Lead-up

Being a risk-averse person who had spent $120 on a ticket that I described as once in a lifetime and who was also lucky to have gotten the right to buy a ticket (96,000 of Barca’s 175,000 members applied for the 16,000 tickets available to members, which means that I won a one-in-six bet),* I was on the train to Wembley three hours before the match.

* - One nice thing about Barcelona: every member has an equal chance to get tickets to big events like Champions League Finals. Most clubs would reserve their allotments for season ticket holders. Barca has a democratic structure, so all members can apply. I suppose that a guy who went to 15 games at the Nou Camp this year could be annoyed that someone like me didn't go to a game all year and then got to go to the Champions League Final, but I watch the games, I buy the jerseys (or at least I did before the new sponsor), and I click on the links. Surely I count for something. Barca's structure does have its downsides - the public tapping up of players during elections is one obvious examples - but there are a lot of upsides to a club owned by the members.

The experience was great. Barca and United fans were bantering in a friendly manner the entire time. For the entire day, I didn’t see one verbal altercation, let alone a physical one. Maybe the language barrier between the fans helped, or maybe there is a level of respect between the fans that was accentuated by the verbal bouquets being tossed back and forth between the players and managers during the week. The United fans were singing their song about going to Wembley:

And the Barca fans were just grinning at our good luck to be playing at Wembley again.*

* – Being a Barca fan is a little like being in the Eagles. We have about six songs and we sing them in concert in a rotation. It’s not hard for a non-Spanish/Catalan speaker to pick the songs up quickly, especially thanks to a helpful video from BarcaLoco:

After my wife, my brother, Johan Cruyff, and Lady Luck, I have to give thanks to BarcaLoco because without this tutoiral, I would have looked like even more of an idiot than I already did as a non-Spanish speaking Barca fan. In contrast Being a United fan is more like being in Dylan’s band. There are dozens of songs and you never know which one is going to be sung. “Hey, it’s Mascherano, let’s sing the song about shitting in your Liverpool slums! No, not the one about Scousers not having job, the one about shitting.”

I noticed more Barca fans in the street headed toward the game and surmised that the United fans would be in the pubs until shortly before kickoff. This played out in the stadium, as the Barca end was full and singing well before the United end. Similarly, I saw more Barca fans on Friday when I was tooling around London, but I chalked that up to the fact that Barca fans would be more likely to see the tourist sites (Tate Modern, Tate Britain, and the British Museum, in my case) than United fans who have probably been to London on dozens of prior occasions.

The Match

Needless to say, the match lived up to billing. Barca put on a signature performance, better than their performance against United in Rome two years ago. (Interestingly, Guardiola said after the match that when he rewatched the Rome Final in the preparation for this match, he wasn’t overly impressed by his team’s performance.) Brian Phillips did a great job of describing the effort:

Barcelona’s performance in the second half is going to be talked about in hushed tones for a while, and deservedly so. The most impressive thing, to me, was that they won by doing exactly what they wanted. Matches at this level tend to be decided, if not by penalties, then by lucky bounces (Xabi Alsono getting his penalty rebound in ’05, Inzaghi deflecting Pirlo’s free kick in ’07), sudden breakthroughs (Iniesta in the World Cup final), goals squeezed in after a scramble in the box. Yesterday, though, each of Barcelona’s forwards scored from open play, with each of their midfielders contributing an assist. They had 63% of the possession and 12 shots on target (to one for Man Utd—Rooney’s goal). Messi scored in England, even if it was in London on a Saturday night. Valdes didn’t have to make a save. They played exactly their game, and their game worked exactly the way it’s supposed to, and the second-or-third-best team in the world was basically powerless to frustrate them. If soccer is about realizing a collective intention against the limitations imposed by the game and the resistance imposed by the opponent, then Barcelona epitomized soccer yesterday. Forget the backlash, your anti-mass-media skepticism, conspiracy theories, blog rage, and Heineken. If you love sports you were lucky to watch that.

Alex Ferguson said that his team was beaten by "the best team we have ever played." Just like in Rome, Barca had a nervy first ten minutes when United were on them like a pack of wolves. Also like in Rome, Barca grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck after that, dominating possession and restricting United into a smaller and smaller defensive area. Unable to keep the ball, United started hoofing long balls to Rooney and Chicharito, which was an odd strategy in light of the fact that neither of their forwards are big guys. Route one to the Little Pea is never a good idea. Barca struck on 27 minutes and for six minutes, I was thinking that this was going to be Athens ‘94 (Milan 4 Barca 0; the beginning of the end of the Barca Dream team) in reverse. Then, Rooney scored out of nothing - a terrific goal that showed that he would not be out of place in this Barca side with his ability to pass and move - and the United fans let out an unholy roar from the other end of Wembley. Game on. For the next several minutes, it felt like I had to force myself to sing and cheer. You recognize why there are so many chants taunting a losing team for being quiet; it’s hard to muster the energy to chant when the game is going against you.*

* – I was struck by two aspects of the game that were especially pleasant after years of going to games in the US. First, because the game is non-stop, you don’t lose the emotional high from scoring. Nick Hornby is right; there is a quasi-sexual feeling to the release after your team puts one in the back of the net. It’s not quite like your team scoring a touchdown because the moment is more explosive. More importantly, the goal is followed by a celebration and then the opponent kicks off. There is no cold shower of commercial break-kickoff-commercial break. Second, there is nothing in the stadium to distract fans from the game. Wembley is as expensive and modern a stadium as there is in footie, but it has two video boards that would make a Texan guffaw. Those boards play a live feed of the game and occasional highlights. That’s it. No wrap-around boards with stats. No Kiss-cam or Tesco Price Check. The PA announcer does nothing save for announcing goals, cards, and subs. And keep in mind that the Champions League Final is the European Super Bowl, so if there were ever a chance, in the words of Mortimer Duke, to “get back in there and sell, sell,” this would be it.

If the 5-0 thumping of Real in November was the opening opening argument for Barca’s “best of a generation” case, then the second half of the Final was the closing argument. Barca quickly pinned United back and within 11 minutes, Leo Messi had put the Blaugrana ahead. 13 minutes later, David Villa scored with a wedge shot that would have made Seve Ballesteros proud and Barca spend the last 20 minutes passing the ball around, content that three goals would be enough. United didn’t muster a single shot on target in the second half. In the end, the Barca players were on another podium, receiving another Champions League trophy with the club’s name on it. Puyol’s decision to let Eric Abidal lift the Cup as captain was a nice touch, reminiscent of Andres Iniesta’s tribute to Dani Jarque after scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. As best as one can tell about celebrities with managed images, these Barca players seem like good guys.

In the end, it has to be said that United are a good match-up for Barcelona. For one thing, the Red Devils were so successful over the course of the year because of their depth, but in a one-off final, that depth doesn’t matter so much, especially when the teams have had weeks to prepare and and rested and healthy coming in. (The American sports analogy would be to a team with five great pitchers in the starting rotation, a strength that is somewhat pearls before swine in October.) For another, United are incapable of playing the negative, destructive style that gives this Barca team trouble. Jose Mourinho concluded that the way to handle Barca was to pack the midfield with defensive players, starting with an aggressive central defender (Pepe), and then to hope that a counter could produce a 1-0 win.* United do not have that personnel, especially with Darren Fletcher not entirely fit, and Alex Ferguson probably sees that style as incompatible with his team’s image (although United’s approach in the first leg of the 2008 semifinal against Barca came close). United brought a sterling defensive record to Wembley, but without a proper defensive screen, even a terrific central defensive pairing like Vidic and Ferdinand (a pairing that was a major factor in United not allowing a goal in the Champions League away from Old Trafford all season) bled three goals in 69 minutes before Barca made the “you’ve had enough” decision. All three goals came from the area in front of the back four that a screen of defensive midfielders would seek to control. The opener was eerily like the opener in Rome: Xavi/Iniesta breaks free from the center of the pitch, has time to pick out the final ball, and hits one to the right to a forward to finish at the near post. It’s to Ferguson’s credit that he tried to play his game and went down trying, but then again, it’s not his job to earn the plaudits of an opposing fan.

* – In going to the game, I was interested to see the differences between my outlook - formed by watching every week on GolTV and reading Sid Lowe, Phil Ball, and Graham Hunter – and that of Barca fans who go to the Nou Camp every week and get their news from the Catalan sports dailies: El Mundo Deportivo and Sport. I was happy to learn that a white-hot hatred for Jose Mourinho united Barca fans around the world. The first chant on the escalator headed to the upper deck was “Ese Portugues, hijo puta es.” The guy in front of me kept singing “Jose Mourinho, hijo de puta,” regardless of whether the rest of the fans were singing with him. He also took great pleasure in calling his friends to sing that little ditty. The new chant that Barca fans sing is simply “por que, por que, por que, por que,” a dig at Mourinho’s rant after the first leg of the semifinal. (I wonder how Vikto Kassai’s “stop, or I’ll say stop again” homage to London bobbies, specifically as to Antonio Valencia’s repeated attempts at tackling, fits with the UEFA-Unicef conspiracy in Jose’s mind.) This guy liked the chant so much that he had it emblazoned on the custom t-shirt he made to honor the 2011 champs:

As the gate agent told me when I was boarding the flight home (subtly dressed in a Xavi jersey and a game scarf; why didn’t I paint my face and have “Cant del Barca” playing on a loop from my phone?), “football won.” This was a needed tonic for a game struggling through the obvious corruption of its global governing body. It was also important for a team that had disgraced itself to a degree with the play-acting in the first half of the first leg against Real. I’ll defend the histrionics to a degree as a rational response to a noxious strategy employed by the worst person in the world, but in the end, when your players repeatedly go to ground holding their faces after not being touched in that area, then something’s amiss. This game had none of that. Not much fouling, no surrounding the ref, no play-acting, no diving, no playing for penalties, and no surrounding the ref. Hell, Busquets only went down twice. If I were trying to get a friend on the fence into footie, I would not have shown him or her the matches against Real (although the fourth match [not coincidentally the one without Jose] was a pretty good one), but the Champions League Final would be a persuasive advertisement.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Host PPH said...

It is a pity that you haven't enjoyed your membership with Barca. but never is too late to go and enjoy it.

amanda young said...

Actually 76 thousand fans singing. that was awesome.. amanda vanderpool model