I will get to actual football in a minute. Please bear with me. In a week when former Tory minister David Mellor bleated on TV about dishonesty in public life, it came as less of a shock to see Henry Winter making a good point in the Telegraph this weekend and Martin Samuel writing sensibly in the Daily Mail on Monday. Samuel left the Mail’s bleating at the BBC about Panorama to Charles Sale, who did his usual incisive and relevant job. Samuel instead concentrated on the valid economic fault lines in the Spain/Portugal bid which don’t (yet) afflict England’s bid. Winter’s piece descended into the general BBC-bashing which appears to be a contractual obligation for most football journalists in what used to be classed the “Tory” press. But not before noting the boost that the Spain/Portugal bid might get from Monday night’s telly.
The schedule included Andrew Jennings’ latest FIFA Executive corruption revelations and live from Spain, el grand clasico, Barcelona v Real Madrid. Ideal viewing, Winter mused, to help a FIFA man choose Spain over England as a 2018 World Cup venue. Of course, you have to leave aside the fact the two programmes were scheduled against each other (and leave well aside any debates about whether or not Barcelona and Catalonia are in Spain). But, as regular readers will know, I’m not one to let facts get in the way of a good joke. And, for Winter, this was good. But did Barcelona vs Real Madrid do anything for the Spain/Portugal bid? To have any significant effect, it would have had to have been something special. A match destined for either Catalan or Jose Mourinho folklore, full of great football, goals, colour, atmosphere, talking points, drama and passion from start to finish. Ah…
There was a spell midway through the second half, not long after Barcelona’s fourth goal, when the only breaks in Barcelona’s passing movements were for Barcelona free-kicks, given away by… the other team. After a few passes, the crowd started to “Ole”, which is probably a more common reaction in the Premier League than La Liga. Then, the mini-crescendos between the oles started to get longer as, occasionally, Xavi, Messi or Iniesta had to wait to find a pass and would take the ball round in a circle before a gap appeared. After a while longer, general applause joined the oles and crescendos and merged into one swell of noise which, as the passing and movement continued, formed a new crescendo of its own. Then the ball was suddenly pinged towards Barca striker Pedro who was clean through, ready to score possibly the greatest goal ever, depending on your view as to when a “goal” actually starts. Or at least he would have been if Real Madrid centre-back Ricardo Carvalho hadn’t got his hand in the way – not so much a sending-off offence as vandalism.
Carvalho was only booked. But Barcelona’s players, including captain Carlos Puyol who only moves at any pace these days when he’s protesting a refereeing decision, were only smiling at the weak sanction. They knew by then that the colour of Carvalho’s card was unimportant compared to what had gone before. I was watching this with a growing sense of joy. I’d silently enjoyed much of what Barcelona had done in the first half, especially the first half-hour. When Lionel Messi and David Villa combined for Barca’s third goal, I let loose a little “wow.” I smiled as Villa embarked on one of his favoured celebrations, showing more balance and poise running backwards at speed than any England striker has shown going forward since Jimmy Greaves in his pomp – the smile becoming broader as I imagined Peter Crouch trying the same thing.
I only stopped smiling when Messi arrowed a pass inside the other team’s left-back – with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile on a good day – for Villa to nutmeg the goalkeeper for Barca’s fourth. And that was only because I couldn’t smile and let out the reaction I’d heard from a Tottenham fan many years ago to some lightning fast Paul Gascoigne footwork: “F**k my old boots!!” Then came the passing movement. The smile returned at first, soon becoming laughter when Iniesta turned one of the other team – I’d forgotten who they were by this stage – round in a circle. Another mini-bout of tourettes greeted a back-heeled pass by the left-back… THE LEFT-BACK… Eric Abidal. And then something else. A tightening of the chest muscles, a tension throughout the body, my eyes watering ever so slightly. The football, I realised when I sighed deeply after Carvalho’s handball, was literally – and I mean literally – taking my breath away.
I’d had that feeling watching sport before. There was a passage of play in a big hurling encounter in 2003 when the Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins made a string of consecutive saves before Kilkenny finally biffed one into the top corner of the net. There was the Barbarians’ famous try against New Zealand in 1973, regarded throughout my childhood as the highlight of one of rugby’s best-ever matches, with commentator Cliff Morgan providing a near “think it’s all over” moment, his voice guttural with excitement as he shouted: “Gareth Edwards, this is a dramatic start… what a score!” But it was Morgan’s commentary which got my metabolism all of a quiver – from “Phil Bennett, aw brilliant, that’s brilliant” to the untrammelled joy accompanying Edwards’ prodigious leap over the try line. And my breathlessness as Cummins did consecutive impressions of Gordon Banks with a stick was because of my commentary down my mobile phone to a Kilkenny-supporting mate, after I unwisely advised him to “hang on a second, you’re about to score.”
Barcelona was all about the football, and all the more remarkable because there wasn’t a goal or a save or any decisive moment of any kind in that literally breathtaking passage of play. In fact, the ball never left the middle third of the pitch. The only vague comparison my memory can produce was the famous “keep-ball” by early-1970s Leeds – Billy Bremner back-heel et al – against Southampton at Elland Road. But 1970s football was a “slow motion replay” of the modern game (if you’ll excuse the chronological confusion). And, with all due respect to early-70s Southampton, this was Real Madrid (the name’s come back to me at last). An unbeaten Real Madrid with millions of pounds worth of defensive and midfield talent, coached by possibly the greatest coach of his day, certainly the greatest defensive coach of his day. They were reduced to the status of Terry Paine’s sideburns by a side who might yet prove to be the greatest club side ever, even if such descriptions are at least five years and five European Cups in-a-row (Madridistas would surely argue) premature.
Of course, this week’s Panorama revealed just how secondary football itself is in FIFA’s decision-making process, especially its voting. So the sheer majesty of Monday night in Catalonia might yet have less significance than England’s 2008 friendly in Trinidad. For the sake of the non-Iberian bids, you’d hope so. For the sake of the game you’d hope not. For the rest of us, Monday night was a timely reminder of why so many of us put up with all the financial skulduggery, incompetence, corruption, venality and Ken Bates, and continue to be football fans.