Barcelona: Football As Art

by | Feb 16, 2016

My father is of an age when small comforts mean a lot; and when missing out on them can be very uncomfortable indeed. FC Barcelona in general and Lionel Messi in particular have been two such small comforts, ever since the little genius’s run of outrageously skillful hat-tricks in 2011 (Arsenal among the victims), timed perfectly for the arrival of Sky Sports in our family home. And with Messi playing with more guile than style these days (no bad thing) and resembling Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (a bad thing), Dad has found increasing comfort in the tricks and flicks of Neymar (”could be as good as Messi one day”) and the audacity of Luis Suarez.

So it was frustrating to find Dad at 8.25pm on Sunday, poring over the Sunday Express newspaper crossword while the TV remained resolutely off, despite multiple reminders that “Barcelona are on at half-seven.” Fortunately, just as in 2011, Barcelona’s timing was spot-on and they kindly waited until we’d turned on the telly before turning on the style. The headline-grabber of the La Liga leaders’ personal “goal of the month” competition against Celta de Vigo was that penalty: Messi passing to Suarez to side-foot home past Celta keeper Sergio Alvarez (although Neymar has claimed the pass was for him, thus destroying some of the subsequent pro-Messi narrative which infects a little too much Barcelona analysis).

However, there was so much more to the forty-seven minutes of football from Luis Enrique’s side, who had been woefully lacking in tempo and cohesion in a first half saved by the brilliant Messi free-kick which was so soon to take a back seat on the subs bench of the night’s genius. Some Barcelona cake-walks against massed but cumbersome La Liga defences have brought basketball vaudevillians the Harlem Globetrotters to mind; not a good review for supposedly competitive football league matches, despite the undoubted joy Meadowlark Lemon and co gave to millions over the decades.

Sunday’s match was different. Despite a list of absentees which must have brought their coach driver perilously close to the subs’ bench, Celta were competitive throughout, even while Barcelona were in full second-half swing; not least the willing pantomime villain John Guidetti, whose mix of skill, stupidity and spoilt-brattishness eventually turned an appreciative Celtic fanbase against him last season. Celta were well worth their late first-half equaliser, a penalty won and scored by the villainous Guidetti, and had a good spell midway through the second half, with the game still in their sights.

Daniel Wass arrowed his shot into Barca keeper Claudio Bravo’s chest and Guidetti hit the proverbial Row Z from the corner of the six-yard box after flicking away the attentions of the equally panto-villainous Javier Mascherano like dust off a cuff. Had either scored, this article might never have been written (you all hate Guidetti now, don’t you?). However, that would have denied us at least some of the sheer football-as-art pleasure of Barcelona’s second-half display. Not all, of course. Even before Suarez casually-as-you-like half-volleyed Messi’s inch-perfectly chipped pass high past Alvarez to make it 2-1 on 59 minutes, Barca were starting to take regular gulps of breath away, with Neymar’s silky weaving run to set Suarez up to hit the post and Messi putting the resurgent Andres Iniesta through for a left-foot rasper superbly saved by Alvarez. Celta’s makeshift defence were no Aston Villa but they were being made to look that way on an increasingly regular basis.

The second-half was an utterly compelling contest until Barca’s third goal, on seventy-five minutes. Then the fun really started. Messi ran past and through numerous challenges before finding the exact required Neymar bootlace, which the young Brazilian followed with footwork too dazzling for the naked camera eye to round Alvarez and roll the ball along the goal-line where Suarez claimed the mother of all tap-ins with all the sheepishness he could muster (i.e. not very much).

There are, contrary to popular belief, three certainties in life. Death and taxes, yes. But also that my Dad will say “George Best would have taken that round the keeper” whenever he sees a striker squander an opportunity when one-on-one with a goalkeeper. Whether Best could have taken any ball around any keeper in as small a space as Neymar had on Sunday is open to debate. Sometime later, Neymar did the double-footed flick (a “rainbow flick”, apparently) over a defender’s head that memory tells me (and YouTube confirms) Osvaldo Ardiles used in football’s, ahem, “greatest-ever” film, Escape to Victory. Neymar’s trick didn’t produce anything of note in the context of the game (nor did Ardiles’ effort, which YouTube suggests became a pass to someone resembling ex-Ipswich and England defender Russell Osman). But it didn’t have to…and I’ll bet Ardiles didn’t get it absolutely perfect on Take One.

This trick came sometime around the penalty… my mind was by now too dizzied for precise chronology. Messi’s trickery to win the spot-kick was as remarkable as the fact that he actually sort of dived to win it (in comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi scores heavily on his honesty under physical challenge). We were soon to discover why he was so extra-keen to lose his balance. The media narrative is that the routine was a homage to Dutch genius, and former Barca player and manager, Johan Cruyff, who just last week spoke of his battle against his recently-diagnosed lung cancer. And it has become almost trademarked as the “Cruyff penalty,” as the most famous example of someone, successfully, passing the ball from a penalty was Cruyff’s one-two with Jesper Olsen (who appears not to be wearing shorts in the YouTub footage) for Ajax against Helmand Sports in 1982.

Of course, the lethal combination of football nerdiness and footage quickly led to reminiscences of similar occasions pre-dating even Cruyff/Olsen, the earliest of which apparently dates back to Belgium against Iceland in a World Cup qualifier in Brussels in 1957 (according to fifa.com, so it must be true). Robert Pires’ airshot from the spot for Arsenal in 2005, a failed attempt to pass to Thierry Henry, has been as frequently cited, especially in the environs of Tottenham High Road. (Such nerdiness reminded me of a 2009 Ryan Giggs/Wayne Rooney corner routine which worked for Manchester United back when they were good. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of football fans were quick to say “seen it before,” including one sad, sad contributor to a BBC Five Live phone-in who remembered the routine being kiboshed in 1990 by the then-unknown Isthmian League referee Graham Poll; and, yes, I was that contributor).

The media narrative is also that it was Messi, the ultimate team player, generously passing up his 300th league goal so that Suarez could complete his hat-trick, with the unspoken implication that Ronaldo would never do any such thing. Sky Sports’ likeably laid-back Terry Gibson pricked that bubble by suggesting that Messi wouldn’t have to wait long for, or lose any sleep over, that milestone; and that he might want the goal to be more aesthetically pleasing than a penalty. Cynics might also suggest that with Messi himself out of the running for La Liga’s top scorer prize (the “pichichi”), his best bet to deny Ronaldo the number one spot is Suarez and rather than blatantly give Suarez the penalty, it would be great PR to wrap it up in a Cruyff “tribute.”

Cynics might again suggest that Alvarez was in on the scheme, so vigorously did he dive in completely the wrong direction as Suarez side-footed home. And that the whole performance was disrespectful to Celta (as if Neymar’s rainbow flick hadn’t been contemptuous enough). Oh… and the goal should have been disallowed, as Suarez had one foot in the “D” when Messi feathered the pass. Still, for once, I’m not joining the cynics. It was as sublime a pass as Messi produced for Suarez’s first goal. And the joy of the unexpected drowned any negative emotion. Indeed, such was the joy Barcelona were producing as the game approached stoppage-time that substitute Ivan Rakitic’s ultra-deft lob of Alvarez from a wonderful Neymar pass left observers and commentators almost stifling yawns while focussing on the cavernous gap between Celta’s makeshift central-defensive pairing.

Goal number six, however, was possibly the best of the lot. A typical piece of impish Messi skill presented the ball to Suarez, who bulleted a 40-yard pass onto exactly the required Neymar bootlace. Neymar’s touch still needed to be far better than on at least two previous occasions when he was through on goal earlier in the half, as Suarez’s pass came to him at a rate of knots. And, my word, it was. He took precisely the required amount of pace off the ball and applied precisely the amount of back-spin to allow him to dink a precise finish over the left shoulder of the on-rushing Alvarez with precisely the required amount of pace to beat the efforts of a retreating defender to scramble the ball away. Right on 90 minutes, too, so that observers at the match and around the world would still be purring as the referee blew the final whistle, after La Liga’s obligatory two minutes of stoppage time. Mind you, some are still purring now.

It is impossible to put such displays into full historical context, a point brought home to me when I embarked on a YouTube search for the Cruyff/Olsen penalty. I was quickly side-tracked to a 14-minute montage entitled “Johan Cruijff is art” which shows the Dutch master in goalscoring, goal-creating and generally mesmerising form for Ajax, Barcelona and Holland. And the ratio of film-to-TV footage was a reminder of how few matches were televised during Cruyff’s late 1960s to early 1980s career. So it is quite possible that Ajax, three-in-a-row European Cup winners from 1971 to 1973 and runners-up in 1969, may have produced such displays in the Dutch Eredivisie to be witnessed only by those in the ground. In fact, when you consider that Cruyff’s club colleagues included Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol and Johnny Rep, you can amend “quite possible” to “almost certainly.” However, historical context isn’t wholly necessary. Barcelona were brilliant, whatever the comparisons.

The official face of football may soon be Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, the Fifa presidential election favourite and unsmiling elitist, with allergies to democracy and integrity and with the soul and charisma of used toilet paper (and I say that with all due respect), who nine months ago actively wanted Sepp Blatter to be Fifa president until 2020. But Salman is not the true face of football. At 8.25pm on Sunday, my father cut a frustrated figure. At 9.25, he could not stop smiling, thanks to 47 minutes of joyous, imaginative theatre by unscripted performers under genuinely competitive conditions. The real true face of football.

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