The Year of the Blaugrana, Pt. II
See Also: Part I
Usually, after the final of an international football tournament, YouTube clips and highlight reels on mass media focus on goals scored, post-match celebrations, and star players. But after the Club World Cup final in Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago, the cameras and Spanish media were focused on a balding man sobbing uncontrollably in his palms.
It was Joseph ‘Pep’ Guardiola, the boy from Santpedor who grew up as a ball boy at the Camp Nou, then joined the Barcelona football academy at La Masia, became the fulcrum and captain of Johann Cruyff’s Dream Team in the 1990s (the precursor to modern-day Xavi) and went on to coach FC Barcelona to…no less than SIX titles in a single calendar year. It is a world record that will probably not be broken in our lifetimes – an achievement unsurpassed by any team before in football’s long and distinguished history.
That game against Estudiantes provides a perfect example of the many reasons behind the Blaugrana’s extraordinary success last year: champions are made of grit, talent, luck, organization, and inspiration, and this team is no exception. It had everything in spades, and as the year continued, pieces of the jigsaw kept falling into place.
A key characteristic differentiating Frank Rijkaard’s 2008 outfit and Pep Guardiola’s 2009 team is that the latter has an incredible aura of self belief and a will to win that has triumphed over many a stubborn parked bus. Although the Blaugrana are at their best when they score an early goal, they have conceded goals at crucial times often enough, but even more crucially, they have fought back with immense determination every single time. It was Andres Iniesta’s injury time screamer that enabled Barcelona to stride past Chelsea into the Champions League Final in April, and in December, Pedro Gonzalez and Lionel Messi were on hand to score the equalizer and winner, respectively. Reportedly, Guardiola told assistant coach Tito Vilanova that the team would win La Liga almost exactly one year ago, in a 3-2 win forgotten in the mists of Pamplona. The 6-1 drubbings Barcelona handed out last year only confirmed their…
The best player in the world, Messi. The best central midfield pairing in the world, Xavi and Iniesta. A Highbury legend, Thierry Henry. One of the best fullbacks in the world, Daniel Alves. This team of champions was made up of, quite literally, individual champions. To take one example, Seydou Keita, who is not even an automatic starter in the side, was captain of French giants Lens for two years before moving to La Liga. It was an almost obscene collection of attacking talent, but as Real Madrid’s failed Los Galacticos era proved, teams are not collections of extravagantly gifted players, but well organized groups that have synergy.
The tremendous individual skills of every single squad member enables Barcelona to play a uniquely attacking style which revolves around pass-and-move triangles and always, always lines up as 4-3-3. The roles are clearly defined too: for example, there is a left wing outlet (usually Henry), a defensive midfielder (man-mountain Yaya Toure) and a deep-lying playmaker (Xavi, arguably the world’s finest). Within that constrained system, players are given a freedom of expression that elevated football into a Catalan art form last season. Almost every player could play multiple roles and frequently did so; one of the most fervent debates in fan clubs was whether Iniesta should play on the left wing or center midfield. It didn’t matter much as far as the team was concerned, because each player knew his job intimately well. Xavi was quoted saying that many times, he made passes without looking, knowing that the position would be covered by someone. Those passes often went to either Dani Alves or Lionel Messi, who provided the spark.
Every great team has at least one great player; Barcelona was lucky to have many. Against teams resolutely prepared only to defend and not interested in playing football, it took magic to turn the tide; a shoulder-shake by Messi, an outrageous piece of control by Samuel Eto’o, goals fashioned out of five consecutive one-touch passes, a diving header by Keita where he seemingly forgot that goalposts exist and almost hit steel instead of ball – but he was too busy celebrating the goal. Even benched veterans got into the act; the Copa Del Rey victory’s key was a Jose Manuel Pinto penalty save where he indicated to the confused striker where he would dive.
Of course, though, there are times when beauty alone could not win the day; there are times when Lady Luck’s smile swung matches: balls bouncing to Blaugrana feet instead of the opposition, referees missing slight offsides, the infamous penalties at Stamford Bridge, and a few more. However, as Ernest Hemingway has said, one makes their own luck. Fortune did not place those titles in the Camp Nou trophy cabinet; it was a combination of the elements detailed above that led to success.
That combination was effected by none other than Pep Guardiola, initially doubted for his inexperience but later hailed for his ability to connect with superstars and transform them. Lionel Messi was always destined to be a legend, but it was Guardiola who paired him with Alves throughout the season and then, in a tactical masterstroke, moved him to a faux-center forward position in the two most important games of the year to leave the opponent’s plans in disarray. It was Guardiola who repeatedly warned against complacency and disciplined the team so tightly that players were fined for arriving to practice only five minutes late. And finally, it was Pep’s pep talk before the CWC final that enabled his men to win the only trophy they had never won before:
“Gentlemen, if you lose today you will continue to be the best in the world – but if you win today you will be eternal.”