The football club, is what I’m talking about here. Anyone remotely interested in football already knows that Barcelona is the club that epitomises a certain “pure” style based on possession and passing. England’s major exponents of this style are Arsenal, but the difference between them and Barcelona is that Barcelona have been extremely successful over the past few years, while Arsenal have often looked impressive but missed out on actual trophies for six years (they were beaten in the 2006 Champions’ League final by, of course, Barcelona. Side note: that Barcelona team, managed by Frank Rijkaard, was undoubtedly great but didn’t embody the club philosophy as completely as the current one. While Xavi was present in both, 2006 was the Ronaldinho team, while 2009-11 is the Messi/Iniesta team). Because Barcelona and Arsenal are playing once again in the Champions’ League, the Guardian has done a couple of interesting pieces about them recently.
First (and yes I’m about a month late with this), here’s a link to an interview with Xavi. Some of it (e.g. “They didn’t touch the ball. Madre mía, what a match! In the dressing room, we gave ourselves a standing ovation”) can sound a little arrogant, but I don’t think the accusation holds up as he’s very generous towards other players in other parts of the interview and comes across as just someone who cares a lot about the game and the way Barcelona play it. He also has a generally interesting take on football. Richard Williams wrote an appalling article afterwards accusing Xavi of sour grapes over the 2010 Champions’ League semi final, ignoring just about everything positive in the interview; I’m not gonna dignify that with a link. Xavi’s interview had so many interesting points that I thought it worth going through in a bit of detail.
That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is.
I just love the image of Xavi mid-interview, swinging his head around, imitating himself in a match. It’s also a great description of what a player should aspire to be doing the whole time.
Sometimes, I even think to myself: man, so-and-so is going to get annoyed because I’ve played three passes and haven’t given him the ball yet. I’d better give the next one to Dani because he’s gone up the wing three times. When Leo [Messi] doesn’t get involved, it’s like he gets annoyed … and the next pass is for him.
Sounds exactly like playing in the park. Glad to know that some things about the game are the same right to the top level.
I’m happy because, from a selfish point of view, six years ago I was extinct; footballers like me were in danger of dying out. It was all: two metres tall, powerful, in the middle, knockdowns, second balls, rebounds …
He is slightly disparaging about physically imposing players (one reason why Ibrahimovic left Barcelona after a year?), but what’s really interesting is that six years ago (when he was 25 and arriving at his peak, surely) he thought that players like him were dying out. It could still happen: Barcelona are the only team in the world that play the way they do and win trophies; without them we wouldn’t know about tiki taka. It could be that there’s only room in the world for one team like them. Maybe the barrier to other clubs developing a Barcelona system (which clearly requires training players in the academy over the course of a decade or more) is so high that it’s not a viable proposition for a newcomer.
Football is played to win but our satisfaction is double. Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football.
This might be the part that annoyed Williams; it’s certainly the part I disagree with most strongly. You can’t claim that your satisfaction is any greater than that of another team without being part of that team and knowing what it’s like to win with them. I can see why it might be better for Barcelona – so many of the players have grown up together that winning with them could feel like winning with your best friends or your family. But he seems to be claiming that winning in the way they do is what makes it better for them, which I don’t buy.
Paul Scholes! A role model. For me – and I really mean this – he’s the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years… Ryan Giggs – that guy is a joy, incredible. Looking back, I loved John Barnes and Chris Waddle… was buenísimo. [Open-mouthed, eyes gleaming] Le Tissier!
Just brilliant to hear his enthusiasm for those players, and surprising that there are so many British ones he remembers – Le Tissier especially, given that he didn’t get to play in European competition and was rarely capped by England. Dammit, I can’t go another football post without linking to Le Tissier’s top ten goals.
[ending a soliloquy about the importance of having players who can play one-touch]: In fact, [the youth coach] Charly [Rexach] always used to say: a mig toc. Half a touch.
Half a touch. That’s just a great image.
If Barcelona had Liverpool’s fans, or Arsenal’s, or United’s, we’d have won 20 Champions Leagues, hahaha! OK, so that’s an exaggeration but I’ve never seen anything like it.
Not sure Barcelona’s fans would be too happy with the comparison, but it goes to show that the cliches about passion so beloved of British commentators are sometimes repeated outside our borders.
Finally, they also had a piece about Pep Guardiola last week, which is worth a read. I like how he rationalises the possession game by talking about the stress of not being in possession, the worry that you feel when the ball is in your own half. You can see the thinking flowing through Xavi when he talks about how in a game against Chelsea or Man United (by contrast with a game against Arsenal), they would allow you to have the ball. He doesn’t agree with a football philosophy that can be content when not in possession.