Sports

Barcelona and the Burden of Beauty

As the team struggles on the pitch, Barcelona's front office is bleeding front-office types and losing its claim as the world's most beautiful team.

by Colin McGowan
Jan 6 2015, 2:10pm

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Jordi Alba crumples the moment he hits it. Barcelona are at Anoeta, where they haven't won since the dodo's heyday, and David Moyes has invigorated a Real Sociedad squad that looked cooked a month ago. Half of Barça's best players start the game on the bench, which is a bit concerning, and then things go from concerning to catastrophic when Sergio Canales's cross is a bit behind Alba, who's leaning the wrong way when the ball is struck, so instead of comfortably heading it over Claudio Bravo's crossbar, Alba lunges and pops it into the net. (A striker's finish, really.) He knows exactly where the ball is going as soon as it thwacks off his little noggin. Crumpling ensues. Sergio Busquets attempts to collect his teammate from the turf as players in blue and white stripes mob Canales. 88 minutes later, Alba's own-goal holds up: La Real 1, Barça 0.

Sometimes, in soccer, you lose for stupid reasons. A single flub can ruin a match, or, if you're playing for a title in a hundred-point league the way Barcelona are, possibly an entire season. Jordi Alba lost his balance for a second, and it cost his team in some indeterminate-but-significant-seeming fashion. It might have major implications; it might be a blip. All you can do, in either case, is greet the sky with your palms.

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Or you can throw a body overboard. Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was fired on Monday. He was dismissed for all sorts of reasons, many of which have to do with the jungle undergrowth-like bureaucracy that governs the club, but the primary ones include his spotty transfer track record and the fact that on Sunday, he publicly blamed club president Josep Maria Bartomeu for Barça's year-long transfer ban, which was upheld last week by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, meaning the punishment is now set in stone. Being not-great at one of the most important parts of your job and bad-mouthing your boss are two excellent ways to get shitcanned, but Zubi was let go specifically on Monday morning not because of anything he did, but because of what Alba did. And because Messi, the rumormongers claim, is not getting along with Luis Enrique. And because the team seems to be winning matches despite itself.

The problems piled up to the point Barça's board needed to do something. Zubi has been made a scapegoat. The board perhaps did not anticipate beloved club icon and now-former assistant sporting director Carles Puyol would follow his superior out the exit door, but, well, palms--->sky.

If the timing of Zubi's firing is surprising, nothing else about it is. In the very biggest soccer clubs in the world, there is always some amount of infighting and disconnect, whether behind the curtain or in front of it. It's what happens when you yoke a bunch of battleship-sized egos together and try to get them to pull in the same direction. It is understandable and ordinary.

Barcelona's central hypocrisy is that they project extraordinariness. Every club does this—they hype and sloganeer—but Barça take it a step further, not just dabbling in idealism, but draping themselves in it. Sure, Més Que un Club and the notion of Barcelona embodying Catalanisme is haughty stuff, but marketing tends to be that way. For genuine haughtiness, check this interview Sid Lowe did with Xavi in 2011. On style: "It's good that the reference point for world football right now is Barcelona, that it's Spain... Some teams can't or don't pass the ball. What are you playing for? What's the point? That's not football." On La Masia: "Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education." On winning: "Football is to win but our satisfaction is double. Other teams win and they're happy, but it's not the same."

Those are big words—ones that, at the time, Xavi and his colleagues were mostly living up to. In that same exchange, Xavi calls himself a romantic, and that is what made vintage Barcelona special: they proved that being romantic and being successful are not mutually exclusive. But that is not the same thing as proving Catalan exceptionalism or that La Masia is Hogwarts or that one sort of soccer is inherently better than another.

Barcelona have always been full of shit. Sometimes beautifully so. It speaks to the joyfulness of those Champions League-winning squads that they made you believe in their impossible version of the truth—not in the way children believe in Santa Claus, but in the way you believe something because the moment overwhelms you, and you unhinge from your rational self. Only some of the finest soccer you will ever see can make what Xavi thinks seem like empirical fact. Barça were not holy, even though they claimed to be, but they undeniably had an ethereal glow about them.

But you can only fool people as long as you're utterly delighting them. These days, Barça are something less than a constant delight. They're still very good, but they lapse into unimaginativeness and flaccidity. The pieces don't fit the way they once did. They are ordinary, sometimes.

It's not a coincidence that as their play has declined, talk of Catalan pride and of playing soccer in some metaphysically correct way has faded into the background, and now all the stories in the papers are about internal strife and bickering. The ethereal glow is gone, and we can see Barcelona clearly again. It turns out they're profane, same as everyone else.