Barcelona rightfully recognized as one of the greatest teams ever
Barcelona produced a near--flawless performance against Manchester United
The manner of the win vindicated Barcelona against criticisms it had suffered
Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona has now won 10 of 13 possible trophies
A couple of days after the Champions League final, while the repeats were still running, the game every bit as brilliant as it had been live, an old episode of Family Fortunes was being broadcast over on another channel. For those unfamiliar with the program, Family Fortunes was the British quiz show in which families wearing extremely garish shirts and gigantic shoulder pads compete for the chance to win £5,000 ($8000) and a car -- and, more importantly, the opportunity to give the stupidest answer ever and thus be immortalized on a highlights reel and put up somewhere on the web.
A survey is carried out among 100 members of the British public, who provide the answers to questions which are then put to the contestants. So, they might ask: "name a sport you play with a ball," to which the answers will probably be football, tennis, cricket, etc. The guests will have to guess what the answers are. The number of people who said each answer in the survey is the number of points you get for getting it right and every point is a pound. Simple. And that's just the contestants such as the man who, rather than saying "swan," responded to the question "name a bird with a long neck" by blurting out: "Naomi Campbell."
Anyway, this particular evening, one of the questions was even more simple than normal: "We asked a 100 people to name a word that means 'great'." Along the line the presenter went, asking the members of the family one by one and along came the answers: Fabulous . Wonderful . Marvelous . Brilliant . Fantastic. One of them even went for Wicked (which wasn't there). The experience, final fresh in the memory, Barça-lauding newspapers still on the table, was a strange one. There was a kind of parallel between the repeats. Family Fortunes could have been homage to Barcelona and those who witnessed them clinch the European Cup at Wembley on May 28.
In the aftermath of its 3-1 victory over Manchester United, the media appeared to be going through the same exercise, as if they too were on the quiz show, as if they had swallowed a thesaurus, looking for ways of saying "great." Not for the first time, there was a serious shortage of superlatives. Barcelona has been so brilliant so often and now it had been even more brilliant. For them and for Leo Messi, you were lost for words. Now, it felt like there was nowhere else to go. How do you say something new?
They called it magical, wonderful and sensational. Barcelona was the best, from another world, fantasists. The media also took it on a step and made it about more than just this game, which of course it was, to call it legendary, momentous, and historic. It was epoch defining, a performance for the ages. Even AS and Marca, supporters of Real Madrid, were at it. AS called it "Super Barça," while Marca called them "FÚTBOL club Barcelona" -- the embodiment of the game itself. The final had been great, super, smashing. But the word that perhaps describes it best, the one that helps to explain why the eulogistic headlines had gone beyond the norm, is:
Perfection is impossible in football, but that does not prevent some demanding it. This was as close as you are likely to get. There could be no arguing with the result. The destruction of Manchester United was unanswerable, Barcelona killed United softly, almost imperceptibly but defeated it absolutely. It had 64 percent of the possession and completed more than twice as many passes as United, 777 to 357. By the end, Barcelona had 12 shots on target to United's one. In total the tally was 22-4. United goalkeeper Edwin Van der Saar made eight saves, his Barcelona counterpart Victor Valdés did not make one. United did not even get a corner. It was almost literally impeccable: Barcelona committed just five fouls. Xavi didn't commit any at all. He finished the season without committing one in the entire tournament.
Because it was not a one-off, it was even more significant. This was not Barcelona doing something it has never done before, but Barcelona doing what they often do -- only even better and on the greatest possible stage. This was not Barcelona getting a game right, it was Barcelona getting its game right. Rarely, if ever, has there been a team with so clear an identity -- for better or worse -- as this team. And as a result, it carried more weight. This was, to borrow a Spanish phrase, Barcelona in estado puro. Barcelona, in pure form, untainted.
It was also felt a little like an act of vindication. The performance from Barcelona was impeccable. It was -- hang on a minute while the thesaurus is called upon again, while a survey of a 100 people is conducted -- unanswerable, unquestionable, unimpeachable. It felt like it needed to be, as if there was an act of cleansing required, of purification. This was not just the assault upon on title, it was the defense of a an identity. It was about the need to convince people that it really was worthy. In London, Barcelona did so. There is always a "yeah, but." This time there was not.
When Barcelona are talked about as one of the great sides, there is a natural -- and healthy -- desire to raise questions and objections. Barcelona plays nice football, but it's not exactly pragmatic football, they say. What really matters is winning and winning the big tournaments. It's only Spain; La Liga is weak. Messi hasn't scored against an English team. This team has only won one European Cup; as a club it has only won three. In 2009 United was caught unawares and a little unluckily -- it had dominated the opening nine minutes(!), United won't make the same mistake again; Barcelona's success of two years ago will prove hollow.
Saturday night answered all of those emphatically, washing them away.
A solitary game cannot do that of course. But when it is the culmination, it can. When it is the Champions League final -- the stage upon which wonderful performances are so rarely delivered but those that are burrow deeper into the collective conscience. When Messi becomes the competition's top scorer for the third successive year, when Barcelona wins its second in three season, its third in six. When it wins. When it wins against England's best team. In an English stadium. And when it wins the way it won, unquestionably.
The fact that it was impeccable answered other doubts. Jose Mourinho had famously claimed that he would be ashamed to win the Champions League the way Pep Guardiola had won it in 2009 and the way he might win it this year. After the final, they could not be more proud.
When Barcelona celebrated, Gerard Piqué took the mic. and declared: "We don't take drugs, we don't buy the ref and we don't dive, we just play football."
The fact that he was moved to say so was telling; this season has worn Barcelona down, affected the team. The semifinal against Madrid damaged it. It dented Barcelona's image and turned people against it, lessening its claim to greatness. Mourinho's conspiracy talk was dismissed as delusional but many thought he had a point. The moral high ground was occupied: they might be brilliant but they are cheats; they might play nice football, but they master the dark arts too -- and they have the referees on side.
Not this time. At Wembley, Sergio Busquets went down holding his face. But he did it only once and there could be no accusations of theatrics, the ball hitting him square on the jaw; the referee gave a goal he perhaps should not have done -- against Barcelona. No ifs, no buts, no arguments. Barcelona even won back a little of the lost ground when it came to morality, with the guard of honor for United and, above all, Carles Puyol's gesture in sending Eric Abidal up to get the Cup. Impeccable.
This was the most convincing of victories and nothing convinces like victory. Except of course victory after victory. People keep asking for more from Barcelona, so it has kept delivering more. They say Barcelona is not pragmatic but what is more pragmatic than winning? There is principle, sure, but success is what really drives Pep Guardiola. Yes, it could have been knocked out earlier; yes, decisions went its way, but how many champions have ever won any competition unquestioned? Those doubts required it to win without doubts at Wembley. The reaction in the media reflected that. Suddenly. It was as if people were allowed to say it: for many, Barcelona became the best team there has ever been.
The best ever? Maybe not -- it is, after all, a heck of a claim. But this genuinely is historic, no matter what happens next.
Valdés, Messi, Xavi and Iniesta have now won three European cups -- as many as Beckenbauer, Cruyff or Raúl. In the last 20 years no team has won more than Barcelona. Guardiola is the youngest coach to win two European Cups. He has won 10 of a possible 13 trophies. Messi, who spent the flight home playing a football computer game, has now won 15 titles, including five leagues and three European Cups. He is only 23. At his age, Diego Maradona had won four, Di Stéfano three and even Pelé was two behind. If he wins the Balón d'Or in the winter, which he will, he will equal Michel Platini as the only player ever to do so three times in a row.
Then there is Xavi, the living expression of Barcelona's football. Maybe even more than Messi. The man who reinforces the validity of its game; who embodies the centrality of possession. He is the ideologue at the heart of the Barcelona team -- and the Spanish national team.
This season he has averaged over 125 passes a game. For so long people responded with a simple: "ah, but what passes? Backward ones? Sideways ones?" On Saturday, surely even they saw which passes. Vital ones. On Saturday night, Xavi completed 148 passes -- the very building blocks of the possession game, of his team's domination. Even when it is not so sparkling, passing is the key. Possession was not just about the chances that Barcelona created but the chances that Manchester United didn't. It always is. Some teams are lauded for stifling opposition, yet few note that quality in Barcelona's game or in Spain's. They are aesthetes but there are anaesthetists too. Xavi's passing is, the critics say, pointless. Earlier this season, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger talked about "sterile domination" after losing to Barcelona.
In each and every one of the last four years, Xavi has been at the heart of the team that won the world's most significant competition -- the man that, more than anyone else, imposed a style upon those teams. In 2008, he was European Champion with Spain. In 2009, he won the Champions League. In 2010, he won the World Cup. And in 2011 he won the Champions League again. Sterile?