The necessity forced by desperation makes philosophical purity malleable. Strand a Michelin-starred chef in the desert for a day or two and he will be feasting on that vending machine cheese sandwich like it was one of his most skillful delicacies.
So it is with Barça supporters, who at one time were wallowing in the luxury of beautiful, winning football, a state of affairs that allowed the lofty notion of, “We would rather lose and play pretty football.” This is easy to say when you’re winning everything, and playing lustrous football. Throw in a few trophyless seasons, some pretenders to beauty and a clunky squad and notions seem to change.
At the end of the club’s most recent match against 12th-placed Girona, Xavi had no proper attackers on the pitch, opting for a defensive structure that often consisted of just getting the ball the hell away from the defense. Even at that, the result still required a couple of fairly astonishing misses from Girona to Atleti the hell out of that 0-1 victory.
And we celebrated. It was an ugly win, a goal born of a few moments of scintillating football dissolved in the acid of a trench war with playacting opponents, determined to reduce the game to a series of individual actions and as much referee intervention as possible.
The beauty days weren’t as much a case of a team overpowering ugliness as it was naive opponents, who watched the video of sprites laying waste to the countryside, and blinking in disbelief as the diminutive throngs clambered over the ramparts. It was a more innocent time, and Barça one-touched its way into footballing lore.
Luis Enrique came, and supporters asked, “where was the midfield?” The Spanish Mister said, “Right there, getting the ball to the horses so that they could run.” That team won a treble and people snuffled about it because it was positively redolent with impurity. No 444 passes for this lot. Keeper to midfield to one of Messi, Suarez or Neymar, then everybody ran over to celebrate another goal.
Ernesto Valverde came in like a managerial Hannibal of “A Team” fame. He went into the garage with a mostly veteran team, stuck his head out to ask for a bloke named Paulinho, and pragmaticed his way to a domestic double, another Liga title during a tenure that was, sadly, defined by a pair of truly epic choke jobs.
Nobody liked that football. It was mostly dour and effective, Messi playing wall passes off Paulinho then banging in another goal. The club didn’t have a beautiful soul as much as it had a sense of necessity, instilled in it by its coach. There was some attractive football, to be sure. Hard for it not to be with the likes of Messi, Busquets and Iniesta still in the house. But Valverde was about getting results, as impure as such notions seemed. And out he went, curiously enough after the team played one of its more attractive matches under him in another late choke job.
Setien came in with grandiose talk of beauty and Cruijffian principles, and that all went to hell quickly as his team became a punching bag.
And then came Koeman, a pragmatist with a brickbat, trying to figure out ways to get results from a deeply flawed squad. And out he went after not only failing at that task but creating football that should be watched with a black bar across the screen, because ugh.
Yet there were signs of an aesthetic renaissance as we celebrated Luuk de Jong banging in late goals off his anvilesque bonce, sighs of relief at another one-goal escape.
Now it’s Xavi, whose team is playing something that isn’t recognizable yet. But not only does it not have a defined way of playing, it doesn’t appear to be on the path to one, despite flashes from time to time of a structure. It’s still as psychologically sturdy as a Jenga tower on a skateboard, and is riding an astonishing run of luck to find itself top of table in league, five points ahead of its storied rivals, a cushion that is, by any stretch of the mind, eye-goggling.
I wondered after the Girona match what the reaction would be had Koeman done what Xavi did, and yikes. But the notion is interesting because of what fallow days in the trophy case have done to an idealistic supporter base. “Beauty? We won. So shut up.”
The days of elegant loss being preferable to a lumped-in victory goal seem to be gone, if they ever were real. Theory allows for fascinating idea(l)s. Winning, attractive football lets people say whatever they like because it never gets tested. Now, at a time when the club’s only trophy in years was at a sportswashing boondoggle that it shouldn’t have even by rights been at, we become like the late Al Davis. “Just win baby.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s even laudable as people come to grips with ideas and ideals, how in the hands of a club legend and one-man manufacturer of midfield-based beauty, the team has become a lucky batch of producers of wart-covered victories. Only six goals allowed in league, a remarkable stat especially for those who watch the team and shake heads in disbelief at the Providential salvation that finds it, week after week, with another clean sheet and a keeper with a few more streaks of gray in his newly acquired tresses.
And it’s heartening, verging on blissful that this rickety bunch, a collection of kids and geezers surfing through matches on a oiled-up rabbits’s foot, is embraced by a fanbase that previously sought only beauty and purity. Beautiful football is winning football? It’s a previously incongruous notion that seems to have found an unlikely home.