IT’S horrible when a dream dies, when a fantasy football team discover that the ba’s on the slates.
Thirty nine years ago it was Brazil. Last Wednesday it was Barcelona. There are similarities here but these mostly concern the original concept, the beautiful game played most beautifully. Brazil elected to rip up their bible and start again with something new and brutal. Barça didn’t stop playing the Barça way in the San Siro, they were stopped. Simply, effectively and probably decisively.
In the 1974 World Cup, Brazil rolled out their European method and Scotland were the surprise beneficiaries, albeit that we only gained a draw. Of the survivors from the heavenly displays in Mexico four years previously, Rivellino, below, seemed unable to run (not that he ran much in the Azteca – his socks-round-ankles swagger and sensational moustache hypnotised the opposition) while goal-a-game Jairzinho seemed to have turned into a pie-a-day celebrity, his thicker waistline complementing his expanded afro.
“Since Mexico, Jairzinho had been feted and maybe he’d enjoyed himself a little too much,” Danny McGrain told me recently when recalling how he tamed the great star. Danny was disappointed in Brazil, felt “let down” by them.
Me – although the 19s 6d canary yellow strip I’d purchased via Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly had got too small for me and been cut up for dusters – I was devastated.
I was sad on Wednesday but probably not devastated because this time there was no shock. Between ’70 and ’74 we saw or heard little of Brazil and just presumed they were playing on their fluffy cloud, refining and refining. Barcelona are exotic but they’re not. All their games are available to view, my son wears No.8 because that’s Andres Iniesta’s number yet he’s only five – they’re everybody’s favourite team. Well, everybody apart from those in the anti-Barça lobby.
Some genuinely prefer football that’s more muscular and direct, some have limited attention spans so there must always be a new gimmick, some actually think beautiful is boring. At first only a few heads popped above the parapet, like those of tall target-men strikers, ye olde medieval battering-rams, the kind Barça don’t use. But it’s a real movement now. There was glee in pundit Jamie Redknapp’s voice as he replayed clips from the closing stages of AC Milan’s 2-0 win when centre-back Gerard Pique, the tallest in the team, was thrust up front for some desperate and sacrilegious long balls.
Wednesday wasn’t a shock because Milan played really well, as they had to do, but surely even better than their most fanatical ultras thought possible (a great racket in that stadium, by the way) and certainly even better than any team containing two such ludicrous haircuts has a right, even if this is Milan Fashion Week.
And Wednesday wasn’t a shock because it’s been coming. It is foolish to talk about a side on the slide when they’re romping their own league but Barcelona’s majesty has dimmed a little. Not every pass is quite so diamond-sharp now, not every three-man pattern a trigonometric marvel. Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi – they are human.
Imagine how dispiriting it must be, going out to face former European Cup winners on their own turf and finding that they’ve put 11 men behind the ball from the start.
But, to be fair to Milan, this wasn’t a display of anti-football like some. They defended in depth when required but also broke vibrantly, and were much more positive than Inter (2010) and Chelsea (last year) were in triumphs over Barça which required much more luck.
This, though, is Barcelona’s world, one created by their brilliance. If it truly was one of parked buses everywhere – and with Milan and the even more vibrant Germans, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, waiting on the hill, it’s not – then they could have refined, like I thought Brazil were doing post-Mexico, improved the balance, replaced Samuel Eto’o, devised a Plan B. Instead they kept playing the same way and bought Cesc Fabregas. Only Barça could make one of the world’s best midfielders seem superfluous.
Then again, there’s something romantic and noble about staying true to your beliefs no matter what.
If this is the end, or even just the beginning of it, let the records show that they were the best, that they kept searching for the quinessential pass, that they never grew fat.