No word had been bandied around after PSG’s 4-0 evisceration of Barcelona’s quite as much ‘humiliating’. For over a decade Barcelona have ruled Europe with an iron fist (as the cliche so aptly goes, enclosed in a velvet glove); in the last 11 years, they’ve won it 4 times – and they’d made it into the quarters seven years running; but after that nightmarish Valentines Day in Le Parc des Princes, this looked to be the end of it.
They’d met a team with equal financial resources, with players to match the best they had, and they had been given the thrashing of their lives. An undressing. A spanking. It was, in no uncertain terms, a ‘humiliation’.
They trudged off the pitch with their heads bowed down, their superstars humbled – Luis Suarez couldn’t have hit a barn door that night, Neymar had tried and tried but to no avail and Leo Messi had had the worst match of his life, which is saying something, ‘cos Leo Messi never has a bad match in the blue and red of Barcelona – and their coach a broken man.
A fortnight later, Luis Enrique walked out to greet reporters after a not-as-routine-as-the-scoreline-suggests 6-1 victory over Sporting Gijon and had told them that he was done, spent, tired... that he was going to retire. Victor Valdes had once famously said that a year in Barcelona was equal to two anywhere else, and Enrique’s countenance bore him out. He had had enough.
Even more worryingly, for the first time since he had joined them, Lionel Messi looked like he had had enough. For all the world, this was it, the end of an era... the end of Barcelona as we knew them.
They were surely going out of the world’s premier football competition before it even reached the quarterfinals stage. We waited, knives out, for the inevitable.
History had given them 0% chance – no team in the history of the European Cup had ever come back to rise from a 4-0 deficit. Before the match kicked off, Neymar had nudged that probability up to 1%... leaving the remaining 99% to faith.
The world muttered, as the French would have said it, “c’est impossible”.
Yesterday, though, taught us, taught me, that there was something more powerful out there...
With no one giving them a chance, with the question of job security already out of the window, Luis Enrique threw caution to the wind, and the tactics book out of the window. He played three at the back and asked everyone else to flood forward. And that’s exactly what they did... two minutes in they had already clawed their way back in, Luis Suarez being Luis Suarez – bundling in a goal almost entirely through sheer will power. Iniesta followed, a man whose powers are on the wane forced the second in through the one quality he has that no one ever seems to praise him for... persistence.
But so, oxymoronically, was it Messi’s. Enrique and he had gambled and done the unthinkable, in a way that only great Grandmasters of Chess do, and Messi, the ‘Queen’, had been sacrificed. His shift to the middle from his usual haunt on the left had freed up the flanks. With as many as three men on him at all times, he had just one shot on target – and that, from the spot – but he dominated the middle of the park by... well... simply existing.
The game had everything and then some. After they went three goals up, Edinson Cavani hammered a half-volley into the roof of the net, and they needed three more. This was beginning to border on the cruel. With hope sagging, people left the stadium despondent, those at home switched off their TV sets and went to sleep. It was natural, the pessismist in us repeating.. “c’est impossible”...
You know what I learned yesterday? What we all did? That there was something more powerful than base sadism, more powerful even than blind hatred... the sheer, irreprisible, joy that emenates from doing the goddamn impossible.
"Hospitals need to hire more nurses in the next nine months. Because tonight there will be a lot of lovemaking"
From somewhere deep within themselves, a place that I bet even they didn’t know existed, they found the will to win.
They scored six goals that night, and just one – the insane Neymar freekick – would have made a showreel of best Barcelona goals of the season. They were all un-Barcelona goals, goals that lacked aesthetic beauty, goals that didn’t carry even a whiff of the “philosophy” that they keep yelling about sitting atop their proverbial high horse. And they were all done without Messi.
(On a related side note – do you know what makes Lionel Messi truly great? Not his skill, not his incredible stastics, but the fact that he up and decided to give the ball to Neymar for that last minute win-it-or-die penalty. The mere fact that the Greatest Player on Earth had realised that somebody else had been better than him on the night, and had not shown a moment’s hesitaton in acknowledging it)
It was a torrent of feelings. I don’t cry – I would like to, but the tears don’t come out. But I enjoyed this as much as the rest; as much as those who cried.”
It was the kind of night that made everyone fall in love with football again... Barcelona will have made a lot more fans tonight (and for those saying those are the kind of plastics that ruin the game, shove it. This is what the game is all about.) and football will have another brilliant chapter to add to its storied history.
Was it, though, the greatest comeback of all time as so many are yelling, swept up in the euphoria of having seen a truly incredible game of football?
Was it better than Liverpool pulling a strain of thought straight out of Roald Dahl’s imagination and coming up with three goals against a rampant AC MIlan that had been rubbing their noses into the ground for the first forty-five minutes as they reclaimed the lost glories of the ‘80s? Was it better than Manchester United, with Roy Keane and Paul Scholes watching helplessly from the stands, prove to all the world that the old proverb is correct, that fact is indeed stranger than fiction, and score twice in three minutes after the 90th minute as the lifted the trophy that was so intrinsically woven into the fabric of the club?
Was it better than....You and I could probably come up with even more examples, for instance that incredible Deportivo La Coruna thrashing of AC Milan in the second leg of their quarterfinal, when they won 4-0 at home, to go through 5-4 on aggregate.
But shouldn’t we be asking ourselves this... does it even bloody matter?
Forget our obsession for ranking things and putting them into tangible statistics for a minute. Let us lay logic aside, and take a step back for a moment. Let us just admire the spectacle.
Be it the 26th of May,1999, the 25th of May 2005, or the 7th of April 2004... or the 8th of March, this sport of ours, this little act of 22 men kicking a football around, showed us that beyond the mundanity of our lives, the regular routine that we are slaves to, there is a deep, primal joy in achieving the impossible – even if it is someone else doing it, even if, as is the case today, it’s Goliath v Goliath.
I am not a massive fan of Futbol Club Barcelona, but this had me off my seat – adrenaline coursing through me, smile plastered wide on my face. On nights like these loyalties and fealties take a back seat.
On nights like this, the pure happiness, and awe, generated is igenuinely infectious, and in the end isn’t that what matters most? A couple more smiles in the world?