Barcelona’s claims to greatness, and how they stole Florentino Perez’s galactico dream

Jonathan Wilson assesses Barcelona’s claims to greatness ahead of the clasico against Real Madrid – a team whose dream they have hijacked.
The modern world of superclubs presents a problem of perspective. As ParisSt-Germain win the league in early March, it’s very hard not to roll the eyes and, rather than saluting a great side, lament the financial disparity that has led to such farcical imbalance.
In that case, the response is probably justified, although Champions League success for PSG may force a reassessment. It’s probably partially justified in Germany, too, where Bayern Munich look set for a fourth straight Bundesliga title: brilliant as some of their football is, championships are expected when your annual revenues are 67% higher than those of your closest rival.
The temptation is to place Barcelona in a similar category, but they are not even the richest club in Spain. Yet as they head into the weekend’s clasico, they lead La Liga by nine points and are 10 clear of Real Madrid, seemingly on their way to a sixth league title in eight years. They’ve also won four Champions Leagues in the past decade. They’re not merely the best Spanish team of their era but dominant globally – not just in the sense of winning silverware but, as the tributes to Johan Cruyff last week made clear, in terms of shaping how the world believes the game should be played.
Money, clearly, has played a part. Barca may not be as rich as Madrid, but they are the second wealthiest club in the world. They do enjoy a huge advantage over many of their La Liga rivals – the ratio of income from richest to poorest in the Spanish top flight is 11.3:1 as opposed to 1.53:1 in the Premier League. Yet the idea that La Liga is some kind of procession is nonsense, as a glance at the performances of Spanish clubs in European competition reveals: six of the seven Spanish qualifiers for European competition this season have reached the quarter-finals, and the only one to have been eliminated went out to another Spanish side.
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Even if there is a weakness at the very bottom end, it’s still a remarkable achievement for Barca to have passed unbeaten through 23 league games since the beginning of October.
But statistics can’t capture their majesty. The front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar is arguably the greatest collection of attacking talent at one club since Real Madrid were lining up with Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Paco Gento in 1960.
It’s not just that they’re three brilliant players who, since around January last year, have worked out a way of playing exceptionally well together: it’s how well they get on. It would have been easy to imagine three greats squabbling for primacy, forever looking to outdo the others, but instead they seem to have acknowledged they are a trinity, great as individuals but even greater together.
They live near each other, have a WhatsApp group and have all at various points this season said that a game doesn’t feel complete until all three have scored. Before the recent World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Uruguay, Neymar and Suarez agreed that the loser would have to buy the winner a hamburger, the sort of jokey bet that suggests genuine friendship. “They have a special relationship,” said Gerard Pique. “They understand each other perfectly. There is no hint of jealousy and you can see that out on the field in their performances.C) celebrate a goal against Granada. – Reuters
The irony is that the modern Barcelona feels a lot like the team FlorentinoPerez envisaged when he outlined his template for the galacticos era. Real Madrid, he said then, would comprise “Zidanes y Pavones”: that is, superstars like Zinedine Zidane and gifted youth-team products like the defender Paco Pavon. Perez’s motives were presumably primarily financial, the low salaries of the youngsters effectively subsiding the vast salaries of the global stars, but a homegrown core also helps maintain a sense of identity around a club, the feeling that it is a cause or idea worth fighting for (and there have been plenty of mercenary gatherings who have lost that drive when the going gets tough).
At heart, all clubs are a negotiation between some sense of self-image, of philosophy, and practicality. In the modern age, money and the swirl of transfers mean that pragmatism tends to win out (transfers in this sense can be seen as a mutually advantageous mania: players and agents love them because they make money from them, fans love them for the excitement of a new toy, clubs’ commercial arms love them for the glamour they bring, directors love them for the prestige, the media loves them because it gives us something to talk about, managers love them because it’s easier to buy a talent than develop one and because they offer endless deferral – success is only ever a couple of signings away; the only thing that suffers is some romantic concept of football itself as being about team-building and making the best of what you have).
Pep Guardiola’s Barca was a rare example of a team predominantly about the philosophy. He was a graduate of La Masia and so, in his side, were Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Messi and Pedro. The pressing and the blur of passes were the result of years of being encouraged to play that way, of the fostering of profound mutual understanding. So unique was the ecosystem that outsiders found it hard to fit it, even those as gifted as Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
But by the end, teams knew how to combat it. You sat deep and looked to deny Barca space. It was very hard to pull off and few teams did but, in a handful of key games, it worked. There were those who criticised that they had no Plan B, which was simultaneously true and missed the point of what had made them great in the first place: Plan A was to grind the opposition down with passing, to make them chase until exhaustion prompted a mistake. It was attrition by beauty; to divert from that plan made no sense when the solution to the plan not working was to do the plan more.
And that’s why this side may be even greater. It is not such a distillation of a post-Cruyffian ideal, but it is a thrilling blend of that possession-driven philosophy and three remarkable individual talents, the squad (if not necessarily the first team) a mix of gifted youngsters and expensive signings. Sit deep against this side and you’re simply giving the ball in a dangerous area to a brilliant dribbler. It is just about possible to crowd Messi out – but over commit on him and you leave Neymar and Suarez free. Ivan Rakitic may not have the brain of Xavi, but his willingness to hit quick forward passes makes him ideal for springing the front three if the opposition pushes up. Nobody, yet, has worked out how to defend against this Barca.
And so the conversation moves on. Best in Spain? Clearly. Best of their era? Almost certainly. Best of all time? Perhaps not quite yet: their brilliance has endured only around 15 months. But if in May they become the first side to retain the Champions League, then they’re certainly a very serious part of the conversation. As Guardiola’s side faded, we wondered if we’d ever see their like again; nobody expected the remnants of that side to develop so quickly into something quite so exceptional.

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