Chelsea’s win over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final was a tragedy and anyone who did not lament that result is not in possession of a soul. That game was about more than football. It was about music, poetry, aesthetics, artistry, hope and audacity.
The concoction of alternate histories is a reasonably popular form in the publishing industry. Indeed, one of the most interesting in a footballing sense materialised when Paulo Perdigao decided to put pen to paper.
In the short story The Day In Which Brazil Lost The World Cup Perdigao’s narrator travels back in time with the stated intention of changing the result of the 1950 World Cup ‘final’ – strictly speaking Brazil’s clash with Uruguay, which ultimately decided who walked away with the Jules Rimet trophy, was the concluding group game.
Anyway, Brazil famously lost (1-2) that game in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã. Brazil were red-hot favorites and took the lead immediately after the interval through Friaça, but Uruguay equalised through Schiaffino in the 66th minute. Because of the group format Brazil were still on course for victory, but late in the game Uruguayan winger Gigghia beat ‘keeper Barbosa with a speculative shot at his near post.
In the short story Perdigao’s narrator finds himself perfectly positioned behind Barbosa’s goal, but when the vital moment arrives he shouts at the Brazilian ‘keeper in an effort to warn him. Sadly, he only manages to distract the Barbosa and Gigghia still manages to score his fateful goal.
Perdigao’s point, we suppose, was that Brazilian football needed to go through such a painful defeat before developing into the international footballing force we have all become so familiar with.
It’s a tempting hypothesis.
Football presents us with plenty of ‘wrong’ results. This season, for example, Chelsea arrived at the Nou Camp nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg in their Champions League semi-final clash with Barcelona and somehow clung on to book their place in the final.
Speaking after the 1986 World Cup final Franz Beckenbauer, manager of the West Germany side which lost that decider to Argentina, said: “luckily enough, we did not win the final because that would have been a defeat for football”. That’s exactly what Barcelona’s defeat at the hands of Chelsea felt like, a defeat for football.
Could it be the case however that Barcelona needed, as Perdigao argued with regard to the development of Brazil, to suffer that heart-wrenching defeat before they could further develop, albeit without Pep Guardiola at the helm.
As Day Leydon pointed out in a superb article for In Bed With Maradona (Xavi, Barcelona And The Path Of The Playmaker) “football is at a crossroads and it needs to choose the route that embraces finesse and skill rather than that of brute force”.
Barça are leading the fight against the spirit-sapping utilitarianism of men like José Mourinho – let no one ever forget what the venerable Portugese told his Chelsea players before the 2007 FA Cup final: “do you want to enjoy the game or do you want to enjoy after the game?”
As manager Pep Guardiola was presented with several notable opportunities to instruct his team to play with dispiriting pragmatism, but he refused to betray nobler ideals.
Guardiola wanted to make his team the protagonist in every game and if Barça can just keep winning we may be treated to a paradigm shift in the game. Barcelona’s pursuit of beauty is itself a thing of beauty.
Brad Gilbert’s book on tennis, Winning Ugly, gave expression to a philosophy that winning was/is everything and that ambitions to play the game beautifully were frivolous. But while beauty has become synonymous with superficiality in modern life is there a sense that the tide is turning, that we are slowly beginning to recognise that footballing beauty is not an irrelevance?
In 2006 Julian Baggini wrote a magnificent article for Observer Sports Monthly entitled Time’s arrows hang over us which basically outlined what can be achieved with a little effort.
Baggini posed the following question: how much is success in sport down to sheer hard work and perseverance, rather than natural talent?
“Since the same question can be asked of life in general, the answers might provide some clues as to how much of our destinies are in our own hands,” Baggini wrote.
“More profound is the whole issue of whether we could have achieved higher, if only we had tried harder. Watching Wayne Rooney, Roger Federer or Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, it’s reassuring to think that we could never have competed with them, but it doesn’t follow that we could never have competed at a high level in any sport. Natural talent is just one ingredient of success and not always the most important one.”
Doesn’t the same paradigm apply to football clubs i.e. what if some more endeavoured to play the game aesthetically and follow Barcelona’s example?
The author Marianne Williamson summarised it best: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us”.