Barcelona, Triumphant

Barcelona are champions of Europe for the fourth time in ten seasons, and the first since 2011; by Messi Era Blaugrana standards, a long three-year gap is at an end. Barça has run through its share of adversity in recent years—four coaches in four years, one of whom passed away—and got off to a slow start this season. Adrift in La Liga and struggling with a drop in form from top players, it seemed as if Luis Enrique might last just one season, too. Instead, the squad evolved, and it turned out there was a method to his madness after all. Barcelona becomes the first team to win more than one treble, slipping past Real Madrid in La Liga and undressing Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey before slamming the door against Juventus in the Champions League final.

As the squad aged and its midfielders—the heart and soul of the great tiki-taka run of Barcelona and Spanish football from 2008-2012—lost a step, the team’s once rhythmic passing devolved into inane, slow cycles around the back. The parked bus proved too much for the beautiful game, and Luis Enrique finally produced the answer. Suddenly there was a new weapon in the arsenal, a vicious counter-attacking force that created the highest-scoring front line of all time. When other teams began to take control in possession, as Bayern Munich did in the opening leg of the Champions League semifinal, the front three blew them open and turned tense games into laughers. Neymar took a step forward as a goal-scoring star, and Luis Suárez slid in seamlessly to a selfless squad guided by a timeless ethic of unity. But in case there was ever any doubt, the star of the show was Lionel Messi, who bounced back from an injury-plagued 2014 to revive his bid for “greatest of all time.” The world media long ago ran out of superlatives to describe his performance (Ray Hudson’s “magisterial” remains my favorite), but two of his goals in the past two months, his humiliation of the vaunted Bayern backline and casual slalom through all of Bilbao, are on the level of any he’s ever scored. With those three in form, Barcelona had the world at its heels.

Still, it was an evolution, not a revolution. Barcelona’s opening goal in the Champions League final, a statement just three minutes in, was a nod to that old midfield precision. Andrés Iniesta, rising to the occasion to be man of the match yet again in a final, picked the perfect pass to Ivan Rakitic to set the standard. Barça looked ready to run Juventus off the pitch in the early stages, but the veteran Italians slowly settled in, began to assert their own deep midfield, and finally broke through in the fifty-fifth minute, courtesy Real Madrid slayer Álvaro Morata.

The second half was a rollicking, back-and-forth affair, with Juventus finding some possession and Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian icon in goal still seeking his first Champions League title, making several key saves. But for every surge forward, Barça had a terrifying odd-man counter, and as he is want to do, Messi finally picked the lock and set up Suárez. The enigmatic Suárez was a model citizen in his first season in blue and red, keeping his teeth to himself and letting those relentless legs make the necessary incisions.

When it came time to lock things down, though, it was once again the midfield that made the difference. On came Xavi for one final time, the most decorated player in Spanish history replacing his best friend Iniesta to captain the squad across the finish line. The fulcrum of these Barcelona and Spanish national teams still has it, even at 35. Their versatility on display, the Blaugrana settled things down, defended with confidence, and turned the three-headed monster loose one last time. Neymar lasered home the exclamation point at the end of stoppage time, then kicked off the celebration as only a Brazilian can.

The Barcelona defense shouldn’t be lost in all the praise of the attackers. First Gerard Piqué, and then Dani Alves, rediscovered their past form and once again created an elite back line. Set pieces, so long a worry in Barcelona, finally became a strength, even with Javier Mascherano, the diminutive tackling machine, on the pitch at Piqué’s side at center back. Jordi Alba remains a rock on the left side, and Barça added Jeremy Mathieu to the mix to give themselves an adequate substitute defender. The firm back line excused occasional shakiness from keeper Marc-André ter Stegen in his rookie Barcelona campaign, with the odd couple in the middle in total world-class form.

It was an emphatic return to the pinnacle of world soccer for Barcelona, as they took down the defending champions of every major European footballing nation in their run to the title. Many fought bravely, none more so than the Vecchia Signora, but they were all outclassed. True, the road to the final didn’t go through Real Madrid, but the Galácticos are embroiled in their own bit of turmoil, left without any trophies and a very grumpy fan base and president, which sacked poor Carlo Ancelotti just a year after they took home the Champions League title. Real has just one league title and one Champions League in the past seven years, and the impatience and impulsive buys have brought the Blancos down a notch. Barcelona reigns supreme, and while they will miss Xavi’s steadying presence and may lose Dani Alves, the rest of the core will be back with a vengeance. It will be tough to bet against Messi, Suárez, and Neymar in the near future.

While the Catalans who made the trek to Berlin once again reminded the world that Barcelona is “mes que un club” with their pregame mosaic, the squad’s exceptionalism has taken some hits over the past couple of years. Of course, they still look honorable next to the petulance and free spending of Real Madrid, Paris-St. Germain, and Chelsea, but that’s not a very high bar there, and there are cracks in the walls. The shady finances of the Neymar deal and the one-year transfer ban show a slide to the dark side by the outgoing Barça board, and their once-unsullied kits now advertise the airline of some Middle Eastern despots instead of UNICEF. The Barcelona B team, often good enough to be promoted to La Liga if the senior team weren’t already there, had a horrid year and was relegated to the third division, despite its bevy of attacking talent. And while half the starting squad is still La Masia born and bred, there’s no doubt that it was not the youth team, but instead the monster signings of Neymar and Suárez, that pushed them back to supremacy. Purity is impossible in modern sports, and there is still much to be proud of in this club, but its thousands of owners must remain vigilant, and ensure Barcelona does not sell its soul. The aftermath of the upcoming club elections will prove an interesting bellwether.

For now, however, the party is on in Barcelona. The enduring image of 2015, after the highlight reel of Messi wonder goals and mesmerizing passing out of their midfield and front three, will be of Xavi and Luis Enrique striding off the pitch together, arm-in-arm as they belt out the Cant del Barça one last time. Visca Barça, Visca Catalunya.

Deutschland Victorious

This German boy can be proud of his heritage today, as Deutschland took home its fourth all-time World Cup title. The 1-0 victory over Argentina wasn’t quite a scintillating end to what had been a high-scoring tournament, and the game had slowly degenerated after a cracking start, but it was certainly deserved. Mario Götze’s 113th-minute strike was remarkably similar to Andrés Iniesta’s goal four years earlier, a final stroke of brilliance rewarding the better team and sparing us the misery of a final going to penalties.

The similarities to Spain don’t end there, though: this German side overcame my skepticism over any team’s ability to win by playing possession football in the 2014 Cup. Oh, me of little faith. I didn’t think anyone had the talent to pull it off, especially under the wilting Brazilian heat, but as a staunch defender of that brand of play, I’m happy to be wrong. I’d picked the Argentines before it all began, and across six games and 112 minutes of a seventh, they followed the predictable formula to a tee, relying on their well-organized defense and the occasional moment of magic out of Lionel Messi and company. It was a fine showing for the second-best team on earth, but injuries slowly hobbled Messi’s partners in crime, and Messi himself, despite being the most feared player on the pitch, was not quite at his stratospheric peak. He remains the best player of his generation, but there is still room to add to his legacy.

The German triumph, on the other hand, had nothing to do with any one star; ask five people who their best player in this Cup was, and you might get five different answers. Instead, they played a complete team game, a style not unlike Spain’s famed tiki-taka, only with an added dose of directness that made them even more dangerous. They were hardly a plucky underdog in that regard—they might be the deepest squad on earth, with an embarrassment of riches across the lineup—but, to quote someone I read over the past few weeks but cannot properly attribute, “the ball was the star.” In classic German fashion, they’re a seamless machine, playing a team sport as it’s meant to be played, and at the highest level possible. With the Spanish dynasty at an end, Joachim Löw’s men may be on the verge of their own great run. They’ve been threatening to go on one for years, and with this breakthrough and a relatively young core playing some of the most appealing soccer imaginable, what’s not to like? They’ve proven they can destroy teams that aren’t at their best defensively, and they have the patience to outlast those who are.

Still, the most memorable part of this World Cup was probably the hosts’ unequivocal on-field disaster. Brazil set out to replace the memories of the 1950 championship debacle against Uruguay, and they achieved it in the worst of ways in that 7-1 semifinal demolition in Belo Horizonte. A new generation of Brazilian fans has its own World Cup nightmare.

It wasn’t hard to see this ending poorly. The pressure was brutal from the start, and not once did the Brazilians impress; they always looked wobbly, and the resulting questions had coach Luis Felipe Scolari snapping at the media. The reaction to the Neymar injury likewise did not portend good results; the players holding up his jersey as if he were on his deathbed was a clear overreaction, and underscored the squad’s Neymar dependence. Brazil should have the depth to adjust to that sort of injury, but Scolari’s squad just seemed a disorganized throughout. The defense was filled with erratic players with little interest in defense, while the midfield was an inconsistent, revolving door; among the strikeforce, only Neymar and Oscar were remotely threatening. This Brazil squad had an identity crisis from the start, with no one really knowing his role, and the end result managed to combine the recklessness of o jogo bonito with the goonish defense of a modern, bus-parking squad, the worst of both worlds rolled into one. Brazil is in desperate need of new leadership that can seize control and impose a vision of some sort. If Alejandro Sabella can take an Argentine squad that had been so erratic four years earlier and turn them into a corps of defensive stalwarts, Brazil can certainly do something similar.

The team that dispatched of Brazil with little trouble in the third place match deserves a mention as well. The Dutch, written off before the Cup as both too old and too young, performed admirably, with Louis Van Gaal proving the anti-Scolari with his shrewd tactical moves. The Dutch weren’t always terribly fun to watch, but they got the job done, and Arjen Robben, despite the dives, was a marvel: he manages to be one of the most predictable players on earth, yet still, no one can really stop him. He gives hope to one-footed, prematurely bald bad actors everywhere.

It was a memorable World Cup, from German class to Brazilian infamy, from a very welcome goal explosion to a hungry Uruguayan. The U.S. and Mexico both took a step in the right direction, the French got their mojo back, and the Costa Ricans came ever so close to stealing our hearts with their stout defense. Chile and Colombia continue to climb in the right direction, and the Belgians, with a little more inventiveness, could be dangerous over the next few major tournaments. Spain’s golden age may be over, but there is still plenty of talent in the pipeline, and they’ll be back. In the end, Brazil put on a fine show, and even if their own fate was cruel, they, too, have hope for the future.

For now, though, the enduring image will be a bunch of young, swaggering, sculpted German models who had the ladies at my bar table swooning (and the grudging admiration of us gentlemen). The sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer, the diminutive but dominant Philipp Lahm, the mercurial Mesut Özil, a bruising and bloodied Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the floor yet again. Mats Hummels upped his stock with a superb performance, Tomas Müller scored enough to make people forget his flopping, and Miroslav Klose wrote his way into the history books by surpassing Ronaldo on the all-time goals list, yet another indignity at the expense of Brazil. The crowning moment, however, belongs to Götze, the baby-faced Bayern Munich boy (he’s 22!) who will live in football fame forever. It was a triumph for a great footballing nation, a triumph for lively and attacking football, and also for Götze, who might have himself a northern Minnesota doppelganger when I finally get around to getting a haircut this week.

karl and mario

I can dream, can’t I? And sorry about the mate, Mario; I have some loyalty to all my Latin American countries after spending so much time studying them as an undergrad.

Spring Fútbol in Spain

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to find a way to endure the gap between high school hockey and the baseball season. The NCAA Tournament is some consolation, but not much of one for us jilted Hoya alumni, and I’ve never liked basketball all that much to begin with. Instead, I let my attention wander overseas, where a pretty nice race is shaping up in Spain.

The European soccer leagues are now in their respective stretch runs, and on Sunday I was treated to an exemplary installment in European soccer’s biggest rivalry. The goals flew left and right, and while the referee imposed himself a bit more than one might like, Barcelona came out with a crucial 4-3 come-from-behind road victory over Real Madrid. The win rescued Barcelona’s chances at the La Liga title, and gives them reason for optimism heading into their other two trophy competitions—a Copa del Rey clash with Madrid in a few weeks, and in the quarterfinal stage of the European Champions League. The match-up had been hyped as a changing of the guard, with aging Barça perhaps finally relinquishing the crown Spain’s most expensive team. It wasn’t to be.

The man who grabbed the headlines was, of course, Lionel Messi, whose hat trick answered any questions about his recovery from injury, and quieted the tiresome efforts of the Madrid backers to suggest that Cristiano Ronaldo might have surpassed him. Messi breaks records nearly every time he scores these days (and he’s still just 26!), and his performance in his prime is a once-in-a-generation joy to watch. But just as dominant in Sunday’s win was Andrés Iniesta, the sublime midfielder with a flair for the dramatic. Iniesta’s goal in the seventh minute set the tone for the rest of the night, and his effort to wriggle through a pair of Madrid defenders earned the decisive penalty kick late in the game. At Barcelona he will forever be in Messi’s shadow, but the man who scored the game-winner in the 2010 World Cup final and was named the Player of the Tournament in the 2012 European Championships would be a legitimate superstar anywhere else, yet the quiet man from La Mancha is content to humbly play the wingman to Messi.

While Barça isn’t guaranteed of anything yet, they look much better heading down the stretch this season than they did a year ago, and the reasons lie in the wrinkles introduced by new coach Tata Martino. They’ve done a much better job of rotating their squad this season, keeping the top players fresh, and while they still rely on their bread-and-butter passing game and the peerless all-Spanish midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, and Sergio Busquets, they’re a bit more willing to play with pace on the counterattack now. Oddly unimportant in all of this is Neymar, the 22-year-old Brazilian record offseason signing, but he has some excellent flashes, and will slowly find his way into the system. Their demise, as has been the case of late, could be on defense, where Martino joins his predecessors in wishfully thinking that Javier Mascherano can hold down the back line against the best in the world. (I like Mascherano, but a central defender he is not, especially on a team whose fullbacks are often found bombing down the wings.) Goalkeeper Victor Valdes’s season-ending injury midweek could also dent Barça’s title hopes.

Real Madrid has also evolved tactically since last season, with new boss Carlo Ancelotti adopting a much more direct approach than José Mourinho’s dull counterattacking game. Against inferior opponents, it does look better, but the natural tradeoff here is a thinner midfield, where Xabi Alonso alone cannot quite cut it against an attack of Barcelona’s caliber. The front line of Ronald, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale piles up a lot of goals, but it isn’t clearly better than Barcelona’s somewhat deeper front line; like his fellow expensive transfer Neymar, Bale has been hit-or-miss in his first season in Spain, and Benzema, despite scoring twice against Barcelona, probably should have had himself another goal or two. Real’s saving grace may be the less-hyped midfield duo of Luka Modric and Angel di Maria, both of whom are having stellar years.

The thing is, neither of these teams is leading La Liga right now: that honor instead goes to Atlético de Madrid, the Spanish soccer equivalent of the New York Mets, the team that just sort of hovers there in the shadow of a giant crosstown rival. Atleti doesn’t have the firepower of the two perennial contenders—they’ve scored 14 fewer goals than Real, and 21 fewer than Barça—but they make up for it with rugged defense. Time will tell if they can hold up for another eight fixtures, plus a Champions League quarterfinal showdown with Barça. Those two also play on the regular season’s final day, so the race could be in for a thrilling conclusion. If Atlético can pull it off, it would be the first championship by someone other than Real or Barça in ten years.

Real has a somewhat easier road both in Spain and in the Champions League, where they drew injury-riddled Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. The favorite to win the thing, Bayern Munich, also has a pretty easy path forward, having drawn reeling Manchester United. (David Moyes, given the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson as manager, is allegedly facing open revolt in the dressing room, while opposing fans unfurl banners applauding his coaching skills. Once again, American sports fans have nothing European football fans.) The last quarterfinal, between Chelsea and Paris-St. Germain, is perhaps the most intriguing. PSG is very talented but has yet to win anything of any magnitude (the French league doesn’t count), while José Mourinho will look to rediscover his specialness and help English football save some face. I’ll admit it, I’m rooting for him: there is no more delightful mixture of arrogance, style, and coaching brilliance anywhere in the world.

Spain’s La Liga doesn’t draw the American audience that England gets, and that was true even before NBC snapped up the Premier League; the language barrier probably plays a role there, as does the league’s very real issues with competitive imbalance. But while Spain doesn’t have England’s depth of decent teams, it does have the best stable of top-end teams of any European league. The Brits and Italians have not fared particularly well in Europe over the past two years, while France and Germany are both dominated by one lonely powerhouse. Spain, meanwhile, has three serious contenders every year between Barcelona, Real Madrid, and one rising interloper, whether that be Atlético, Málaga last year, or Valencia in the not-so-distant past. In the Champions League, it is Europe’s best.

All is not well here, though, with debt burdening many of the lower-tier teams. Spanish soccer gives a taste of the best of the sport, but also more than its share of the worst, with its giant financial inequities and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Superficially, it’s easy to like international club fútbol: there are good teams in so many countries, and those teams draw from everywhere. Yet for all the apparent cosmopolitanism, this global sport is more ruthlessly capitalist than any major American sports league. While I actually prefer a bit of imbalance to some of the more rigid salary-capped leagues–sports need dynasties and villains– and one wonders just how strong the foundations really are in European soccer. The good news: we have a World Cup in less than three months!

Fútbol Evolves

For the past six years or so, soccer fans have enjoyed (or been endlessly annoyed by) the domination of two teams: the Spanish national team in international competitions, and F.C. Barcelona in club competition. Spain has won the past two European championships and the 2010 World Cup, while Barcelona won three of six Champions League titles (the European Super Bowl, so to speak). Seeing as six to eight regulars for Spain have also play their club soccer for Barcelona, the two are, effectively, the same core squad. There are key differences, of course: Barcelona enjoys the services of one Lionel Messi, the greatest player on earth at the moment; the Spanish defense is somewhat better than Barcelona’s, and they also boast the sainted goalkeeper Iker Casillas of Real Madrid. But the similarities in style are all too obvious, and there is no doubt that the heart and soul of both squads is the midfield of Xavi, Sergio Busquets, and Andrés Iniesta.

In the past three months, both dynasties have come apart. First, Barcelona lost to Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals by a brutal 7-0 scoreline over two matches, and earlier today, Spain was thrashed 3-0 by an inspired Brazil squad in the Confederations Cup final. There are excuses out there: Messi and a couple of other key players were hurt for the Munich matches, and the playing Brazil in Rio de Janeiro a few days after a draining semifinal against Italy is no easy task. Several players have shown signs of age, as well: Xavi and Casillas aren’t what they used to be, and the strikeforce that carried the Spanish national team, Fernando Torres and David Villa (the latter also a Barcelona man), has been out of form for a few years now.

But even more importantly, there is the sense that the style of play made famous by both squads has been eclipsed by that of its rivals. Both teams relied on that famed midfield to unleash the mesmerizing “tiki-taka” passing patterns that wore down the opposition, demoralizing them with relentless ball control. The few teams that beat Spain or Barcelona usually “parked the bus”—that is, they put as many people back on defense as possible to clog up the area in front of the goal and hope to spring the occasional breakaway the other direction when Spain or Barcelona overcommitted offensively. Bayern and Brazil, however, took the game straight to Barcelona and Spain, pressuring them across the pitch and unleashing a physical style that the smaller Spaniards struggled to match. Their defenses, always the teams’ weaknesses (to the extent they had one), were exposed badly, while the pedestrian forwards not named Messi have had zero answers. The midfields have been rendered unable to control play anywhere near the level they used to, and their offenses have degenerated into Iniesta trying to dribble through five defenders.

As damning as that end of tactical dominance may sound, however, it is by no means the end of these great runs by each team. It’s not a coincidence that the two teams that have beaten them have relied on a pair of rock-solid holding midfielders to shut down the tiki-taka, and with Bayern star Javi Martínez gathering dust on the Spanish national team bench, perhaps it’s time to pair him with Busquets to give La Roja its own strong defensive midfield. It might not be as sexy, but it’s not like they’d lose much by taking off one of their mediocre forwards, and that strength would allow offensive fullbacks such as Jordi Alba to range forward into the attack more often. Up front, the national team also has some options; winger Jesús Navas, who came on in the Brazil game a bit too late to make a real difference, adds an element of speed and pace that is otherwise missing from the plodding tiki-taka, and should start playing more. It’s also probably time to start working in the next generation, which early evidence suggests is just as talented as the last one; while it’s hard to see the likes of David de Gea, Isco, and Thiago Alcántara starting full-time by next year’s World Cup, an infusion of youth could add a needed spark to an otherwise aging squad.

Untroubled by the limits of national boundaries, Barcelona opened up the checkbook this summer and bought themselves Neymar, the 21-year-old Brazilian wunderkind who just finished making mincemeat of several of his future teammates for the national team. There are some questions as to how well he’ll jell with Messi, but the potential is there for one of the most lethal combinations in fútbol history. Even if he isn’t an instant hit, he should at least lessen Barça’s Messi-dependence and open up some space for other players on the team. They still have some pressing needs on defense, and just about every center back on the market has been linked to the Catalan giants. Barcelona, too, may want to consider adding a second holding midfielder: like Spain, they have got a good one on their bench in the out-of-position Javier Mascherano, and Bayern certainly showed that such a lineup need not come at the expense of artistic play going forward. This would be especially helpful for the Barça defense, as their fullbacks are even more offensive-minded than Spain’s.

All dynasties must come to an end; it’s impossible for a team to put together a core that will win championships for ten years or so. But with flexible leadership, there’s no reason that a great team can’t build a second dynasty with a little bit of tweaking around the edges. Both Spain and Barcelona have the resources to do so. It’s now up to the teams’ respective managers—veteran Vicente del Bosque with the national team and the green Tito Vilanova at Barcelona—to prove their worth.