Have Guardiola’s Barcelona tarnished their legacy?
By Tom Acey
It’s April 27th 2011, and Real Madrid are playing Barcelona in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final. The game is still goalless, when, on 62 minutes, Barca’s Pedro relinquishes possession just outside his own area. The ball runs to teammate Dani Alves, who, under challenge from the onrushing Pepe, immediately throws himself to the floor.
As Alves writhes around, clutching his leg, the Barca players surround referee Wolfgang Stark. Captain Carlos Puyol, among others, waves an imaginary card, while goalkeeper Victor Valdes runs 30 yards to join in the protest. After finally breaking clear of the red and blue mob, Stark consults with his assistant, and Pepe is dismissed. Alves, meanwhile, is carried from the pitch on a stretcher, yet returns to the field moments later.
With three minutes of normal time remaining, and Madrid now trailing, the ball arrives at the feet of Lionel Messi. Turning away from the centre circle, the little Argentine exchanges passes with Sergio Busquets before surging towards the opposition penalty area. Eluding four defenders with his jinking run, he carries the ball to the six-yard line before sliding it into the far corner of the net.
Two key moments in the space of 25 minutes, one an act of sheer individual brilliance, the other, a clear attempt to distort the referee’s judgement. Though entirely juxtaposed, the events are perhaps an accurate embodiment of Barcelona as a footballing power. So often thrilling, their ‘tika-taka’ style of play is of sharp contrast to their petulant on-field behaviour.
As the current World and European champions, Spanish football is at an all-time high, and El Clásico is now comfortably the biggest game in club football. However, for all the talent on display, recent encounters have been more about diving, fighting and play-acting than football. Incidents such as Pepe’s sending off have, unfortunately, become an all too regular occurrence.
This is partly attributed, of course, to the attitude of Jose Mourinho’s team. Unable to contend with Barca’s free-flowing, pass-and-move football, Real have been reduced to kicking out at them instead, attempting to wind-up their opposition by disrupting the flow of the game.
Mourinho’s approach may not win Real many friends, but, within the laws of the game, it is an acceptable tactic. Diving, a ‘skill’ which is commonly demonstrated by both sets of players, should not be. Throwing yourself to the floor in an attempt to win a free kick or penalty is more than mere gamesmanship; in sporting terms, it is akin to a cricketer trying a claim a non-existent catch, an intolerable attempt at deception which can change the course of a match.
A perfect example of this came in Chelsea’s recent Champions League semi-final at Camp Nou. With the match delicately poised at 2-1, Cesc Fabregas advanced into the area, and, anticipating a rash challenge from Didier Drogba, promptly threw himself to the ground. Television replays showed that Drogba had not won the ball, but he hadn’t made contact with Fabregas’ leg either. The referee appeared to be unsighted, yet reluctantly pointed to the spot.
Thankfully, justice was done, as Messi’s penalty came crashing back off the crossbar and Chelsea went on to seal their unlikely progression to the final. But imagine if Chelsea had conceded a third, with just ten men on the pitch and only half an hour to play.It’s difficult to argue that Fabregas’ dive wouldn’t have turned the game in Barca’s favour.
The recently departed Pep Guardiola was adamant that his players did not dive, once remarking that ‘our game is passing, we keep the diving for the pool’. It does make for an excellent soundbite, but one can’t help but wonder how he might justify the weekly antics of Busquets, Alves, Pedro and company.
So why do Barca do it? Unfortunately, diving is prevalent in all of the top European leagues, but nowhere more so than in La Liga. In fact, just as hooliganism in the 1980s was described by foreign observers as the ‘English disease’, so might the current trend for simulation be regarded as the Spanish pandemic.Spanish sides continue to benefit from conning the officials, and even Barcelona, it seems, cannot afford to surrender such an advantage to the opposition.
Will their unsporting behaviour, then, tarnish the legacy of this team? Realistically, no. This Barcelona side play some of the finest attacking football that many of us will ever see, and the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi deserve to be remembered as the finest footballers of our generation. Diving shouldn’t be acceptable, yet it is sadly inevitable that it will continue in the modern era. May Guardiola’s Barcelona be remembered as the great team that they were – but how unfortunate that they did not respect the officials as much as we admired their football.