‘More than a club’? No, just a football team

Barcelona’s handbaggery, theatrics and glorious goals in El Clásico showed that football has FA to do with morality.

Duleep Allirajah

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Barcelona won the Champions League semi-final 3-1 on aggregate. But who were the losers? Real Madrid, yes obviously, but the casualty list also includes the reputations of Barcelona, Jose Mourinho and Spanish football.

I find it quite amusing that Barca’s self-righteous halo has slipped. But I refuse to join in with the wider chorus of boos aimed at cheating Spaniards or Mourinho’s pragmatism.

The tie was hyped as the ultimate showdown between the two titans of Spanish football. In truth the first leg was more El Histrionico than El Clásico. The game was littered with fouls, playacting, referee hounding, recriminations and handbaggery of the highest order. The football purists were appalled, but as a piece of theatre it was compelling viewing.

The British press are normally adoringly reverential about Barcelona’s beautiful football but their gamesmanship has prompted a rethink. The Daily Mail’s Des Kelly was not impressed. ‘At the Bernabeu, Pedro fell over more often than a drunk stepping off a spinning merry-go-round with an inner ear infection. Dani Alves spent so long rolling on the turf he became the first player to be stretchered away with third-degree grass burns’, wrote Kelly.

Barca are the first to complain when opponents employ spoiling tactics against them. But, as this match demonstrated, they’re not averse to resorting to the dark arts of gamesmanship themselves. Hopefully their playacting will deter prospective acolytes from being so easily seduced by their ‘more than a club’ self-righteousness. Sure, they’re the outstanding team of their generation. Give them the ball and they’ll pass you to death. But, while I admire their dizzying one-touch passing, I can’t really stomach the beatification of Barca by sections of the media who regard their football style as morally superior.

But, while it’s amusing to see Barca’s saintly image sullied, we should resist the temptation to engage in chauvinistic sneering about foreign cheating. Some commentators have seized on the Bernabeu histrionics as evidence of the lack of scruples in Spanish football. As the Observer’s Paul Wilson put it: ‘Spain leads the European field in cheating, diving, sneaky fouling and blatantly attempting to trick, confuse or otherwise control the referee.’

It’s true that the Spanish are more tolerant of playacting, largely because they don’t share the British belief that sport is a moral instrument. But, while we in Britain might find these ‘Spanish practices’ unpalatable, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that our own players are above rule-bending. Injury-feigning might be considered unmanly in Britain, but we have developed our own homegrown forms of gamesmanship such as the ‘reducer’, a bone-crunching tackle early in a game which is designed to intimidate an opponent. There’s also been a long and dishonourable tradition of collective referee haranguing which stretches back to Don Revie’s Leeds United in the 1970s.

Jose Mourinho, usually the darling of the media, has also been given a good shoeing by the press. The Real Madrid coach was sent off for sarcastically congratulating the linesman after Pepe’s dismissal in the first leg. His post-match rant about the preferential treatment given to Barcelona landed him in hot water with Uefa. ‘Today it’s clear that against Barcelona you have no chance’, said Mourinho. ‘I don’t know why. All I can do is leave that question here in the air and hope that one day I will get the response.’ Mourinho’s paranoia might appear bonkers to football fans in the UK but conspiracy theories do have more purchase in some European countries where corruption has been more prevalent. Mourinho’s native country, Portugal, was rocked by the Apito Dourado (Golden Whistle) scandal in the early part of the last decade which involved referees taking bribes. Mourinho has also managed in Italy’s Serie A which was shaken by the 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ match-rigging affair.

Mourinho’s ranting and raving isn’t particular edifying but it’s his reputation as a master tactician which has arguably suffered the greatest damage. Did he get his tactics badly wrong at the Bernabeu? Mourinho has been widely slated for being too negative in the first leg. ‘Luckily, Mourinho’s destructive tactics, aimed solely at provoking and destroying the opponents’ gameplan, did not work’, wrote former Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld in a German football magazine. ‘Such a way of playing does not relate to the demands of Real, it’s really shameful for Real Madrid. It harms the good name and image of this legendary club.’ Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano was also critical of Mourinho’s tactics. ‘The decision to try and play Barcelona on the counterattack was clearly not the right one’, said Di Stefano.

Madrid’s tactics weren’t pretty, I’ll grant you, but I don’t think that a more expansive strategy would have necessarily succeeded. Mourinho attempted this tactic at the Nou Camp earlier in the season and the result was a 5-0 drubbing. Yes, Madrid ceded possession to Barcelona, but is there any team in Europe that can out-pass Guardiola’s men? I haven’t seen one. Counter-attacking football is not an option against Barca, it’s a necessity. Even Arsenal, who are essentially Barca-lite, were forced to ‘park the bus’ at the Nou Camp.

Mourinho’s winning ugly tactic clearly didn’t succeed. But it wasn’t the ugliness that was the problem. This is football, not art. The nullification strategy itself was actually working quite effectively at the Bernabeu where, for all their possession, Barca had few clear goal attempts. Mourinho claims that the game-plan was to keep the score at 0-0 and introduce attacking players in later phases of the match. The plan was thwarted not by Barca’s brilliance or Madrid’s lack of attacking ambition but by the red card shown to Pepe. That decision, which freed up Xavi from his man-marker and left Madrid’s back four more exposed, turned the game.

Nullification ain’t the most elegant football tactic, but no-one has yet to find a more effective way of beating Barcelona. Mourinho’s conspiracy theories might be groundless and, yes, he could have been more gracious in defeat. But I can see little wrong with his tactics. Losing one cup tie doesn’t mean he’s no longer the Special One.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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