Praise the Homeboyby Carlos Amato / 03.12.2009
When Pep Guardiola tried to explain his baffling decision to flog Samuel Eto’o to Inter Milan, he said that there wasn’t “a feeling” between them. When this was reported to Eto’o, the striker raised his eyebrows and retorted drily: “He doesn’t need to have feeling with me. I’m not Penelope Cruz.”
He certainly isn’t. And neither is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Cameroonian’s schnozztastic Swedish replacement at the Nou Camp.
But Guardiola’s wafty language isn’t entirely risible There is a “feeling” at Barcelona FC, but something way beyond Guardiola and Eto’o, something intangible and peculiar that defines the team.
It has to do with the purist elegance of Barca’s play – their unshakeable faith in finesse over force. But it’s also a political feeling, spattered with dried blood – a gnarled lefty gene dating back to the Spanish Civil War. No oligarchs, please, we’re Catalan: Barca is majority owned by its paid-up fans, or socios. And in a wonderfully quixotic inversion of commercial logic, the club pays Unicef for the privilege of printing its logo on that glorious claret-and-blue shirt.
All the other great teams of Europe – Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, Bayern Munich – have come to articulate money and power on the pitch. Barca have money and power in abundance, but they express better, weirder things. The club buys and unleashes the softest powers that money can buy. Buck-toothed wizards, graceful freaks, lateralist dreamers.
That’s why Ibrahimovic simply had to come. Eto’o had done more than any other player to put Barca at the pinnacle of Europe. But he had finished the job, twice, and despite his pathological will to win, he needed another metropolis to conquer. Enter Inter.
And when Zlatan, a graceful freak if ever there was one, flashed home Dani Alves’s cross to win el gran clasico last weekend, he vindicated Guardiola’s gamble. Time will tell whether he can match Eto’o in the long run.
Sadly, on the very same day in Islington, another gang of graceful freaks were being violated by the dark forces of money and power. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are kindred spirits to Barcelona, allies in the cause of football purism.
But of late they’ve also become a reluctant feeder team to the Catalans. Barca want Cesc Fabregas, and they will get him. Not because they’re richer than Arsenal, but because they regular win big silver goodygats. Guardiola will raid Wenger’s chicken hok as long as Wenger keeps losing – and he will keep losing as long as he ignores the power of the homeboy.
Injuries played a big role in the 0-3 capitulation to Chelsea; there are always valid excuses. But even when he can pick from a full squad, Wenger doesn’t have a Carles Puyol: a local hero who channels the spirits of the city, the team, the fans. Puyol was like some kind of Catalan mythical creature against Real Madrid last week: a frizzy-mopped dragon from Barcelona’s medieaval past. He made Cristiano Ronaldo his bitch, but he also played the field a bit. He had three other bitches on the night: Kaka, Raul, Benzema.
Wenger is an inveterate opponent of ethnic bigotry. He scorns the idea that Arsenal should field English players for any reason barring technical merit, and it’s an ideologically sound point. But it’s telling that the last time the Gunners won the Premiership – in 2004, their defence was marshalled by one Sol Campbell.
Yes, Campbell was a Spurs product, but the scale of his influence, consistency and commitment made him a Puyol figure for Arsenal. Before Campbell, the team won things with Tony Adams fulfilling the same totemic role.
Cesc Fabregas is a wondrous footballer and a dignified captain, but his heart is in his hometown. He will be prowling the Nou Camp before this decade is over.
Who can be Arsenal’s Puyol? No idea.
But the homeboy won’t appear until Wenger realises that he needs one.