Busquets, the man you hate to love
Early on in my interview with Sergio Busquets, after my editors began to ask me to profile him, Xavi was happy to confront the facts.
"'Busi' is the most streetwise player in our squad," the Barcelona orchestra conductor admitted to me. Where Xavi uses the baton to organise sweet music, 'Busi' might use the narrow, pointed piece of wood to poke eyes and perforate eardrums. Nothing personal, mind; purely business.
Some, I know very well, think that "streetwise" is the worst of euphemisms, that the Catalan midfielder plays referees like an old pub piano and that it's win at all costs.
What you learn is that Busquets would like people to think that he doesn't care - that if someone has to take the crap in order to ensure a result ... it might as well be him.
But he does care. I saw his guard drop once.
Four years ago, Busquets was en route to winning La Liga, the World Club Championship, the Champions League, the Copa del Rey and the World Cup by the age of 22. How does that sound when you say it aloud?
Spain's 100 percent, win-all-the-way qualification for the World Cup in South Africa then abruptly bumped into Ottmar Hitzfeld's Switzerland. La Roja flopped 1-0; no team in the 84-year history of the competition had ever lost the first game and then survived to lift the World Cup.
Bluntly, Busquets had partial fingerprints on the blame for Gelson Fernandes' goal, missing a midfield jump and then failing to track back with his man. But there was a howl of disapproval across Spain after the jug of freezing water was poured all over the blazing optimism that had accompanied the European Champions to Durban.
The media were wielding pitchforks and burning torches -- an angry mob that wanted a culprit. With infantile logic, they settled on Busquets.
- #WorldCupRank: No. 40, Sergio Busquets
"Suddenly" using two organising midfielders -- as Spain had been doing for a couple of very successful years -- was antediluvian, inappropriate and .... well none of the critics had actually ever liked the idea. It had just taken until now for them to get round to saying so. You get the picture.
The consensus was that Busquets must be blamed and dropped. Things got to the point that Vicente del Bosque hosted an emergency summit back at Spain's base -- in fact, inside the cricket pavilion of NW University in Potchefstroom where they were living and training. Del Bosque stated, unequivocally, to his captains that there would be no witch hunt, there would be no culprits and that the system -- indeed, their entire philosophy -- would be untouched. No panic after one bad day at the office.
Players, specifically Xabi Alonso and Gerard Piqué, rounded vehemently on Busquets' critics, accusing his assailants of myopia, stupidity and opportunism. And that was only what was said in public.
What I was unaware of at the time was how much the wave of opprobrium stung young Busquets. He chose to avoid an (optional) team day out, preferring instead to try and dispel the black cloud above his head on his own.
When Spain won their following match, beating Honduras 2-0, I was in a privileged interview position behind the scenes and politely asked the guy with whom I'd previously had interesting, warm and engaging chats whether he'd care to give a quick interview to us on camera?
"Why always me! Why? Is it because I'm always polite and I'll always stop? Choose someone else ..." was the gist of what Busquets said, brusquely, before stomping off. Now these things are part and parcel of our working life. But it was very rare to see him in that mood.
What I didn't know was that he'd been stung, that the helter skelter world which had taken him from Pep Guardiola's Barça B team in early 2008 to complete domination of the European club scene by summer 2010 had suddenly flipped off its axis.
He coped, they rallied -- Spain won. His role in that triumph was stellar, too, particularly in the wonderful semi-final battle of wits with Germany, I'd say.
It's now fully assimilated by even the least enlightened football watcher that Busquets is an extraordinary footballer, even though his arts (not the dark ones) weren't initially easy for the casual watcher to appreciate. He was Rachmaninoff to One Direction. Dark chocolate to candy floss. But once Xavi, Guardiola and David Villa began to speak about him in reverential tones, the message filtered through to the masses.
A chief prophet was Del Bosque himself. In support of the under-appreciated maestro who was at the heart of La Roja's organization, positional intelligence, distribution and defence protection, the one-time Real Madrid playing legend said: "If I was reborn in the modern game I'd like to be Sergio Busquets."
For those who never saw Del Bosque play, that's a massive compliment. The Marquis was himself a footballer of gigantic class, vision and technical ability.
I believe that too little is made of the astonishing fact that Spain have conceded just six times in 19 competitive matches while winning the last three major tournaments. Their keeper is the tops. Their back four tremendous. But the defence-screening from Busquets and Alonso, the way in which they impose order with and without the ball -- that's blue-ribbon work you're watching.
But what I believe showed Busquets at his most raw back in 2010 wasn't just the blame game, nor the threat of Spain going out. It was the vast lack of appreciation for his work, his talents and how he expertly draws the best out of those around him and covers for their lapses.
Once, interviewing him, I was told by 'Busi:' "If you want to play showy football and be noticed then mine isn't the position to pick. On a tactical level the defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation is just about the most demanding position there is."
"The work is intense. You have to calculate a great deal very quickly which requires football intelligence and real concentration. Part of my role is to shuttle between the defense and the attacking lines to make sure that the ball circulates well and quickly. Often this 'Pivote' position starts the play. Defensively you are also an intermediate between our back four and the midfield and I try to mark and press so that I can isolate the opposition striker from their own midfield."
"I'm a team player who needs to work a lot and sacrifice myself for the success of the group."
These sentiments are why so many of his team mates adore him. Xavi almost always travels to Spain matches on the team bus seated next to his young Catalan protegé. I'd say that Busquets and Alonso probably don't use Facebook and almost certainly aren't "linked in." But when they are in harness on the pitch, they are an awesome little unit.
Of course few realise that Busquets' greatest sacrifice was abandoning the glory and grandstanding of the forward line for the grind of unappreciated midfield "cleaner," a kind of middle-of-the-pitch Winston Wolf.
He grew up in a house where his dad, Carles, was Barcelona's first choice keeper and young Sergio wouldn't hear of that either. He craved hitting the net.
"When you are young it's just boring to be a goalkeeper. So when you're playing at school or with friends, you always want to be a forward and score goals, which is the nicest thing there is in football. Also, as my father was a goalkeeper, he always let me and my brother take shots at him, and we loved that."
What he doesn't love is the profile. No social media, next to no advertising of products compared to those around him -- relatively low media exposure.
Fervently, he'll be hoping that his World Cup doesn't start the way it did four years ago in Durban. Whether it ends the same way 2010 did will very much be influenced by whether or not Busquets, the frustrated centre-forward and under-appreciated organizer, brings his "A" game to Brazil.