Barcelona's brilliance, Lionel Messi's penalty to be celebrated, not reviled
One way or another -- as a fan, journalist, broadcaster or even player's guest -- I've been attending professional football matches for 45 years now. On Sunday night at the Camp Nou, I'm convinced that I saw the best five continuous minutes of football in my life.
From the moment Neymar flicked the ball with both heels over his own head and away from two Celta players, via the brilliance of how Lional Messi won his penalty, to the audacious genius of that penalty's conversion and the visionary Luis Suárez-Ivan Rakitic combination that made it 5-1, it was in fact about four minutes and 40 seconds.
Four minutes, 40 seconds to fall in love. Excelsior football. Technique, daring, bravery, invention, two goals, wit, brain over brawn -- FC Barcelona's Valentine's Day card to the world's greatest game.
It wasn't the most dramatic four or five minutes I've ever witnessed. That also came at the Camp Nou, when Manchester United turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 Champions League final win between the time then-UEFA president Lennart Johannsen moved from his seat with the trophy in hand to when the Swede approached the touchline in preparation to award it to Bayern Munich.
Liverpool's six-minute comeback from 3-0 down in the Champions League final against AC Milan is timed out by just over 60 seconds, but that too was more dramatic than Sunday's Camp Nou rout.
Nor was what Neymar, Messi, Suarez and Rakitic conjured up from 79:12 to 83:52 as emotional a display as I've ever seen in a lifetime of watching football. In the 1983 Cup Winners' Cup quarterfinal, my club, Aberdeen, scored twice in less than two minutes against Bayern Munich to reach the semifinal of a competition they'd famously win by beating Real Madrid. When the players are wearing your colours it simply does something different to the heart and the senses, but was it as skilful, audacious, revolutionary as Sunday night? No.
There are other snapshot moments of surprise and shattering drama in my portfolio. The five minutes between being handed the first official team sheet for the 1998 World Cup final -- Edmundo in, Ronaldo out -- to the next one being hurried out: Edmundo out, Ronaldo back in. The five or so minutes between the ball breaking up field, Marco Materazzi insulting Zinedine Zidane, the Frenchman headbutting him then the referee catching up with events and sending Zizou off. I was there in Berlin in 2006; I witnessed it; I was stunned.
I could go on -- the most disappointing five minutes, the most predictable, the most frightening -- but this was the best.
It troubles me greatly that there seem to be a large number of people who are unable to enjoy these stellar moments. Take Neymar. He was pilloried by some Athletic players (and some viewers) for trying a daring flick down on the far touchline during last season's Copa Del Rey final win at the Camp Nou.
Sunday night's astonishing looping flick from behind himself, over his head and into his own path again was from the same bag of tricks. But -- and here's the key thing about these spectacular five minutes -- it was practical. Yes, it looked showy. Yes, his markers, Hugo Mallo and Josep Señe, might have felt either humiliated or enraged. But it served a purpose.
Have some people not learned that beyond basic health and fitness, the most vital things exceptional footballers like those of the past decade at FC Barcelona need are the creation of space and bamboozling/terrifying their opponents?
Sure, Neymar's flick was a display of technique that Barça fans and neutrals all over the world can "oooh!" and "aaah!" at. It was a spectacle in itself. But the crucial thing was that the Brazilian used it to free himself from the marking of several players to put him in space and let him pass to Messi. It was effective.
Celta's players were given a reminder that whatever they tried to do, Neymar might have a trick up his sleeve to outwit them. Skill like that makes markers hesitate -- should I go close? Jockey for the ball? Dive in? Foul him? Wait for reinforcements? It causes mental confusion that will buy Neymar valuable seconds in a future one vs. one or one vs. two against them. Vital.
Forty seconds later, Messi had the ball on the touchline. He was hemmed in. Over the previous three meetings between the clubs, Jonny Otto had kept Messi almost completely on a leash -- Celta won two of those games, 1-0 and 4-1, narrowly losing the third to a Jeremy Mathieu header. This time, Otto's position, facing Messi and tight to the touchline, should have meant the Argentinian turning to pass backwards -- the defender's job well done.
Instead, the mischievous imp waited until Otto's balance was all planted on his right foot, rendering him semi-immobile for just a split second. Long enough. Messi reached around the Celta man to straddle him with his left leg outstretched, dinked the ball to Jonny's right side and ran around Jonny's left side. Even before the foul was committed and the penalty won, Messi had elicited that primeval roar of astonishment, appreciation, devotion which surges from 72,000 people who know they've just seen genius.
As for the penalty, taken Johan Cruyff-Jesper Olsen style, it bewilders me that some viewers on social media thought it disrespectful. Anyone who can't appreciate the nerve, skill, daring and vision of that penalty should be re-educated.
The first thing to say -- perhaps the only thing to say if you boil it right down -- is that the penalty was scored. It was also quite intentional -- Dani Alves said after the game that "I knew they were going to try it sometimes because we'd talked about it in the dressing room." Luis Enrique even marvelled at the execution: "If it had been me, I'd probably have stood on the ball and fallen over!"
The arts of penalty taking and saving are now so documented and computer-analysed. There's so much data and such science to it that both acts combine for a kind of "cold war" between taker and keeper. Nerve, bluff, intuition, knowledge, pressure, temperament, technique, luck: All these forces are swirling around the two men involved.
I've spoken to penalty takers from World Cup and Champions League winners about this and the message is broadly that "It's a massive test of courage, character, mentality, psychology -- and technique."
If this was the best way to assure a goal, great. All the studying, planning, working out who'd take the thing done by Celta goalie Sergio Alvarez was rendered useless. Kudos to that alone. As far as shock, entertainment, positive image of the game, invention and lateral thinking -- I loved it.
Had it been Celta scoring at the other end, I'd have felt the same way, perhaps even more strongly. Had it been an opposing team scoring in added time to defeat Aberdeen in the Champions League final, I'd have still felt identically.
Long live football. Long live daring. Long live ingenuity.
That the rock 'n' roll five minutes were sealed by Suarez, the scorer from Messi's penalty/assist, giving a divine, lobbed setup to Ivan Rakitic who in turn showed ice-cold blood in his veins to elegantly loft the ball over Celta's advancing keeper, simply put a stamp of quality on the most brilliant five minutes of football I have ever witnessed.
If you didn't watch it, go find it. If you loved it, tune in next week -- they'll keep on trying to do something similar. If you didn't understand, didn't enjoy it or thought it was "mean" and "disrespectful," honestly, I feel sad for you because you don't understand football.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.