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May 12, 2008

Barça hit rock-bottom

That was the week that was. Perhaps it's better to begin on that note, rather than open this column with anything too obvious. Well... ok, here it is. It's been a bad week for Barcelona. In fact it's been eight bad weeks, from which they've picked up the measly quantity of six points - relegation form in statistical fact.

But life's like that in the fast lane of Spanish football, and when either of the big two falls from the heights to which they are accustomed, they fall hard. When they do, the other is normally exultant, floating on the perfumed breeze of some other vibe altogether. It's the yin and yang of La Liga, a dance of opposites which has been firmly in place since the beginning of time - or competitive Spanish football, which is pretty much the same thing. And there is no mercy shown in the dance, because the victor - in this case Real Madrid - know that their dog days will come again. It's a cyclical fact of football life, and so you make hay while the sun shines - you enjoy the moment and you make sure Barça's suffering is as acute as possible.

The shame of the whole business is that Frank Rijkaard, a decent man if ever there was one, has had to watch on impotently as his five-year project, already bumping along on flat tyres, finally stuttered to a complete halt in the Bernabéu. As if that wasn't bad enough, someone came along and set the vehicle alight on the following Sunday evening in the Camp Nou, when his farewell to the fans ended in a 2-3 defeat to the excellent Mallorca, who were 2-0 down at one stage.

Rijkaard deserves better. He shares some of the blame, of course, but in the end you can take some horses to water, but only some of them will drink. Barça's sudden decline, after two glorious seasons during which they were playing the best football on the planet and winning trophies too, is - like Valencia's parallel descent - a lesson in the virtues of man-management. For it doesn't matter how much technical quality you assemble in a squad of players, if they don't get on with each other (Valencia) or if the main characters in the group are loose cannons and/or lacking self-discipline (Barça), the party just won't last.

Rijkaard came to Barcelona with nothing much on his management CV, save a premature resignation from the Dutch national side and a relegation with Sparta Rotterdam. Laporta was taking a risk with him, but as with so many of his risks, he came up trumps. After a dodgy start, the side took runners-up in his first season and then cleared out the old guard as a consequence. Deco, Eto'o and Marquez arrived to complement the astonishing skills of Ronaldinho, and the only way was up.

What was most impressive about Rijkaard was that he never got carried away in victory, and rarely sulked or complained in defeat. For a while this confused the Spanish press, who took it to mean that he was some sort of softie. In a culture in which he who shouts the loudest generally gets the plaudits, Rijkaard's calm and collected press conferences, given in Spanish almost from the beginning, were viewed with suspicion in certain areas, as if here was a man without 'cojones', a defeatist who was far too generous to the enemy.

In the end, of course, the enemy was within. The Dutchman's tendency to indulge certain players' reluctance to train hard, or their tendency to arrive back late from international matches, backfired in the end. As with a decent teacher who has knowledge and kindness to spare, the kids took advantage of the fact that the classroom discipline was nevertheless lacking. Two leagues and a Champions Cup notwithstanding, in the final analysis his president, Joan Laporta, pointed the finger in Rijkaard's direction last week, in a press conference which revealed a lack of self-criticism and a lot of cowardice - two qualities that this president will be remembered for, if he goes sooner rather than later.

History suggests that when the fans turn, there is no way back for a Barcelona president. The fans' applauding of Rijkaard before the kick-off against Mallorca and the abundance of posters conveying their support for him, were ample evidence that Laporta's days are numbered. The best one of all was, in fact, 'Ronaldinho for President', but even the smiling Brazilian was unable to stand the latest game for the whole ninety minutes, sloping off home from up in the stands when Mallorca equalised. At least he was spared the sight of Dani Güiza, now Spain's top scorer, popping in the winner and running across to the cinder-track that may be his home next year, if the rumours are to be believed. A Barcelona reject, how ironic, on a day when Samuel Eto'o, once of Mallorca, probably played his final game for the club, that Güiza should hammer home the final nail into the coffin of the present regime.

Eto'o scored Barça's second goal, but he looked none too pleased about it. He tends never to celebrate scoring against his ex-team (Real Madrid are exempted from this policy) and anyway, up to that semi-sepulchral moment, he had been booed by the home fans every time he touched the ball, as had Deco. Both these players are seen as major culprits in the present crisis, and will almost certainly be outward bound in the summer sales. Both players were accused of deliberately forcing yellow cards in the game against Valencia, so as to miss the Bernabéu game and the tortuous 'tunnel' - not to mention the 4-1 thrashing. Eto'o, originally brought from Africa by Real, invoked the curse of the Bernabéu when he sang during the celebrations of Barça's title in 2005, 'Madrid, cabrón, Saluda al campeon!' (Madrid - you bastards, salute the Champions) from the microphone at the official civic reception.

Amusing though this was, even the Barça fans were vaguely embarrassed, given that it was a gesture too far, an overstepping of the mark that revealed Eto'o's misunderstanding of Spanish society - or his lack of desire to really come into line with it. You can be competitive, you can even be nasty - but in Spain you must never reveal 'una falta de educación' (a lack of manners). It's a weird template in a country so basically anti-authoritarian, but you have to understand it to have any chance of lasting here.

Rijkaard was a masterful exponent of 'educación', but he was unable to instil the same qualities in Eto'o. In the final analysis, Eto'o lost credibility in the eyes of the fans by showing cowardice - not something he had been known for in the past. It was as if he was through with the whole thing, as if he no longer cared. The only thing he wanted to avoid was the chant 'Eto'o cabrón, Saluda al campeón' as he stepped onto the Bernabéu turf. Deco wasn't too keen either, and seemed to opt for the same policy. But the fans have never really taken to Deco. Too cold a fish for some, and for others the true Brutus with the dagger.

As further proof of the whole mess that Barça has become, the players had apparently planned to wear white t-shirts in homage to the stricken Gabi Milito, injured and out for several months. This would also have had the effect of lessening the colour contrast between the two teams, as Madrid took the pitch to be applauded through the 'tunnel' by Barça. Mindful of the fact that pictures of the event would be sold as posters and that they will still be on sale in Madrid in 50 years' time, the players - or some of them - hatched the plot. Laporta, to his credit, heard of the plan just in time and ran down to the changing-rooms where he allegedly screamed the following: 'Take those f*****g shirts off now and pay homage to Madrid as the law lays down. Try and show a bit of the dignity that's been lacking in your play all season!' So taken aback were the players by Laporta's attack and so aware were they of their own stupidity, that the first half saw them overrun, after which it just got worse.

Laporta's idea to save his own ass has been to announce the promotion of Pep Guardiola from the management of Barcelona ´B', with whom he has done a good job in his debut season. Guardiola is, like Rijkaard before him, an intelligent and decent chap who knows his football. However, unlike the Dutchman he is a club icon from his playing days, and is a major figure in the whole politico-cultural scene in Barcelona. You can see his appointment in two ways. Either it's a shameless piece of pragmatism of Laporta's, covering the cracks by bringing in the local hero - a hero who is nevertheless relatively unproven as a manager, or it's a stroke of genius because it is the right policy in times of crisis - namely go back to roots and to further 'Catalinise' the club, appealing to popular culture on the surface whilst hiding the true mess within.

The fans are divided on this one, although it is difficult for them to admit any doubts about the great god Guardiola. Some fans were kind of intrigued to see what Mourinho could have made of the situation, but now it's not going to happen. And if Chelsea lose in Moscow, Rijkaard should be given the chance to see what he can do in London.

Villarreal are now ten points clear of Barça with one game to play, whilst Atlético Madrid could now overtake the Catalans for third place if the fallen giants stumble next week at relegated Murcia. Mallorca, after their brilliant comeback in the Camp Nou, can now pinch a Champions League place if they beat Zaragoza next week at home, and Racing fail to beat Osasuna. In fact the final day of the season is still an interesting one, with the distinct possibility of Zaragoza falling into the Second Division after briefly being down there for the 2002-2003 season. All this despite putting in a brave display yet only managing to draw 2-2 against Real Madrid this weekend, in a wonderful game.

Next week sees the wrapping up of a strange season, exhilarating for some and a wake-up call for others. Barcelona will want to sleep for a while, but hope that the nightmares cease. Adversity builds the character, and they can only hope to bury the negatives, take the few positives, and learn from their mistakes. Guardiola deserves a fighting chance, although I'm not so sure that Laporta does.


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