The Usual Suspects: Aftermath of a Spanish Rivalry

Takeaway points from the four chapters of El Clasico (which frankly made Stephanie Meyers’ tetralogy look like Shakespeare).

12 Angry Men

Mourinho’s temperament has cost Los Blancos their reputation.

The jury’s out on Mourinho.

Somewhere in Madrid, Jose Mourinho is nursing a bad headache with a bottle of brandy and asking himself where it all went wrong. Was the formation too stringent? Should Kaka have started in the first leg? Was Ronaldo’s creativity stifled by a lack of support up front? And Adebayor, filha da puta… Was Ade ever a threat or did I really put him in to clumsily bulldoze the diminutive opposition?

At least, most other managers reeling from a Champion’s League semi-final loss would be asking such retrospective questions. But like the gifted kid who gets beat by a younger sibling on family game night, Mourinho doesn’t know what to do except throw his arms in the air, stomp the floor, and scream “You cheated!” It’s not the first time he’s lost a major competition, nor the first time he’s deflected blame.

But what’s different this time is his insinuation that Barcelona were somehow involved in a match-fixing scandal. In fact, the Special One may better be labeled the Spurious One, abandoning ethical reason for unsubstantiated claims in a way that makes Donald Trump sound like Kant. Calling Guardiola’s side out for play acting is a defensible position – if only to point out that the world’s best side aren’t the angels we’ve been led to believe they are. But Mourinho’s belief that there’s more to his side’s loss than 180 minutes of competitive football and a series of 50-50 calls that didn’t go his way may put a dark stain on the reputation of a side that’s otherwise righted the ship since Franco’s regime to become a model of footballing rectitude. It’s an unfortunate situation for Los Blancos, who hired Mourinho because his thirst for victory so perfectly complements the winning mentality of the capital side – they may have gotten more than they bargained for in a man who’s never known how to rationalize his own failures.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Barcelona deserve to be the team we hate to love.

The quest goes on.

Barcelona won’t fare much better as their credibility will be damaged by disreputable performances from players like Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets across the two leg competition. But the biggest hazard for the Blaugrana looking forward is their unabashed belief that they deserve to be on the winning end of every competition. Indeed, their approach to this year’s cup has always been that it’s theirs to win or lose. It’s a surprising – and dangerous – attitude for a side that traditionally prides itself on its underdog aesthetic. Yes, underdogs! Despite tremendous success in Spain and Europe, Barcelona has always played second fiddle to Madrid’s historical dominance. The two behemoths figure something like the fictionalized musical adversaries of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Madrid’s Mozart dallies around the royal courts performing terse, inventive sonatas while Barca’s Salieri lurks in the shadow spitefully composing counterpunctual melodies. These days, however, thanks to a golden period of success under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona may actually believe that the trophy is permanent Catalan property and reclaiming it at Wembley is not a matter of if, but by how much. Something like the Babe Ruth-autographed baseball in The Sandlot or the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones, Barcelona are entitled to get the trophy before the bad guys do. If you don’t play mesmerizing tiki-taka football, a cule may say, you’re an instrument of evil. Just like Beast the guard dog or the maniacal SS agent Major Toht.

The motto “Mes que un club” (‘More than a club’) arose in response to the post-war suppression of cultural identities and regional languages in Spain. Barcelona became a symbol of Catalan culture and its supporters used the club not only to gather on the weekends for football matches, but also to express their disavowing opinions of fascism. But today, the Blaugrana take for granted the heritage of the phrase and prescribe false connotations. “More than a club” means we deserve to be here. “More than a club” means that our success, however contentious, is a victory for football. “More than a club” means that we were chosen by God. Call it a sense of entitlement, a greed for consistency, or a perceived mandate from some supreme being, but this team is not dishing out the same darling football we grew to admire in 2009. Should we cheer for United if only so that, at the end of the season, Barcelona will once again have something to prove?

Although Barcelona are in the finals once again, the taste of Spanish sherry won’t be quite as sweet this time. Not that they cheated, or colluded with the referees, or involved UNICEF in some grand plot against a squirrely man from Portugal, but that there’s some ethereal energy pushing them to victory simply because they believe hard enough in the mysticism of an all-conquering fate. In spite of Mourinho’s historically conspiratorial tirades, there’s something to be said about this bunch. Like a child star, endearing in youth, Barcelona is growing up, and adolescence isn’t pretty.

There Will Be Blood

Fractured relationships may endure for the Spanish national team.

If I say I am a football man, you will agree.

Here’s a fun exercise: watch the opening scenes of the four recent El Clasico fixtures in a row. Start with the league match. Fast forward to the handshakes. Take notes. Now repeat with the Copa del Rey. Still following? Good. On to the UCL semi-final, leg one. Notice anything yet? Leg two? Did you pick up on it?

Unsurprisingly, in the first encounter between Madrid and Barcelona, the players greeted each other with brief handshakes, back pats, and a few friendly words. It was as affable as you can get in a rivalry. By the fourth fixture, however, the opposite numbers were slapping hands like soulless mannequins on an assembly line. Now consider that among the twenty-two starting players on Tuesday, nearly half featured for Spain in South Africa last year. Among those, only Iniesta will still be wearing his BFF necklace by the end of the week (although he may not be getting his Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants DVD back from Raul Albiol). Casillas looked like Inigo Montoya meeting the man who murdered his father – “My name is Iker Casillas, you killed our title hopes, prepare to die!” Xavi’s cottonball cheeks couldn’t force a smile even for his midfield partner Xabi Alonso, who himself was eyeing down teammate Sergio Busquets. Dr. Phil was in the crowd taking notes and texting Oprah about his next big project. Where’s the love?

We’re left to wonder if this match was an alarm bell for the Spanish national team. Sure, this is the same Barcelona side that humiliated Real Madrid before the World Cup, but back then the lopsided encounters were seen as aberrations more than anything else. “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!” Ramos might have joked. But now it’s a trend, and one that Jose Mourinho may have his players believing is due more to Barca’s foul play than Madrid’s shortcomings.

One particularly fractious detail will be Busquets’ place in the team. Puyol et al will certainly run to his defense, as good teammates always do. But Alonso, Casillas, and Ramos will (rightfully) lose faith in the midfielder who marred a prestigious rivalry with a performance reminiscent of Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park. Don’t remember? He was the fat guy who got what was coming. Dilophosaurus venom in the eyes. Rolling around in the mud. Nasty stuff.

We won’t pull out any tabloid headlines about this being the beginning of the end for the Spanish national team, but we are left wondering if the chemistry of Las Rojas will suffer in the aftermath of this season. At this point, it’s wait and see. One piece of advice: watch Del Bosque in his next press conference. If wooly bear caterpillars can predict the weather with their stripes, what kind of divinations will the coach’s moustache give us?

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