I trust dear readers that you will forgive this segway into the universal game of football; but having witnessed at second hand, ie via the recent invention of television, the 6-1 demolition of Paris Saint Germain (PSG) by FC Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions’ League, formerly the European Cup, I have to lurch into print in celebration.
As you will doubtless know, even for those of you across the pond, since the popularity of football, aka soccer, has managed to penetrate even the heartlands of the USA, Barça conspired to lose 4-0 in the first leg of the tie, in Paris three weeks ago. As you will equally know, no team in the history of European club football has managed to recover from such a deficit; yet even with a goal for PSG by Jack Palance lookalike, Edinson Cavani, a man who could walk into Hollywood any day as a type-cast hit-man, Barça managed to convert an overall deficit of three goals with three minutes of regulation time to play into an unlikely victory.
My appreciation is based on several factors, the first of which is that FC Barcelona, under a succession of managers, beginning even before the tenure of Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola – and abetted by Spanish national coach, Vicente del Bosque – quite simply reinvented football. Possession, triangulation, rapid inter-passing, superb ball control, and frenetic tackling to re-possess lost balls characterised the new way.
The Brazilian great, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pelé called football the ‘beautiful game,’ but all he did was anticipate the way that Barça was going to play. It is a thing of singular beauty, sporting ballet. And I had a personal preview of this almost 60 years ago. It was my sad destiny to have been born in the shadow of Molineux Grounds, the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC. Wolves was one of the best teams in the world when I was growing up in the 1950s, during which time the club won the English First Division three times, and the FA Cup in 1960. Wolves had also pioneered evening floodlight games, beating the Moscow teams, Dinamo and Spartak; and during the early years of the European Cup, when UK clubs snootily declined to participate (shades of Brexit!), Wolves also beat the five-time champion Real Madrid, in a home and away fixture.
English teams finally joined the fray, and Wolves played in the European Cup, precursor to the Champions’ League in 1958/59, and 59/60. They narrowly lost to West German club Schalke 04 in the first season, but were humiliated by Barça the following year. The English game was still basically ‘kick and rush’ in those days, its modern legacy being the speed at which teams in the current Premier League play. But the artistry that the Barça players brought to Molineux in March 1960 was a sight to behold. Barça had won the first leg 4-0, but there were high hopes of Wolves doing what Barça did to PSG on Wednesday evening. Far from it! The Barça players mesmerised Wolves with their steady meticulous play, and ran out 5-2 winners, 9-2 overall. I was an awe-struck spectator that night; and I have been a regular, appreciative admirer of Barça since then, on occasion in Camp Nou itself, along with close to 100,000 others.
Barça’s rivalry with another great club, Real Madrid has often been characterised in terms of the national, tragic polarising event of the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War; with Real being seen as Franco’s fascist favourites, and Barça being representative of republican Catalan resistance. Whether that is strictly true or not, that is the widespread perception. Nevertheless, it was during those repressive decades following the nationalist victory in the civil war that membership of the Catalan club (and there are now more than 140,000 socis or members) led the supporters’ club to fashion what has become an official FCB motto, Més que un Club (in Catalan). Without going into the tactical stupidity of a collection of world class players, ie PSG sitting back and inviting Barça to attack – with the ultimate consequences, that motto and underlying belief was amply demonstrated in Camp Nou on Wednesday evening. Més que un Club – More than a Club!
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