“No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly” – Oscar Wilde
If a quick perusal of Wikipedia is to be believed, aesthetics is a complex subject. The study of beauty is something that has evolved in different ways in all corners of the globe. Debates have raged over whether art can be intrinsically beautiful or merely subjectively so. Can it stand alone without making a wider point or must art stand for something? When it comes to Barcelona and their tiki-taka style what they claim to represent is obvious. Orchestra conductor Xavi Hernandez claims that “the result is an impostor in football...there’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.” Xavi’s claim to be creating a legacy is true, particularly of the 2009 Barcelona side. Jonathan Wilson has stated that one of the biggest indicators of how great any given side was is how many imitators they produce. It would not be surprising in the least if Guardiola’s Barcelona has the same sort of impact on the game as Michels Ajax side or Sacchi’s Milan. However there is a darker side to Barcelona’s play which has avoided scrutiny due to the sheer brilliance of Messi et al.
In her book “Thinking Past Terror” Susan Buck-Morss noted how the logic in the United States had shifted from an epistemological approach to human rights (because the U.S. doesn’t violate human rights it is a civilised nation) to an ontological one (because the U.S. is a civilised nation whatever it does to combat terrorism can’t be a human rights violation). Put another way, because the U.S. is a nation based on certain principles, whatever it does cannot violate those principles even if all evidence is to the contrary. The U.S. is inescapably bound up with its identity as a land of the free, leader of the free world. It’s acceptance of human rights violations should strike at the very core of its sense of self. Yet through the idea that anything is permissible as long as we’re the ones to do it because we’re the good guys, the logic of 2+2=5 was upheld.
Although the link between America and Barcelona initially seems tenuous, the ontological fallacy is being repeated again. While the U.S. deals with the rights of the individual against the state, Barcelona and their admirers have been dismissive of accusations that their pretty football and ethos is undermined by a darker side to their game. The Catalan club claim to be playing football “the right way” and building a legacy. They claim to be “Mes Que Un Club”. Such a stance is impossible to maintain when indulging in outrageous antics designed to get opponents sent off. Xavi said of Madrid’s performance in the first leg “I wouldn’t dream of playing that way and Barca cannot allow ourselves to play that way.” Except that Xavi’s puritanical streak doesn’t seem to stretch to Busquets or Pedro going down clutching their faces when they haven’t actually been touched there. The aggressive and negative tactics of Madrid are indefensible but for all their tiki-taka prowess this Barcelona team is in danger of being remembered for Busquets peek last season as Messi’s wonderful slaloming second goal. The inversion of the logic that occurred under the Bush administration seems to have happened at the Nou Camp. When Barcelona were a team based around metronomic passing and lethal attacking movement (which they still are in all fairness) they were hailed as the best team on the planet, playing football the right way. Since then the title has been so often repeated that Barcelona have begun to wallow in the title and regard any attempts to stop them almost as an affront. The cheating that they indulge in isn’t addressed because its them doing it and they’re the torch-bearers for all that is good in football therefore it isn’t wrong.
In each of the four Clasico’s we’ve had so far this season Real Madrid have had a player sent off. Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol, Angel Di Maria and Pepe have all seen red against the Catalans so far. And while this could be attributed to poor discipline in the derby, it doesn’t explain why both Inter Milan (last season) and Arsenal (earlier this season) have also both been reduced by a man when against Guardiola’s side. It seems barely credible that six dismissals in six of the biggest games Barcelona have played in the past two years can all be put down to coincidence alone. The play-acting of Pedro and Sergio Busquets, the incessant tactical fouling of Andres Iniesta and the constant hounding of referees are all contributing factors in Barcelona enjoying a man advantage in important games.
Of course it isn’t all down to cynicism on the part of Barcelona. Their phenomenal ability to retain possession frustrates opponents and provokes reactions like Ramos in the 5-0 earlier this season or Pepe in the first leg of the semi-final. Red cards don’t happen in isolation, players earn them. When Mourinho complains about never being able to play Barcelona 11 vs. 11 he needs to take a good long look at some of his own players actions before commenting on Guardiola and his side. Ramos deserved his red card. Pepe arguably deserved his. But the never-ending hounding of referee Wolfgang Stark by Puyol and company certainly influenced his decision making over the course of the 90 minutes.
Of course many sides engage in underhand tactics and Barcelona are not the worst. Nor do their tactics result in broken limbs like the overly aggressive tactics of others. Nevertheless it is impossible to maintain a posture of being footballs saviours and use such cynical means to win. Before going after Real Madrid, Xavi might just want to have a look at his own camp before passing judgement.