There’s a special feeling of euphoria, a kind of Olympian giddiness, that soccer fans experience while watching F.C. Barcelona. Soccer takes great athletes and makes them artificially clumsy—forces them to show what they can do, in effect, with both arms tied behind their backs. It’s a game of tricks, one that turns the simplest action, just keeping possession of the ball, into a perilous high-wire act. But Barcelona pass the ball, and pass the ball, and pass the ball—938 times in their recent 5-0 win over Real Sociedad—and invert defenses as casually as if they were rotating a kaleidoscope. It’s not just that they make it look easy. It’s that three years into their reign as the world’s best soccer team, they still haven’t realized they’re playing 50 feet above the ground.
Barcelona doesn’t just play the loveliest soccer of any team in the world. They also win, and win, and win. Under Pep Guardiola, the beloved former team captain who took over as manager in 2008, Barcelona has won: 108 games (and lost 13), one Champions League title, two Spanish league titles, one FIFA Club World Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Copa del Rey, and two Supercopa de España trophies. (Again, that’s since 2008.) Barcelona has the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, a tiny Argentine dynamo who moved to Spain as a child after the club volunteered to pay the medical bills to treat his growth-hormone disorder, and whose talent has since expanded along such a mytho-surrealist axis that I once heard a commentator react to one of his moments of brilliance by roaring, “He’s like a little, short-legged bull, covered with eyes!” An unusually large number of Barcelona stars have been with the club since childhood: La Masia, the club’s training academy, is so good that all three current finalists for the Ballon d’Or, the prestigious European Footballer of the Year award, are graduates. (And all three, of course, play for Barcelona.) Six of the 11 players who started in the World Cup final for Spain were Barcelona players, including Andrés Iniesta, who scored the tournament-winning goal. Barcelona has won its last five league matches by a combined score of 26-1.
There is an aura of innocent success, Galahad-like and dazzling, around everything Barcelona does. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy, and if you’re Inter, Barcelona’s only serious rival for the title of Club of the Moment (five straight Italian championships, a win over Barcelona in the Champions League last year, vastly less media attention), it could push you toward bitterness and drink. But while the club’s narrative machine has succeeded in injecting its program—healing the sick, hoisting the Grail, etc.—into just about every conduit of hype in global sports media, the team attracts shockingly little cognoscenti snark. That may be because, in contrast with their geographic and political and social and cosmic rivals at Real Madrid, Barcelona’s stars are curiously blank. Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid’s fashion action-figure, is a photo shoot waiting to happen, his collar eternally popped. Does anyone, by contrast, know what Leo Messi thinks? Earlier this year, an English tabloid ran a fake story that claimed Messi had formed an Oasis cover band and was touring in secret, and a lot of people believed it, because, well, why not? Barcelona has, if anything, encouraged this semi-anonymity by building its long-term plans around training-academy stalwarts and selling the global superstars—Ronaldinho, Henry, Eto’o, Ibrahimovic *—with more memorable egos.
To understand how beloved Barcelona is among soccer aficionados, it’s necessary to know something about the tension between idealism and pragmatism that runs through the modern history of the game. There is a deep-seated suspicion among soccer folk that the style of play that people like to watch—fluent, attacking; “positive,” as commentators say—is actually not very well-suited to winning matches in the modern era. To win, the thinking goes, you have to be defensively organized, cautious, cagey. You must tackle hard and pick moments to attack out of the natural chaos of the game rather than trying to shape or control it. This line of reasoning runs roughly in parallel with American sports clichés about sound fundamentals and defense winning championships. The history of international soccer, too, is littered with stricken bohemians (Holland ‘74, Brazil ‘82, Arsenal 2005-10 inclusive) who played stylishly, seduced the world, and failed. Great teams of recent vintage—particularly Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Inter sides—have built from the back and won, first and foremost, by not giving anything up.
The crash-and-boot style is effective, but it’s not a lot of fun. Or, to put it another way, it takes the game a long way from its (high) potential for grace, or poetry, or wonder. Barcelona, gracefully and wonderfully, has circumvented this entire bloc of conventional wisdom. They win, and they win by playing as fluent, attacking, and positive a game as you will ever see in soccer. Guardiola’s tiki-takatactics call for huge amounts of ball possession—it’s not uncommon for their possession-percentage stat in a match to reach the upper 70s—lacework passing, and relentless build-up culminating in quick, precise attacks. Barcelona’s slow, sliding, endlessly reconfiguring patterns overturn another sports cliché as well. We’re used to thinking of individual brilliance as flamboyant and exciting and of team play as disciplined and methodical, but Barcelona’s personally affectless stars (who are, obviously, not lacking in individual brilliance) move the ball so clairvoyantly around the pitch that the team itself becomes an instrument of flair.
You could see the Barcelona style in full force last month against Madrid, in a match that Barcelona, of course, won 5-0. It was a mesmerizing display of off-handedly beautiful ruthlessness, produced against one of the most expensive and star-laden teams in the world. Soccer games tend to look half-accidental; here, the ball seemed to slide along the tines of a spiderweb in perfect submission to Barcelona’s will. The hallmark of Barcelona’s game is intricate midfield play, and the 4-3-3 wheeled around Xavi, the team’s subtle, ingenious playmaker, while the advanced players spread calamity throughout Madrid’s back line. Whenever an opening appeared, half the team poured through it. Usually, somebody scored.
There’s a weird sort of terrestrial magic that descends on matches in which one team has perfect control of the ball. You’re not just watching a trick; you’re watching an unbelievable trick, a trick that makes you doubt your own eyes. In the 10th minute against Madrid, Iniesta took the ball and dribbled forward, fast, down the left center of the pitch. Four Madrid defenders converged toward him, and he sort of bounced back and cut inside, about 20 yards out from the goal, nudging the ball toward the middle of the pitch while the cluster of defenders lurched slightly, trying to follow the change of momentum and deciding whether to stay with Iniesta or follow David Villa, Barcelona’s striker, who was starting to drift ahead of them. Their moment of indecision opened up a gap just as Xavi went surging into the area, and Iniesta slid a through ball between the four defenders in front of him and just out of reach of the two defenders between that group and Xavi. But the ball, maybe by accident, clipped Xavi in the back of the heel, and he somehow, again maybe by accident, used the back of his foot to flip the ball into the air and over his head, and then, while simultaneously running forward, maybe two feet from the goalkeeper now, caught the overhead-looping ball as it fell, with the front of the same foot he’d just back-heeled it with, the ball still not having touched the ground, and flipped it up into the air again, this time over the goalkeeper and neatly into the net. It was a giddy thing to see, and after the match, Madrid coach Jose Mourinho confessed that Barcelona’s swarming attack made Madrid feel “impotent.”
Of course, there’s some financial clockwork grinding behind the magic. Easily the strangest thing about Barcelona is the way its marketing-behemoth subdivision cannibalizes the team’s achievements while simultaneously enabling them. Barcelona is més que un club, more than a club, as its motto goes, because it holds itself to a high standard, both aesthetically and in its self-conceived role within Catalan culture. (During the early Franco years, when Catalonia’s regional identity was suppressed, its stadium was one of the few places where Catalan could be spoken in public.) But Barcelona is able to meet this high standard largely because its més que un club identity is a lucrative brand—the club earned almost $600 million last season on the back of schoolboy-hero narratives and carefully packaged virtues—that in turn allows it to keep pace with its more clay-footed rivals. The club frequently comes under minor fire for perceived hypocrisies that would barely register at, say, Manchester United—selling a shirt sponsorship, as it did for the first time this year, or shilling for Qatar’s World Cup bid. The paradox being, of course, that if you’re going to use Messi to dazzle the world as part of a program of sports-transcending cultural enrichment, you have to be able to afford Messi, which means occasionally steering your white stallion down the avenues of plain old enrichment.
Well, the world is the world, and the give-and-take between commercialism and joy, between sentimentalism and rapture, between authentic awe and Bridgestone Awesome Moments™, is a defining feature of modern sports. At the very least, Barcelona manages the juggling act with as much aplomb as anyone. It’s one more trick they pull off while they’re hanging in the air below the big top, keeping their balance, putting on their unforgettable show.
Correction, Dec. 23, 2010: This article originally misspelled the last name of soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (Return to the corrected sentence.)