Sports Nut

Sic Transit Gloria Messi

Is the Champions League final going to be the last hurrah for Barcelona, soccer’s greatest team?

Lionel Messi

For the past three years, soccer has been dominated, utterly and ruthlessly, by a reign of Spanish prettiness. Spain’s national team won Euro 2008 with a rapturous mix of intricate passing and outrageous goal-scoring, then repeated the feat, albeit less dazzlingly, at the 2010 World Cup. Meanwhile, F.C. Barcelona took many of the same Spanish players—plus Lionel Messi, the Argentine superstar who’s lived in Spain since boyhood—on a fey romp through worldwide club soccer. In the three years, the Barcelona players have won three Spanish league titles, three domestic cups, a Champions League title, a UEFA Super Cup, and a FIFA Club World Cup. They routinely embarrassed their archrivals at Real Madrid— 6-2 in 2009, 5-0 earlier this season. And they did all this while perfecting a style, based on ceaseless motion and hypnotic ball movement, that seemed implausibly gorgeous for something so devastating. Infinitely patient until the moment when they weren’t, Barcelona’s stars murdered their opponents with the slow grace of leaves falling in a forest.

But how long can this kind of dominance last? I have a hunch that the coming year—the next club soccer season and Euro 2012—will see the end of Spain’s lovely empire. If I’m right, then Saturday’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United could be the last chance to see, at its peak, the team that’s done more than any other to define this era of the game.

I don’t want to overstate this. One way or another, Barcelona will continue to be an elite side for the foreseeable future. The club is rich—in all of soccer, only Real Madrid has higher revenue—and La Liga TV contracts guarantee that the Catalans will continue to enjoy a huge financial advantage over many of their would-be competitors. What’s more, the team’s core of stars is still relatively young. Only one important player, Carles Puyol, is over 32; Messi, who is by most lights the best player in the world, is only 23 and, frighteningly, still getting better. And because Barcelona has the best youth system on the planet and recruits much of its first team from the ranks of players who joined the club as children, it’s less susceptible than other big clubs to having its talent filched by rivals. There’s no force in soccer that will keep the blaugrana from fielding a very good team.

But Barcelona hasn’t just been a very good team over the last three seasons. It’s been an otherworldly team, one of those possibility-expanding, fourth-dimension miracles that occasionally bless the world of sports. And as with another athletic marvel, Roger Federer, a few years ago, there are reasons to think that Barcelona may be easing into a decline—not that they’re about to stop winning matches, but that they’re about to lose the aura of untouchable perfection that they’ve built up since Pep Guardiola arrived to manage the club.

For all the praise that’s—rightly—accrued to Messi, the youth academy, and Guardiola, the real engine of Barcelona’s dominance has been its midfield, and particularly its moon-faced playmaker, Xavi. It’s Xavi’s uncanny sense of space that makes Barcelona’s tiki-taka passing so lethal: On nearly every possession, the attack flows through him. In the 5-0 win over Madrid last November, he completed 110 passes by himself. Xavi is only 31, which isn’t old for a midfielder in the slow-paced Spanish league, but he’s entering the late stage of his career with a lot of wear on his Adidas. Xavi plays roughly the same role for the Spanish national team as for Barcelona; the success of his two teams means that not only has he endured five straight seasons of at least 50 club matches each, he’s also weathered multiple late runs in summer international tournaments, with all the attendant training camps, conditioning drills, grueling flights, and hard tackles that entails. Even a slight dip in Xavi’s abilities could make Barcelona look mortal, and it’s been years since he had a break.

What’s more, Real Madrid, whose rivalry with the Catalan club is an all-consuming spectacle in the Spanish media, is showing signs of gaining ground on Barcelona. After five losses over the last three years—losses in which a humiliated Madrid conceded 16 goals and scored just two—Madrid’s first-year manager, Jose Mourinho, saw his team push Barcelona hard in this year’s late-season series. Madrid lost one, drew two, and won one, upsetting their rivals to win the Copa del Rey. Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has been torching La Liga lately, finishing with 11 goals in his last four games to break the Spanish scoring record and, even more amazingly, net more league goals than Messi. And as is their wont, Madrid will undoubtedly spend the summer grimly amassing new talent.

Since the recent spate of Clásicos, Barcelona’s performances have wobbled—a loss to lowly Real Sociedad, draws against Levante and Deportivo La Coruña. Some of that can be explained by injuries in the defense and by the fact that, with the title sewn up, the club had little to play for. But it’s also a sign that an invigorated Madrid could make for an exhausting obstacle. Escalate the scandals-and-ringtones madness of the most global feud in soccer, and suddenly Barcelona’s stars have a 24-7 distraction on their hands, something that can’t play well within the team’s aura of innocent, joyful love of the game.

And that matters, because there’s always been something preternaturally serene about Barcelona’s successes. The rivalry with Madrid has, as always, churned along in the newspapers, but as long as Barcelona kept winning, their current players seemed to glide above the headlines. The word that’s most often used to describe them is magic, which gets at the combination of beautiful play, happy triumph, egoless superstars, and childhood loyalty that to all appearances tie the club together. Since Guardiola arrived as coach, there’s been startlingly little in the way of internal strife or controversy, with the result that, factoring out the Madrid tabloids, Barcelona hasn’t had to face a truly significant media backlash. The scoreboard always protected them.

In the past few weeks, though—just as they’ve been struggling on the field—there have been rumblings that this protection might not last. First Mourinho managed to make Barcelona’s diving and referee-pleading the major narrative of their Champions League semifinal. Then Barcelona’s 22-year-old midfielder Sergio Busquets, already one of the key figures in the diving subplot, was caught on video uttering what might have been a racist slur against Madrid’s Marcelo. * UEFA dropped its charges against Busquets for lack of evidence, but the two incidents galvanized sentiment against the club like nothing had before.

Compared with its opponent in Saturday’s final, Barcelona has always been a fragile balance of forces. Manchester United is an implacable machine that simply grinds out wins using whatever style or strategy comes to hand. Barcelona’s success, by contrast, seems to demand the reliable convergence of an incredible number of unlikely circumstances (which, wonderfully, almost always converge). For Barcelona to win, the team has to play in a high style. Xavi’s quantum space-calculator has to spray out angled passes at top speed. The players have to be telepathically attuned to one another. They have to get along. They have to represent Catalonia. Messi has to score the kind of goals that make your jaw detach from your face and ride the elevator down five floors.

Somehow, Barcelona has made all those things come true in match after match, and if they win their second European Cup in three years on Saturday, they’ll surely have secured their place as one of the greatest club teams of all time. But take away any one of those unlikely factors, whether by age, fatigue, injury, distraction, burnout, bad luck, or animosity, and Barcelona will still be a very good team. They just won’t be magic.

Correction, May 26, 2011: This article originally misidentified Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets as French. He is Spanish. (Return to the corrected sentence.)