Of course I was supporting Barcelona. So were the three vaguely punk-rock kids—scruff, nose-rings, hoodies; representing the Catalan club’s international countercultural appeal—sitting next to me along the bar of the Thirsty Lion. So was everyone else in the Lion (except, I think, for one Internazionale supporter sequestered in the back, protected from direct view by a fog of obscure Italian politics and defensive theory). And the crowd at Kells, the pub ‘cross the street, was so dense with Portland blaugrana (blaugranae?) that it drove me over to the Lion—sort of a cheap’n’cheerful Kells clone with worse food, less expensive pints and girls in sporty Catholic-school porn outfits passing out free (and totally disgusting) samples of Heineken Lite—in the first place.
We were supporting Barcelona because, well, that’s just what you do as a free-thinking citizen who favors social democracy, Rubber Soul-era Beatles, good espresso in the morning and peace in the Middle East. Out in the great post-modern sea of international boutique soccer support—with apologies to stubborn Real Madrid refuseniks—Barcelona is everyone’s favorite team, or rather the non-controversial marker of good taste one flees to when one’s first-choice club is in the midst of financial, organizational and competitive meltdown. Or when MLS is on and one needs a reminder of what football actually looks like.
This Barcelona team, with its earnest (okay, aside from Busquets) but sophisticated (okay, aside from Puyol) style of play and Muppet-like creative superstars, allows us all—to quote a recent Run of Play musing about the Other Place—to “stand up abruptly and spill that latte all over our designer jeans, but catch ourselves before beating our own chests. We are civilization, we tell ourselves.”
Thus were we, the Civilized World, united in agony for 90 minutes, as Barcelona hammered artfully but fruitlessly against a 10-man Inter Milan blockade, scored one offside goal, had another tally disallowed for a maybe/maybe not handball, and exited the Champions League. Such is Barcelona’s current appeal, the Stateside version of this enervation spread beyond the American Soccer Cult’s porous borders. A dear friend of mine, a Man of Sport who nonetheless harbors the usual Yanqui suspicions regarding this game played by rootless cosmopolitans of dubious sexuality, sent me a 75th-minute text:
“This match looks painful.”
Well, it was and it wasn’t. Certainly, the spectacle of Barcelona’s refined artistic enterprise flailing against certified anti-hero Jose Mourinho’s Latin hardboys was not what an American soccer partisan shows his/her skeptical but curious friends. Like, Barcelona is all like, jogo bonito! And Inter Milan was all like, jogo THIS, motherfuckers! This was not the Fun and Joy and Beauty of the World’s Game (Which Brings Us Together!) Sponsored by UNICEF.
At the same time, I was conscious all the time (or throughout the second half) that I was watching a masterpiece. The Guardian‘s superb Amy Lawrence, my lifelong trans-Atlantic journo crush, agrees with me, or at least uses that same word, so it must be true. Inter’s display was not Champagne Football—rather a concoction of dark tannins and bitter tones, made to be sucked down at 4 am when love has died and the world is against you. This sort of thing may not be pretty, but it too has its virtues.
In fact, the match made me think of Leonard Cohen. Lots of things make me think of Leonard Cohen, but Inter’s hour-long, man-down goal-line stand—in which this team of interchangeable, husky, aging men with shaved heads posited a form of football played entirely without a ball—put me in mind specifically of some lyrics from “The Captain.” I’ve read the Bill of Human Rights, and some of it was true. But only some.
As Eduardo Galeano astutely noted, soccer exists in both sun and shadow. If Barcelona’s brainy latticework of intersecting triangles and perfectly weighted, perfectly timed through-balls to the feet of quirky, good-hearted little geniuses embody the game’s creative glories, then Inter’s craft and guile provide the necessary aesthetic and intellectual counterpoint. If Barcelona’s kind of football exists because it is possible, Inter’s football exists because…it exists.
Not what you tell your kids about when you’re trying to teach them the Golden Rule; in fact, you ask them to leave the room when this stuff comes on the box. Inter’s game came emblazoned with an ADULTS ONLY warning. If ever a football manager proclaimed himself, in word and deed, to be on the side of Snake-Eyes, against the side of Heaven, it’s Mourinho.
But surely this approach, too, can be appreciated on its merits. This was not cynical, brutal anti-football. Inter’s victory unfolded like a well-worked chess problem solved from a slightly advantageous but dicey position. In a less metaphorical sense, the players from Milan exhibited incredible concentration, communication, defensive positioning and moment-to-moment awareness of what was going on as Barcelona paced at will in a frustrated lateral pattern about 25 yards from the goal mouth.
In other words, this was some seriously technical shit, executed by hardened professionals who don’t give a damn about your bourgeois morality. If you’ve played soccer at any level, you know how hard—almost impossible, but not quite—Inter’s task was. Stop the world’s most potent attacking machine, away, a man down? When that’s the situation, you don’t send UNICEF, you send the Foreign Legion.
Not to come off all “this is the way the world is,” but this is the way the world is. I wanted the match to end differently, but was not sad with the way it ended, and that included Mourinho’s absurd (and hilarious) post-match antics. In a bizarre way, this lunatic is entitled to his lunacy because his discipline and (here it comes again) bloody technique are so impeccable. He’s a monster. I love/hate him. I loved/hated Inter Milan’s performance to exactly the same degree that I love/hate everything about the sport of football.
Whatever makes a solider sad will make a killer smile. That could be Jose Mourinho’s motto.