The ‘romantic’ final

The big final tomorrow promises a lot. We have to go with Barcelona though, despite the fact they’re more handicapped because of injuries and suspensions. It’s their philosophy we like…

Barcelona is the real heir to Johan Cruyff’s football philosophy and one reason why we called him the best of all time, since even Maradona or Pelé haven’t invented their own brand of football. It’s a romantic version, that doesn’t necessarily lead to success though.

There was a Barça before and after Cruyff, a Netherlands team before and after Cruyff (before, it just managed draws against Luxemburg..). Only Ajax, the club where Cruyff grew up and made the best in the world has reverted back to it’s original place, but that’s almost entirely due to the very skewed financials in European football, as we explained here.

If you don’t believe us, believe the Guardian, an excellent English newspaper:

Pep Guardiola is getting Barcelona to live the dream

Pep Guardiola has restored the philosophy of Johan Cruyff’s team of the 1990s to the current Barcelona side

A Romanian named Helmuth Duckadam later ruined everything but on the night of 16 April, 1986 the greatest failure in FC Barcelona’s history was still three weeks away and as improbable as what had just joyously unfolded at Camp Nou. Barça had overturned a 3–0 first-leg deficit in the European Cup semi-final with IFK Gothenburg thanks to a hat-trick from the third-choice striker Pichi Alonso, before their goalkeeper Javi Urruti took the shoot-out into sudden death by saving one penalty and scoring another.

Then Víctor Muñoz’s strike sent them to their second ever final. As Muñoz celebrated, a delirious 15-year-old ballboy in a Barça tracksuit sprinted over, grabbed him by the arm and pleaded for his shirt.

He never did get it, but he got 379 of his own. Tonight he attends another European Cup semi-final but the experience will be different. That night Josep Guardiola i Sala was a Barcelona ballboy; 11 years later he was made Barcelona’s captain; 11 years after that he became Barcelona’s coach.

Guardiola was slow, rarely scored goals and insisted that but for Johan Cruyff he would never have escaped the Third Division. But he won six league titles, a European Cup and Olympic gold. Born in the Catalan town of Santpedor, schooled barely 100 metres from Camp Nou and resident at La Masia, the traditional farmhouse that stands incongruously in its shadow, he was the metronome at the heart of the finest side Barcelona produced, ordering, constructing, constantly moving the ball. The midfielder an opponent described in a single word: “pam”. “Pam-pam-pam-pam-pam-pam-pam-pam”. As if that was not enough, he was also an intelligent and impassioned defender of Catalan culture, language and identity.

It is hardly surprising that Andrés Iniesta admits he pinned up Guardiola posters, or that when Guardiola became coach last summer he was granted the benefit of the doubt. The trouble was, there were doubts. Goodwill couldn’t disguise the apprehension. Guardiola had won the Third Division with Barcelona B, but he was only 37; it was his first ever season coaching.

Barcelona had finished 18 points behind Real Madrid the previous year. The diagnosis pointed to a cancer: laziness gripped, players were divas, cruising. Few embodied the problem like Ronaldinho, whose belly was expanding as steadily as his performances declined; few were blamed like the coach, Frank Rijkaard, whose laid-back style let it happen. Barcelona needed licking into shape; they needed guarantees. Barcelona needed Mourinho, not some inexperienced novice. Even the president, Joan Laporta, described the Portuguese as the “safe option”.

Instead, he chose Guardiola. The Catalan newspaper El Mundo Deportivo published what Barça could have won: the starting XI Mourinho supposedly demanded, salt to rub into Barça wounds when the club that rejected the Special One inevitably hit the rocks. And hit the rocks they duly did, collecting a solitary point in their opening two matches, their worst ever start.

“Guardiola was the world’s worst coach,” cackles former striker Hristo Stoichkov, who played with him. “Now what?” Now, they think he’s a genius. As Laporta insists: “Lots of people now claim to have recommended Pep but the reality was quite the reverse.” People who knew him knew what he could bring. “Even at La Masia he was known as The Wise One,” recalls the former player and coach Charly Rexach. One of Guardiola’s closest collaborators insists: “Those who said he had no experience are idiots: Pep was a coach when he played. Experience isn’t things happening to you, it’s learning, seeking solutions.”

He certainly found solutions. He imposed discipline, with fines of €6,000 for being late to training, €500 for missing breakfast with the squad. He sold Ronaldinho and Deco, won over those who stayed with a combination of tough demands and bright psychological management, and brought knowhow, perfectionism and seriousness – right down to weaning Leo Messi off pizza, steak and Coke.

His analysis is exhaustive; its presentation digestible. Videos were unheard of last season; now they are standard. The detail is striking, its application sharp and to the point. “He remembers everything,” says Xavi. “And everything’s done for a reason.” Results bear him out: top of La Liga and in the final of the Copa del Rey, Barcelona could yet win the ­treble. But it is not results that have made Guardiola an even greater idol; it is the way his side gets them.

Bobby Robson could not win even when he won. His Barcelona side took the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Cup and the Spanish Super Cup in 1996-97. They finished second, two points behind Madrid, and scored a club-record 102 league goals. But he was treated like a loser.

“In England, I’d be a bloody hero,” Robson complained. “Sometimes I ask myself why everybody has it in for me.” The answer was simple: Robson was not Johan Cruyff and his Barça were not the Dream Team.

More than just a team that won four successive league titles between 1991 and 1994 and the European Cup, the Dream Team were an ideal, a model of touch, technique and movement. Cruyff gave Barcelona an unshakeable identity that runs right through the club, one whose roots are in the Ajax school and Dutch Total Football. “Show me 20 kids in a park and I can tell which are at Barcelona,” insists one pundit. The model was embodied, above all, by Guardiola and is traceable through Xavi Hernández, Iniesta and even Cesc Fábregas. Xavi describes himself as a “child of the system”; Iniesta recalls the message: “receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer.” The first time he saw Iniesta, Guardiola – by then a veteran – told Xavi: “You’re going to retire me; he’s going to retire us all.”

He may have departed as a player but Guardiola’s commitment to the Dream Team’s ideal remained deep. One colleague says he has “suckled from the teat of ­Cruyff” and that was what brought him back as coach. As Laporta, advised by Cruyff, admits, Guardiola contrasted with the self-promoter Mourinho. “We chose a philosophy, not a brand,” Laporta says. “Guardiola knows the club and he is part of its ­history. He represents continuity with Cruyff’s model.” “Pep knows Barcelona better than anyone,” says Rexach. “It’s all about the Dream Team,” adds Eusebio, Barcelona’s assistant coach last season.

Even Guardiola admits: “We are sons of the Dream Team, trying to emulate them.” Evidence comes in the exaltation of intelligence, positioning and possession, in pressuring opponents high, the non-negotiable collective commitment to slick attack. Not just to scoring goals – Barcelona have 136 this season – but to building them. Leo Messi is the Champions League’s top scorer yet 33 players have taken more shots. This team walks the ball into the net.

For those coaches, like Robson, that followed Cruyff, the Dream Team was the Sword of Damocles, a mythologised image of perfection that subsequent sides could not live up to. Until now. Guardiola has not just emulated the Dream Team; according to Josep Lluís Nuñez, president between 1978 and 2000, he has “bettered” it. The declaration is premature but it speaks volumes. In the Catalan capital there is no greater compliment. Guardiola knows that better than anyone else.

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Although in theory, the final promises so much, in reality these affairs have a habit of disappointing. The semi finals were rather dull affairs. The first match between Barcelona and Chelsea was rather scandalous, with Chelsea playing very negatively. Former player and coach Johan Cruyff joined in, accusing his compatriot Hiddink of defending for 90 minutes because he was scared of suffering a heavy defeat. And who can blame him, Barça had just trashed Bayern Munich 4-0 and Real Madrid 6-2.

So Barça-Man United it is for the final. Two great institutions, and positive play, but the teams could not differ more in terms of their organizational philosophies:

Barcelona have edge over Manchester United in that they will never be sold

The European Cup finalists, great institutions both, are total opposites when it comes to ownership and paying the bills

Manchester United versus Barcelona is a dream final for the romantic, two great clubs sharing traditions of skill and panache – yet the broader values they embody seem now to spring from opposing visions of the sport. On one side of Stadio Olimpico tomorrow will be Barça, “mes que un club” – more than a club – as the Catalan institution proclaims itself, bearing Unicef on the shirts, owned by 163,000 members. On the other will stand the famous Man United, soaked in history and tradition with AIG, the ultimate symbol of reckless financial speculation on their chests, and owned by the Glazers.

The contrasts appear so clear as to be blinding. Barça, who cannot be bought and whose president must stand for election by the fans; United, taken over against the wishes of the fans and the board itself by the Glazer family, who have loaded the club with around £700m of debt and own it, via a thicket of companies, in the low-tax US state of Nevada. Barça, flagbearers for the idea that a football club is a home of belonging; United, epitomising the English belief that the free market, and billionaires, must rule even sport.

Barcelona’s vice-president Alfons Godall, who fought the campaign with Joan Laporta democratically to oppose the old president, joined the board after Laporta’s 2003 election. He maintains the club’s reality is as virtuous as it will appear on the surface tomorrow. “I believe ours is the best model, an example to England,” Godall says. “We are free. We do not depend on a Mr Abramovich. We want to be successful but also to have meaning, social values. I am sure fans of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal would like to be in our situation. But they have passed the point of no return; they are customers, not members.”

As the English corporate approach comes under persistent challenge, though, grumbles are growing that Barcelona are not quite the paragons of purity they claim to be. Some say Unicef was chosen as the first ever sponsor of the Barcelona shirt only after a search for commercial sponsorship failed but Godall rejects that. The club, he says, were offered £19m per season by Bwin, the online gambling company which sponsors Real Madrid and Milan, but turned it down in favour of Unicef.

The sponsorship was described by Unicef as a “priceless donation”, worth $20m (£12m), when the five-year deal was signed in 2006. Barcelona also contributes €1.5m (£1.31m) a year to the Unicef partnership, which works to combat hunger, poverty and HIV Aids, principally in Africa. It is, in short, a little difficult to criticise. Godall, though, acknowledges that it serves the Barça brand, too: “The Unicef alliance means we can say truly that we are more than a club. And we feel that Barcelona is loved more and more around the world.”

Defenders of the English system argue that the clubs may be owned by billionaires but are foremost in Europe at developing community programmes, aimed mostly at socially excluded young people who live in the poor urban neighbourhoods near the grounds (they tend to be excluded from matches, too, due to the price of tickets, although nobody talks about that too much).

United have made significant progress with their community work in recent years and have themselves had a 10-year partnership with Unicef. They and others in English football point out a crucial difference which can undermine Barça’s claims to sporting virtue. The Premier League’s £2.7bn three-year TV deal is shared with some equality between the 20 clubs; English football’s huge financial gap starts at the cliff over which Newcastle fell on Sunday. In Spain, by contrast, the top clubs sell their TV rights individually, which means Barcelona and Real Madrid make hugely more than others in the same league. Here United will earn just 1.7 times the Premier League TV income of West Brom, while in Spain it has been estimated that Barça make 14 times the money of the bottom club.

“There is a downside to the Barcelona model,” a United spokesman claimed. “If you do not have a shirt sponsor, you have to get the money from somewhere else and they make it by selling their TV rights. We are committed to selling TV rights collectively and, if we did not, it would be at the expense of clubs like Wigan, Hull and Bolton and would seriously weaken the Premier League.”

Godall accepts that Barcelona’s muscle – their turnover, £270m last year, was higher than United’s £257m – depends on selling TV rights individually. He defends that due to Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s relative size but such a self-perpetuating system is anathema here, where the Premier League is persistently urged to share its wealth still more equally.

Laporta’s regime is determinedly commercial and, although Unicef takes the place of a shirt sponsor, there are 26 official collaborators, providers and sponsors, including Nike, Estrella beer and La Caixa bank. “We do business,” Godall accepts, “because football is a media business. But our purpose is to run a club with a social commitment.”

One of the miracles of modern English football is that the top clubs are still felt to be temples of belonging even though they are owned by individual businessmen. In the accounts of Red Football Shareholder Limited, the Glazer company which owns Manchester United here – that company is owned, in turn, by another in Nevada – the effect of the Glazers’ takeover are set out.

United’s record turnover after winning the Premier League and European Cup was turned into a £42.7m loss because they paid £69m interest, on the loans the Glazers took out to buy the club in the first place. Three years after that takeover the £559m they borrowed had grown, with costs and rolled-up interest owed to hedge funds, to £700m.

Around European football a surprising harmony had broken out. But they still scratch their heads that such “leveraged” deals as United’s have been allowed. It could not happen to Barcelona and, if their fans feel the club is badly run, they can vote the directors out. It remains an inspiration, sharing with United the traditions of skill, glory and belonging but embodying a profound difference: the fans own the club and it is really, truly not for sale.