Beauty Is No Longer Irrelevant

If true strength can come from real adversity, can ideals of beauty be pulled from an ugly defeat? Welcome to IBWM Brian McDonnell.

Fascinating to learn that Stephen King is working on a new novel entitled 11/22/63 which will tell the story of a time-travelling teacher who attempts to prevent the presidential assassination of John F. Kennedy. The concoction of alternate histories is a reasonably popular form in the publishing industry. Indeed, one of the most interesting in a footballing sense materialised when Paulo Perdigao decided to put pen to paper. In the short story ‘The Day In Which Brazil Lost The World Cup’ Perdigao’s narrator travels back in time with the stated intention of changing the result of the 1950 World Cup ‘final’ - strictly speaking Brazil’s clash with Uruguay, which ultimately decided who walked away with the Jules Rimet trophy, was the concluding group game.

Anyway, Brazil famously lost (1-2) that game in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã. Brazil were red-hot favorites and took the lead immediately after the interval through Friaça, but Uruguay equalised through Schiaffino in the 66th minute. Because of the group format Brazil were still on course for victory, but late in the game Uruguayan winger Gigghia beat ‘keeper Barbosa with a speculative shot at his near post.

In the short story Perdigao’s narrator finds himself perfectly positioned behind Barbosa’s goal, but when the moment arrives he shouts at the Brazilian ‘keeper. Sadly, he only manages to distract the Barbosa and Gigghia still manages to score his fateful goal. Perdigao’s point, we suppose, was that Brazilian football needed to go through such a painful defeat before developing into the international footballing force we have all become so familiar with. A tempting hypothesis.

Football presents us with plenty of ‘wrong’ results. Last season, for example, Inter Milan arrived at the Nou Camp nursing a 3-1 lead from the first leg in their Champions League clash with Barcelona. Inter Milan completed 67 passes that evening (Barcelona 548) and clung on to lose 0-1, but win 3-2 on aggregate.

This was a tragedy and anyone who did not lament that result is not in possession of a soul. That game was about more than football. It was, as one journalist put it, “about music and poetry, aesthetics and artistry, hope and audacity”.

Speaking after the 1986 World Cup final Franz Beckenbauer, manager of the West Germany side which lost that decider to Argentina, said: “luckily enough, we did not win the final because that would have been a defeat for football.” That’s exactly what Barcelona’s defeat at the hands of Inter Milan felt like, a defeat for football.

Strangely, such misfortune almost struck again during Barcelona’s last 16 clash with Arsenal on Tuesday night. In that game Barcelona fired in 19 shots on the Arsenal goal and completed 724 passes in comparison to Arsenal’s 119 - Xavi Hernandez alone completed more passes than Cesc, Wilshere, Rosicky, Diaby, Bendtner, Arshavin, and Van Persie combined. And, even though Barça led 3-1 a late Arsenal goal, thanks to the Gunners’ 2-1 win in the first leg, could have knocked out the Spanish champions.

With just three minutes to play Jack Wilshere conjured an opportunity, but Nicklas Bendtner bungled his first touch making a challenge from Javier Mascherano feasible and Arsenal completed the game without having a shot on goal.

Such incidents, we suppose, best illustrate the vagaries of the game - that’s possibly where football finds its glory, but also its capacity to make you sick.

Could it be the case however that Barcelona needed, as Perdigao argued with regard to the development of Brazil, to suffer that heart-wrenching defeat to Inter Milan before they could develop into, possibly, the greatest footballing force we have ever seen - only the broken-hearted can do Verdi justice they say.

The modern incarnation of Barcelona are probably still someway short of Arrigo Sacchi’s 1989-90 AC Milan side which included the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rikjaard and Marco van Basten, but Barça are capable surpassing that legacy because they concern themselves with more than simply winning games of football.

As Day Leydon pointed out in a superb article for In Bed With Maradona (Xavi, Barcelona And The Path Of The Playmaker /xavi-barcelona-and-the-path-of-the-playmaker/) “football is at a crossroads and it needs to choose the route that embraces finesse and skill rather than that of brute force”. Barça are leading the fight against the spirit-sapping utilitarianism of men like José Mourinho - let no one ever forget what the venerable Portugese told his Chelsea players before the 2007 FA Cup final: “do you want to enjoy the game or do you want to enjoy after the game?”

Pep Guardiola has been presented with several notable opportunities to instruct his team to play with dispiriting pragmatism, but he has refused to betray his nobler ideals.

Pep wants to make his team the protagonist in every game and if Barça can just keep winning we may be treated to a paradigm shift in the game. Barcelona’s pursuit of beauty is itself a thing of beauty; Xavi Hernandez (in conversation with Sid Lowe) put it best: “Inter won the Champions League, but no-one talks about them”.

The inclusion of a player like Xavi in the Barcelona side tells a significant story. There are not many coaches inclined to allow players like Xavi the time to shape a game. Indeed, the average height of Barça’s front five is just 5ft 7in - talent and technical ability is most obviously valued above physical conditioning.

Xavi is, of course, a product of Barcelona, a graduate of La Masía - Barça finished their 2-0 victory over Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final with eight academy graduates on the field. At La Masía the focus on education and technical quality is legendary.

“The player’s footballing progress and development have to go together,” Carles Folguera, director of La Masía since 2001, explained “We’re talking about values that are not negotiable. We want to make them better players and better people. Producing a player out of a boy that becomes a symbol of your own identity is priceless.”

Brad Gilbert’s book on tennis, Winning Ugly, gave expression to a philosophy that winning was/is everything and that ambitions to play the game beautifully were frivolous. But while beauty has become synonymous with superficiality in modern life is there a sense that the tide is turning, that we are slowly beginning to recognise that footballing beauty is not an irrelevance?

In 2006 Julian Baggini wrote a magnificent article for Observer Sports Monthly entitled ‘Time's arrows hang over us’ ( which basically outlined what can be achieved with a little effort.

Baggini posed the following question: how much is success in sport down to sheer hard work and perseverance, rather than natural talent?

“Since the same question can be asked of life in general, the answers might provide some clues as to how much of our destinies are in our own hands,” Baggini wrote.

“More profound is the whole issue of whether we could have achieved higher, if only we had tried harder. Watching Wayne Rooney, Roger Federer or Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, it’s reassuring to think that we could never have competed with them, but it doesn’t follow that we could never have competed at a high level in any sport. Natural talent is just one ingredient of success and not always the most important one.”

Doesn’t the same paradigm apply to football clubs i.e. what if some more endeavoured to play the game aesthetically and follow Barcelona’s example?

The author Marianne Williamson summarised it best: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us”.

Brian McDonnell is an Irish provincial hack, has recently launched & can also be followed on twitter @backpagebrian