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Selling their soul didn't pay off for Barcelona in El Clásico

Sunday 4th December 2016
It took the full ninety minutes but this weekend's renewal of El Clásico at the Nou Camp proved there isn't much to separate Barcelona and Real Madrid on the pitch. Los Blancos were the aggressors with the clearer chances in the first half but didn't take them. The Blaugrana turned the tables after the break to quickly gain the lead, kept pushing, but couldn't add to their advantage, allowing the unbeaten visitors to level at the death.

On the other hand, this wasn't the battle between innovative artistry and corporate pragmatism for which football's preeminent derby has become known. Rather than boxer v brawler, this was like against like. Diminutive playmaker Luka Modrić even dropped back into a deeper role to put on a credible imitation of Javier Mascherano. It was still brilliant football in which Barcelona tried to assert their technical brilliance but were well matched by Los Merengues' defending, except for one counterattack wherein Neymar manoeuvred into a one-on-one with Madrid keeper Keylor Navas then shot over the goal's gaping half with the Costa Rican positioned too close to his near post.
Moreover, it was a traditional set-piece header that put Barça in front, the type you expect from Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, or as Villareal old boys might tell you with a mischievous smile, Duncan Ferguson. Having won a foul to the Madrid eighteen yard box's left, Lionel Messi and Neymar stood over the ball. Even though it was obvious, due to the acute angle, that the service would come from the Brazilian's right foot rather than the Argentine's left to keep Navas from intervening, there was nothing the white-clad defenders could do. Neymar's inswinging delivery was low and hard, too quick and too far for the Tico to come off his line, but perfectly placed for Luis Suarez, rising between two defenders, to meet. The Uruguayan headed the ball down towards the far post, leaving no opportunity for Navas' much better positioning on this occasion to save him. Apparently, Suarez has kept a trick or two in his bag from his time in Merseyside.

Barcelona adopting more traditional attacking methods was just a portion of the symbolism depicting the club's philosophical transformation from liberal socialist champions into your basic everyday avaricious corporatistas. The three players involved in the goal, Messi, Neymar, and Suarez perfected the metaphor. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing evil about making a buck. Billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have proven you can turn a profit without turning a blind eye or, worse, exploiting those in need. It's when you berate others for their greed then are caught manipulating the system that it becomes evident you've sold out, that you're no longer more than but merely another club.
In a way, Catalonia and FC Barcelona remind me of Quebec and the French-speaking Canadian province's iconic hockey franchise, the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens were, like Barça's relationship to its constituency, long populated by French-Canadian players. Unlike the Blaugrana, they have long since eclipsed hockey's version of Real Madrid, my woeful Toronto Maple Leafs, when it comes to championships. That's a personal issue, however, and neither here nor there. It's the socio-political similarities which are germane to this conversation. Neither region became part of a bigger nation by choice. Quebec was ceded to England in 1763 in the Treaty of Paris, ending the Seven Years War. The English never tried to suppress French settlers' culture, their language, or ties to the Catholic Church, unlike Franco attempted with the Catalans, who found themselves married into Spain when their Aragonian King Ferdinand wed Castilian Queen Isabelle in 1469.

So, coupled with my Anglo-Canadian upbringing, their comparative histories make it easier for me to sympathise with the Catalan's plight than to understand why the Quebecois tried to secede from Canada in the 1970s, first through terrorism, then through a referendum after their legitimate political party won control of the provincial Parliament. No one was denying the Quebecois heritage in any way. The presiding Canadian Prime Minister, viewed by many today as the country's greatest, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was French Canadian. Catalonians, four decades later, have thankfully left the terrorism to Basque separatists but, unlike Quebec's, their secessionist referendum passed only to be ruled unconstitutional by the Castilian authorities in Madrid. Canadians have no such provision in their Constitution. They view political freedom as being contingent upon the exit door not being barred and padlocked. Except for Anglos mocking them for putting mayonnaise on their burgers or for omitting the pronounced 'h' from the beginning of certain words then inserting it in front of others where it doesn't belong, as in "the ockey was good but the hice was terrible," French Canadians really have no reason beyond tribalism for wanting out of Canada. On the other hand, Catalans have a few legitimate beefs.

Thus, even though my cultural roots led me to an earlier affinity with Real Madrid, for a time I found myself admiring Barcelona. Not only were they oppressed underdogs playing attractive football, they did cool things like first refusing to bow to commercial pressures by putting a sponsor on their kits, then freely sponsoring UNICEF. Because what type of person despises an organisation that helps starving children?
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Nothing good ever lasts in this world, though. Barcelona have remade themselves into villains. They've been sanctioned by FIFA for violating youth transfer rules, exploiting children rather than helping them. They hid the true amount they paid for Neymar in order to avoid paying his former club and other investors their contractually-agreed fee. As though sycophancy wasn't worse than thievery, they subsequently kowtowed to Lionel Messi's demands for public support after his own tax-evasion conviction. Somewhere in there, they signed the most hated player on the planet, Luis Suarez, who had been banned for four months and nine international matches for biting another player for the third time.

All could be forgiven and forgotten if Barcelona and its supporters would stop playing the victim card, blaming all the consequences and criticism for their actions on Real Madrid. Many of the Castilian club's board members may, in fact, hold influential positions in the public sector, allowing them to bring such transgressions to light, as some have alleged. The real problem is that, while Madridistas have always been in power, until recently they had nothing concrete to pin on Barça, the Catalans being above reproach until they decided to fight Galactico with Galactico.

Simply put my Catalan friends, if you did it, own it. Then I can go back to watching an El Clásico match for its quality, enjoying it in the best way possible, as a neutral thrilled by the skill on display from both sides. I'll be better able to appreciate the irony in Sergio Ramos heading home a crucial goal at the death, as he's so often done, thinking how Barcelona lived and died by the sword without feeling any relief or satisfaction over their failure. When the ageing Andrés Iniesta comes on late to slot a perfect pass through two defenders, sending Lionel Messi in alone, I won't be thinking the torch is being passed from artist to businessman. It'll just be part of the best football match on the planet. I miss that. Maybe you've sold your soul to the corporate devil, Barça, but it's not too late to buy it back.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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