When the draw for the quarter-finals of the champions league was made, I wrote a post talking about how it was fixed. Now this may have been an exaggeration for comic effect, but it tapped into an underlying theme that’s been talked about in the football media recently and that’s do the big clubs get the decisions in their favour? In the case of Barcelona, the answer is emphatically yes.
Watching Milan try and win at the Camp Nou was amusing, they were playing against a great side in Barcelona but they also had to do battle with the referee. Everyone praises Barcelona’s style of play, but personally at times I find to quite boring. Often their passing moves only come alive when the ball is given to Messi who proceeds to do something magical.
There are some parts of Barcelona’s game however that I like even less, aspects that are rarely spoken about but have a huge impact on the game. Barcelona are the best team I’ve ever seen at buying fouls. I don’t mean anything sinister or shady by this, like they are dropping off brown paper bags full of used bank notes to the referee before the game, I mean they are exceptionally good at getting people to “foul” them.
There are more fouls now than ever and Xavi is a master at buying fouls. He’s not a great dribbler with the ball, but what he is good at is putting his body in front of people then falling over, often grabbing the ball with both hands when he hits the deck, leaping up in protest and demanding the ref blows his whistle. Often he follows that up with a lot of hand waving and an insinuation that a yellow card should be given to his opponent for the sheer audacity of attempting to tackle him.
You see, Xavi loves himself. He loves Barcelona. When you hear him talk he speaks about the “beauty” of the way Barcelona play. He talks about their style and how it’s better than the way other teams play. He is the epitome of self-righteousness, he is holier than thou and if you foul him it’s like you’ve trampled on his religious beliefs. You’ve stopped him from creating something of incredible beauty. And the referees? They love it. They can’t get enough of it. They want to see Barcelona score a beautiful goal as much as the next man, so they react, they are as angry as Xavi and wave yellows around all over the place.
Xavi is not alone, he has Messi and Iniesta, two players who are actually fantastic at dribbling with the ball. They buy fouls because in tight areas their pace, acceleration and control is so good that often it’s beyond the ability of even the best defenders in the world to stop them fairly. In a tight spot, they can often beat a man and having done so draw the foul from the second man out of blind panic.
Then we come to the real villains of the piece. As much as Xavi’s self-righteousness annoys me, he’s trying to influence the ref in a professional way. That’s the kind of cheating that we do in this country and the English have never had a problem with it. Manchester United have been surrounding and bullying ref’s in similar fashion for years and largely intimidating the ref it’s something that English football culture doesn’t really seem to mind. But then we come to Sergio “Biscuits” Busquets and Daniel “Dani Ratface” Alves, they love diving, which English football traditionally does not.
Biscuits and Ratface take the game to a different level. They flat out cheat. They buy fouls and bully the ref like Xav, they can both dribble and draw fouls like Iniesta or Messi, but they also have something else in their locker, the ability to dive around like Olympic gymnasts purely to get players sent off. The tragedy being that they are both phenomenally good players and really shouldn’t need to do this, but they do, so I hate them. Ratface is often guilty of terrible defending, he gets caught in possession a lot and so so so often when he does he falls to the floor and gets a free-kick. It’s as if the idea that a defender who dives in his own box is unthinkable for a referee, such are the consequences if the free-kick isn’t awarded, trouble is, Ratface Alves always gets his way so he never learns and never gets punished.
Biscuits is worse. He loves getting players sent off. You can see that glint in his eye, he’s never happier than when he’s falling to the floor holding his face. The events leading up to him doing this could be totally unrelated, you might have won a header vaguely near him only to turn round and see him on the floor, holding his nose like you’ve Mike Tyson’d all up in his face. You’ll turn again to see half the Barcelona team making elbow gestures. You’ll turn once more to see the ref holding aloft the coveted red card, so then you make your final turn, as you walk back to the dressing room knowing full well that baring some kind of miracle defensive display (I’m looking at you Inter Milan) your team is going to lose.
The more that’s riding on a game, the higher the pressure of a match, the more that is at stake the more Barcelona’s foul buyers go to work. That’s why Mourinho said it’s “impossible” to beat them. They say that the sign of a good team is when they win when they aren’t playing well. For Barcelona, if they aren’t playing well, or better yet if the other team are finding a way to stop them playing well, they will almost always get a player sent off reducing the other team to ten men and allowing them to play their passing football.
Graeme Souness said that they put teams under such pressure that mistakes and lapses in concentration are inevitable. I agree, they are a brilliant football side, but the point is that when they are not at their best, even if you’ve not made a mistake, they will con the ref and make it look like you have. When it comes to buying fouls, I think this Barcelona side are undeniably the greatest club side in history.