analysis | 2016-03-17
Long term planning and competitive hunger - Barcelona's edge over Real Madrid
Barça and Real Madrid are the biggest clubs in Spain, but why are their performances on pitch so contrasting nowadays?
From the moment Barça started playing well in early 2004 after Laporta had stood up for his project – led by Rijkaard and Ronaldinho – against all adversity (they were 12th in the League, 18 points behind Real Madrid mid-season), only the sloppy self-management of Ronaldinho and Tito’s illness – both unpredictable and terrible circumstances, with their respective results in the shape of mistaken or hurried decisions – have broken a winning dynamic built on the coherence of a project with a defined idea that’s shared by all levels of the club (presidency, technical secretary and coaching staff), between which there is no hierarchy (no interference in any way: the President doesn’t choose who to sign, just as Luis Enrique wouldn’t even think in telling Bartomeu which sponsor should they use on the shirt), only coordination and cooperation.
In the Guardiola-Mourinho era in Spain, Barça acquired – and still haven't abandoned – the essential superpower for those who want to establish a hegemony: infinite competitive hunger. Guardiola’s ability to drive his players with the idea that there’s no credit in sports – promoting internal competition and making every match a challenge – together with the exceptional quality of a rival that demanded sustained high level performances in time and the incentive of acknowledging Mourinho as a movie villain ended up enraging the beast. Barça knew that whenever they lowered their guard, Mourinho would be there willing to lift trophies and remind them what they had to do as many times as necessary. It’s what Kasparov said about Karpov, in what has been one of the greatest rivalries in the history of chess: ‘I had a better personal teacher than I could’ve ever wished for’.
Therefore, during these 12 years, Real Madrid has had to face a mature, congruent and top-quality project, forged on a core of players that have interiorized the hardest part of elite sports: keeping the same will to win you had at the beginning. The logical thing is to unconsciously relax when you reach the top and get reduced by rivals that, inferior or not, fight with the aggressiveness of those who have nothing to lose. These guys don’t. A group made from the skin of the Germans of the 70’s, of the Yugoslavian basketball of the 80’s that would be later swept down by the Balkan War. The sportsmen you didn’t even want to see close to you, because you knew they would win. Those that would make you panic because, besides being the best, they would compete like no one else.
And you can’t just reduce everything to Messi now. Each match of his is a masterpiece and his talent wins matches when tactics aren't enough, but this season he was out for two months and Barça won 8 out of 9 games in La Liga and the Champions League, the CWC semifinals as well as the first leg of Spanish Cup last 16 at San Mamés (1-2). And gave future generations the harshest image for madridismo this century: the picture of Messi at the Bernabéu, stepping onto the field from the bench with the score being 0-3 already an hour into the game.
But, as Julio Velasco said, ‘the situations we face are never what they should be. They are what they are. Difficulties are not obstacles. They are what helps you develop antibodies’. And Real Madrid never had a plan to face this. Mourinho had it, he detected the problem and executed it with all the consequences. His race to design a team that could beat Barça made it very clear to the president that things would go his way or no way at all. He solved the issue of pairing a coach and a sports director of radically different ideas, the ‘Valdano or me’, kept the press from trespassing into his grounds –"I still think that keeping the press out of the team’s plane is right, out of the training center is right, that the press not deciding who plays is right, that I’m not forced to get your beloved kids to play is right”– and brought justice to players that kept their ego above the interests of the team. Those that left Pellegrini to die at Alcorcón (4-0) and would later do the same to Ancelotti (letting go of La Liga after qualifying to the final at Lisbon, the 3-4 against Schalke, the 4-0 against Atlético, etc.) or with Benitez because they think, in a bohemian way, that there are matches not worth fighting for. That they are there for more ambitious tasks, giving off a hint of greatness assumed by everybody, which we’re unsure where it comes from and that the reality of one League title in eight years – same as Twente, Montpellier or Wolfsburg – will always contradict. Players that don’t find thrill in love for the team, that ‘believe’ in the coach they want – as if the task of understanding the ideas of the coach was not the first obligation of a professional – and that will always have an excuse in the lack of attitude, because they’re so good they never lack in football.
And they could win the Champions because it is as poker is to Phil Hellmuth: ‘100% ability and 50% luck’. A competition of instants in which two weeks of inspiration, lucky draws or the historic greatness of a bomb-proof shield can hide the disaster and make this management model prevail and turn that old Nietzsche’s quote, "hope is the worst of all evils, because it postpones a man’s torment", the sign of the club’s identity.
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