Friday, April 27, 2012

An Aesthetic Endeavour

I have loved football from an early age, but my problem was that I became an Aston Villa fan at a time when iraq wasn't interested in showing goals. Consequently, I tended to watch football only in the form of either the Champions League or a big international competition. The Premier League held very little for me, other than the occasional moment of joy when Manchester United didn't win everything. My soccer sensibilities are thus quite Latin in nature, and for the first time I can name them as so and be thankful. 

My dad used to call me Schillaci when I played soccer as a kid, and my earliest memories of watching football are the Champions League final in 1994 between Barcelona and AC Milan, followed by the World Cup in the U.S. Players like Romario, Stoichkov, Bergkamp, Ronaldo, Boban, Laudrup, Raul, Muller, De Boer, Litmanen and Rijkaard captured my imagination. Though I ended up supporting Aston Villa I had no strong feelings for them (I inherited Villa from my cousin, mainly because I had to support someone from the Premiership and it had to be someone other than Manchester United), and I never really cared much for the Irish national team. European and South American football was where my heart lay.

And so from the beginning, football wasn't about allegiance to a club or a country. For me, football was an aesthetic endeavour. I wanted to watch the teams and players that played the game with the most beauty, and afterwards I wanted to go outside and play like them. The team I "supported", therefore, changed from era to era. There was the Barcelona 'Dream Team', then the Ajax of 1995, the Bayern Munich of the late 90's, the Galacticos of Real Madrid, the Deportivo team of the early 2000's, and the Barcelona team with Ronaldinho in his prime. As that Barcelona team disintegrated, Arsenal came on the scene in 07-08 with a group of young, talented players who were arguably playing the most exciting football around. With the age of football streaming reaching Mervue I managed to watch almost every Arsenal game that season, desperately wanting their aesthetic superiority to translate into silverware. It should have happened but it didn't. Yet as my faith in Arsenal decreased, 08-09 saw the re-emergence of my love for Barcelona.

Guardiola was another favourite from my childhood. Naturally, I was excited to see what he would achieve with a team of gifted players who had lost their way. The answer has proved to be: everything. I have watched about 80% of Barcelona's games since 2008, most of them for the pure joy if it. This team embodied every reason I had for watching football. I didn't support them merely because they won. I supported them because they made sense of football; they confirmed everything I had grown to believe about this simple sport.

There are some people who don't get that. They think that supporting a football team is only about being a fan of so-and-so through thick and thin, but that is not the way I have been trained to think. Loyalty to a relatively abstract entity called "Liverpool" or "Ireland" or even "Barcelona" is not how I want to operate. I am not a fan of FC Barcelona, just as I was not a fan of Arsenal - I am a fan of this particular Barcelona team. Were they to sell Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta and appoint Big Sam Allardyce as boss with the tactic of lumping it down the middle to Kevin Davies then I would no longer be a fan. The philosophy, the aesthetic, trumps everything. The test of a football team -- like the test for a mathematical equation -- is, Are they beautiful? Barcelona under Guardiola were precisely that.

It was therefore not without a tinge of sadness that I read today of Guardiola's impending resignation as manager of FC Barcelona. He has moulded a team that will go down in history as one of the greats, a team that has revolutionised the game of football, and a team that has more to give. 

Of course this Barcelona team stand on the shoulders of giants, and have a history that goes far deeper than the appointment of Guardiola in 2008. It is this history that has most profoundly shaped the way I see the game of football. It is the history of the idea that football at its best is a form of art.

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