Barcelona and the Champions League: Will Saturday's final be the last hurrah for soccer's greatest team?

The stadium scene.
May 25 2011 10:21 AM

Sic Transit Gloria Messi

Is the Champions League final going to be the last hurrah for Barcelona, soccer's greatest team?

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Since the recent spate of Clásicos, Barcelona's performances have wobbled—a loss to lowly Real Sociedad, draws against Levante and Deportivo La Coruña. Some of that can be explained by injuries in the defense and by the fact that, with the title sewn up, the club had little to play for. But it's also a sign that an invigorated Madrid could make for an exhausting obstacle. Escalate the scandals-and-ringtones madness of the most global feud in soccer, and suddenly Barcelona's stars have a 24-7 distraction on their hands, something that can't play well within the team's aura of innocent, joyful love of the game.

And that matters, because there's always been something preternaturally serene about Barcelona's successes. The rivalry with Madrid has, as always, churned along in the newspapers, but as long as Barcelona kept winning, their current players seemed to glide above the headlines. The word that's most often used to describe them is magic, which gets at the combination of beautiful play, happy triumph, egoless superstars, and childhood loyalty that to all appearances tie the club together. Since Guardiola arrived as coach, there's been startlingly little in the way of internal strife or controversy, with the result that, factoring out the Madrid tabloids, Barcelona hasn't had to face a truly significant media backlash. The scoreboard always protected them.

In the past few weeks, though—just as they've been struggling on the field—there have been rumblings that this protection might not last. First Mourinho managed to make Barcelona's diving and referee-pleading the major narrative of their Champions League semifinal. Then Barcelona's 22-year-old midfielder Sergio Busquets, already one of the key figures in the diving subplot, was caught on video uttering what might have been a racist slur against Madrid's Marcelo. * UEFA dropped its charges against Busquets for lack of evidence, but the two incidents galvanized sentiment against the club like nothing had before.

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Compared with its opponent in Saturday's final, Barcelona has always been a fragile balance of forces. Manchester United is an implacable machine that simply grinds out wins using whatever style or strategy comes to hand. Barcelona's success, by contrast, seems to demand the reliable convergence of an incredible number of unlikely circumstances (which, wonderfully, almost always converge). For Barcelona to win, the team has to play in a high style. Xavi's quantum space-calculator has to spray out angled passes at top speed. The players have to be telepathically attuned to one another. They have to get along. They have to represent Catalonia. Messi has to score the kind of goals that make your jaw detach from your face and ride the elevator down five floors.

Somehow, Barcelona has made all those things come true in match after match, and if they win their second European Cup in three years on Saturday, they'll surely have secured their place as one of the greatest club teams of all time. But take away any one of those unlikely factors, whether by age, fatigue, injury, distraction, burnout, bad luck, or animosity, and Barcelona will still be a very good team. They just won't be magic.

Correction, May 26, 2011: This article originally misidentified Barcelona's Sergio Busquets as French. He is Spanish. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.

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