Story Time: The Hand

Three years ago, 29 November 2010, the football gods opened the heavens and delivered the most divinely-inspired ninety minutes the sport has ever witnessed.

El Clasico – the biggest stage in club football. A rivalry that, while not the nastiest, is certainly the most high-profile in the professional leagues of Europe. A rivalry steeped in Catalan Nationalism, the Spanish Civil War, the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and Spain’s political and footballing economy. The new millennium saw the star power of the rivalry taken to new heights, as global superstars such as Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Ronaldo (the original), Ronaldinho, and Deco graced its pitches. The stage was made even bigger with the ascendance of Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta to greatness in the 2008-10 period, with Barcelona winning the first Spanish Treble – hammering Real Madrid 2-6 at the Bernabeu along the way – and forming the spine of the Spain team that won the 2008 European Championship and 2010 World Cup. The second round of Florentino Perez’s Galactico policy further upped the ante, with Real breaking the world transfer record twice to bring in Kaka from AC Milan and Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United.

Even by the standards of recent years, the 29 November 2010 Clasico was going to be huge: Ten of the Starting XI from Spain’s World Cup Final win in Johannesburg were on the pitch (seven for Barcelona, three for Madrid). The Real Madrid side boasted the talents of Mesut Ozil, Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Sergio Ramos, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema. Even more to the point, they had Jose Mourinho – the one manager Barcelona could not beat. A former translator and assistant coach under Bobby Robson and Louis Van Gaal at Barcelona, any goodwill he had towards the club (and vice versa) had evaporated in a series of bitter Champions League knockout ties between Barca and Chelsea in the mid-2000s. In 2010, his Inter Milan had squeezed past Barcelona, ultimately claiming the Treble with a Champions League victory at the Bernabeu. Indeed, Perez had recruited Mourinho as Madrid coach precisely because he was seen as the man who could best Pep Guardiola and end his dominance of La Liga. Under Mourinho, Madrid had enjoyed their best-ever start to a season, flattening teams in La Liga and the Champions League alike; the week before the Clasico, they brushed past AFC Ajax 4-1 in Amsterdam, and stood two points ahead of Barcelona in La Liga. To add even more fire to the mix, the Catalan elections occurred the day before the game, with the separatist parties winning significant margins in the Parliament. If ever there were a time for Madrid to deliver the knockout blow to Barcelona, it was then.

Only that didn’t happen. Instead, Barcelona showed up and delivered one of the greatest team displays of all time.

From the first minute to the last, Barcelona pressed, hounded, and chased Real Madrid across the entire pitch, circulating possession rapidly as a defensive and offensive effort. Five minutes in, Messi attempted an absurd chip from the goal-line; the shot beat Casillas completely and rang off the far post. No worries – Barcelona simply kept up the pressure. In the opening ten minutes, Madrid mounted a single attacking effort into the Barca final third, and even that was quickly contained when the pressure forced an error. Barcelona’s formation was attack-minded in the extreme, with Abidal, Puyol, and Pique effectively forming a back three and giving RB/RWB/RW Dani Alves license to scream forward on the right side of the pitch. In the ninth minute, the pressure and passing paid off, as Iniesta slipped the ball through to Xavi in front of the goalmouth of Iker Casillas. Marcelo nearly got to it, but only succeeded in teeing it up for Xavi to chip the shot over Casillas and into the net. 1-0.

Vice Captain Xavi Hernandez chips the ball over Iker Casillas for Barcelona’s first.

Barcelona kept coming, using Cruyff’s modified conception of Totaalvoetbal to play Death by a Thousand Passes with Madrid. For all that people criticize Barcelona’s tiki-taka approach to football as being one-dimensional, it serves a dual function: every yard you chase after the ball you can’t get to is a yard more than Barca you have to run. When you get the ball back, you’re so exhausted from chasing shadows that you can’t do anything in response – the high pressure only makes that worse. Offensively, possession and ball circulation are used to shuffle the defense, to force them to be constantly alert and shifting, while Barcelona wait for the micrometer of space that they need to play the killer ball. The second goal was this in its purest form: Barcelona strung forty passes together in the buildup, keeping possession for close to two minutes amidst endless Ole! chants from the capacity crowd (99,857) in the Camp Nou. At last, Xavi swung the ball wide to David Villa, playing on the left while Messi dropped deep to control play. He drove at Sergio Ramos and crossed towards goal; Casillas got a touch to it, but only redirected into the path of the onrushing Pedro Rodriguez, who made no mistake from point-blank. Seventeen minutes played, 2-0.

Pedro celebrates his goal with David Villa in the 17th Minute

Barcelona nearly had a third five minutes later before Villa was ruled offside. Two fights started in the first half – one when Cristiano Ronaldo shoved Guardiola on a throw-in near the Barca bench, and another when Ricardo Carvalho elbowed Messi in the face near the end of the half. Madrid went into the HT break exhausted, demoralized, and agitated at having chased shadows for nearly an hour. If a comeback was to happen, it would need to start early.

It got worse.

Villa, Xavi, and Messi all narrowly missed chances to get the third in the opening five minutes, before Messi fed the barely-onside Villa for the third goal. 53 minutes played, 3-0. Game, set, and match.

But it wasn’t. Barcelona kept going. Three minutes later, Xavi regained possession on the right and fed Busquets. The midfielder gave it to Messi, who drove at Xabi Alonso and Marcelo near the centre-circle. The pass that followed ranks among the greatest assists I have ever seen. Villa started another inconspicuous run down the left, and Messi ripped a forty-yard threaded pass between Pepe and Sergio Ramos that completely destroyed the entire Real Madrid defense. The ball was so good that Villa didn’t have to break stride as he side-footed past Casillas. Ray Hudson called it “orgasmic genius”, Cadena Ser’s Carlos Martinez simply exclaimed “que ballon profundo!” fifty-six minutes, 4-0. The Camp Nou is not naturally a loud arena, but the mood inside that footballing temple was one of pandemonium. It was natural for Barcelona to win games, especially that Barcelona side. But this was not a bottom-feeder La Liga side: this was Real Madrid. And they were routing them.

David Villa celebrates his second and Barcelona’s fourth.

The final half-hour produced a single goal, as Barcelona contented themselves with humiliating Real Madrid, forcing them to chase shadows for minutes at a time. The Guardian’s live feed in the 73rd minute summed it up well: “Here’s what you need to know: Barcelona have the ball, Madrid can’t get it back. In fact, that’s basically been the story for the past 72 minutes.” Villa departed to a thunderous ovation, two goals and an assist in his first Clasico. Mourinho, before the ultimate embodiment of everything Barcelona feared, sat powerless in the dugout, staring ahead forlornly, simply waiting for the game to end. In injury time, sub Bojan Krkic drove down the right side, and centered the ball toward Iniesta. He missed the pass, but Jeffren Suarez (another sub and La Masia grad) got there. It completed the rout. 5-0. In Spain, La Manita (the hand) has a special importance in football scores – eras are defined by them. The most historic Clasicos were the 5-0s of Johan Cruyff as a Barcelona player (1974), Barcelona coach (1994), and Real’s Laudrup-inspired revenge (1995) that marked the end of Cruyff’s reign at Barcelona. Guardiola had been on the pitch for the two games in the 1990s, but now he stood on the touchline, engineering the most ridiculously one-sided game in the modern history of the Clasico.

Immortality Achieved: Barcelona applaud their fans at the final whistle

The praise poured in from all corners. Even MARCA and AS, the ruthlessly pro-Madrid sports dailies, hailed the Catalan performance as “El Orgasmico”, The Guardian termed it “El Smashico”, El Mundo Deportivo in Barcelona gave the entire team six stars out of five in their rating of the game. Roberto Palomar wrote that “they could have played with two balls at once, and Barcelona would have controlled them both”. Tomas Roncero, AS’s long-time source of viciously pro-Real Madrid bias, simply lamented the scale of the slaughter in the second half: “the worst thing isn’t losing, the worst thing is not having a bloody clue what’s going on”. The Telegraph wondered whether it might be the greatest performance in the history of football.

Here’s what I know:

I have been a Barcelona fan as long as I’ve been watching football (or soccer, to the ‘Muricans). Like so many, I was enchanted by the loveable genius of Ronaldinho in the mid-2000s. I was awe-inspired by the quality of team that Pep Guardiola built in his four-year reign, as Barcelona claimed fourteen trophies in four years. I watched them take Manchester United apart in two Champions League finals, Sir Alex Ferguson conceding in 2011 that the Wembley Final was the heaviest defeat of his managerial career. I have fallen in love with their mesmeric passing and possession game, with the genius of Iniesta, Messi, Xavi, Busquets, with the level of skill that the La Masia-forged team has brought to football. They have been a wonderful counterpoint to the tired and tepid talk of the ‘pace’, ‘power’, and ‘passion’ of the Premier League, preferring instead to win through sheer technical skill, collective ethos, and intelligence. For six years, they have produced some truly brilliant performance, from their 2-0 and 3-1 demolitions of Manchester United in the Champions League Finals, to their amazing 4-0 second-leg comeback against AC Milan in 2013. They blitzed Bayern Munich for four goals in forty minutes in 2009, Messi scored four and five goals in single knockout games against Arsenal and Bayer Leverkusen, they became the first side in history to reach six successive Champions League semifinals.

But I also know that as long as I live, no team – not FC Barcelona, not Bayern Munich, not Manchester City or Chelsea – no one will ever match their performance that night.

It wasn’t just the symbolism of the game. It wasn’t that they flattened a team that cost $300 million to assemble, though flatten them they did. It wasn’t just that Pep Guardiola had then won all five of his first Clasicos as coach of Barcelona, with a simply ridiculous aggregate scoreline of 17-2. It wasn’t just that it wrestled the lead in La Liga away from their bitter rivals, or acted as a truly comprehensive response to Mourinho’s accusation that teams simply didn’t try to win at the Camp Nou. It wasn’t even that they beat their most bitter coaching rival, handing him the heaviest defeat of his career.

It wasn’t just that they won, and won huge. It was how they won.

It was that from the first to last minute, Barcelona’s eleven players completely and utterly controlled the game. It was that Victor Valdes functioned as a gloved sweeper, playing short passes with Eric Abidal, Gerard Pique, and Carles Puyol to maintain control even from the back. It was that Barcelona played so well that they didn’t need to take chances – their first four shots on-target rendered four goals. It was that Xavi completed 114 passes on 117 attempts. It was that Messi, though goalless, dominated the entirety of the game, dropping deep to dictate play and make man-marking a nightmare for Real Madrid’s defence. It was that they played such instinctual football out of the tightest corners that would be suicidal and risky for any other club on earth; that eight of the starting XI were graduates of La Masia Academy (and David Villa had played the style for four years in the Spanish National Team) surely helped. Since 1989, the club has defined itself by its obsessional adherence to the tenets of Totaalvoetbal laid down by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff at Ajax and Barcelona: proactive possession, rapid circulation with short-passes, taking individual risks and ingenuity in the confines of a system of play. The Dream Team of the 1980s and 1990s under Cruyff defined that style, and was hailed as the greatest Barcelona side in history.  This was the night that Guardiola’s Barcelona eclipsed them. It was the night they completed their argument for standing in the footballing pantheon alongside 1970-73 AFC Ajax, 1989-94 AC Milan, the Mighty Magyars, and 1970 Brazil as the greatest footballing team of all time.

Copies of the game exist – Youtube is blessed with the English commentary, while I have found two separate Spanish recordings of the proceedings. If you are a lover of football (and you should be) find one, watch it, keep it, treasure it, and share it. Rejoice that you live in a time where such collective brilliance can manifest itself on the pitch. It stands alone as the greatest collective performance in the history of the Beautiful Game. Sporting perfection doesn’t exist – it hasn’t, it can’t, and it won’t. But that night is perhaps the closest we have ever come, and the closest we ever will.

 

About the author: Cameron Climie is the lead writer on European Football for the Armchair Sports Society. His sarcasm, snark, and man-crush on Andres Iniesta can be followed on Twitter at @camclimie

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