Thursday, 28 April 2011

Messi Emerges From The Mayhem To Remind Us That Football Can Be Beautiful

It was supposed to be the greatest show on earth. The two finest clubs in world football meeting to compete for a place in the final of Europe's premier club competition. The world looked on, anticipating a spectacle befitting of the stage upon which it was to be performed.

Unfortunately, those who were to tread the boards hadn't received the message. Rather than marvelling at the finest protagonists our game has to offer, we were subject to ninety minutes of Spanish farce.

From the opening exchanges to the post-match press conference, this was pure melodrama, writhing, collapsing and squealing its way into the game at regular intervals. Where we were expecting gladiators, we saw pantomime dames.

The names in the cast who will receive critical reviews are plentiful. Busquets, Pedro, Di Maria and Alves all have a black mark next to their name for over-acting their part. Marcelo, Pinto, Adebayor and Arbeloa each discredited by their pitiful, stamping and slapping attempts at violent conduct. Ronaldo, guilty of missing his cue and only making an appearance after the main event had been concluded. Puyol, Valdes, Ramos and Mascherano, amongst others, guilty of regular blocking whilst trying to influence the referee's handling of the sordid affair.

We should not try to convince ourselves that the British game is perfect. The Premier League witnesses the same diving, whining and petty handbags that we saw in Madrid. However, if one positive has come from the shenanigans, it is the comfort that our game remains intact. When we see events in the Premier League that we don't like, we declare ourselves ashamed to be a part of it and wish we could go back to the mud, thunderous tackling and limited shorts of a bygone era. The reaction to the prima-donna antics in Spain was one of disgust. If our own players needed a reminder to get back to basics in order to halt the decline of football, this was it.

For every failed production, we have a director deserving of criticism. Josè Mourinho's 'Scandal of the Bernebau' speech has stolen many of the headlines after the semi-final, but it has not been the successful diversionary tactic that we have seen in the past. Josè has been the darling of the world's media for years. His arrogance, charisma and love of the extraordinary have made him a journalist's dream. Wherever Mourinho goes, there is a story waiting to be written. It is premature to claim that this love affair is over, but there are signs that the 'Special One' is being deciphered.

Against Barcelona, Mourinho got his tactics wrong. Whilst he claims that there were plans to increase Madrid's attacking intent at certain intervals throughout the game, the Inter Milan masterplan is not compatible in Madrid. Mourinho has an expensive squad at his disposal and one that conquers opponents each week by playing the attacking football that it was built for. Real Madrid is a club that prides itself upon attacking football. It values successful football, but the manner in which it plays the game is of vital importance.

The dramatic flailing of arms by Cristiano Ronaldo as he witnessed his teammates sitting deep in their own half, weakly surrendering possession to Barcelona, told a story. Ronaldo may be the ultimate diva. He may not be the individual to buy into a team strategy. However, he is also the prize asset in Madrid, the £80 million jewel in the crown. When Ronaldo questions the manager's strategy, the Real Madrid hierarchy listen.

Although success in the Copa del Rey acted as some justification for Mourinho's style, the Bernabeu faithful must surely be uneasy at the sight of their team allowing the old enemy to dictate the play on Madrid's patch. While they understand that caution is needed against this fine Barcelona side, they will also know that this was an opportunity. This was a Barcelona side without their maestro, Iniesta, and nursing a blow to their confidence in midweek. If ever there was a day to go on the offensive, this was it.

Returning to the theme of grand theatre, Mourinho had a world class cast at his disposal, and yet limited them to mime. Whilst some may buy the theory that Pepe's harsh sending off was the spanner in the works of the Mourinho masterplan, many will remember this as the day that Josè was broken.

Despite all of the tantrums, the tumbles and the torture, the audience was rewarded with one hero. As the Bernabeu was silenced, the world rejoiced. Amidst the mayhem, one man was not compromised. When he was knocked over, he got up. When he disagreed with the referee, he smiled. When others were swinging their handbags, he was nowhere to be seen. As people hacked at his ankles, while he could, he remained upright. If there was any justice in this match, it was that a genius was able to exhibit his incredible talents.

It is this memory that we must take from the match. Rather than remembering the events that embarrassed our game, we must cherish the moment that a little wizard from Argentina provided a moment of beauty to which we can cling. Without Messi, the world would have been cheated by a spectacle dominated by con-artists. As it is, we can look back on this as a night where Lionel Messi cemented his place as the world's finest footballer.

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