The post-match Camp Nou scene that resonated most with me did not involve Barcelona’s group photographs. It was not Luis Enrique in such a mood that one thought he might be of a mind to reconsider his future. The sight of distraught Paris Saint-Germain supporters, motionless on the upper tier, was what struck a chord.
Never mind celebrations, what lingered was that gut-wrenching feeling of painful defeat as experienced only by those who care passionately for their team, and which dismisses the cliche that football is “only a game”. It is unexplainable to anyone who hasn’t suffered the same level of dejection.
In this case, those from France can only have sampled hurt turning towards anger when they reflected on Wednesday night’s events. If they could stomach the replays, that is. The notion of Barça’s comeback being special, incredible, the best of all time – isn’t everything nowadays? – is completely undermined by the specifics of their achievement.
Once again the cottage industry that is the lauding of all things La Liga, and Barcelona in particular, belies what appear to be dark arts. The Barça brand matters more than what should always be established codes of football conduct. So too, perhaps, does the Champions League brand, as backed further by BT Sport within recent days. Pundits fawn, laughably in respect of former footballers who would rightly be incandescent had they suffered at the hands of Barça’s routinely wobbly forwards.
If the awarding of Barcelona’s first penalty of the night was dubious, Thomas Meunier committing the apparently fatal sin of falling over with Neymar in close proximity, the hosts’ second, which fuelled the fairytale, represented a blatant act of cheating. Consider this scenario: that Luis Suárez threw himself to the floor in the manner he did after darting in front of Marquinhos when playing, instead, in a key international against England. No odds can be offered that we would have heard plenty more about it, either in immediate post-match analysis or now that the dust has almost settled. In this instance? People are willing, just about, to cite “controversy”. It is Barcelona, they are brilliant, fresh parameters apply.
Suárez dived, just as he did earlier in the game when such antics cost him a booking. If you watch back through the dying stages, Barça’s players are throwing themselves to the floor with such desperation it is comical. The not-so- subtle message, as witnessed by millions including impressionable young footballers? When in doubt, when things get seriously tough, keep the conning of officials at the forefront of your mind. The ruse is even more effective when a team are at home, in such an intense atmosphere as the Camp Nou. Referees wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel pressure to bow to the demands of the bawling masses.
There is a counterpoint. That is, players such as Suárez – Cristiano Ronaldo being another – move at such pace that the slightest touch in what believe it or not remains a contact sport will knock them off balance. Yet it is quite incredible that players with such power, poise and strength are suddenly toppled when scope for a key penalty kick exists.
PSG are not some put-upon minnows – far from it. Barça’s followers can point both to a penalty their team should have had on Wednesday after a pull on Lionel Messi’s shirt and contentious decisions in the first leg. Nonetheless these incidents are made more troublesome to the point of impossible for referees by the scale of diving as carried out as routine by Suárez and co. Barcelona versus Real Madrid matches might offer epic theatre but the scandalous level of play-acting is curiously ignored in a manner that insults the intelligence of onlookers. This undermines the fixture.
The common response to such complaints is that some of us, particularly in Britain, need to wise up. British players, it is even stated, should become more streetwise when catching up with the “art” of simulation. It is a ludicrous argument; that cheating, because it has become rife, must be embraced as part of football.
Other sports would scoff. Would the player who signed for a 63 at Augusta National but was later found to have kicked his ball from behind a tree at the 15th be shamed or lauded? Would the wicketkeeper who flicked bails off for no reason be laughed at or hailed? What about the snooker player who subtly shifts a troublesome black with his hand at The Crucible? This all adds up to the same thing: deception.
Just as Barcelona are a brilliant team, who revolutionised football to an extent, and Suárez is a wonderful player, this should not provide an excuse for selective blindness. Unfortunately it does, amid the race to proclaim Wednesday evening as worthy of a public holiday. There is almost the sense that the Champions League needs Barça’s involvement, regardless of the means by which that transpires.
In context of the greatest European comeback ever, even those in the present-day backwater that is Scotland, who realise football didn’t begin with the onset of the Premier League and wall-to-wall live broadcasting, can cite alternatives. Kilmarnock versus Eintracht Frankfurt in 1964 is worthy of mention, as are Dunfermline Athletic’s heroics against Valencia two years earlier. In 1967 Hibernian turned another Inter-Cities Fairs Cup tie on its head by trouncing Dino Zoff’s Napoli 5-0 in Edinburgh.
They say life was simpler then. Football was certainly fairer; it should not be beyond professional analysts to lay aside the confetti and point that out or, indeed, for Barcelona to modify their behaviour.
The Guardian Sport