At Barcelona, a feeling worse than sorrow: Pity
By Rory Smith
They would have expected anger. As Barcelona’s players chased shadows last Tuesday night while Bayern Munich toyed with them and teased them and tore through them, time and time again, they would almost have been waiting for the fury to come, for the Camp Nou to bare its teeth.
That is the way it has always been, after all. Barcelona has never been an easy crowd. The club has long worried that it is, in fact, a theater crowd: sitting there, quietly, demanding to be entertained, quick to make its displeasure known if not just the result, but also the performance, is not up to scratch.
There were plenty of points Tuesday night when the crowd might have turned. After the second goal, perhaps. After yet another uninterrupted Bayern attack. After it became clear there was no way back, not in 90 minutes and maybe not for some time. The players would certainly not have been surprised by it. They might even have been anticipating it.
And yet it did not come. Even as Bayern ran in a third, completing Barcelona’s humiliation, there was no shrill chorus of whistles, no torrent of jeers washing down the stands, no great guttural roar of frustration and disappointment. There were flashes — Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto were booed from the field — but they were occasional, fleeting.
Instead, the players were subjected to something far more damning, far more telling, infinitely worse: pity.
That, more than anything, was a measure of how far and how fast this club has fallen. On a Champions League night, as its team was dismantled by a putative peer and rival, the Camp Nou crowd — among the most demanding in sports, an audience spoiled by a decade of some of the finest soccer in history — was not spitting fury but offering gentle, sincere encouragement.
The fans sang the name of a teenager, midfielder Gavi, not because of anything he had done, but simply because of what he had not. They applauded when Barcelona threaded a handful of passes together. They urged the team forward. They recognized, in essence, that for the first time in ages, Barcelona needed their support.
There is no great profit in dwelling, yet again, on how it has come to this, or in chastising the club for its profligacy, its absurd recruitment, its financial recklessness, its pigheaded belief that the sun would always shine and the good days would last forever.
There is no point listing the succession of nadirs that have served as signposts: the defeats in Rome and Liverpool, England, and Lisbon, Portugal; and the loss of Neymar and then, this past summer, of Lionel Messi himself, both to Paris St.-Germain.
They have been illusions, after all. Nobody knows quite, not yet, where the bottom might be, how far Barcelona might still fall. In its own way, this defeat to Bayern was no less harrowing than the 8-2 loss in Lisbon a year and a lifetime ago — not as dramatic a collapse, of course, not as eye-catching or as immediately shocking, but just as comprehensive and just as instructive.
It was not just that Bayern was better in every single position — stronger, fitter and more technically adept. It was not just that Bayern was better coached, better organized and more precise.
It was that Bayern seemed to be playing modern, elite soccer, full of pressing triggers and rote movements, while Barcelona — for so long the team and the institution that defined cutting-edge — had the air of a team from the past, parachuted in from the 1950s and told that now the game is actually about inverted wingers occupying half-spaces. The 8-2 was, in a certain sense, a freak result. This was not. This was just an illustration of how much better Bayern is these days and of how far from the pinnacle Barcelona has drifted.
And perhaps, in that, there is a glimmer of hope. The era of the superclubs, and the shrieking hyperbole with which those teams are covered, has a distorting effect. Obviously, this Barcelona team is weaker than its predecessors, drastically so. Evidently, this Barcelona team is a long way short of Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea and the two or three other teams that might harbor some sort of ambition of winning the Champions League.
But it is not, in terms of its raw materials, a bad team by global standards. Marc-André ter Stegen remains one of the finest goalkeepers in the world and Jordi Alba one of the game’s best left backs. Gerard Piqué is not, all of a sudden, a terrible defender. A midfield built around Pedri and Frenkie De Jong has a rich potential. Once Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé return, there is promise in attack, too.
A smart, innovative coach might not be able to turn that team into a Champions League winner, might not even be able to craft a side that could beat Bayern Munich. But there is certainly talent enough there not to be humiliated, not to look passe. Teams such as Red Bull Salzburg have only a fraction of Barcelona’s ability — yes, even this Barcelona, reduced as it is — and yet can emerge with credit from games with Europe’s grandest houses.
There is no reason to believe that Barcelona, with a more progressive coach than Ronald Koeman in charge, could not level the playing field at least a little. Without question, it should be possible to forge a team that does not look surprised at the fact that an opponent from the Bundesliga might press high up the field.
Not so long ago Barcelona inspired awe. Now that has been replaced — by sorrow at how far it has fallen, by regret that it has come to this; and most of all, most damning and most telling of all, infinitely worse, what Barcelona inspires above anything else is what the Camp Nou showed its team, its diminished heirs of impossible giants, last Tuesday night: pity.