Sport Soccer

Saturday 20 January 2018

Salvation in beautiful truth

Eamonn Sweeney

T he great American literary critic Lionel Trilling once wrote that "we shall all do better, meet with kindlier judgements, if Tolstoy rather than Dostoevsky is right about the world." If you've read the two lads you'll know what he meant.

If you haven't I suppose the best way to boil it down is to say that Tolstoy had some faith in human nature and Dostoevsky had very little. My apologies for this unforgivably reductive summation of two of the greatest writers in history but I do have a column to write.

That Trilling quote popped into my mind after watching the Barcelona-Real Madrid game last Wednesday night. Because football will do better and meet with kindlier judgements, if Lionel Messi rather than Jose Mourinho is right about the game. In how they think football should be played, what should be expected from it and what the game means, Barca's star player and Real's manager, if I may continue the 19th century novel theme, are as starkly opposed as kindly Dr Henry Jekyll and his hideous alter ego Edward Hyde.

Mourinho's vision of football is unremittingly grim and almost completely cynical. In his eyes there is no petty advantage too small not to be zealously sought for, no trick too mean to be ruled out, no joy to be had out of the game apart from a winning result. His monomaniacal pragmatism makes him the footballing equivalent of Dickens's obsessively utilitarian schoolteacher Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times. He is Don Revie with a foreign accent.

The nattering nabob of negativity showed his true colours as far back as January 2005 when he accused Alex Ferguson of influencing referee Neale Barry at half-time in a Carling Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Manchester United. "In the second half it was whistle and whistle, fault and fault, cheat and cheat." A month later he lied that Frank Rijkaard, then Barcelona's assistant manager, had been seen coming out of referee Anders Frisk's dressing room at half-time during a Champions League tie between Chelsea and Barcelona at the Nou Camp. The following year he was accusing Stephen Hunt of deliberately injuring Peter Cech. The year after that he claimed "it is not possible for penalties to be awarded against Manchester United and it is not possible for penalties to be awarded to Chelsea," while berating Cristiano Ronaldo as a liar. And he has continued on in this vein.

Alex Ferguson is also prone to the odd verbal outburst but the big difference between the men is that Ferguson's sides always play attractive football while Mourinho has produced one highly effective but stupendously dull outfit after another. There was something utterly predictable and infinitely depressing about his attempts to get a rise out of Josep Guardiola in the run-up to the semi-final. He succeeded to the extent of provoking the normally gentlemanly Barcelona boss into losing his cool at a pre-match press conference, something hailed as a psychological masterstroke by gullible hacks.

On the field, however, the poverty of Mourinho's approach has never been as cruelly exposed as it was on Wednesday. Playing at home in a Champions League semi-final, Real started without a single out-and-out front man on the pitch and three world-class strikers, Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain and Emanuel Adebayor, on the bench. From the get-go their performance was steeped in fear as they retreated en masse and allowed Barcelona to monopolise possession.

At one juncture in the first period we were treated to the bizarre sight of the visitors knocking the ball around unopposed just inside their own half while Madrid stayed deep as though employing a footballing version of the old Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope tactics. It was something you'd never have expected to see in the Bernabeu.

Had Barcelona also been happy to play for a draw we'd have ended up with something like the infamous West Germany-Austria tie from the 1982 World Cup. Mourinho's team gave the kind of display you'd have expected from, say, Stoke City at Old Trafford or the Sam Allardyce model Bolton Wanderers at the Emirates.

There was something grotesque about seeing this anti-football being perpetrated under the flag of Real Madrid, the greatest club in the world, the most successful side in the history of European football, the club of Di Stefano, Gento and Galacticos, a club whose teams have always endeavoured to play with a certain style. Just last year Real chased Barcelona all the way in an enthralling Primera Liga title race before losing by three points, scoring 102 goals in 38 games, and playing terrific football under Manuel Pellegrini.

The expectation was that Mourinho would work the oracle, as he had when steering Inter Milan to last year's extraordinary Champions League victory. And there was also a feeling that the quality of players available to him at Real might see the birth of a new Mourinho. Perhaps the dour football at Chelsea and Inter resulted from the type of players the manager had available to him.

Sadly, things haven't turned out that way. What Wednesday's match showed is that for Mourinho negativity has attained the status of a cherished principle. Seeing the miserable set of the man, after he'd been sent from the dugout for protesting against Pepe's sending off, you were reminded of mugshots of Hollywood stars booked on drink driving charges. His desolation was total. Because if you live by the creed that nothing matters but the result, then defeat leaves with you nothing at all to hold on to.

It was fitting that Wednesday's coup de grace was provided by Messi. On a nasty night, he reminded all of us why we still give allegiance to this often frustrating game. Because the little Argentinian's run right through the heart of the Real Madrid defence embodied the spirit of football at its best. There is probably no other player on the planet who'd have been able to score that goal. It had nothing to do with tactics or planning.

Messi simply took a short pass from one of his team-mates and set off on his own. In fact, none of the other Barcelona players even bothered to support him. They just sat back as though clearing the stage for a great performer to do his solo.

A player like Messi makes nonsense of all the guff about psychological warfare and systems that gets talked about in the run-up to big matches. It was impossible to defend against his run for the second goal; this was the greatest footballer in the world proving yet again the old adage that talent does what it can, but genius does what it must.

And yet there was also something oddly familiar about Messi's slalom towards goal. Look at it again and you see that it's the kind of run most of us did as kids, dribbling the ball in the back yard, the front garden or the top field, commentating under our breaths, "he beats one man, beats two, beats three, beats the 'keeper, goal." Messi's masterpiece was this run raised to the Nth degree but it is still a recognisable cousin, a remarkable reminder that sport at its best remains rooted in play.

We need to be reminded of that. Because there is enough grim stuff in the news, about economic crises, terrorist attacks and natural disasters, without making a grim thing out of sport as well. The likes of Mourinho make football seem like just one more corporate takeover bid. Messi reminds us that, for all the money involved, we're still talking about a kids' game. And football is at its best when it connects us with that more innocent part of ourselves.

When the proceedings got particularly spiteful on Wednesday, Ray Houghton bemoaned on RTE the example that this was setting for the football-loving kids of the world. Yet, in the end, what those kids will remember is Messi's goal. Kids are like that, they look on the positive side.

On Thursday morning, I played the goal for my nine-year-old daughter on YouTube. It just felt like something she should see, like a heron in flight, a spectacular sunset or The Wizard of Oz. We watched it again and again and again, this small still moment of beauty carved out single-handedly by a man who is enough on his own to justify the entire enterprise of professional football. We live for moments like that.

There are myriad moments from Messi which you'd like to pass on to the next generation. But Mourinho? Well, try sitting your kids down in front of one of his whingeing, bitching press conferences, and explain that this is all about 'subtle mind games' and see how long they'll stay interested.

Because in the words of John Keats, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all/Ye know on Earth and all ye need to know." And Messi is always on the side of beauty.

It's the only side to be on.

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