Beauty is a by-product

2011-04-30 00:00

SPORT has few rivalries to match the titanic tussles between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Certainly the TV room in our humble abode in Pietermaritzburg was packed an hour before hostilities began. Two Spanish clubs held us in thrall. That is the power of modern communications.

Happily the latest “El Clasico” fulfilled expectations. Admittedly it was not the prettiest game. Sport, though, has never relied entirely on the aesthetic. It is a contest, not a ballet; the primeval struggle is its essence. Beauty is a by-product, not an aim.

It was a battle of wills and also a game of chess in the form of a soccer match. It was also a reminder of the part played by managers — not coaches — in soccer. Jose Mourinho’s praises have often been sung — and he does have a rare grasp of the power of myth and magic — but the other surviving Champions Trophy managers are not to be underestimated.

Barcelona won because they played an astute tactical game and because they were prepared to get their hands dirty. Now and then even the most fluent sides need to produce what Australians admiringly call “mongrel”.

In the recent cup final Barcelona had stroked the ball around skilfully and attacked relentlessly only to fall foul of Madrid’s clever sucker punch. Mourinho’s sides are always superbly structured, physical and determined. Over the years the Special One has preferred to rely on a single striker, a strategy founded in part upon the brilliance of Didier Drogba and Christiano Ronaldo.

This time Barcelona refused to press. Realising that they were the away side they felt under no obligation to play a passing game dependent on working most of their players into the opposing half. Instead they sat back and teasingly invited Real Madrid to come and get the ball. Accordingly the hosts could not spring their trap. A stalemate resulted and by half-time the score remained deadlocked. Already both sides had been bloody-minded and tempers had frayed on and off the field.

It was fascinating. Mourinho blinked, sending on another forward, a clumsy fellow lucky to stay on the field. Gaps began to appear in the middle of the pack. Mourinho knows better than anyone else how to beat Barca, knows he must upset their rhythm, deny them their dazzling short game. To do that Madrid needed to stifle their opponents — and that required manpower in midfield

Barcelona began to look more dangerous. To make matters worse for the home side, Pepe was presently given a straight red card for an ugly challenge. Some thought the decision harsh, but a bunch of studs were directed at a defender’s leg. Those raised on football a few decades ago appreciate the modern intolerance for over-the-top tackles.

In a trice a difficult task had become well nigh impossible. Madrid had lost a player in the cup final as well, but that was against another Barca, a more dispassionate side committed to style. Now the visitors did not give a fig for anything except the result. The sight of two uncompromising teams going full pelt at each other had its own beauty. And they were not playing tiddly-winks.

But there was another reason that the visitors prevailed. It was not all about tactics or grit or luck. Barca had at their disposal a twinkle-toed genius going by the name of Lionel Messi. Afterwards the experts put him alongside Pele and Maradona as the best players seen in the last 50 years. It is high praise and it is deserved.

Pele was the outstanding performer in two World Cups and only savagery and mud denied him in 1966. Sports followers of a certain age put him alongside Garry Sobers as an untouchable. But that is to neglect Maradona, another giant of the game, albeit a deeply flawed one. Insofar as it is possible in a team game, the Argentinian won a World Cup single handed.

Where Pele was polished, he was mercurial. Give him the ball and he was like a dog with a bone

Messi is not so much a great player as a genius. It is not quite the same. Sachin Tendulkar is a great batsman, Brian Lara was a genius. Great sportsmen dominate for long periods and rise to the greatest challenges. Geniuses repeatedly perform deeds beyond the capacity of mere mortals.

Messi scored both goals, one of them predatory, the other with an irresistible dribble. He is an extraordinary player, from another planet in the opinion of one pundit.

Only one thing can be said against him — he has not quite done the deed for his country.

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