Changing the tunes

Football journalists were made to eat their words when a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona produced a stunning performance to beat Manchester United in the Champions League final

Opinions can change quickly in football. Only a few months ago sections of the press were berating the BBC for having the temerity to expose corruption at the top of FIFA. The broadcasting of a Panorama episode that outlined why FIFA need to reform was deemed “disgraceful”, “ridiculously unpatriotic” and “laughable” in the Sun. This month Sepp Blatter was placed beside Colonel Gaddafi on the paper’s front cover above the headline Despot the difference.

While the opinion of FIFA has somewhat plummeted, the respect afforded to Barcelona has increased stratospherically. Last month they fought a series of bitterly contested fixtures with Real Madrid and, in the eyes of many commentators, played dirty in their pursuit of victory. James Lawton, writing in the Independent, called Barcelona’s tactics “grotesque”, “nauseating”, “despicable” and “sickening”. Steven Howard, the Sun’s chief sports writer, was just as critical, accusing the club of “dragging the game into the gutter”. Barcelona are “Snow White with a stick”, said Howard. He also claimed that Manchester United had enough players at the top of their game to upset the favourites in the coming Champions League final.

Howard was not of this opinion after the match: “The engraver carving the name of the 2011 winners on the Champions League trophy shouldn’t have stopped there. He could have added the inscription of Barcelona as 2012 champions as well… The only surprise was the number of pundits in this country who, before the game, were still to be convinced. But the scales finally fell from their eyes as Barcelona put on the masterclass the converted among us always believed they would.”

The pundits so critical of Barcelona in the semi-finals now lined up to write their eulogies. “In the foreseeable future, football plainly belongs to Barcelona,” said Lawton. Their passing was picked out for special praise, with Andy Dunn of the News of the World claiming their possession is “a rate more certain than income tax”. The Sunday Mirror’s Simon Mullock was also in awe of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style: “Catalonia banned bull fighting during the week. It’s clear these days the locals get their thrills from watching opposition football teams suffer a death of a thousand passes.” Even Gary Lineker, normally impassive unless in proximity of crisps, was swept off his seat: “Barcelona truly are a gift from the footballing Gods. More than once I was off my feet applauding the most beautiful football I have ever seen.”

Earlier in the season Jamie Redknapp sought to describe how far ahead of their contemporaries this Barcelona team are by claiming they were in a “different league” to Real Madrid. The European Champions are now being hyped as the greatest team in history. On the night of the Wembley final Roy Keane and Graeme Souness both claimed Barcelona are the best team to have played the game. The Observer’s Paul Hayward believes they have “engineered an evolutionary leap”. And Derek McGovern of the Mirror predicted that a mooted apocalypse would be the only thing capable of preventing Barcelona from winning a consecutive Champions League.

Among the praise for Barcelona, Lionel Messi was picked out as the headline attraction. He was credited as the “Messiah”, deemed to have caused a “Messicre” and heralded as the “Lionel King”. The columnists wheeled out their superlatives to describe the Argeninian. He was “magical”, “mesmeric” and “majestic”, a “maestro”, “genius” or “benign destroyer” and – according to Hayward – “a genre all by himself”.

Dunn claimed Messi had “smuggled himself into areas of Wembley the architects never knew they had designed”. Henry Winter of the Telegraph was also more than a little excited: “At times Messi’s dalliance with the ball was pure, breathless tango with United cast in the role of wallflowers.”

If Barcelona have the messiah, Man Utd can at least lay claim to the very naughty boy. A week after securing his record-breaking 12th League title, Ryan Giggs was reported to have conducted an extra-marital affair with a former Big Brother contestant. Football’s ultimate role model was now having his personal life picked over by Britain’s moral guardian, Kerry Katona: “Breaking your marriage vows is as bad as breaking the law in my book. His wife should leave him.”

As if receiving moral lectures from the ranting Katona was not enough of an indignity, Giggs was given the amateur psychology treatment in the Daily Mail by Paul Bracchi. The writer excelled himself in composing a paragraph so insulting that it managed to degrade even the lowly standards of his tawdry paper: “Should we really be surprised though? Apart from anything else, his father, ex-rugby league star Danny Wilson, was a womaniser who split up from Ryan’s mother when he was still a boy; his father’s career was curtailed by heavy drinking and crime, including a six-month jail stretch for attacking a police officer. The young Ryan disowned him and adopted his mother’s surname. But might he have inherited at least one of his father’s character flaws?”

Giggs was not the only United man to suffer a dramatic reappraisal this month. Having just won the famous 19th Championship, Alex Ferguson was now being consigned to the history books by some writers. In the Sun, Shaun Custis advised Ferguson to retire now as he will be 80 by the time Messi hangs up his boots “and that’s a hell of a lot of frustration ahead”.

The last month has been a dramatic one, with the opinions of governing bodies, teams, managers and players all oscillating from one extreme to another in the press. At least with the summer we will be back to the familiar stability of speculation about transfers, budgets and sackings.

From WSC 293 July 2011