Imperfect matches

wsc303As Barcelona break more records, their often flawless football has a downside

Soon there will be a Lionel Messi-related statistic for every number up to four figures. In eight successive games between February and mid-March he scored 18 times – more than Wayne Rooney managed in the whole of 2010-11 – and now has 55 for the season. In fewer than seven complete seasons he has become Barcelona’s all-time top league goalscorer.

There are all manner of made-up stories about him that sound plausible, from his birthday becoming a public holiday in his home city of Rosario, to Kim Jong-un of North Korea offering him a honorary title in exchange for coaching tips and a signed shirt.

Messi is the best player in the world’s best team, one with whom the stars of future generations will be compared. He is only 24, with at least three years to go before he reaches what is usually considered a player’s peak age, but he does not seem likely to be corrupted by fame. It helps that, at 5ft 4in, he looks like a school-leaver at a first job interview whenever he wears a suit, and so is unlikely to be making guest appearances on catwalks or to launch a range of male grooming products. In any case, he seems modest, quick to compliment team-mates and generally far more likeable than his opposite number at the Bernabéu, Cristiano Ronaldo.

He has contributed hugely to making Barcelona the most popular club in the world, a position they are likely to retain as long as he plays for them. People who could not name more than a handful of teams in their domestic league know all about “Barça”, which may be a source of irritation to some. Nonetheless, millions enjoy watching a team playing fast, skilful football that is relatively free of cynicism, confident they can win games by scoring more goals than the opposition rather than trying to stop them playing.

So it might seem churlish to wish that Messi and co have everything their own way a little less often – and not just in losing to Real Madrid. The problem is that, sometimes, when the goals are flying in – 82 in 28 La Liga games up to the end of March, another 30 in eight Champions League matches – it is just too easy. Teams will never be completely evenly matched, but when the balance swings too far in favour of one side, competitive football is reduced to the level of an exhibition game.

The Premier League often felt like that for a decade or so, with the “Super Sunday” head-to-heads between the same four clubs seeming like the only fixtures that counted. This has changed, partly because playing in England, with its relatively high tax rates, is no longer as attractive to many of the world’s best players, with the exception of those who have signed up for Manchester City’s “project”.

As results in Europe bear out, the effect has been a decline in the overall level of the top sides balanced by a rise in the competitiveness of the league. If Manchester United win the title this year, it will be with their most ordinary squad in over 20 years. The poorest teams are still thrashed occasionally, but each week’s results are much harder to predict than they would have been a couple of years ago.

In Spain, however, Real Madrid and Barcelona seem immovable at the top due, principally, to the huge financial advantage they gain from being able to negotiate their own TV deals. Real Madrid are even building their own holiday resort in the United Arab Emirates, due to open in 2015. Even though the overall standard of the Spanish league is higher than in England, as witnessed by seventh-place Athletic Bilbao’s comfortable home and away victories over Manchester United in the Europa League, there seems little prospect of a return to a time when other clubs – Valencia, Deportivo La Coruña, Atlético Madrid – were able to break up the duopoly.

In a more balanced league, a Barcelona side containing Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi might still be playing the best football, but they and Real Madrid would not be beyond reach. You can admire the way they set about demolishing opponents, the team equivalent of Usain Bolt finishing seconds ahead of the field in the 100 metres, but among the 4-0s and 5-1s, an occasional 0-1 can feel like a cause for celebration.

From WSC 303 May 2012