Cue the End-of-an-Era music: Pep Guardiola has resigned. But from this vantage point what seems clear is that Pep’s departure, and all the accompanying verbiage — about the intensity of his personality, his perfectionism, the hardware his team has won over the past four years, the success of the Barcelona Way, Pep as the embodiment of the més que un club ethos, and on and on — are part of a vast mopping-up operation. The story really ended almost exactly a year ago, when El Clásico descended into melodrama and handbags. Barça hasn’t been the same since, and neither has Pep.
I wrote at the time that “if I were Emperor of Soccer, I’d not allow these clubs to play each other for a couple of years.” But really, the damage had already been done. Too many overwrought encounters in too short a time had left Barcelona, Real Madrid, the Spanish soccer culture, and, hell, the whole soccer world emotionally exhausted. What had been the most exciting clash of styles in forever became instead an exercise in discovering new forms of pettiness: diving, stomping, pre- and post-match posturing, even a combination cheek-tweak and
From that point on we were all just going through the motions: I listlessly watched the game that the players listlessly played, while the Spanish soccer gods listlessly gave Mourinho a two-match ban for his touchline poke. By this January, people mostly looked on blankly as Pepe trod on Messi’s hand. Even Messi, after rolling around on the ground for a while, lost interest in being angry, and the players’ post-match comments were notably subdued in comparison to the wild charges and counter-charges made after the Pepe-Alves fiasco the previous April.
As the La Liga season draws to a close the descent into dreariness continues. When Real beat Barça at Camp Nou to clinch the title they seemed … sort of pleased. And Barça’s players seemed … rather disappointed. In large part this muted tone, this absence of festivity and agony alike, stemmed simply and straightforwardly from the emotional exhaustion I’ve been describing, but there’s a more subtle and complex element as well.
The great success of Barcelona’s recent style would have been impossible without the immense technical skills of the players, but those skills weren’t sufficient: that style has to be played not mechanically but with a certain vividness — with something like joy. And all the joy had been drained out of the old rivalry by the conflicts of the past two years. What had been a contest of profoundly gifted and well-drilled athletes stretching their capacities to the utmost on the pitch had become a mere war of attrition; and no one is better suited to winning wars of attrition than José Mourinho.
By contrast, Pep Guardiola is the kind of man who, instead of fighting wars of attrition, would rather just do something else. So he has resigned. But that resignation, again, is itself not the end of something: it is simply the acknowledgment that something ended a year ago, when El Clásico gave way to tohu-bohu, chaos and confusion, pettiness and recrimination, too many matches in too few days. I love the Barcelona style, I enjoyed their dominance, I expect to see more good things from them in the future, but a narrative that has dominated world soccer for the last three or four years has petered out. And I find that I’m ready to move on.
— Alan Jacobs
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