My love is bigger than your love

February 22, 2011 § 35 Comments

Mr Happy looks smug, as he considers his unstoppable (and carbon-neutral) tactical innovations

The idea of arrogance in football is a persistent yet fluid one. Any dominant team can expect to be labelled arrogant at some point, regardless of how deserving of the tag, as a simple and natural consequence of being better at football than other teams. Football being what it is, defeat is not just a reflection of sporting prowess but a grave and mortal insult, often amplified by entrenched rivalries into a profound and personal offence. And offending through superiority is as good a working definition of arrogance as any that comes immediately to mind.

It is, of course, possible to be good, or great, without being arrogant; however sensitive a losing fan feels, it is not an act of arrogance just to win a football match. Arrogance, where it does manifest itself, comes from the manner in which a player, or a team, or a club goes about its business. But before approaching that, the very concept of superiority in football needs attention.

All sport contains at its heart a simple calculus of superiority: the result. Win and you’re better; lose and you’re worse; draw and you’re equal (note: not applicable in the United States). But football, thanks to the relative scarcity of its point scoring, has another more subjective calculus. As any Arsenal fan will tell you, the better team doesn’t always win. Teams will frequently fail to score during dominant passages of play, which is why Arsenal can dominate Leyton Orient for eighty minutes and only come away with a draw. If that balance of play had been achieved in a more point-rich sport — basketball, say — Arsenal would have been well out of reach by the time Orient had their moment. So there’s a second measure beyond superiority of result, and that’s superiority of performance.

But football, gloriously, ridiculously, doesn’t stop there with its calculi of worth. Further notions of superiority percolate through the game. There’s superiority of appearance, a measure of whose wife is the prettiest. There’s superiority of character, which is judged on the adherence to what remains of football’s soul, and is usually based on whichever team spent the least time trying to hurt or pretending to be hurt by the opposition. The other important ones are closely related — superiority of means and superiority of method — which refer, respectively, to ‘where did your money come from?’ and ‘how do you spend it?’.

It is immediately clear that of all these measures, only the most basic — result — is objective. All the rest are subjective assessments, and so it follows that any perceived arrogance based on an offensive superiority of any of these types is also necessarily subjective. That said, there are some widely-agreed examples: a perceived gracelessness in the face of a bad result, for instance, or an overly aggressive attitude in the transfer market.

All of which leads, in an appropriately roundabout, tippy-tappy, back and forth kind of way, to the dominant force in European club football: Barcelona.

The charges of arrogance laid at the door of Camp Nou form a troika of unjustified self-regard: that their self-proclaimed identity — més que un club, and all that — is a hypocritical sham; that their conduct in the face of defeat is often churlish in the extreme; and that their football is, in its extreme and ideological focus on possession, arrogant by its very nature.

The first of these is self-evidently true, and is arrogance of both means and method. It is not in itself unusually arrogant to profit from and work to entrench the distorting financial arrangements of your domestic league; nor is it particularly arrogant to sell the space on your shirt for money; nor even to use that money to buy, or attempt to buy, players from other teams. That’s what football clubs do, after all. But it is spectacularly arrogant to do so while pretending, simultaneously, to be better than all of that, to be somehow above the grubby mélange that besmirches the rest of football. Of course, this is slightly beside the point, since it is incoherent to blame the players or the manager for the sins of the suits. A club is an entity as diverse as it is unitary, and footballers and fans do not determine marketing messages.

The second is pretty self-evident too; it’s performance superiority. The only sour note in Xavi’s otherwise wonderful recent interview with Sid Lowe was his assertion that “Inter won the Champions League but no-one talks about them”. This is palpably untrue: that treble-winning Inter team will be remembered as a highly effective trophy-hoover; as a lesson in reductive yet oddly gripping tactics; as a stage for the brilliance of Wesley Sneijder; and as another step on Jose Mourinho’s path to world domination/hubristic collapse under the weight of his own ego (delete according to future). And they did win a flippin’ treble, as well as bring Marco Materazzi to tears, both of which take some doing. Of course, Xavi is here indulging his own prejudices and preferences; since Inter won playing a style of football he derides, he does not consider them as being worthy of remembrance. Which is fine and understandable, but at the same time disappointing; great players win well, great men lose well. It is the spoken-word equivalent of turning the sprinklers on.

It’s the third suggestion that intrigues: can a style of play be intrinsically arrogant? While arrogance is of course possible on the field, it generally manifests in individual moments: Peter Osgood waiting for his opponents to get up before beating them again, or Patrick Kluivert pausing on the goal-line to wind up the Belgians. Alternatively, it can be observed in a certain casualness of attitude or approach: playing a weakened team, or underestimating the capabilities of your opponents. But neither of these particularly apply to Barcelona, at least not often enough to support a generalised perception of fundamental arrogance.

Instead, the perception comes from the ideological zeal that underpins their play; as noted by Rafael Honigstein*, they are perhaps the most single-minded team since the heyday of the Crazy Gang. To quote Xavi again, when asked if he is an ideologue: “It was that or die”. But while those who subscribe to an ideal are naturally besotted by it, they can often overlook the implication that if your way is right, everyone else’s must be wrong. It is easy to see how this is taken as arrogance, particularly when the ideology keeps on winning games (defeated ideologues are never as annoying, unless they whinge).

The characteristics of the style are, at heart, almost anti-football, at least in the sense that they are opposed to the fundamental dialectic of a match: one team competing another. By keeping the ball for so long, and pursuing it, when lost, with such fervour, Barcelona essentially deny the opposition the right to participate in the game, cutting off any competitiveness at source. We’ll play with the ball; you won’t. (It might perhaps be mischievous to suggest that this strikes a particular nerve with British audiences, whose aversion to possession football has been refined throughout a dispiriting series of lessons on the international stage.)

Ultimately, the question of whether the style is implicitly arrogant is probably determined by the aesthetic preferences of the observer. A disdainer’s arrogance is an admirer’s self-belief. But it should also be acknowledged that the arrogance/self-belief is, to a certain extent, a necessary component of the Barcelona style. To play the way they do requires not only exceptional technical ability and a deep inculcation in the tenets of the ideology, but also the sure and certain knowledge that your way is the best way. The only way. The children of La Masia are reminiscent of orphans raised within a convent, wholly isolated from the world outside. Their faith is their weapon. There is no other better way. No wonder they get right up the nose of the heretics.

* A note. This was initially attributed to Sid Lowe, again, but a commenter pointed out that it was in fact a different member of the Football Weekly panel. It has therefore been altered; maybe not definitively, but that’ll do. It was one of them. The point stands.


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§ 35 Responses to My love is bigger than your love

  • Josh says:

    Wow. Terrific post. Extremely well written! And you mentioned the King of Stamford Bridge, too. Icing on the cake!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Craig Mullan, Chris C and Andrew Thomas, Andrew Thomas. Andrew Thomas said: NEW POST (for those of you still up) | Barcelona, arrogance, zealotry, and Mr Happy (please RT/comment) | […]

  • Michael says:

    Some good points in there.

    The morally superior status Barca award themselves is really starting to really grate. I note that Xavi didn’t comment on Busquets shameless play acting to ensure a red card for Thiaggo Motta in last year’s semi-final against Inter. Is that part of the ideal? And he doesn’t mention the comprehensive 3-1 (firs leg) defeat in Milan. Barca were outsmarted over two legs; they should have the grace to accept it. On another occasion they might have won, but it’s not like they had several blatant penalties turned down in their semi. Imagine if that happened, eh?…

    Like many, I love watching Barca in their pomp. But, although I don’t want to endorse the worst aspects of negative tactics and long-ball football, a clash of styles can make for an interesting spectacle and a true test of a team like Barca’s greatness.

    • twistedblood says:

      Tbf, I don’t recall anybody from Barcelona suggesting that they don’t dive, or simulate, or whatever; it would be bloody hard to do so with a straight face and Dani Alves in your team.

      I tend to find that most of the hypocrisy around diving comes from these isles. As a totally random example, Steven Gerrard calling out foreigners as cheats in his autobio leaps to mind …

      He did gloss over Inter’s oustanding first leg though, didn’t he? Odd, that.

  • Kowalski says:

    Excellent stuff!!

    Arrogance is pervasive. I saw Prestatyn town’s player manager do a similar thing to Kluivert a few weeks ago. His team were already 4-1 up against a team from a lower division.

  • twistedblood says:

    Well, if it’s got to Prestatyn then we’re all buggered. Turn off the floodlights, puncture the balls, pick up the cones. Football’s done … 😉

    Thanks for the comments all.

  • Harry Redknapp says:

    Awesome article! Barcelona deserve to have that degree of arrogance as they are the best(atleast in terms of technical ability) at what they do and there is nothing wrong in them feeling bullish about it. Throughout history, we have had amazingly gifted sports persons and many of them are arrogant about their abilities. But their arrogance is justified as they have the required talent to back what they think they are.

  • Mark says:

    Wonderful article. Their football is beautiful and Xavi is unbelievably intelligent, but that “more than a club” horsesh*t IS annoying, especially since they went and got that bumper sponsorship (all under that cloud of Pep helping with the Qatari WC bid)
    Though I think it was Rafael Hoenigstein who made the comment about the identity in relation to Wimbledon’s.

    • twistedblood says:

      Now that you mention it, it may well have been Herr Honigstein. I will update the piece accordingly.

      And thanks to all for commenting. Esp. Mr Redknapp, who might perhaps have been better off focusing on the Blackpool game. Appreciated nonetheless.

    • KBell says:

      The “‘more than a club’ horsesh*t” comes from a time when Catalunya and Catalans were chased and murdered (otherwise known as the Spanish Civil War) and the club stood up for the language, culture and beliefs of the Catalans. The Spanish government even had a club president murdered. To us, the Catalans, it IS more than a club, because it has represented us. Granted, football players are arrogant, overpaid creatures but our motto has nothing to do with it. Cheers!

  • […] “Can a style of play be intrinsically arrogant?” A treatise on Barcelona. Twisted Blood […]

  • kt says:

    “By keeping the ball for so long, and pursuing it, when lost, with such fervour, Barcelona essentially deny the opposition the right to participate in the game, cutting off any competitiveness at source. We’ll play with the ball; you won’t. (It might perhaps be mischievous to suggest that this strikes a particular nerve with British audiences, whose aversion to possession football has been refined throughout a dispiriting series of lessons on the international stage.)”

    For all their possession football Spain and Barcelona have spent most of their history receiving a dispiriting series of lessons on the international stage too.
    Which should give the bandwagon jumpers who swoon we should just copy everything they do pause for thought. But it won’t.

    • twistedblood says:

      A fair point. Though I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between wanting England to play like Spain (probably not going to happen) and wanting England (and Britain as a whole) to copy some of the steps Spain have taken to arrive where they are now. More youth coaches and a greater focus on technical coaching, for instance.

  • Joss Bennett says:

    Terrific article, and some good points made in the comments section as well:

    The “Mes que un club” motto is simply the prime, and most blatant example of their arrogance, but there’s so much more to it as well. Things including, as mentioned by someone, their tendency to gloss over or ignore their own faults and actions on the field.

    The Qatari foundation sponsorship deal is very dodgy.. Barca aren’t meant to have any money, but they just borrow indefinitely from the Catalan banks, then are basically bribed with this deal to help Qatar win the 2022 WC Bid..

    In terms of possession, my site ( published some interesting stats that said all but around 100 of their passes went either sideways or backwards, and only 50% (ish) were completed in Arsenal’s half on Wed. This, is what they call “domination”..

    Now they complain about the signing of 16 year old Juan whatever Toral by Arsenal, and yet, they approached two of our (under-contract) youngsters last year, and signed a 14 year old Lionel Messi all that time ago. Double standards much?

    Anyway, sorry for the “rantathon” as Paxton might call it, super article, keep it up!

    • twistedblood says:

      Thanks for commenting.

      As I said above, I don’t think Barcelona have ever pretended that their football is completely honest; foul-free, dive-free, and so. While I don’t like them diving, any more than I like any team diving, I don’t consider that an aspect of their arrogance.

      On those possession stats, I think focusing too much on the direction and the location of the passes can be a touch misleading. I wouldn’t say that a sideways or backwards pass is a negative pass simply because it fails to move the ball closer to the goal. Barcelona don’t pick the ball up and immediately plot the quickest way to goal; they wait, and they circulate.

      It is, I think, inaccurate to characterise them as an *attacking* team, particularly away in Europe. Certainly, they don’t attack in the way Bielsa’s teams do, for example, or Zdenek Zeman’s. Any football tactic is, at heart, a system intended to ensure that team A scores more goals than team B. Barcelona do that through possession: it is both a defensive and attacking appropach. And since they spent much of the game with a 0-1 lead – which in a European away tie is a magnificent place to be, since even 1-1 and 2-1 aren’t terrible results – they had absolutely no need to come at Arsenal.

      The Messi point is an interesting one. My understanding (based on half-remembered reading a while ago, admittedly) is that if he hadn’t moved, he wouldn’t be the player he is, as he required medical treatments not available or affordable to his Argentinian club. Hence the move. But I stand ready to be corrected on this point!

      • ned says:

        You are right about the Messi point.
        They paid for his treatments, no one else did, no one else can cry over it.

        Barca doesnt really have many out of country youngsters.

        And signing a raw 10-11 yr old (I feel creepy just writing this) to join a youth setup is much different than signing a 16-17 who is almost ready for the senior ranks.

        I understand ANY team being upset that they spend time and money on creating and molding a child into a future professional and then losing them just right before they can finally use him.

        Of course, that is the story for teams in about 3/4 of european leagues where they dont lose star players after getting a few years out of them nowadays, now they lose them even before theyve managed to star at home and those leagues keep losing future stars that could interest local fans because some big money club can pay to have that player sit in the stands.

        So dont compare signing a 10 year old kid to a potential Cesc Fabrgas who could start in some senior squads.

        That said, Im happy that Fabregas and some other kids can leave if they see its a dead end situation.
        The move to Arsenal was the best thing for HIM and thats whats more important than a club losing a ‘possession’.

  • Logan says:

    Ever since the courting of Fabregas (as an arsenal supporter) feel a great disdain for Barcelona. I respect them, but I don’t like them. I REALLY don’t like them. Maybe because of the comparisons between them and arsenal, making arsenal seem like some copycat, barca-lite team. But I do feel that there is some arrogance about them. When they lost in the champions league this last week, some papers in Spain said the only reason they lost was because they were not at their best. They didn’t mention how well arsenal played.

    The other thing that irks me is when they complain about teams playing anti-football against them. It is widely acknowledged that closing down the space, being physical and getting in their face is the only way to beat Barcelona ( again, arsenal showed this wasn’t necessarily true). But when they complain about teams playing like that – trying to compete against them – it makes me mad. I don’t believe in one type of football being superior. In fact, I think that the best teams are the ones that can adapt and play multiple styles effectively. Maybe because barca only play one way, and that way is so successful, and that success gets in the way of my own team, I don’t like them. But I can’t help but feel that a team consisting of ibra, drogba, carroll, de Jong, van bommel, vidic and ferdinand, and other suitable, physical, top level players would give Barcelona a run for their money. Stick in a good goalkeeper (aka not almunia, but someone like reina) and putourinho or ferguson in charge, and you’ve got a team that could probably shut barca down. afterall, barca are a team of superstars – messi, villa, Xavi, inestia, pique, puyol. They’re pretty much the Spanish national team, with messi, playing against regular club teams. I think this is what makes me mad. It’s just not fair.

    • Logan says:

      Sorry if this is rambling and ranty. It’s pretty early in the morning.

      • twistedblood says:

        Not a problem at all. Love a good ramble. (Also, I’ve made the correction you posted below actually in the text, and deleted the comment, partly so I could reply … hope you don’t mind.)

        In terms of teams being able to give them a game, I think you’re absolutely right. They’re not invincible; just very, very good. You don’t even perhaps need the superstars: Hercules beat them, Gijon drew.

        I would, however, be wary of passing too much of the blame for the press coverage onto the club. Just as this probably wasn’t the fault of the England players, so blaming the Barca players for their media’s blinkers seems a little unfair.

  • Kristina says:

    Wow! Believing in something is arrogant. It is arrogant because believing in something automatically means that you do not believe something else. You think that you are right and other people are wrong. Gosh, I didn’t know it was that easy to come off as arrogant.

    FCB is apparantly an arrogant team and their style of play is intrinsically arrogant because they do not allow the other team access to the ball. They even play anti-football. This is a strange notion. To blame Barcelona for the other teams inability. If the other teams aquire the skill to take the ball for themselves I guess we wouldn’t talk so much about Barcelona’s arrogance. Look at Arsenal! They did just that, instead of whining!

    • twistedblood says:

      It’s not that to believe in something is arrogant in itself; but to hold that your belief is innately superior, even when it’s shown not to be, can come across as arrogant. As with Xavi’s Inter comments.

      As for the style of play, you’ll note that I conclude that whether or not you believe it to be arrogant depends on whether or not you find it aesthetically satisfying (I, as it happens, do). And you’ll note that I then go on to say that perhaps this arrogance, or self-belief, is integral to the style. It’s not a question of blaming Barcelona for anything, but of trying to understand why they are thought to be arrogant.

      In summary, FCB are a sometimes arrogant club, with sometimes arrogant players, that play extremely good football that some people find arrogant. All these manifold arrogances are slightly different in both content and delivery. I don’t think that’s particularly controversial.

      • Kristina says:

        If you do not find it controversial then why do you make such effort to show Barcelona as an arrogant team? You say that Barcelona is a sometimes arrogant team with sometimes arrogant players. Well couldn’t you say that about any team, or any human being for that matter? And if you could, why pick Barcelona? To single out Barcelona just make it sound jealous, and that is a pity because you write really well and I enjoyed reading this.

        Furthermore, I have always thought that the “Mes que un club” slogan derives from their Catalan heritage, and the club’s special part of the catalan history, and not because they think themselves better than anyone else.

        And to conclude, that remark from Xavi did sound a bit arrogant. But in a way he is right. I have found that when you talk about Inter these days you talk about how you DON’T talk about Inter these days. I know it is probably unfair, but he has a point.

      • twistedblood says:

        Oh, I agree that most clubs – particularly big, successful clubs – are or have been arrogant in different ways throughout history. My own club, MUFC, might be considered a serial offender. Somebody send Carles Puyol a United jersey with his name and the no. 4, after all, and I doubt that was a fan.

        I wrote the piece because, in the buildup to and fallout from the Arsenal game, the phrase “Barcelona are arrogant” was thrown around a lot, and I thought it would be interesting to investigate how they were arrogant, if at all, and why people perceived them as such. Arrogance, after all, is a quality derived from perception, rather than a fundamental quality, like geographical location. You are only arrogant if someone is justified in thinking that you are.

        I also wanted to touch on something which has bothered me for a while, which is that football clubs tend to be treated, perhaps understandably, as unified wholes, whereas in fact they are remarkably diffuse entities. For instance, I find MUFC’s commercial activities something between an embarrassment and an irrelevance, as I would imagine most fans do, and yet have occasionally been criticised over some aspect of them. Or having a pop at Andres Iniesta because Sergio Busquets likes the odd dive. Bits of clubs are good, and bad, and the overall picture is always a more complex one than is usually presented.

        I really didn’t intend this as a Barcelona-bashing piece and I hope it doesn’t read that way. As I perhaps could have made clearer, I personally find the way they play football very alluring, and there is much about the club – the focus on youth, for example – that I admire. If it sounded jealous or churlish, then that was not my intention.

        As for Xavi on Inter, that may be so. Perhaps that’s a consequence of Mourinho moving on; since it was the end of an era, so to speak, it’s natural to view that as a breaking point. But I think his contention that they will be not remembered is inaccurate, and I think (well, I hope, since I adore the little genius) that he might well admit that, if asked.

        PS. Thanks very much for the comments, always appreciated.

  • Irena says:

    Great article! And I really do appreciate you having a ”discussion” with other readers!

  • MOMO says:

    LOLOL this is a joke! The author needs to check in a mental asylum

  • Kristina says:

    I just want to thank you for your serious answers to my comments above. I might have misunderstood your intentions despite your very well written piece. I’m sorry if I sounded arrogant myself :). I am a Barca and Xavi fan, but I try to be sensible. I have just watched the Inter – Bayern Munchen game, and Inter deserves to be talked about.

  • Byo says:

    One of the more insightful piece on FCB. Yes, their football is aesthetically pleasant; they win a lot in La Liga; and they have been decent in European competition.

    But one should not forget that:they play in a league consisting of 2 teams; they did not repeat their dominance in the CL; and they are disdainful of teams that beat them.
    Moreover the much-vaunted La Masia did not provide the core of the Ronaldo or the Rivaldo or the Ronaldinho, or the Kluivert or the Romario FCB.

  • Pooja says:

    I think, when you say Barcelona, it’s important to distinguish between the players and the management. Everything that’s usually deemed arrogant about Barcelona is, to use your words, sin of the suit.
    The, admittedly silly, sprinkler incident, the Qatar Foundation sponsorship deal, even the “mes que un club” debacle, are the responsibilities of the people we don’t see on out Tv screens, the management, not the players.
    I doubt Messi turned on the sprinklers, or that Xavi negotiated with the Qatar foundation, or that Iniesta chose to be bigger than a club. They may all endorse these things as FCB’s players but they sure had no say in them. So I feel it’s a bit unfair to call the people we do see arrogant, when the matters of arrogance are not their matters at all.
    How are the players themselves arrogant on the pitch? Is it that all they do is possess? And that is the only way they know how to play? Well that is hardly arrogant at all, in fact it’s quite humbling that they can use this one style of play and dominate the best teams of Europe.
    And I quite agree with Xavi; apart from Jose Mourinho, who remembers that Inter won the treble?
    You’re probably getting tired of all the rambling in the comments, but I loved reading this post! I’m definitely coming back for more.

  • […] Barcelona and the many flavors of arrogance. [Twisted Blood] […]

  • […] Barcelona and the many flavors of arrogance. [Twisted Blood] […]

  • Of course, as a club, if you make a huge deal and a massive stand about the whole més que un club thing but then go and sell your sacred shirt space just like anyone else would (but for a higher price) then does that makes you look like:

    a) a wanker?
    b) a shrewd but utterly unscrupulous businessman who didn’t believe their own shite for even half a second but knew it would drive up the price – in effect meaning we all just brought a massive amount of sales bullshit?
    c) a wanker?
    d) hugely hugely hugely pretentious?
    e) a knob?
    f) a wanker?
    g) several of the above?

    I am slow. I found out about the Qatar thing yesterday and I am still cross. Mes que un bellend.

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