Sports Fans!: Brian Phillips, over on Slate, has a nice piece on “the special feeling of euphoria, a kind of Olympian giddiness, that soccer fans experience while watching F.C. Barcelona.” Even for those of you who care little for the game, you should make at least a small mental note about what is happening over in Barcelona at the moment – it’s a global phenomenon of some importance, I think, certainly inside, but probably also outside, the closed world of sport. Many people believe that this is, simply, the best soccer team of all time — and who knows, possibly the best that any of us will see in our lifetimes, what with the uncertainty that always surrounds the structure of the sport, changes that may be imminent in the way players are allocated among teams, etc. etc. Phillips has a nice way with words — he describes the recent dismantling of their rivals Real Madrid, a 5-0 drubbing (of a team that could possibly lay claim to the title of 2d best in the world) that left the soccer fans of the world in a deep state of awe and wonder, as “a mesmerizing display of off-handedly beautiful ruthlessness,” which is a phrase I wish I’d written. And he captures something — not everything, surely, but something — of what makes this team, at this moment, so special:
Soccer takes great athletes and makes them artificially clumsy—forces them to show what they can do, in effect, with both arms tied behind their backs. It’s a game of tricks, one that turns the simplest action, just keeping possession of the ball, into a perilous high-wire act. But Barcelona pass the ball, and pass the ball, and pass the ball—938 times in their recent 5-0 win over Real Sociedad—and invert defenses as casually as if they were rotating a kaleidoscope. It’s not just that they make it look easy. It’s that three years into their reign as the world’s best soccer team, they still haven’t realized they’re playing 50 feet above the ground.
Teams like this, in any sport (let alone the world’s most popular), don’t come along all that often, and it’s worth pausing to appreciate how lucky we are to be around when it’s happening (and at a time when US television distributors have finally gotten around to showing lots and lots of international soccer on TV!! Oh rapture!!)