End of an era (and other such nonsense)

FCB. They’re in rough shape right now, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who hears the funeral bells. They missed out on their chance to claim their domestic cup by losing to their greatest rivals in one of their most humiliating defeats in recent memory. They were beaten in the Champions League in a fashion that will leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth for months to come. Even their league run was pretty subpar.

As the more astute of you have probably figured out, I’m not talking about FC Barcelona here. I’m talking about FC Bayern Munich. Specifically, I’m talking about Bayern Munich in 2011-2012.

Last year was a horror of a season for them. They lost out on the league by 8 points. They were humiliated by a 5-2 loss in their domestic cup by Borussia Dortmund, who also beat them in both league matches. And, most notably, after making a strong run in the Champions League, they lost to a weakened Chelsea side on penalties.

The last month of the season was full of painful losses and tears.

Over the summer, Bayern did not fire their coach. They did not sell half the team. They were active in the transfer market and bought several players who have been key in their success this year, but they didn’t replace the entire starting XI by any stretch of the imagination.

And this season, they have been on fire.

There’s absolutely no reason why Barcelona cannot do the same thing, and many reasons to think that they can. The nice part of painful, humiliating ends of the season is that they tend to make lasting impressions and spur necessary changes.

We can’t make the same excuses this year that we could last year. We didn’t just get unlucky against Bayern in the UCL, and we didn’t just get unlucky against Real Madrid in the CDR. We played poorly and did not really deserve to move on. End of story.

However, make no mistake: these aren’t new problems. There are certain factors that have exacerbated them, but at their core, these are not new issues, and it’s time we address them.

The major exacerbating factor is, of course, the loss of Tito Vilanova for several months mid-season because he was in a different country being treated for cancer.

Digest all of that for a moment.

Vilanova had only been their coach for five or six months, and he was still adjusting and adapting the system that was obviously in need of a little change. It was evident in games – Barcelona were starting to have a plan B, in that they were starting to play a more direct, adaptive game. When he left, that progress slowed to a crawl, and after a little while, they began to slide back to what had stopped working last season. They haven’t been able to recapture since his return, and I don’t expect them to manage it before the end of the season.

However, the tactics are only part of it. The psychological toll this relapse took on the players has been quite clear. Vilanova has been an integral part of many of their careers. He coached some when they were in La Masia, he was an important part of Pep’s team, and he has helped several of them step out of Barca B into the first team. He’s been a major part of their careers.

Of course Vilanova’s relapse has had a profound effect on the team. How could it not, especially given Abidal’s struggles as well? Cancer is serious, and in the last few years they’ve had two people who have been a major part of the team battle it, triumph, and then relapse. That’s exhausting. That takes a toll.

Those are just exacerbating factors, of course. Even before Vilanova left, the defense was a complete mess. Even before Vilanova left, the team was vulnerable to injuries and becoming a bit too dependent on Messi.

But the relapse magnified all of those problems.

Those problems, however, are very fixable, and now management can no longer ignore them. At this time next year, Barcelona may well be right back on top, just as Bayern Munich are now.

So don’t despair, and don’t get pulled into the media’s fervor about Barcelona being done. They’ll be back, and hopefully, they’ll be even better than ever.

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On bandwagoners

Hey, guys. I’m sorry for my rather prolonged absence – I’ve been struggling to keep up with everything in RL as well as battling a bout of serious depression, so I haven’t really had the energy to update this blog like I’ve wanted to.

I want to talk about Barcelona and their fate next season. (Hint: I will not be calling for Vilanova to get fired, nor will I be recommending that everyone other than Messi, Iniesta, and Busquets get sold.) However, I’m going to leave that for next time and instead talk about a term I hear tossed around a lot, especially these days: bandwagoners.

I sympathize with people who use it: I really do. I get as annoyed by fickle fans with no knowledge of the club who call for a mass exodus after a bad run of form as the next football fan.

However, I find the underlying concept behind the term to be equally problematic. It’s tossed around to put down new fans, who have committed the grave crime of not falling in love with a team when they were awful, or not having been around when the team fell on hard times.

That’s not fair, and it speaks to a real elitism that I think is dangerous and exclusionary.

Everyone needs to start somewhere. A new fan to the sport is unlikely to be drawn to a team that plays poorly and is relegation-threatened. A new fan to the sport is likely to be drawn to a team that is fun to watch and has a style of play that they find attractive.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

What’s the alternative? That the person not get into the sport at all, or that they only be allowed to like inconsistent teams or teams that are poor? That doesn’t make any sense. When teams begin to play well, more people will be drawn to them. That’s just how human nature works: people like to be impressed.

Under my influence, my boyfriend has begun to get really into football. He’s not under my influence enough that he’s especially fond of the Spanish league, but he’s begun watching games on his own, and from what he’s seen, he’s become very drawn to Borussia Dortmund. He likes their style of play, and he likes watching them.

I am happy that he is getting into football, and I am happy that he has found a team that he really likes watching after spending two months of not feeling all that drawn to anyone. I don’t think that he should be shamed or feel bad for that. He found a team that he enjoys, and at the end of the day, football is about enjoying yourself, not being able to win a pissing contest for who’s the most hardcore fan.

Will he stick with BVB? I’m not sure. He may end up finding another team that he likes more. He may end up finding as he watches more of BVB, he doesn’t like them quite as much as he thought he did. He may even just get fed up of having to find streams or be at my place to watch their league games, since he doesn’t have access to the Bundesliga right now. I don’t know.

But either way, there’s nothing wrong with that.

New fans are annoying when they call for major changes based on very little experience and education about the team. New fans are annoying when they call for someone’s head on a platter because everything isn’t perfect all the time.

That’s not because they’re new fans. It’s because they’re impatient, uneducated, and think that they know everything anyway.

I wish they were just called on that, rather than for being new to the sport.

On Resurgences

One of football’s favorite narratives is the “resurgence.” You can barely go a weekend without hearing about the resurgence of some team or player somewhere in Europe. The better the league, the bigger the hype.

Most of these so-called resurgences don’t actually amount to anything, because people tend to be looking for the wrong things. This post is inspired in particular by all the talk surrounding Real Madrid and Fernando Torres, but I’m not trying to pick on them in particular – they just happen to be the major talking points this season.

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No more Europa?

Apparently, there are talks going on about whether to scrap the Europa League and expand the Champions League. It’s one of the worst ideas UEFA has managed to come up with yet, and that’s saying something.

Their reasoning is that Europa doesn’t attract the same kinds of crowds and some clubs don’t try as hard for it as they do for the Champions League. That is a problem, but this is still not a good plan.

Five Reasons Why It’s a Terrible Idea

1) Right now, the Champions League is competitive while still allowing for a wide variety of teams and nations to participate. Expanding it would take away that competitive edge and add either a bunch of dead weight in earlier rounds that people still wouldn’t watch or force teams to play even more games. More games isn’t just a problem when it comes to player injury – it would also exacerbate the problems with competitiveness that is already widespread in major European leagues. Only the richest teams would have the depth necessary to routinely play a game every three days, and everyone else would see their form in both competitions suffer as a result.

2) As the season draws to a close, part of the excitement is Champions League qualification. Even in the top three leagues, which get four representatives, there are more good teams than there are Champions League spots, and the potential rewards for participating make the race every bit as heated as the title race or relegation. If it is expanded to more teams, that competitive edge will wear off.

3) The Champions League is exciting right now because there’s always the potential for an upset. Even things that seem like they should be straightforward aren’t always so – just this season, we’ve seen a lot of things that most people never would have predicted. Barcelona lost to Celtic. City lost to Ajax. The reason for that is that if you don’t come from a strong league/place high enough in your league to begin with, you have to go through playoffs to get into the group stage. Expand it, and there will be fewer upsets and less intrigue.

4) There’s something to be said for what Europa offers: the chance for smaller but still talented clubs to gain international recognition. Once you reach the knock out rounds of Europa it gets quite competitive and entertaining. The Europa Leagues gives teams like Atlético Madrid – who have talent and drive but not the financial resources to really challenge for the Champions League title – something else to aim for, similar to domestic cups. It’s also good practice for the Champions League, which most clubs in Europa can reasonably aspire to.

5) The Europa League is an excellent way to judge league depth. Look at Spain: a lot of people dismiss La Liga as a boring, two-team league. However, if that’s all they were, Spanish teams wouldn’t also be dominating Europa. Expand the Champions League, and any understanding of any league beyond the title contenders would go out the window.

So how do you fix it?

1) Give out Champions League spots for performance in Europa. Both finalists should automatically get a berth, and if you’re really serious about it, give the Europa winner a place in the first pot, whatever their coefficient is. That would make it a lot more attractive.

2) Give out more money for participation. That would, at the moment, probably mean siphoning a little money away from the Champions League, but that’s okay. I’m not talking about the same kind of money, just enough that there’s some incentive.

3) Make it smaller. 12 groups is just too many, and letting everyone who doesn’t get through to the Champions League in is a bit ridiculous. I don’t mind letting them parachute down, but make them work for it. For example, the groups could be reduced to 8, and then the 4 worst runners up could have to play off against the 4 best third-placed CL teams. 1 leg, at home to the Europa runner up. If the CL reject gets through, they’ll actually deserve it.

Cristiano Ronaldo

So I was originally going to structure this as a Ronaldo v. Messi post, but when I thought about it for a moment, that seemed dumb, because this isn’t really about Messi at all. I love Messi, but that’s not the point, and if I’m going to get annoyed at people for always comparing the two, I should really avoid doing it.

I love Barcelona, but I’ve never hated a team so much that I couldn’t like anyone who played for them. That includes Real Madrid – unlike almost every other Barcelona fan on the planet, for example, I really like Sergio Ramos.

So it wasn’t the Real Madrid thing that made me dislike Ronaldo. It was just Ronaldo.

But that’s changed.

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