Super clubs don’t just fall away any more. Success at the very top of the game is rewarded with so much wealth and in so many different ways, that the old cyclical nature of football can be assumed to be over. New clubs can still rise, usually courtesy of an oil baron’s backing, but while teams can suffer slumps and fallow seasons, the organisations which field them remain perpetually strong.
I think about this a lot, specifically in relation to Barcelona. Over the course of their contemporary lifespan, they’ve played football which has been so consistently excellent that the temptation has been to believe that it would last forever – to think that, on any given weekend, it would be possible find them at Camp Nou, ripping opponents apart with those third-man balls, that movement, and all of that slashing, swaggering style.
For many people, that was a moment of late-weekend calm. By the time Barcelona’s game appeared on television, most had already spent a Saturday entangled within their own club’s fortunes and frustrations. Nerves frayed and outlook possiblu darkened, they could sulk into the sofa and soothe themselves with a rich dose of something from the very top of the sport. Even at their Guardiola apex, it’s a myth that every game Barcelona played was a procession or that they offered a guarantee of half-a-dozen goals each time, but both happened enough for the cliche to exist. More often than not, that ninety minutes would arm the fan with some sort of sustenance: an otherworldly goal, perhaps, a piece of skill, or a raking pass which neutered half a team’s worth of opponents in a split second.
So “watching Barcelona” used to be a very specific form of entertainment. For actual fans it would have been quite different, fraught with all the usual anxieties felt by the rest of us, but for those watching dispassionately it was most often an exhilarating, rejuvenating experience – a mild compensation, perhaps, for all the ways in which your own side let you down.
In the long term, Barcelona will be fine. When Xavi left, that was supposed to be the end. When Andres Iniesta and Neymar departed in successive summers, the bells were tolling louder than ever before. Still, much of the old joy remains and, ultimately, where there is Lionel Messi there will always be blinding light. But even he can’t last forever and his retirement will create fractures that nothing can fill.
At that point, it will be lost forever. Barcelona will retain their place in the game, their future secured by the fanbase they’ve built and the players their wealth gives them access to, but the spectacle will then be archived away, betrayed in later years by its archaic high-definition. The style of football will be updated and reproduced elsewhere, that’s how the game has always worked, but the team itself and everyone’s private relationship with them will become a memory. It’s like the West Wing ending or a long friendship expiring; you know that eventually something will take its place, but you also accept that things will never quite be the same.
Permanence can never exist in sport, so it’s strange to present this as a revelation. But perhaps Barcelona creating such an illusion is the greatest compliment you can pay them. They were able to become an established part of so many informal routines; what a testament to the depth of impression they were able to leave. Fly in to almost any airport in the world tomorrow and, the chances are, a Barcelona shirt will walk past you within an hour. That’s not about Catalan politics or traditional identity, it’s a measure of how rich the football has often been. The notion of that disappearing is as dramatic as a change in the laws.
It isn’t quite over, but that point is coming – Sorkin is no longer writing the episodes and it no longer makes you feel the way that it once did. The time to say goodbye is drawing ever closer and, whether it’s acknowledged or not, everyone will lose something when that point arrives.