The video was posted on YouTube in November 2012; it showed a raccoon edging its way into a yard full of cats, then plunging its paws into their feeding-bowl and scurrying off on its hind legs. Of course, this hilarious scene went viral, to the extent that it was still being shared years later; and, when I finally saw it, I thought only one thing. “That looks like Sergio Busquets.”
Busquets has a good argument to be football’s raccoon. There is, on his day, no-one better at stealing possession when he has no right to do so; and there is no-one more protective of that possession once he has it. Huddled in front of a widescreen TV, I watched his performance in the 2015 UEFA Champions League final in awe. None of the Juventus players seemed able to get anywhere near him even though he seemed to be distributing the simplest of passes. It was only after watching the game back that I noticed he seemed to be throwing a head fake when releasing the ball. It was one of the many moments when I was reminded of the words of the golfer Bobby Jones, after he had watched Jack Nicklaus claim yet another title: “He plays a game with which I am not familiar”.
If it took me some time to appreciate the full brilliance of Busquets, then I thankfully wasn’t alone. I first witnessed his gifts in the 2009 UEFA Champions League final, when he was part of an elite midfield triangle alongside Xavi and Andres Iniesta. In that game, and in countless others to come, the opposition may as well have got out their deckchairs. Manchester United, the opponents that night, were overwhelmed; but, as was to be seen in years to come, there was no shame in that. The three men before them each have a compelling claim to be featured among the best ten central midfielders of all time.
That might seem a big shout, particularly where Busquets is concerned, but it’s worth noting that Xavi, in a recent column in the Spanish press, has stated that he thinks his former Barcelona colleague is currently the world’s finest in his position. It’s also notable that, upon his introduction to the first team, Barcelona began to win absolutely everything. Then there’s the famous quote from Johan Cruyff, not a man known to suffer fools:
“Positionally, he seems like a veteran with or without the ball. With the ball he makes what is difficult look easy: he disposes of the ball with one or two touches. Without the ball, he gives us a lesson: that of being in the right place to intercept and running just to recover the ball.”
I have one criticism of these words from the late, great Cruyff; which is that this kind of praise doesn’t prepare you for how Busquets actually plays. I thought watching him would be boring – that he would be a tedious metronome of footballing excellence. How wrong I was. It’s nerve-wracking. If I still had hair, Busquets would raise it. My God, the risks in his style. Each week, he does one of the most difficult jobs in football, which is to bring the ball safely from defence into midfield – but to witness him do so is like watching Philippe Petit walking between the Twin Towers on a tightrope. Busquets leaves himself no margin for error, often being swarmed by two or three attackers who are absolutely certain that he is about to receive the ball. Yet their cause is as hopeless as cats trying to intimidate a raccoon. They know, and Busquets knows that they know, that he has the quick feet of an elite winger; he swerves away from them as sharply and effortlessly as a swift. In years gone past, the story was that you could get the better of Dani Alves if you could just find space in behind him. Unfortunately, such space often proved as mythical as Camelot. With Busquets, the story goes that he can be neutralised with diligent pressing. In reality, though, that’s frequently about as feasible as trying to smother a nuclear blast with a duvet.
Busquets seems to take delight in being elusive as the attackers chase him down; it’s not common that you see the prey toying with his pursuers, but then again he’s a unique player. If you have a moment, then head over to YouTube to find footage of his majestic outing against Valencia on 3 February 2016, a game which Barcelona won 7-0 and where he was probably the man of the match. Time and again he brought the ball to safety or did the screening of three men, meaning that the final third became a pressure cooker for the unfortunate visitors to the Nou Camp. That was peak Busquets; a lanky, angular phenomenon with the guts of an acrobat, the heart of a pirate, and a touch and vision for the ages.