Chris McGrath: Barça's cultural clout provides home truth for Merseyside duo
The Last Word
Saturday 28 November 2009
So Liverpool aren't interested in helping out that "arlarse" lot next door. For now they would sooner both families stayed in the condemned, crumbling terrace, glowering across the backyard, the last two houses still to be boarded up.
They have been here so long, after all – through so many births, deaths and marriages, so many fights and parties, all the laughter and tears, all the memories that make a house a home.
Not that they want to stay, as such. It is just that if they are going to take out a mortgage on a swanky new place, at least they want to call it their own. Which is rather poignant, really, because the deeds to their present address are tucked into the back pocket of a bank that itself nearly went bust not so long ago.
But then the whole institution seems increasingly in denial. To an outsider, the notion that Liverpool and Everton should both build a new stadium is crackers.
Tomorrow's game is certainly timed to clarify some home truths, so soon after the demise of Everton's Kirkby project, and Liverpool's failure in Europe. To an outsider, in fact, they stand over an abyss. Not the place to start slapping each other around.
It is very different for the fans, of course. Those who co-habit the dilapidated San Siro will tell you that a shared ground is no panacea. Its very dilapidation, in fairness, is part of the problem. When Bayern Munich play at the Allianz Arena, the sumptuous stadium glows red; and blue, when 1860 Munich are at home. And you might well conclude that Merseyside football can best retain its own, vibrant colour by no longer seeing everything in black and white.
Which, as it happens, is pretty much what you might find yourself watching if you seek footage of either team winning the title. This city has always had an enviable sense of identity. But how obstinately can fans – at all three Premier League derbies tomorrow – afford to define themselves by tribal bile?
Liverpool, unusually enough, retain an authentic local voice in Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. But where are their heirs? Instead we wince as Rafael Benitez makes artless attempts to belittle Everton as the Extremadura of Merseyside, invoking the Spanish minnows where he cut his managerial teeth. In comparison, the mischief of Bill Shankly was a matter of cultural instinct. "If Everton were playing at the bottom of my garden," Shankly would say, "I'd draw the curtains."
Something special would be lost, to all of us, if Anfield or Goodison were abandoned. But while Arsenal may miss the old Highbury atmosphere, Arsène Wenger has guaranteed a new kind of allegiance – one that dovetails tradition and a vision for the future.
And that is why football is so blessed that its most exquisite 21st-century template should also be its most effective. Barcelona do not owe their resonance to the bricks and mortar of the Nou Camp, whatever Real Madrid may feel tomorrow. Both teams stand for something. The biggest "derby" in Europe is divided, not by a city park, but by culture, language, philosophy.
Barcelona's success, achieved by a scrupulous sense of how the game should be played, has goaded Real Madrid into a transfer policy described by the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta, as "imperialist". In turn, Real Madrid candidly greet visitors to their museum with a sign reproving rivals who need "cliché" to define themselves, when "trophies tell the whole story".
But Barcelona has a cause, an abiding sense of itself. How much would it cost Madrid to buy Xavi, Iniesta, Messi – all academy graduates? In lacerating Internazionale with a thousand passes on Tuesday, Barça showed that they do not need even Messi. Real meanwhile have a coarse, capricious grasp of their own interests at any given time. They buy prefabricated stars, to sell shirts, and hire managers through a revolving door.
Among the objects flung at Luis Figo, when the apostate returned to the Nou Camp, was the head of a suckling pig. A Barcelona director absolved the home fans. "We don't even eat cochinillo here," he smirked.
This visceral antipathy between the clubs owes nothing to proximity. Figo did not cross a mere park. To both sets of fans, Real represent the Castilian establishment; the Nou Camp, meanwhile, was one of the few places where you might safely chant "Visca Catalunya" under Franco.
In 1936, when the civil war began, the whole of Europe took sides. Nobody mistook it for a local difficulty. By the same token, this is so much more than a derby.
In the Champions' League final, remember, the team representing our own footballing culture wore shirts promoting AIG; and Barcelona paid Unicef to wear their logo.
The club motto – Mes que un club – appears in giant letters across a tier of the Nou Camp seats. "More than a club." But you can only read them when the place is empty. More than a club, and more than 98,000 plastic seats, as well.
Oh, for a team full of Collingwoods
Oh, if only I could be as dull on the village green as Paul Collingwood is for England!
If only I could reliably manage routine catches of the type he made during his record-breaking, 171st ODI the other day. True, he had to dive full length, but he was obviously a bit slow picking it up.
If only I could exchange all my flair for the same, limited technique, the obdurate groping by which he made a ton in the same game, or 200 in a losing cause in an Adelaide Test, or the real match-saving innings at Cardiff last summer.
Collingwood was never the gilded youth, never the great white hope. He's just a solid bloke, who tries his best. Who prizes his wicket. Who plays with pride but not vanity.
Naturally, his is always the first vulnerable name when things need freshening up.
If only we had 11 of the buggers.
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