A hotel named after a king, fit for a king José Mourinho will doubtlessly feel, as he checked-in to watch this season’s fifth El Clásico from the Hotel Rey Juan Carlos on security advice, but security could just have easily been called to deal with a Keith Moon-esque disturbance. Again the blood-boiling histrionics and gamesmanship of FC Barcelona were showcased brazenly and with particular panache by Javier Mascherano, who the US SEAL’s will receive offers to eliminate once they return from their Pakistan jaunt.
It was maddening enough for a neutral to watch the prolonged agony feigning theatrics of Sergio Busquets, the simulation conducted by Carles Puyol, Mascherano and, whisper it, Lionel Messi, so Mourinho should be excused if he did throw the television into the swimming pool. Bumping into West Ham United’s combative legend Billy Bonds at Bluewater last week, I asked him briefly on what he thought of the first leg, which he said made him “fucking sick”. Of course, this Real Madrid side are not exempt from the unsavoury aspects of football, but their relish for a physical duel has the impressionable pundits effectively labelling them as the Beast to Barcelona’s Beauty.
Jeff Stelling threw a friendly barb Mourinho’s way when at half-time he suggested he may be gorging on a Toblerone and swigging from mini bar sized bottles. Taking a bigger plate to comfort eat may also have been apt, because another referee penalised a Mourinho side without a smidgeon of dishonour. Ever since Uefa referees’ committee chairman Volker Roth branded Mourinho an “enemy of football” for his critique of referee Anders Frisk in 2005, his sides have borne the brunt of some perplexing decisions. A year after the Frisk furore, Asier Del Horno was sent off at Stamford Bridge for colliding with Messi, when both should have been booked for their ensuing theatrics. Then last season, a real enemy of football, Busquets, faked pain to ensure that Thiago Motta was sent off to give Barça a man advantage against Internazionale. This was compounded by Pepe’s unfortunate dismissal at the hands of more simulation by Dani Alves last week, yet the shameful butchery of Barça’s ethos is being glossed over and ignored by the media and pundits.
The usually thorough Graeme Souness displayed a level of sycophancy towards the Catalans that was unfathomable considering his sheer intolerance for play-acting as a player, while the tedious and frankly biased droning of Alan Smith would make the most partisan supporter passable in a broadsheet paper, considering he is one of this country’s football writers. Smith embodied a patent problem whereby people are too eager to laud Pep Guardiola’s brilliant side for their aesthetic beauty and cannot bear to condemn facets of their game that are anti-football. It spoke volumes that Eidur Gudjohnsen, an ex-Barcelona player, was ironically the sole pundit on Sky’s coverage chastising them for their dramatics.
Twice last night the Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckre prevented a goal-scoring opportunity or a goal in Madrid’s favour. He spotted a phantom foul on Puyol by Angel Di María in the first half and in the second period penalised Cristiano Ronaldo for colliding into Mascherano, completely accidentally, which certified that Gonzalo Higuaín’s goal was disallowed. Mascherano clutched his leg as if it was dangling limply on a couple of occasions and executed a shameless dive under a Xabi Alonso challenge, yet analysts focused on Ricardo Carvalho not being sent off in the first half. Carvalho was reckless but his third foul showed no contact on Messi, yet we can’t have the world’s greatest player being put in harm’s way can we?
Ronaldo started to laugh in the face of suspicious officiating, yet members of the British press still lamented Madrid’s assistant coach Aitor Karanka complaining about De Bleeckre in the post-match press conference, ostensibly oblivious to what had taken place before them. Suddenly what is emerging is an agenda with whatever Mourinho has to say and what Madrid stand for. Xavi acutely informs the press how the nurturing mentality of Barcelona differs wildly from the incessant outlays that Madrid have made for over a decade, and he is gaining friends via his thinly veiled digs at Madrid’s hollow approach to yield success.
Indeed it may be a hollow approach, but Barcelona deserve just as much, if not more, flak because they are spoiling their success shamelessly. Mourinho made a valid point when he stated that favourable decisions pushed the blaugrana towards European Cup finals this year and against Chelsea in 2009, but their players are perpetuating the myth of tainted triumphs by embracing gamesmanship and cheating to gain advantages over opponents. And this is unlikely to abate when even their esteemed coach is prone to feeling sudden agony. Barcelona’s nimble and fleet-footed players evidently don’t relish the physicality which football entails, and their willingness to successfully demonstrate its ugliness when contact is minimal is working to their advantage. Alas in the other corner is a man so arrogantly brash that Catalan antics are but a mere footnote to the Special One’s front and back page spreads.