Also file under: Helping explain why FC Barcelona is so freaking good
I watched FC Barcelona in the wee smalls on Sunday, mesmerized as always by the side’s peerless ability to hold possession and work nimbly out of pressure, as Pep Guardiola’s men operated with ruthless efficiency in Asia. It took me back a couple of weeks to my trip into that stylish and splendid Catalan city.
Just after sunset, my girlfriend and I sat in a coffee shop not far from Barcelona’s main port. We had just finished late lunch (It’s Spain, you know) at a charming nearby spot recommended by locals and were en route to the Christmas market in town.
Since I love coffee, and because I love soccer, my girlfriend was hardly surprised when I wanted to stop at a small coffee spot, where a pickup game was going on just outside. (Yes, for me, watching a quality pickup game with my girl in Barcelona while sipping a strong cup of Mediterranean go juice is perfectly fullfilling. It is what it is, I suppose.)
There was no field, just the hard top of a small city square. A small building served as a goal on one side, a bit of playground equipment as the goal across the plaza. The "goals" were set diagonally across the square, so the field was more of a parallelogram. I think. No out of bounds. No goalies. Just a bunch of 10-12 year olds, by the looks of it, enjoying what was probably a nightly kick-around.
Here’s what struck me: This was so much different than a similar set-up we might see in the United States.
Never mind that it might not even happen here; some adult would want to organize the action into leagues, or some other killjoy would have fretted about broken windows or wounded passers by or whatever. Yeah. Never mind all that.
The actual soccer itself was different. Quite so.
See, these boys from Barcelona, even as relative wee lads, clearly thought differently about the game, about the methodology of the process.
In our country, this would always be about scoring. It’s always about territory and "taking ground." It’s about getting the ball the heck out of Dodge. "Anywhere but here!" That kind of thing. After all, "they" can’t score if "we" get the ball into their end, right? It’s always about the end result. Goals equal wins, and it’s got to be about the win, right?
You only needed to study this kick-around on an empty market square, on a chilly Barca night, to understand that their game is different. Their way of thinking about the game is world apart.
What these boys – again, just 10-, 11-, and 12-years-old – wanted to do was keep the ball.
Just like the Catalan giants, their heroes, the Blaugrana, they cherish possession. In all honesty, nobody looked too concerned with moving down the field. They relished keeping the ball, attaching it with a certain joy to their smallish feet, then retaining it with subtle little touches before moving it along to the next guy, whom they surely trusted to do the same.
It’s really such a different mindset about the way to approach and manage the technical aspects. Since it’s never about whacking the ball out of a certain area, the spacing and the way they think about movement off the ball is considered in a very different way. So is the first touch, which is usually thoughtful, arranged by quick movement of the feet rather than large steps of aggression. Mostly, the distinction is about that awareness of space and the constant desire to create more of it, wherever they are on the "field."
Of course, it helps that they were all fairly technically proficient. Young as they were, they seemed to have a good command of the game’s technical aspects.
That’s probably no accident. If you play games every night, obsessed with emulating your heroes, the game’s very masters at hoarding possession, you’re bound to develop some silky skills of your own.
I went to the Nou Camp the next night to see Barcelona, but 20 minutes spent watching a bunch of anonymous kids is every bit an equally cherished memory.