Thursday, September 14, 2006

The five reasons why Barcelona is the best team in the world right now

1) Luck
Four years ago, Barcelona was a middle-of-the-road team in Spain. They looked terrible, and the results weren't much better. Their starting line-up boasted a mediocre Patrick Kluivert, an over-the-hill Marc Overmars, a poor Tiago Motta, and a host of other underwhelming players. The team was once called by coach Louis Van Gaal as "Puyol and diez mas." Puyol and ten other guys. They placed sixth in La Liga only by closing out the season on a four game winning streak, the only one of their season. The club was in shambles, and president Joan Gaspart resigned in shame more than a year before his term ended.

In June of 2003, underdog candidate and soon Joan Laporta propelled himself to the top of the polls with a quick piece of chicanery. He was in second place early in the election, but he fed the ample news media a quick fix by telling them that he had agreed to terms with Manchester United to purchase David Beckham. It was true that he had agreed to terms with the club, but he had yet to speak with the man himself. Turns out that Beckham had no interest in serving as a chess piece in someone else's quest for power. He spurned Joan Laporta and chose Real Madrid instead. A few weeks later, as a consolation prize, Barcelona purchased Ronaldinho. Beckham's a good player, but he isn't the kind of a talent capable of turning around the fortunes of an entire team. With Beckham instead of Ronaldinho, Barcelona might still be struggling to qualify for the champions league, instead of favorites to repeat.

2) "The Frozen Pizza Theory of Team Chemistry"
ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons once compared a good sports team to a personally made frozen pizza. A great pizza requires great ingredients. A great sports team needs great players. They have to put them in the right positions. First comes the cheese and then the pepperoni. Ronaldinho doesn't play sweeper. This stuff is simple enough. But a soccer team, like a good frozen pizza, needs time to bake, and it also needs time to cool down. You can't just throw the ingredients together toss in the oven and expect it to taste great. And you can't just take it out of the over right away and eat it. It'll burn your mouth. Pizza and soccer teams need time to become truly great. Unfortunately, at the upper echelon of world club soccer, patience is in short supply.

Look at Real Madrid. The last five years have been a merry-go-round of coaches, players, and front-office men. Players never get time to acclimate, because whenever there is a string of bad results, players get benched, coaches get fired, and the process repeats itself. The problem with Real Madrid isn't the players, the coaches, or the front office. It's that there isn't continuity with players, coaches, or front office.

In January of 2004, Barcelona was middle of the league table in Frank Rijkaard's first season. The team struggled mightily to adjust to Rijkaard's system, and the host of new personnel they brought in, including Ronaldinho. There was discussion in the front office of firing Rijkaard and finding another coach. Cooler heads prevailed, and Barcelona went on a rampage the second half of the season. They've been the best team in the world since.

I'm of the opinion that if Rijkaard had been fired, none of this would have happened. Spanish club teams are notorious for firing their coaches, and the itch to bring in new "fichajes" is overwhelming.

Last year, Barcelona acquired new major signings of note, and they won the champions league. This year, they acquired a few new players, but only players they were confident would not affect team chemistry. This is a model other teams would do well to follow.

3) Rijkaard

Frank Rijkaard is the Phil Jackson of European soccer. Both were good professional players (Rijkaard was excellent) who became coaches relatively young. Perhaps the greatest talent that both of them have is the way they manage stars and their unweildy egos. And when great teams are successful, egos just get bigger. The greatest obstacle to turning Barcelona into a dynasty is managing the egos to prevent a mutiny.

What's more, the recent performances of Puyol, Messi, Ronaldinho, and Eto'o with their respective national teams shows that Rijkaard has been able to get more miles per gallon out of his boys than his peers. His role in this ship.

4) Talent (duh)
Barcelona now has one two-time reigning golden ball winner (Ronaldinho), two year's silver ball winner (Deco), FIFA's current best young player winner (Messi), and last year's, UEFA's best striker of 2006 and the Bronze ball winner, and UEFA's best defender of 2006. They've got three more world cup champions in Zambrotta, Edmilson, and Thuram, they have the captain of Mexico's national team, and two of Spain's best four ball distributors in Xavi and Iniesta, and that's what the Spanish do best. What's more, they're all signed to long-term contracts.

5) Success breeds success
When you're the best team in the world, players are willing to come play for you for less money. Four years ago, players spurned Barcelona to play for Madrid. Now it's the other way around. Barcelona is the team that players want to get a call from. Barcelona, for the last two years, has been the Harvard of soccer. People do a double-take when they hear your name associated with it. It means you're at the best, and that you've been trained by the best, and by association, you're one of the best. That's not always true, but that's what people think. If you get a call from Barcelona, that vindicates you as a great player.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

El Once Ideal

So what's Barcelona's best possible line-up? What's the best way to get the most out of the rich, fertile crop of talent on our roster?

Eto'o
Ronaldinho, Deco and Messi
Marquez and Xavi
Sylvinho, Puyol, Thuram, and Zambrotta

I never could understand why every coach from Van Gaal to Rexach to Rijkaard has liked Thiago Motta. He should have been shipped off to Middlesbrough with Fabio Rochemback. He must have all the character of Mother Theresa, because every coach seems to adore him. This incredible character masks the incredible lack of talent he displays every time he shows up on the pitch. If given the chance, he might be the first player in the history of La Liga to earn a yellow or red card in every game he plays for an entire season. 32 yellow cards, is that the maxim? Go for the record, Thiago.

He makes late, bad tackles worthy of a defensive midfielder for the American national team. Ick.

As a noble substitute, we could play Marquez in the defensive midfield. Marquez is better in every aspect of the game, with the possible exception of hair quality. Then we could find room for Thuram, a player that's far too good right now to be on the bench. He's both fast and strong in the air, the one area where Barcelona is decidedly weak. Sure would be nice to have him out there.

The last two games, Barcelona's defense has looked suspect. Put Thuram back there and things will get better, I promise.

Disagree? Email me.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

So what's a 'cule'?

'Cule' is the Catalan word for an ass. Not as in donkey, but as in the rump in "rumpshaker". More important to this site, it's also used to denote fans of FC Barcelona. There's an accent on the 'e', but I don't bother with that on this site. If we're being technical, I believe it's actually supposed to be culer in Catalan. In Catalan, words that end in 'er' have an accent on the second syllable.

I believe the origin of the word comes from the time when Barcelona's stadium was in Les Corts, which is about a mile or so south of where it is now, the Camp Nou. Back then, the stadium was open ended, so people walking by on the street could see the fans from behind. Those walking on the street thus had a view of thousands of asses. Thousands of culers. At some point, culers was used to refer to fans of the team in general. Thus, the term 'cule,' which is the same term in Spanish spelling. I use the Spanish spelling on this site to prevent Americans from thinking that Barcelona fans refer to themselves as "coolers."

So grab a cold one and enjoy the site, folks!

Barcelona, Eto'o and Ego

All "Cules" were delighted to see that Barcelona demolished Espanyol "sin despeinarse" (without messing up their hair) to win their 7th Spanish Supercopa on Sunday. I was only able to listen to the game on Radio Catalunya, as it was not televised on any station I had, but it didn't sound as if Espanyol ever threatened to do much of anything. Barcelona controlled the game completely, and Deco and Messi played to their potential. All good signs.

Unfortunately, much hubbub ensued when Samuel Eto'o was substituted in the second half for Eidur Gudjohnsen. The game and playoff were over, and there was no drama left to be resolved. Frank Rijkaard decided to substitute Eto'o and give one of the new guys a chance to get used to his new surrounding. Eto'o took his ball and went home. Actually, I'm not sure what he did with his ball, but he definitely went home. Literally.

In my opinion, with Barcelona's talent level, the only team that can prevent them from being the dominant force in European soccer for the next five years is Barcelona. This kind of meltdown is exactly the kind of crap that Barcelona does not need. I mean, it's one thing to freak out when you lose your starting job, but to freak out when you've been substituted in the second half of a game that's already been fully resolved? A response completely lacking in proportion. And a worrisome sign for things to come. This kind of crap is the only thing that can keep Barcelona from being an absolute joy to watch this year.

It'll be interesting to see how the crowd reacts to him today in the annual Joan Gamper (Barcelona's founder) exhibition game against Bayern Munich.

In other news, Joan Laporta was re-elected as Barcelona president, because the other candidates couldn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot. Thank God that drama is over. Now, the Barcelona fan who wanted to see Laporta punished for his arrogance will receive another four-year mandate without so much as an election to show for it. Serves him right.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The case for Javier Saviola

On Wednesday, Javier Saviola was probably the man of the match for FC Barcelona in their comeback draw against Club America in Houston. This is noteworthy most because Barcelona are doing everything in their power to get rid of Saviola. He's been on loan for three years now, and now that his teams he was on loan for don't want him, he's been playing for Barcelona, who don't want him.

I'm not sure why. He played well in the world cup. He's always played reasonably well for Barcelona. He's always sacrificed himself for the club. He's always played his heart out. And he seems like a great guy, from every interview I've ever seeen.

Admittedly, he wasn't worth the 50 million dollars Barcelona have already dumped on him, but that doesn't mean he isn't a decent striker. He's in the last year of his contract, and he will be gone next year. Barcelona doesn't have too much depth at striker, with only Gudjohnsen and Eto'o playing that position. If either of those two players get injured, it would be good to have Saviola around. I don't think you can justify selling him for 5 million euros. As Saviola showed, he can be provide punch off the bench.

Even more importantly, Saviola has a chip on his shoulder. He's still got something to prove. Ronaldinho, Eto'o, and Messi don't. The world already recognizes their talent. Having a striker coming off the bench with a wounded ego and a fire in his belly is exactly what this Barcelona needs. Saviola is not complacent right now, which makes him the perfect addition to the squad. Best of all, he's already there.

Chelsea, the new Real Madrid?

At first sniff, it would seem that the new additions to Chelsea's warehouse of talent makes a great team nearly unbeatable. The news of the addtion Andriy Shevchenko, in particular, is a terrifying prospect for all rivals. He's been such a potent striker for Milan over the years, and Chelsea's had so much scoring power before his arrival, it's scary to think how good they could be now.

I remember thinking the exact same thing, though, when I heard about the arrival of Ronaldo to Real Madrid. The first thought that came into my head was that Madrid was going to score five goals a game. Heck, if you add up the scoring totals of all the players on the team, that's what would result. But alas, that's not really the way these things work. Team chemistry, work rate, egos, and the ability to good players to mesh well together factor more strongly into the success of a team than the power power of the players. Buy stars and ask questions later can have disastrous results, as we've seen over in Spain's capital.

So does the NY Yankees approach to making a team make sense in soccer?

I think it could, but only if there's a core of superstars that hold the team together. Ever since Real Madrid became the galacticos, Raul started suffering from penis envy from his teammates, and has lost his place as the team's superstar. After the world cup in 2002, and the arrival of Ronaldo, he's been non-existent. Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, Robinho and company are all mercenaries. They'll come out for the big dances, but they're not going to strain themselves against the Osasunas and Getafes of the world. Back in 2003 and 2004, Madrid won most of the big games (with the exception of back to back Champions League eliminations at the hands of an excellent Juventus team), but lost a lot of games to the little guys. Back in last '90s, the more heavily Spanish Real Madrid side hammered the Spanish minnows. This was no longer the case. And the Spanish league smelled blood. Soon, every team felt they had a shot against Real Madrid, and they did. Because they weren't able to pull off the Champions League title, they stopped winning titles altogether. When they didn't win titles, coaches lost jobs, and instability has reigned ever since.

The new look Chelsea is gunning for Barcelona and company and a champions league title. They've shown that they are dominant in the Premiership. Nobody questions that. Will they be able to stay motivated for a long Premiership season? If they can pull off a successful Champions League campaign, it won't matter. But with the elimination format of the Champions League, it is nearly impossible to predict or guage success in Europe. And it's hard to imagine the Shevchenko's and Ballacks of the world getting too motivated to play hard game in and game out. Plus, Lampard had a terrible world cup. Will he be the same player for Chelski?

Also, Ballack and Lampard are two players who have nearly identical characteristics. I'm not certain what Mourinho will do with the two of them together. Who will be his front six? Makelele, Lampard, Ballack, Cole, Drogba, and Shevchenko? With the exception of Cole, all of these players are straight up the middle kinds of guys. There could be some serious clogging in the center.

(Speaking of which, American commentators love to compare European soccer teams to the Yankees. This analogy is overused. Paris Hilton overused. MC Hammer circa 1991 overused. For once, I'd like to hear someone compare a team to the Patriots or Cowboys or USC or Duke or the Celtics or the Lakers. But no, always the f***ing Yankees. Most recently, I heard the fine commentators at FSC describing Chelsea as the English equivalent of the Yankees. First of all, Chelsea has a grand tradition of being the 7th or 8th best team in the premiership. How does that make them the Yankees? They've won a whopping total of 3 Premier League titles, and 0 Champions League titles. Manchester United can be considered the Yankees of England. Madrid can be called the Yankees of Europe. But Chelsea? Only the Yankees of the last three years.)

March of the young Catalans to England, part II

I posted an article about the disappointing March of young Catalans away from Barcelona to English clubs. Then, the next day I read an article about the promising development of Fran Merida, 16-year-old Catalan wunderkind, for FC Arsenal's youth team. Perhaps it's worse that even I had predicted.

Dissent among the ranks

The current political muck traversing FC Barcelona is a perfect example of the worst of Catalan culture. I forget the exact quote, but approximately one week ago, Oleguer Presas said that he was saddened by "cules" capacity for self-destruction. As a defender, Oleguer might not always be the best, but he could not have summarized the situation any better.

For those of you not familiar with the details, a Barcelona shareholder filed suit a couple of weeks ago claiming the Barcelona president Joan Laporta had exceeded his stay as Barcelona presidents. Presidents have four-year terms, and Laporta took charge of the organization two years ago. But he did so 9 days before the official end of the previous president's term had ended. I was still living in Barcelona when this happened, and Barcelona was an absolute mess. The early part of the decade were some of the worst years in the history of the club. So instead of having presided over three years at the club, the court ruled that he had presided over four.

Joan Laporta took the reigns early to kick-start negotiations with PSG for well-esteemed young Brazilian named Ronaldinho. Laporta signed Ronaldinho, and the rest is history. Barcelona has morphed from a team that struggled to qualify for the UEFA cup to the Champions League holders. But has he been rewarded for his efforts?

But things are never so simple in Barcelona. The Catalan capacity for self-destruction rears its ugly head. The inexplicable penchant for naming something an "ista" and splitting into factions has reappeared.

Personally, I have no idea what kind of man Joan Laporta is behind closed doors. He could be Satan incarnate. He could take baby seals and chop them up into little bits. I don't care. I agree with nearly every personnel decision he has made. Therefore, it doesn't matter if he chops up baby seals. All this political crap is absurd. If Laporta is unseeded as President during the one of the most glorious moments in club history, well, I don't know what to say. The Barcelona socios that vote him out will deserve what they get.

The funny thing is, to an outsider, this strikes me as the exact same tendency that Orwell railed against in the Homage to Catalonia. Social issues, passion, idealism ... all crushed by an inability to come to agreement when it matters most. Tragic.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

March of the young Catalans to England?

For those of you who have never lived in Barcelona, there are two daily sports papers dedicated exclusively to covering every crumb of possible information pertaining to FC Barcelona. They're called Sport and El Mundo Deportivo ( www.sport.es and www.elmundodeportivo.es). The articles are terrible and the commentary is worse, but they're good sources of general information for those of you who obsess over the club as I do.

It boggles the mind how they produce enough content for a daily newspaper, even during the months when Barcelona is not playing. But they do, recycling the same articles and rumors over, over, and over again.

Yet they still miss many of the noteworthy stories about the team.

Despite the heavy press attention, there's one topic I've not heard discussed much. There has been a march of good Catalan talent away from the club. According to most everyone, the two best young Catalan players are Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas. But they are not playing for Barcelona. Pique's rights are owned by ManU (he's now on loan to Zaragoza) and Cesc, of course, plays for Arsenal.

How is it possible that the two best young Catalan players belong to the English? As is typical, both players were developing well in the Barcelona system. Then, when it came time to renegotiate contracts, they were lost to ManU and Arsenal respectively.

I find this a little shocking. With the current level of play, it has become increasingly difficult for local players to make it on the first team. Of those who do, only a few (Xavi, Puyol) probably have the talent to play for Barcelona were it not for their local roots. If they weren't Catalan, Oleguer and Valdes probably would not be playing for FC Barcelona. Valdes is probably the fourth or fifth best Spanish keeper. Oleguer is a solid mid-level defender in La Liga. When he reaches the upper echelon of the Champions league, however, it is clear he is not quite up to snuff.

With Xavi and Puyol progressing in age, there is some question of who will be the next Catalan players to fill in the void. The only problem is, the two most suited for the job are playing in England right now. In general, I am a huge fan of Joan Laporta, and think he has done an excellent job with the team. In my opinion, however, this has been his greatest failure. When the two best young Catalan players are playing in England, Barcelona may see a future where it has one of three options: 1) Play a team without Catalan players; 2) Play with a couple of Catalan players who are clearly not at the same level as the rest of the team; 3) Attempt to buy back Cesc and Pique at a 1000% premium five years down the road.

None of these options is particularly appealing. The first is hard to imagine. Barcelona is a symbol of Catalunya, and it's hard to imagine a Barcelona without Catalans. If the club opts for the second, then it runs the risk of destroying the quality of the club. Part of the attraction for superstars to come to Barcelona is that they play with the best. The attraction is not to play with half great players and half Catalan "Pavones." The third option seems the most likely, the only problem is, they may not be able to do it even if they want to. After bad negotiations that led to their depature in the first place, who knows if they want to come back? And if they come back, they're going to be as expensive as anyone in the world. It's depressing to think that Barcelona may have to fork over $40 million to buy back a player who was once a part the cantera, but that may be their only good option.

Comments? Email me!

Will Barca 2006-7 be better than Barca 2005-2006?

In terms of success, they probably won't.

It's hard to imagine a better year than 2005-2006 for futbol club Barcelona. In the last ten years, only three teams have won European and Domestic leagues in the same season: Porto (2003), Bayern Munich (2001), and Manchester United (1999). No Spanish team has done it since Barcelona won in 1992.

The German and Portuguese leagues are hardly as competitive as the Spanish. Mourinho did amazing things with Porto, but they didn't have to compete every week against the likes of Valencia, Real Madrid, et al to bring home the domestic title. What's more, they only had to beat Deportivo and Monaco win the Champions League. Only the 1999 Manchester United run can compare with last year's Barcelona triumph.

In terms of pure power, Barca's even better than last year. Zambrotta will likely take the spot of Oleguer in the starting eleven. If you watched matches against Arsenal and Chelsea last year, both English sides exploited Oleguer mercilessly. There will be no such exploitation of Zambrotta. Thuram might have been the player of the world cup. Zidane had two great games against Spain and Brazil, but Thuram was dominant throughout. If he can produce anywhere near the level he did in the last world cup, he'll be a huge addition, freeing Marquez up to play as a defensive midfielder, and providing further depth in the back at every position. Now, Barcelona can afford to lose a player or two to injury at every position and not miss a beat.

The only exception might be center forward. After Eto'o, there isn't the same power up front. Messi, Giuly, Ronaldinho, Gudjohnsen -- none is a pure center forward. If Eto'o gets hurt or struggles, Barcelona does not have a back-up at his level.

Emotionally, it's almost impossible to maintain motivation when the only thing you have to aim for is further dominance. All year, other teams will come at Barcelona hard. After seeing some mediocre performances from the stars in the world cup, other teams might be smelling blood.

The talent is there, in spades. The question is whether Barcelona can sustain the energy level sufficient to repeat as either Spanish League or European Champions. It is no small task. If they do, Frank Rijkaard deserves to be considered among the elite coaches in the world.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Welcome to USA Cule

This is the first post of USA Cule, the first English language site or blog (at least as far as I've seen) dedicated exclusively to coverage and discussions of all things related to the Futbol Club Barcelona.

Barcelona is the reigning Spanish League and European Club Champions. Most would agree that they're the best club team in the world. The club's motto is "Mes que un club," which is Catalan for "More than a club." The motto is a reflection of the complex socio-political factors that always seem to run concurrently with the club. Catalan Nationalism, liberalism, and anti-facism are just a few of the many deep and power issues that find their expression in this one soccer team.

At the end of the day, though, it's all about the soccer, and Barcelona has been known to play the most beautiful, exhilirating soccer in the world. Ronaldinho, Leo Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Deco, Xavi, Puyol, Zambrotta, Marquez, the talent pool is rich and deep.