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.