The ‘dark arts’ left such a bad taste in the mouth
At its best, and worst, sport holds up a mirror to the world around us. The immediacy of the action and the intensity on display tend to amplify both the memorable and the dreadful. So it was on Sunday night, as millions around the world, in dozens of different time zones, tuned in to watch a football match that has its own sobriquet – El Clasico.
The rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona goes far beyond the football pitch. For many years, during the reign of Generalissimo Franco, Real was seen as the team of the establishment.
Barcelona, at the heart of the movement for a Catalan state, was the outsider, the ‘rebel’ side that those suspicious and disillusioned with the Spanish nation could rally around.
On the field, the two have dominated Spain’s La Liga. Real leads the way with 32 titles, 10 more than its great rival. Outside Spain though, it took a long time for Barcelona to be seen as Real’s equal.
Real, after all, won the first five European Cups (1956-60). Barcelona didn’t win its first till 1992. This season, as Carlo Ancelotti’s Real goes in search of a tenth success [the Decima] in club football’s biggest competition, Barcelona is seeking its fifth.Sublime to farcical
Sunday’s match had everything, from the sublime to the farcical. There was Andres Iniesta’s Exocet-like finish for the opening goal. Real’s response included a couple of magnificent crosses from Angel di Maria, both of them converted by Karim Benzema. The second featured exceptional control and a volleyed finish worthy of the very best.
With Barcelona needing nothing less than a victory, it required an immense display from Lionel Messi. It got it too. With half time beckoning, his trickery, nimble footwork and presence of mind from Neymar brought Barcelona back on level terms. As a spectacle, you would have struggled to find a better or more entertaining half of football.
What followed was nowhere near as edifying. The second half featured three penalties, each of them controversial.Not good role models
Just how far should gamesmanship go? We’ve become almost blasé about players feigning injury and diving to win free kicks and penalties. Sadly, the millions of kids who grow up watching such games come to believe that such behaviour is acceptable, that cheating to give your team an advantage is fine.
Let’s not be confused by the semantics. Gamesmanship is cheating, pure and simple. It’s also hard to offer a response to football sceptics who see players toppling over like they’re matchstick men and question why it should be called the beautiful game.
The most wretched aspect of it all is that it’s often the very best players that are the worst culprits. There have been times in recent seasons when the likes of Ronaldo and Luis Suarez have dived so flagrantly that you were surprised not to see a swimming pool beneath them. It’s rarely the case that a manager or coach comes out and openly criticises one of his players for these antics.
El Clasico could have been the highlight of the football season. In so many ways, it was. Shame then that the ‘dark arts’ left such a bad taste in the mouth.
Dileep Premachandran is the Editor-in-Chief of Wisden India