Apparently, there was a soccer match last week in which something happened that had never, ever happened before: some players kicked, faked, dived, cheated and abused each other and the referee. This was an entirely unprecedented event. You would certainly think so from the fallout from the game.
In part, that is natural enough -- a consequence of the huge amount of attention that surrounds this match, the sheer enormity of it all. In media terms, there may never have been a bigger match. Everything is echoed and exaggerated, for good and bad. It's part of the irreconcilable division between these two sides, at media and fan level, about the way in which the clásico is presented as a battle between good and bad, light and dark.
It is also a consequence of the expectation. These are the biggest clubs in the world with the two best players in the world, fighting it out for a Champions League final place and as part of a unique run of four games in little over 15 days. It was supposed to be beautiful, instead it has been largely beastly. Even Leo Messi's wonderful goal was not sufficient to prevent the "other" aspects of the clash (and "clash" is the word) taking center stage.
The sense of disappointment has increased the feeling of disgust. And, make no mistake, it has been pretty ugly, too -- an unedifying sight.
But, the thing is, that happens; what has come next doesn't. Players dive, Real Madrid players among them. Players kick and foul, Barcelona players among them. The tension and the pressure are intense; things get out of hand. From the comfortable position of your sofa, or your high horse, it is easy to be sanctimonious. Easier yet to appeal, Helen Lovejoy-style, for someone to please think of the children.
When you do, you run the risk of holding unrealistic expectations about human behavior and loading the players, and indeed coaches, with an additional significance and responsibility that they neither want nor should be given. Tactical decisions become ethical ones and context is removed. Worse, that desire is played out within a moral framework that dictated by the color of the shirt as much as the act itself.
This time it feels like apocalypse. Even more than before, it has been built up in the media as a war, a battle for something eternal. And in doing so, it adds fuel to the fire, creating an atmosphere that serves to escalate the tension. There is a false sensibility that impregnates the discourse: They're winding it up in Barcelona. They're winding up in Madrid. They showed a lack of respect. They insulted us. You started it. No, you did.
One of the things that most annoys players from Barcelona and Madrid is the assumption that the media represents them. Ask Madrid players privately what they think of Marca and AS; ask the Barcelona players what they think of El Mundo Deportivo and Sport, and the response will be largely the same. And not exactly complimentary. Johan Cruyff famously used to complain about the "entorno" -- the surroundings at Barcelona, from self-interest to politics and, especially, the noise of the media and everything that creates, the environment and atmosphere.
When in Barcelona they complain that "Real Madrid" have said this or that, normally what they mean is that the pro-Real Madrid press have said it. When in Madrid they say that Barcelona are winding it up or whinging, once you strip away the nonsense, it is normally the media they are talking about.
Up to a point, that is understandable. Few clubs live their lives out through the media like Madrid and Barcelona. The newspapers that follow them like to think of themselves as part of the club; reveling in their role as confidants and king makers. Both clubs leak strategically and trade favors. Often, the relationship is very close indeed. The problem is the assumption that every piece of news has some Maquiavelian root, that they always represent their clubs. Or even that they often do.
The difference this time is that the fall out has come from the clubs; that the off-field drama has been fueled from within the Bernabéu, especially, but also the Camp Nou. This time is bigger than before, it is different. The reaction this time -- with accusations and counter-accusations coming from the clubs themselves -- makes it feel like something truly unique happened in the game. That it was something far, far more serious than an ugly soccer game. Behavior has been denounced as if it is behavior we have never seen before.
What really makes this different is not so much what happened as what it has been taken to mean, what the reaction to it has been. And where that reaction has some from. What's different is that atmosphere, already part of the strategy for Mourinho, has been altered by the coaches and their actions off the pitch. And, now, by the clubs -- the institutions. The game was ugly, sure. This is uglier.
Players get wound up, coaches too. Presidents and boards of directors, on the face of it, should not. They have the time to take measured decisions, to think carefully about the consequences of their actions, the power they wield and responsibility they hold. They know better than anyone how many fans they have. Self-interested filtering of news is one thing; this time it is a step again. Like a political campaign, it is getting dirty.
Mourinho attacked Barcelona, implying that it had not won a clean Champions League under Pep Guardiola and that UEFA is helping Barcelona to reach the final. UEFA opened an investigation -- not just on Mourinho's comments but on the events of the match itself. Still, Barcelona felt the need to denounce Mourinho to UEFA, making a formal complaint. Rather than distance itself from Mourinho's remarks -- remarks that constitute a very serious allegation -- Madrid defended him. And denounced Barcelona back, talking about a "premeditated plan of anti-sporting behavior" and taking the unprecedented step of appealing for a ban for eight Barcelona players for what had happened on the pitch. An appeal that UEFA ignored.
This time it really was the clubs. There was a time when there was talk about manners and dignity; about being gentlemen. It appears that is forgotten now. It has become petty and childish. And potentially dangerous. You started it. No, you did. Who is going to end it? And where is it going to end?
Real Madrid produced a video complaining about the behavior of the Barcelona players, following similar lines to Madrid's complaint to UEFA. It called Barcelona's players cheats and, in super-slow motion, "proved" that Alves had not been touched, offering repeats of the Barcelona players' acting performances -- zooming in on the theatrical tumbles of Busquets and Pedro.
A subsequent video noted that the referee was one of the five that Mourinho had named as aiding Barcelona -- the man who sent off Thiago Motta in last year's "controversial" semifinal. The footage, going backward and forwards in slow motion, showed Sergio Busquets peeking through his hands. It also called Barcelona's players "specialists in acting" and showed Busquets allegedly calling Marcelo a "monkey" in last Wednesday's game. (A charge, by the way, that genuinely is a serious one).
"We have to hope that the ref does not fall into the trap of the anti-sporting behavior of the Barcelona players," the video said. And then it added that it wanted the game to fulfill the UEFA aim of "respect and fair play." Although Barcelona did not formally denounce Madrid's actions, its response was a motivational video that -- and it was no coincidence -- opened with some of Madrid's worse "tackles" over the last few days, with the stamps and the crunching challenges. They started it. they're the bad guys. No, they are. Respect? Fair play? And responsibility?
Before tomorrow's game, the directors of each club will meet for lunch. It's reached the point where it would not be that much of a surprise if someone slipped something nasty into the meal, a little food poisoning to lay them low for a few days or so. It might not be such a bad thing, either.