Despair in Catalunya
Change afoot at Barcelona as natives bemoan another failure
REPORTING FROM BARCELONA
REAL MADRID 2
(Angel di Maria 10, Gareth Bale 85)
(Marc Bartra 68)
Perched atop the bar at Cheers in central Barcelona's La Rambla, Harry was all decked out in the colours of Barcelona, the No. 10 across his back.
"Don't worry, Messi will score," proclaimed the English boy, at half-time of yesterday morning's (Singapore time) Copa del Rey final, as Barcelona trailed Real Madrid 1-0.
"He will score three."
Messi is football's Neo, a maestro of the matrix in a Barcelona team of masters who for a long time have appeared untouchable.
But last night, that veil fell.
"It hurts. (There were) no ideas, no power and maybe no motivation," said Barcelona native Roger, thumping a fist to his heart. "(This) cannot be, we must fix (this), Barcelona must be strong again."
The Catalan side lost 2-1 to old rivals Real, with Argentina's Messi largely anonymous and his teammates bereft of ideas.
Barcelona's Spanish dominance is starting to fade, with Atletico Madrid and Real ahead in La Liga, seemingly having figured out how to nullify the Barcelona way.
Real proved that yesterday, as did Atletico, when they dumped the Catalan giants out in the Champions League quarter-finals.
A hush fell over Cheers at the final whistle, with a dejected Harry burying his head in his ipad.
The Catalans, unfortunately, have to live with what appears to be the new order in Spanish football, with their once-mighty team seemingly standing at the edge of the steep slope of decline.
Even in halting English, Roger's frustrations were obvious.
"After Pep (Guardiola, the former Barcelona coach) left, the team are not the same, maybe we must change, but Barcelona is Mes que une club (more than a club) and we must play the same, but better, stronger," he said.
Guardiola led Barcelona to a period of dominance, winning 14 trophies during his tenure from 2008 to 2012 with a fluid style of pass-and-move football that was as pleasing on the eye as it was effective.
But the lack of a Plan B has infuriated the fans.
"When teams defend like Madrid did (yesterday), the team have no other ideas," said Pedro Enrico, a local who frequents cafes near the Nou Camp.
"We keep doing the same thing, trying to pass through the middle, even when (opponents) have 10 players there. Now, when teams know that style can work against Barcelona, what do we do," he said, throwing his hands up.
After Guardiola's departure, Tito Vilanova took over, before health issues forcing him to step aside for Gerardo Martino.
Martino has come out in defence of the Barcelona way.
"Barça have a way of playing that is hard to modify. There are no long balls for a pure No. 9, we're a team that passes the ball, elaborate plays and when we aren't precise in finding space, the game becomes uncomfortable for us," said Martino after the loss.
He rallied his troops, saying: "We have the obligation to continue fighting (in the league) until the final moment."
Enrico called for new faces to strengthen the squad, but with Fifa having imposed a year-long transfer ban on the club, that will prove problematic, unless Barcelona's appeal prevails.
In Barcelona, the Copa del Rey was billed as mes que une final (more than a final), and they were perhaps right.
The sound of silence at the final whistle was ominous, perhaps a death knell for this Barcelona side.
Even as Harry waited to leave, the bartender removed the Barcelona flag hanging loosely outside his establishment and stuffed it behind the counter.
Martino would have preferred the flag to be left flying as a show of resolve, but perhaps patience in Catalunya has run dry.
The winds of change are blowing across the Nou Camp.
Vanquished, but unbowed
The youngsters were beaten every time they stepped out onto the pitch at the annexes of Barcelona's Mini Estadi, but the 24-strong squad from FCBEscola (FCBE) Singapore will return home with their eyes opened.
"It has been a good learning experience for the kids, who otherwise wouldn't have had a chance to play against teams from Europe," said Adrian Neo, who accompanied his son Thaddeus here.
"The standard of football has been an eye-opener. He now knows that to improve, he must play against bigger, better players."
Both teams from Singapore (ages 8 to 10 and 10 to 12) played six games each and lost all of them, but even in defeat, there were lessons to be learnt.
"Every father wants his kid to win, and losing has been difficult. But I've told Thaddeus that even if he loses, he must try his best, and lose with dignity - and I'm glad he and his teammates have done that," said Neo, 38.
Losing was tough on the players, but it was evident that their football dreams still burn strong.
Speaking to The New Paper as the two Singapore teams waited to tour Barcelona's Nou Camp, Chong Ang Chern, 12, said: "Losing was the toughest thing, especially in the first game that I remember clearly. We took the lead, then the opponents equalised and won with a last-minute goal - that was demoralising.
"I may not be good enough to play for teams like Barcelona and Manchester United, but I want to play for Singapore one day."
While both Ang Chern and nine-year-old Julian Tay pointed to the Nou Camp as one of the highlights of the trip, Sharon Gonzago, a parent, preferred the famed Barcelona academy, La Masia, where she came face to face with Barcelona goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto.
"That was something unexpected," she said, of meeting Pinto as he drove into the facility and stopped to sign autographs for the Singapore kids.
"I'm not a football fan and this trip has been a crash course for me. Football is like a religion to the locals and it is something I really appreciated."
Gonzago's son, Tyler Yap, has been inspired, after meeting Pinto and being out on the pitches here.
"It was amazing, I've never met a footballer before, but what I will remember most is playing," said the nine-year-old.
"Losing all the games was frustrating, but I will go back and train even harder."
FCBE only opened its doors in Singapore last September, and are on a steep learning curve, and their facilitators are looking forward to their charges taking back with them lessons from Barcelona.
But Neo has already witnessed improvement among the players.
"The boys were overawed in the first two games that they played, you could see that they were nervous. To be honest I was concerned if they were going to take this trip seriously," he said.
"But they definitely picked things up later, and even gave teams a run for their money.
"It has been an awesome experience all round: the football, seeing the Nou Camp, and just being here in the city of Barcelona. I'm glad my son has experienced this."
- Shamir Osman