This is the introduction of an essay I wrote that would later become the piece published in Paste Magazine last month (which I’m quite proud of, by the way). It’s more or less a festschrift on the Pep Guardiola era of FC Barcelona.
While I was pitching the piece to editors, this section was called “artsy faff” that is “largely meaningless to anyone not intimately familiar with soccer, but is also so flowery that it becomes nearly impenetrable.” That’s actually useful criticism, but I like to use every part of the hog, even the parts left on the cutting room floor. I blame Brian Phillips.
Sportswriter Sid Lowe once asked Catalan midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who plays for Spain and F.C. Barcelona, how he deals with defenders. Xavi replied:
Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. It’s like being on the PlayStation.
Xavi’s response seems obvious: passing the ball is fundamental to soccer. But it’s also the teleological apex for Xavi, the Barcelona team he captains, and the recently-ascendant tiki-taka style he champions. That’s what I do, he says — not only now, but always.
But it’s the comparison to the PlayStation that makes Xavi’s explanation so apt. To wit, F.C. Barcelona plays the way people play FIFA — omnisciently.
In a profound way, Barcelona has styled itself as an ideology, a culture: més que un club, or so their slogan goes. And if Barça is more than a club, then Xavi, too, is more than himself. When he steps onto Camp Nou in his blaugrana, he becomes a Midfielder, whose job it is to Pass the Ball. And when I play FIFA, I cease to be an aimless twenty-something and become, well, Xavi.
People who haven’t played don’t always realise … That sport, like gaming, is an act of personal sublimation, of affixing oneself onto a reasonable facsimile.
Xavi’s willingness to define himself as an action — That’s what I do: look for spaces — lies at the heart of Barça’s signature tiki-taka style. This style — programmed into him by La Masia, the footballing equivalent of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters — runs contrary to the ubiquitous media narratives of soccer: “grit,” “heart,” “passion,” and “patriotism” are replaced by a Borg-like strategy that favors collectivism over individual talent, geometry over genius.
All sports teams carry with them their own ratio of tactical prowess to piss and vinegar, but Barça, heavily weighted toward the former, has dominated Europe for years — they have been winning Champions Leagues and UEFA Super Cups, as well as La Liga trophies and Copas del Rey, in scads since the mid-aughts.
Barça’s game is precise and surgical, a complex web of triangles, timing, diagonal lines, and calculus — a series of short, quick passes. Tiki-taka has more in common with a Rube Goldberg machine — or perhaps a game of chess, in which each move is simply one node of an infinitely permutable plan — than it does the freewheeling samba of Brazil or the wall-storming and barn-burning of the English Premiership.
Calling Barcelona “systematic” or “mechanical” makes them sound stiff; axiomatic may be the better word. Tiki-taka is onomotopoetic: hundreds of short, perfectly timed passes. Tiki-taka, like a metronome.
So when Xavi says that playing soccer is like being on PlayStation, he’s not being figurative — he sees the game as a series of systems to be exploited, an algorithm to be carried to its logical conclusion.
It’s soccer, gamified. It’s like being on the PlayStation.
Image via Jez92’s deviantart page