Even if you can’t tell one European soccer club from another, it’s not difficult to see what’s exceptional about FC Barcelona. This team plays with a dizzying combination of talent and artistry that you don’t have to be a soccer snob to recognize.
But on Tuesday, as Barca takes on Madrid in the second leg of its UEFA Champions League semifinal, this superclub seems to be doing some serious and possibly lasting damage to its reputation. The problem stems from the comportment of its players lately, which falls into three distinct subcategories:
1) The sort of crying, whining and petulant foot-stomping one might expect from a toddler.
2) Frequent appeals to a righteous God to be spared persecution by infidel referees.
3) A tendency to react to any impact with opposing players by writhing around like Desdemona on her deathbed in the final act of Verdi’s Otello.
Referee Wolfgang Stark showing a yellow card during the match.
This crescendo of complaining, which dominated headlines across Europe last week after Barca’s 2-0 win over Madrid, seems to be part of a calculated campaign to get better calls—or to speed the process of getting opposing players tossed. Some observers say it has conveniently come at a time when Barca’s potent offense has slowed a bit and the team has become increasingly dependent on scoring from free kicks and set plays.
But what’s really surprising about this burst of histrionics is how well it seems to be working. Through 11 games in the Champions League this season, Barcelona has committed 127 fouls, or 11.6 a game, while its opponents have been called for a tournament-high 165 fouls, or 15 a game. In other words, Barcelona’s opponents are called for nearly four additional fouls per game, a disparity matched only by two other teams among the 32 in this year’s tournament.
Barcelona has also received just 12 bookings and one red card, compared with 27 bookings and three red cards for Real Madrid. Fellow semifinalist Manchester United, which also holds a 2-0 lead heading into the home leg of its match with the German club Schalke, has received fewer yellow cards than Barca. But Man U has been whistled for 145 fouls, which is significantly more than the 122 for its opponents. Madrid hasn’t fared much better: its players receive a card for roughly 21% of its fouls (compared with 16% for Barca).
Last week’s victory over Real Madrid was one of the most intensely officiated matches of the Champions League season. In a typical match of this kind this season, there would be about 29 fouls. This match pushed the total to a whopping 46. The total included five yellow cards and two reds—a tally that doesn’t include the ejection of Madrid coach Jose Mourinho.
The turning point came 61 minutes into the game, when official Wolfgang Stark tossed Madrid’s defensive midfielder Pepe for what was deemed a hard foul on Barca’s Daniel Alves. As Alves writhed in pain on the ground, video replay showed Pepe barely touched him—but that didn’t stop Barca’s players from swarming Stark to demand that he send off Pepe, who is now suspended for the second leg of the semifinal in Barcelona.
After the game, Madrid coach Mourinho said UEFA, the organization that oversees European soccer, aided Barca’s win. The team asked UEFA to sanction Alves and two other Barca players for faking injuries. (On Monday, UEFA cleared the Barca players and upheld Mourinho’s and Pepe’s suspension.)
It’s hardly novel to point out that flopping, diving and pressuring officials have long been an integral part of the culture of the world’s favorite sport. Besides, the rhythmic passing of Barca’s dizzying attack encourages opponents to use every possible strategy, including physical play, to disrupt Barca’s seemingly effortless flow.
But Barca may be the first team to employ this strategy so effectively that it could win a European club championship. “It’s this attitude of ‘We’re the best in the world, so how dare you take us on,’ ” said Giorgio Chinaglia, the former Italian star whose country for years set the standard for on-field theatrics. “Alves is the one who should have been sent off. You’re a professional soccer player. What are you doing going down like that?”
Harry Redknapp, the coach of Tottenham Hotspur, the London club that made it to the quarterfinal, said Barcelona’s theatrics and its habit of mobbing the referee with a posse of players waving imaginary cards and exaggerating the impact of tackles, has grown tiresome. “Every time a decision was made, there were 10 players around the referee trying to get someone sent off,” Redknapp said of last week’s match against Madrid. “It’s not the way you play football.”
A spokesman for Barcelona did not respond to a requests for comment Monday. After last week’s Madrid match, Barca defender Gerard Pique said his team deserved to win. “We were the only team that wants to play football.” UEFA is considering a rule that would prohibit any player from coming within five yards of an official.
Barca is hardly the first side to try to employ its acting skills for an advantage. Some say the Italians invented diving, and they certainly turned the practice into a fine art in the 1960s and ’70s. But the biggest conmen in modern times may be the West Germany team at the 1990 World Cup, when Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler took the art of tumbling to new lows.
In seven games at the tournament, Germany’s opponents received 17 yellow cards and four red cards—including two in the final, when Argentina was reduced to nine men. The only goal in that game came in the 85th minute when Edgardo Codesal, the Mexican referee, awarded a penalty when Völler went down in the area; Andreas Brehme, who later said there was no foul, scored from the spot to win the tournament.
To win the Champions League title, Barcelona may need to do them one better. In the team’s first 25 league games this season, Barcelona scored 76 goals, with all but five coming from open play. But since the start of March, Barcelona has scored just 11 goals in eight La Liga matches, with 45% of those coming from set pieces. Also, eight of the team’s 18 Champions League goals this season have come from set-pieces, including six goals from corners—most in the tournament this season.