PAUL SHEEHAN May 17, 2012
More than a club ... Barcelona's team players pose with the Champions League and Spanish league first division trophies in front of their devout fans. Photo: Reuters
In the cathedral of hope, 96,000 worshippers each held aloft a square of red, or blue, or yellow paper. Collectively, they formed a giant picture for themselves and for the millions watching on TV. They formed a flag, a banner and a message, formed in yellow letters:
''SOM I SEREM''.
Although this festival of belief was in Spain, when I looked the words up in Spanish they did not appear. It was not Spanish. It was Catalan, and it meant: ''We are and we will be''.
That was three weeks ago, on the night before Anzac Day. It was at Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona FC, whose motto is ''Mes que un club''. More than a club. So true.
For the past four years, the worshippers at Camp Nou have enjoyed the greatest football team ever assembled, the team of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. To have all three is extraordinary. Half the team, including Xavi and Iniesta, are home-grown.
In western Europe, the churches are largely empty but this place of worship could have been filled several times over. Barcelona has one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, the Sagrada Familia. But on the three occasions I have paid homage, it has been foreigners, not Catalans, who dominate.
No, the main place of worship in Barcelona is Camp Nou, and the crowd with the banners had come to see the pride of Catalonia dispatch the English giants, Chelsea. The winner would have a place in the climax of the world's club football calendar, the European Champions League final, which will be played in Munich on Saturday.
Barcelona are the reigning European and world club champions. The only club to match their brilliance this year was their great rival Real Madrid, who had also reached the semi-finals. Destiny pointed to an all-Spanish final.
The two Spanish giants duly dominated their opponents. But here we come to the hole in the heart of the world's most popular religion, football.
Barcelona played all over Chelsea, and Real Madrid dominated Bayern Munich, but fate conspired against the Spanish giants. Just four days earlier, they had met each other in the Spanish league in a game that would settle the title. Real Madrid won, but the epic struggle, football of the highest quality, took its toll.
Such is the flaw in the design of football that a team can be outplayed in every way but defend doggedly for a goalless draw, or score against the run of play and survive. Chelsea survived, heroic but clearly inferior. So did Bayern Munich who survived a siege and won through to the final via a penalty shoot-out.
Instead of an ''El Clasico'' in the final, the two inferior teams of the semi-finals will contest the great prize. It happens all the time in football, far more than in any other code. Yet an outrageous inertia afflicts the game. Everyone watching knows a goal should not have been scored, or should not have been disallowed, yet the referee cannot rely on TV replays.
A shocking and cynical inertia at the global headquarters of the game in Switzerland has held firm against television replays and other basic reforms that would tackle the negativity in the game.
In Australia, this presents a double burden to football, where the peak of the game, the A-League, has a flawed business model and mostly tepid atmosphere. In its seven-year history, 11 team owners have folded the club or handed over to someone else to suffer losses. All the teams are in financial stress. Two are in a precarious position. The average attendance in 2011-12 was 10,490 - lower than in the first season seven years ago.
The league must also function under the shadow cast by Europe, where the giants of the game offer the pinnacle of quality and atmosphere. And there is the shadow cast by the giants of AFL and NRL, which are the pinnacles of their parochial codes, not pale imitations. Where in Australia have we ever seen anything like the 96,000 red, blue and gold banners being held high to form a flag, a banner and a message of cultural defiance?
Yet even the giants can be bought low by the hole in the heart of football. A football match before a big crowd is, after all, a passion play. Those watching want to see natural justice, not just entertainment. Phantom goals, or 11-man defences playing not to score, are an offence to natural justice.
Following a football team is ordeal enough without manifest and avoidable injustices which can determine a match and a season.
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