“It is difficult to explain in words. This is a sport for crazy people, a unique sport. Any kid who was in the Camp Nou tonight will never forget this in their life. It was a torrent of feelings. I don’t cry – I would like to, but the tears don’t come out. But I enjoyed this as much as the rest; as much as those who cried.”
Luis Enrique sure did. He had been written off, doubted, pilloried. After Barcelona’s 0-4 loss in the first leg to Paris Saint-Germain, the local daily Sport proclaimed, “This is not Barca”.
When the final whistle rang on Wednesday night, anybody who had watched the Catalan side this season, probably would have uttered the same words. This was not Barca, but this was. It was a team supposed to be mired in crisis, on its last legs under the Luis Enrique regime; but it was also a side that had won eight out of its last 10 trophies. For all the troubles, the greatness persists.
But it was not just about the magnificence of Lionel Messi, Neymar or any other player. Enrique, a much vilified figure in Catalonia, can make legitimate claims to greatness too. In a season which was supposed to herald the lowest point for Barcelona in years, the club is in control of its destiny in the league and has a spot in the Copa del Rey final. And then, there was the comeback on Wednesday night.
After the humbling loss in Paris, AS journalist Santi Giménez had some pretty strong words for the club – “Barcelona lost more than a football match in Paris. They were stripped bare, leaving exposed the sad reality of a team that is a mess tactically, physically and emotionally. There is no plan, no youth system, a lack of leadership, the style has been trampled upon, there’s no direction at all, and all the coach can cling to is his record (but) he sold a story that was guillotined in Paris, where the emperor stood naked. It is not that Barcelona are out of Europe; it is that Barcelona are out of Barcelona.”
Barcelona, though, is not out of Europe. If anything, ever since that famous loss to PSG, the club has shown what makes the charms of this club irresistible. Everyone has rallied together to prove the detractors wrong. As Enrique emphasised after the comeback win on Wednesday night, “this is a victory of faith.” Enrique believed. He argued that Barcelona could score six goals on the night. Guess what? They did.
Perhaps, it was appropriate that substitute Sergi Roberto got the sixth goal. The makeshift right-back has been one of the finds of Enrique’s time at Camp Nou. “I say to Sergi Roberto: ‘You used to score for the youth team, why do you never do it for the first team?’ And then, what the hell, he goes and gets that goal tonight. I am delighted for him – I have a lot of trust in him and affection for him.”
Yet, despite his enviable record and success, Enrique has constantly faced questions over the loss of identity that Barcelona has arguably suffered under him. “If you lose, they will kill you; if you draw or win, they will still criticise you,” he said once. Indeed, this has been a constant theme in Enrique’s time at the club. Success has only seemed to paper over the cracks.
Even in the first season, before the winter break, Barcelona’s laboured efforts had attracted criticism from the club’s puritanical quarters. The sacking of Sporting Director Andoni Zubizarreta in January 2015 had led to Enrique publicly saying that his position had been “weakened.” Yet, he stuck to his guns and led the club to a treble in his first season – as well as Pep Guardiola had done.
This campaign, though, has seen Enrique cut an irritable figure on the sidelines. Even the reaction to his announcement that he would leave the club this summer was muted. His obsessiveness had left him feeling tired. Of what, one wondered? Enrique just said he needed to rest. A man who has been known to participate in tormenting competitions like the Marathon des Sables – a 255 km run in the Moroccan desert with no less than 10 kgs of weight on one’s back — was left exhausted by the experience of managing a star-filled Barcelona side in less than three years. The political tumult at the club hung heavy in air.
His critics refused to acknowledge that Barcelona has retained its status as the most successful passing side in Europe even under Enrique’s leadership. The team plays more direct passes now and is surprisingly vulnerable to sides which press them high up the pitch but the variations in its style remain effective. Yet, the results and performances this season only made the doubts loom larger.
Enrique, however, believed in his ability to mastermind a turnaround. “Normally with 10 minutes to go, people are leaving the stadium. But tonight they didn’t. If any went, stuff them, they have missed an historic night. In the end we have had a special night,” he said. His comments are indicative of the pleasure Enrique drew out of the triumph. There are doubters alright but nobody could take the most incredible comeback win away from him.
A few months into the job, Enrique was asked by the press how he viewed the year 2014 on a personal level. “I managed Celta (Vigo) and survived comfortably then I came home, to paradise, to Disneyland.” Thanks to Enrique, Barcelona is back to paradise, to Disneyland.