As the curtain drew back for the third instalment of this epic four-part series, the cast lined up – 11 against 11: the protagonists. There was tragedy and comedy; there were heroes and villains; there was drama and even horror. But above all, there was plenty of acting.
Messi, as so often before, was the hero, rescuing a poor script with a stunning late cameo which included both of his side’s goals – the second of which would have made a fitting finale to any blockbuster. The Argentina forward danced his way past four Madrid defenders as if they were mere extras before slotting home the showpiece. The credits followed, all for the Argentine: a box office hit.
Busquets| The ring-leader in Barca's simulation brigade?
But earlier, there had been a villain too. That was Pepe, who was dismissed for a violent lunge on Dani Alves. With his shaved head, his piercing glare and evil stare, Pepe looked the part: he was the perfect baddie. Or was he? A rerun showed that Alves had thrown himself theatrically to the ground; there had been no contact. Opinions differ as to whether the red card was justified or not, but either way, Alves’ role was key. The Brazilian had fooled the gallery and, more importantly, the director: referee Wolfgang Stark. The supporting cast, made up of Alves’ team-mates, quickly surrounded the German. That was his prompt: Pepe saw red. Alves played dead and left on a stretcher, but was back in character two minutes later and sprinting up and down the pitch.
Only in the movies can such miraculous recoveries be witnessed – or on stage. In earlier scenes, both Pedro and Sergio Busquets had hurled themselves to the ground, clutching their faces when contact had occurred elsewhere or indeed been minimal. This was play-acting of the highest order, but of the lowest level: amateur dramatics. And Barca, the self-styled purists, looked anything but pure. Thespians, perhaps; artistry, this was not.
Cheating in theatrical terms is the practice of turning one’s body towards the audience even while keeping the head facing one’s scene partner. But Barcelona’s players made sure their bodies were thrown on to the turf, with their faces strategically covered by their hands, writhing in agony, surrounding the official and alluding to vicious crimes. This may not be their favourite or most well-known part and they may not be the worst exponents of the genre, but Barca have played this role before. And their players knew only too well that a carefully-staged performance would see the referee eventually call time on the evening for one of Madrid’s players on Wednesday. Stark duly read the script.
"Barcelona’s players made sure their bodies were thrown on to the turf, with their faces strategically covered by their hands, writhing in agony, surrounding the official and alluding to vicious crimes."
If Barca’s players were the protagonists, though, Madrid proved the antagonist. Jose Mourinho’s men played their own part in ruining Wednesday’s game as a spectacle; aside from their ultra-negative tactics, there was foul play from Pepe, Emmanuel Adebayor and Marcelo – with theatrics too from the Brazilian – and more melodrama from Cristiano Ronaldo. Mourinho later complained of Barca’s role in the ugly scenes at the Santiago Bernabeu and Madrid have reported Pep Guardiola’s side to UEFA for unsporting conduct. The Catalans claim their innocence, but their acting – Mourinho hopes – will speak louder than their words.
But the Portuguese, never one to shun the limelight, will do well to remember the conduct of his own players – now and in the past. For Pepe, Marcelo and Ronaldo now, read Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben and Joe Cole at Chelsea, or any number of his players at Inter and Porto. Flashbacks of the Champions League semi-final with Porto against Deportivo La Coruna in 2004 or the UEFA Cup final versus Celtic a year earlier, to name but two examples in which his sides used gamesmanship and play-acting to gain an advantage, seem to have been erased from his memory – like deleted scenes on a DVD.
Barca’s story is hypocritical, too. The Catalan club preaches family values; they claim their football is universal – suitable for all. But not only is parental guidance needed, often the action is X-rated material. And while their performances may be easy on the eye and worthy of praise, they can also leave a sour aftertaste.
Good guys like Carles Puyol and Xavi feature heavily, but there are also villains in the piece such as Alves and Busquets, and plenty of special effects – not to mention artistic licence, trickery and deceit. Luckily for them, Messi’s monologue ensured critical acclaim on Wednesday night. But for all their pretty play, Barca showed once again they have a dark and ugly side too: Beauty and the beast.