Date: 17th May 2009 at 11:02am
Written by:

7th May, 2008. Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

The LED screen outside every stadium gate was showing the same message, after the team clinched the record 31st La Liga title: ‘Gracias aficion. Campeones: 31 Ligas formamos un equipo.’ (Something like ‘Thanks for your support. Champions: 31 league titles make a team.’) I saw a few brave away fans wearing the blaugrana colours gracefully smiling at some over-zealous Madrileños who bragged about Real Madrid’s success in front of them and made fun of their rivals in chaos.

The notoriously horn-happy Spaniards got even more ecstatic: one in about five drivers who went past Paseo de la Castellana sounded the horn in celebration. And in the typically terrible Madrid traffic, the Barcelona team bus arrived, facing a hysterical crowd of home fans greeting them with ‘Campeones, campeones, ole ole ole!’ and some swear words unknown to me. Unlike the Real bus, in which players looked through the clear windows and waved to the huge crowds jumping up and down on Avenida de Concha Espina, the Barcelona bus, with dark tinted windows through which nobody could see the players inside, sped past the jeering home crowd.

I had never seen the guard of honour before. Lined up nicely but quite possibly grudgingly, the Barcelona players put on a string of brave faces and applauded the beaming Real players emerging from the players’ tunnel. I saw Leo Messi’s face up close in a newspaper later: graceful, sad but defiant, almost in disbelief. You just knew he would come back and be the one to emerge as a champion.

There were two glaring absentees in that line-up: Samuel Eto’o and Deco, who picked up their fifth yellow cards in ‘suspicious’ circumstances in the match before. Quite why a stroll in the park that ended 6-0 against the struggling Valencia would yield two yellow cards and the attacking duo’s suspension, nobody cared, except a couple of claims in the Spanish press that they were ‘cowards’ who chickened out of the daunting prospect of travelling to the triumphant capital.

On the pitch, I saw panic in the defence and midfield and felt sorry for them and their fans. The only two attacking players who kept trying their best regardless of the circumstances were Leo Messi and Thierry Henry, the latter scoring the consolation goal towards the end of the 4-1 disaster that turned out to be the last straw on Frank Rijkaard’s aching back.

Fast forward to 2nd May, 2009. Same venue.

Deco was long gone, nowhere I’m afraid. Eto’o, after being named by Josep Guardiola as one of the players who could leave in summer, had decided to stay and prove his boss wrong. And the young manager has gladly admitted as much this season. When he went missing in the previous Clásico, who would have thought that he, Henry and Messi would form the holy trinity that outscored any entire team in Spain, and in fact any entire team in the top four leagues in Europe?

This Clásico ended 6-2 to Barcelona after yet another brilliant attacking display that silenced the Madrid crowd and all but sealed the outcome of the title race, before they would also claim the Copa del Rey and reach the Champions League final in Rome.

16th May, 2009. Old Trafford.

Perhaps if Man United managed to score against Villa or Spurs, we would have had to form the guard of honour for the champions, just as Chelsea did in 2007. We did not suffer anything close to the humiliation that Barcelona endured either.

I personally think it’s less painful to watch the rivals celebrate after the game than to have to applaud them as the confirmed champions before it. But it must hurt either way. Would this episode be a source of inspiration for us?

If for a player it didn’t hurt, please dump him Arsène. If they felt the pain, the jealousy, the defiance, the desire to come back and win burning in them, they have a chance.

Pain, what pain? It was inspiration.