Barcelona 6-1 PSG: The greatest legacy of the Catalans’ epic comeback was what it did to the people watching. At the centre of the anarchy, was Neymar.
Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen belong to a landmark generation of English footballers. They were all iconic players for their clubs, and in spite of being vital cogs of a national team good enough to stuff Germany 5-1 in Munich, could never translate that to any semblance of success on the stage where it mattered most. Over time, they made a habit of crashing out at major tournaments at the first sight of a formidable opponent. All three are part of a queer legacy, of a baffling mad dance between heady success and abject failure, depending on the insignia on the jerseys.
Free-kicks are a difficult skill to master. Usually shot from a distance that gives the goalkeeper enough time to gauge the pace and trajectory of the ball, they’re justifiably low-percentage chances, even for the Juninhos and Beckhams of the world.
3-5 down in aggregate, with all of 180 seconds of regulation time to go in a Champions League knockout match. Shoulders were slowly starting to droop in the Camp Nou terraces. What do you do in such a situation, when you win a free-kick about five yards outside the box? You give it to Messi. That’s the answer to every problem that has ever crossed FC Barcelona in recent memory. You always give it to Messi.
Talent is the most dangerous tightrope in sport. With it comes expectations, media attention and hype which can break the toughest of backs. Maradona, all of 16, was spoken of as a sure-shot squad member in Cesar Luis Menotti’s Argentina team of 1978. A 80 minute cameo at the 2005 Joan Gamper Cup left Fabio Capello purring about the 16-year old Lionel Messi. In the same vein, Freddy Adu was USA’s great big hope at 14 and clubless by 25.
Neymar was Santos’ hero at 15, and as is the norm when a player wearing the Santos shirt does his first stepover, was earmarked as the next big thing. He had left a home World Cup in crutches and tears, his legacy at the tournament reduced to mistimed commemorative t-shirts. But he is made of steelier stuff than some of his predecessors at the University of Pele Successors. The year after the World Cup, he helped Barcelona win the treble, scoring in every single Champions League game from the quarter-final onwards.
Robinho, Freddy Adu or David Bentley wouldn’t have gone near the free-kick.
“No, the ball’s mine.” Top corner, 4-1. Two to go.
One of the hallmarks of an otherwise unstable Barcelona team between 2014 and 2017 was their front three. South Americans are known to have a greater sense of community and togetherness than some other cultures, and the three forwards combined like nothing you’d ever seen. Between Messi, Suarez and Neymar, it wasn’t so much about who scored, but how silly could they make the opposition look. Everyone took turns.
Minute 91. Messi floats the ball into Suarez, and the Uruguayan finds himself inside the penalty box, facing the goalkeeper and chased by Marquinhos.
In most cases, the striker goes for the shot. That’s what good strikers do, they take every chance they can possibly get. Not Luis Suarez. He’s of a different kind, from a different background; he’s instinctive too, but he craves wins more than goals. His cunning – often toying with the line of morality and cheating, sometimes even crossing it – makes him who he is. He may not be a footballer you’d want your kid to completely idolise, but you’ll do well to tell the little one about Uncle Luis’ drive to succeed.
Marquinhos committed the mistake of physical contact; astronauts on space stations could see what was coming next. Surely, Messi would step up for the penalty? No, the great man himself knew better. There was someone else on the pitch outdoing him and Luisito for the sheer drive that night.
Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen know a thing or two about penalties. What’s an understandable game of luck, grew into voodoo for England by the time the first decade of the 21st century ended. There was even one occasion where Stevie and his good friend Lamps both had their penalties saved in a shoot-out.
Neymar placed the ball and looked up.
“Will he score?”, wondered Stevie.
Rio was sure. “Oh, he’s putting it in the back of the net, don’t worry about that. He’s a legend.”
Time is running out. Barcelona need to somehow steal one more goal. At this point, PSG are down on their knees. Just a few seconds between them and the Champions League quarters, but the Camp Nou terraces are throbbing and the home team are knocking on the door hard.
PSG see off surge after surge, barely dropping breath, but not tapping out yet. Barcelona have one last chance and Neymar has the ball 35 yards out.
Football is an immensely popular game. Played in over 200 countries, there are millions of registered players across the globe, according to one FIFA estimate. Every culture brings its own style of football education and heritage, but almost all of them would’ve opted for the same choice of a pass in this situation. Lob it into the box and hope for the best.
In elite-level sport, hope is for the weak. Hope is for those who cede control to the supernatural. For someone who matched Lionel Messi step-for-step months after breaking vertebrae at a home World Cup, there are more powerful tools. Neymar shimmied, took the ball on his weak foot and scanned the penalty box to spot his man.
Between them, Rio, Gerrard and Owen have won everything there is to win in club football. They also know a fair deal about comeback victories in crunch matches. Like with most players from their generation, you expect them to look at present-day football with disdain and condescend upon everything that has changed over the years.
Yet, as Sergi Roberto got to the end of that Neymar dink, there was little Rio, jumping and screaming along with his mate Stevie. Their third friend Michael was running around the studio in celebration. You could only hear “Oh my God!” as they got their collective breath back.
Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Paris Saint Germain will be remembered for a lot of things. There is the sheer magnitude of the chase, some of the goals, and how this victory almost added to the romance of the Catalan club. Yet, the lasting legacy of these 95 minutes will be of turning grown men into kids on their first visit to the amusement park, where Neymar was the master of puppets.