Late on Wednesday night, before the dust had settled and heart rates had returned to normal, when everyone was still trying to work out what the bloody hell they had just seen, and Luis Suarez had finished waving his lucky lemon at Leo Messi, Barcelona defender Gerard Pique was busy performing a public service.
“Sign up some nurses,” he urged Catalonia’s hospitals, warning them to a sharp rise in birth rates to come in nine months’ time. “There’s going to be a lot of love made tonight.”
In the maternity hospital right next to the Camp Nou, they would have known that what he said wasn’t quite as daft as it sounded: A spokeswoman once claimed that Andres Iniesta’s last-minute goal against Chelsea in 2009 had produced a 50 percent spike in births at one of the city’s hospitals. Now, Pique said, it was going to happen all over again, only more so. “This is the biggest thing we have ever done, bigger even than Stamford Bridge,” he told Ivan Rakitic — and he was out to mark the occasion.
“What now?” Luis Enrique was asked afterwards. He said he would like to say “now for a party,” but they had training the next day. “The problem is that we’re back at work,” he said. Not that Pique cared, and other players agreed. It wasn’t like they were going to get any sleep anyway. So the next day they were at San Joan Despi, a little bleary-eyed and heavy-legged, and on Friday they were given the day off: clear your heads, rest and come back Saturday, ready for Deportivo de La Coruna on Sunday.
What now? Now, football. More of it than they can genuinely have imagined: even if Neymar had insisted that 1 percent hope was enough to have 99 percent faith, and even if Luis Enrique had said that his team could score six. Not four, note: six. Life looks different now. If it was hard to believe then, somehow they created the conditions in which it was not entirely impossible, and next time it’ll be easier to do the same. It won’t seem quite so ridiculous to them when they suggest they can perform a miracle. Or have a miracle delivered to them.
Xavi Hernandez once expressed his admiration for the way that Real Madid managed to believe, or say they believed, in epic comebacks. Barcelona, he said, just wouldn’t. That belief didn’t mean that Madrid would necessarily do it — and the statistics show that they turned it round less than the story suggested — but it did mean that they might, that they had half a chance and that they were able to build an appropriate environment, creating the emotional context in which to do so. This time, Barcelona did it too. This time, they made it through, producing a comeback that (statistically) has never been matched before in Europe.
It was not the first time they’d done something epic — Iniesta, Jose Maria Bakero and Pichi Alonso, all dramatic heroes of improbable feats like Sergi Roberto, can attest to that — and this generation has been marked not just by quality, but competitiveness too. But it wasn’t really part of their narrative before. It might be now.
“People tried to bury us,” Pique said. They had done a pretty good job of burying themselves. But somehow, here they are, still alive.
Wednesday was not just one comeback. It was two: the chase for 4-0, which ended when Edison Cavani scored, and the chase for 6-1, which was finally completed in the dying seconds. The first would have been impressive; the second was surreal, absurd, mind-bending. “If we had done it in 80 minutes, it wouldn’t have been the same,” Luis Enrique said. At full time, he embraced Leo Messi, shouting: “It’s better like this!”
There were many reasons for it, and not all of them were about Barcelona (there was PSG and the referee, too, for a start) but it happened, and that changes things. It also came about because they had changed things. A lot has happened in the past three weeks.
“There was mourning after Valentine’s Day in Paris,” Luis Enrique said. But periods of mourning end; life goes on. Lessons are learned, too, and since then, there has been a shift. More accurately, perhaps, there maybe have been many small shifts? Including one tactical one: four in midfield. And then there’s the biggest shift: Luis Enrique’s announcement that he would be leaving at the end of the season.
That announcement was debated at the time; it’s only been a week but it feels like a different era. It was criticised at the time but appears vindicated now. If it did open up speculation about the succession, that had been opened up anyway. If managerial authority was an issue, it was surely less of one three months from the end with it still all to win. (Or even with “only the league and cup to win: the Champions League didn’t seriously seem on). Doubts about the future were removed, minds cleared. Clarity is the word. Luis Enrique said he felt “liberated,” and his players felt the same way; a collective cause, one that was always there, came more unambiguously to the fore: win.
There’s also something about him and his team that suggests that crisis can be cathartic. Luis Enrique really had been close to the sack in that first season and went on to win the treble. They emerge stronger from the rubble, given another chance that they know really is their last. Paris had been the end, it seemed, like Anoeta back then, but now it looks like a beginning.
Some of those flaws remain, while those debates about identity, style and play have not suddenly become redundant (nor have the structural issues), but there is a target now — an end. And it is the end it should be: the end of the season, with trophies in play. Some might suggest that no one lives life better than the man who was told he was going to die. Or the man who has only a short time left. Sometimes the decision is made for you and adversity activates you. “We had nothing to lose,” Luis Enrique said.
After Paris, still in mourning perhaps, Barcelona scraped past Leganes 2-1. Then they defeated Atletico 2-1. They suffered a lot but they survived. They didn’t convince, but they were still there, and they had secured the kind of result that makes you think the league is possible — even more so with Madrid dropping points. The night that Luis Enrique said he was going, his team defeated Sporting Gijon 6-1 to go top for the first time since October. They then defeated Celta 5-0. There was some belief now, something to cling to.
And so began the emotional management, something that’s rarely been seen as a very “Barcelona” thing. Neymar insisted that he had been looking forward to PSG. By kickoff and during the press conferences the day before, some had started to wonder if they could actually go and do this. Of course they couldn’t, but at least they would try; that too would mean something. It could have been a funeral procession. Instead, they went for it. They rebelled. There was a result to play for, but that was never going to happen, and there was credibility too.
Barcelona were intense, single-minded and determined, assuming risks and following a clear plan. Every ball was theirs, and PSG just huddled deep, hoping to limit the damage. If at times it didn’t flow — here’s a question that might not be quite as absurd as it looks at first: did Barcelona play well? — it still worked. It might not have, of course. A centimetre higher on the free kick and it ends; a referee who doesn’t give the penalty on Suárez and it ends too. But it didn’t end.
In any case, that they had even got that far mattered, too, despite the fact that when Neymar scored the fourth, it wasn’t celebrated effusively. Had there been no miracle, no epic, there might still have been something for Barcelona. Signs of life, even if not in this competition. “If we hadn’t gone through, this would still have given us strength and confidence,” Luis Enrique said. Somehow, though, they did go through. And now they were going out. Call the midwife, it’s time to celebrate a new beginning.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.