CAPE TOWN – Barcelona - it’s a name everybody knows; it conjures up images of football played with such craft and verve it suffuses the senses.
Barcelona - it’s a name synonymous with football success and a history of being associated with many of the planet’s best players.
Now the famous Catalan club makes its way to South Africa for a friendly against PSL champions Mamelodi Sundowns at the FNB Stadium on Wednesday. But, while I will be watching the game with interest, there are two sides to the visit of the Spanish giants - and, as a football public, it’s crucial to also explore the deeper ramifications of what has unfolded.
Let’s get the good out of the way. When Barcelona arrive, it’s not just the current crop of football stars who will plant their feet on these shores, so, too will the ghosts and the memories of those who have gone before in the iconic blue and garnet jersey.
While the genius of Lionel Messi, the intelligence of Andres Iniesta and the predatory instinct of Luis Suarez will be on show, their presence will provide a nostalgic platform to remember former greats like Xavi, Carles Puyol, Africa’s Samuel Eto’o, Brazilian masters Ronaldinho, Romario and Ronaldo, the visionary Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman.
For this old man, though, as he flings his mind down the years, and rifles through the drawers of the many, many football files stored in his memory, there are three Barcelona luminaries that spring to mind: In a recent chat with Benni McCarthy, I asked him who was the best footballer he played alongside; without hesitation, he replied: Michael Laudrup (at Ajax Amsterdam).
After five years of class and panache with Barcelona, Laudrup would later have a major influence on the career of McCarthy in the Netherlands. The phenomenon that was Diego Maradona, of course, needs no introduction - and, lastly, the footballer who often charted new paths for the sport to follow: the inimitable, always inventive Johan Cruyff.
It’s only a friendly on Wednesday, and both teams come off long seasons, but with Barcelona’s short passing and swift movement style of play, their ability to almost telepathically keep possession, and Sundowns offering the best that SA has to offer, there’s certainly a lot to look forward to.
But - and here’s the rub - Barcelona’s trip to SA serves as yet another reminder of the perpetual Animal Farm scenario under which local football operates.
Back in May 2013, Ajax Cape Town had a friendly lined up against English giants Liverpool. The PSL, with much gusto and administrative might at the time, insisted on enforcing the rule that no international club friendlies are allowed while the season is on, because it competes with PSL events and its sponsors. The friendly had to be called off.
So what about this match between Barcelona and Sundowns?
This coming Saturday is the Nedbank Cup final between between Maritzburg United and Free State Stars. Is that not important enough? Or is it because neither Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates nor Sundowns are in the final?
The PSL last week sent out a statement to support the friendly, using phrases such as “part of Nelson Mandela Centenary Celebrations”, “the extraordinary nature of Sundowns’ request” and “bringing South Africans together”. Yawn.
To be honest, it smacked of that famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.
There was more than a hint of insincerity to it all and the PSL was just playing to the crowd. Deep down, they know they have flaunted their own rules to satisfy the whim a very rich man, who, of course, is firmly ensconced in football’s inner circle.
To return to George Orwell’s seminal allegorical novel, Animal Farm, and that popular quote: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The line aptly sums up how, eventually, as in the book, so, too, in any human endeavour, everything soon becomes corrupted.
Some will always see themselves as elite, as better than the rest, and their needs and agendas are far more important.