I’ll weigh in – The Champions League this week

The FIFA international rankings are a ludicrous measure of national teams. Brazil sit at something like #19 while England are up to #7. We were #4! That draw against the 600,000 people of  Montenegro must really have opened some eyes. Brazil of course, have barely played a competitive game in the run up to the World Cup. But they got one thing right. Spain and Germany are #1 and #2. After watching the Champions League this week, this too could be changing.

Many people will rabbit on about Bayern Munich beating Barcelona on Tuesday. It was indeed impressive but I regard Dortmund’s win over Real Madrid last night as more impressive. The reasons are obvious if you really follow football, something very absent here.

Bayern Munich won because they worked out how to beat Barcelona and did so with ease. These were the same tactics Real use but Bayern have more pinpoint firepower. They exploited their physical advantages, aligned with great technical skill and Barcelona’s obvious weaknesses, weaknesses they have failed to address over the last two years.

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Barcelona play a possession game, relying on movement and moving the opposite until the full backs (especially Alves) can overlap and get behind teams. Their midfield, which is their whole attack these days, swarm into spaces overrunning teams. It all helps when you have Messi in the team. Bayern were a little fortunate Messi was just coming back from injury and didn’t quite look up to scratch. But they were in trouble before the game started.

Attack, quick defensive pressure and great organisation are Barcelona’s keys but all season their real weakness has been their defence. Pique looked like a man alone back there on Tuesday. Busquets’ general job is to break up the play (and fall over holding his face) but he plays in the middle. Bayern used their height to isolate Pique and attacked down the wings. Alba and Alves, both very good going forward weren’t up to the numbers or the task. Schweinsteiger (aka pig raiser – great name) and Martinez held the line and won every second ball. The sight of Iniesta on his own goal line for the 4th goal tells its own story. They were overrun. It should be added the third should have been scratched out for obstruction.

I’ll never understand why Villa doesn’t start every game. Not only is he is a great finisher but he leads the line and would give the Bayern centre backs something to think about. But the most glaring hole for Barca is at centre back. Pique must have left that field feeling very frustrated. Without him, the score would have been a horror show. Barcelona need to fill that gap quickly and get a man to lead the line if they don’t trust Villa. When in Bratislava in 2009, I spoke to the hostel owner about his team Barca. I asked why they were selling Eto’o. He didn’t know either. Having Ibrahamovic would have helped last night. But the talk of Barcelona passing the torch is premature. A centre back, a striker and a fit Messi and they will be back.

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Displaying the Polish ‘3’ from Inglorious Basterds!

Dortmund bought Lewandowski from Lech Poznan for 4m beating off (yes they beat him off) the likes of Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn. They’ve built an incredibly hard-working and fluid team. Gotze is about to leave for Bayern but I barely noticed him. I liked Reus, Gundogan, and the centre backs. Apart from their penchant for diving, they’re a team founded and molded on precise attacking play and defensive stubbornness. Real Madrid were blown away but its hard to feel any sympathy for such a club. The defensive tactics of Pepe and Ramos are ugly and guys like Ozil and Benzema are flat track bullies. While Bayern consistently break the German transfer records, Dortmund, the best supported team in Europe with an average attendance of over 80,000, develop their own and pick bargains most notably from Eastern Europe. They are a truly impressive institution. I’ll be rooting for them in the final.

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Feste de la Mercee

Barcelona is a city for all seasons. In winter, its warm, In summer there is the beach to cool off at. Autumn and spring merely add to the seasonal blend. Catalunya is on a personal crusade right now for independence. Turn out at rallies now number the millions as it pushes for political autonomy. Its been the richest area of Spain for a while (with the largest debt) despite its economic wings being ironically clipped by the on-going economic crisis in Europe. But its cultural identity and independence is displayed from the countless flags hanging from balcony, the widespread use of the language, the football club producing their own players and festivals proudly extolling the Catalanism.

We were in Barcelona for the Festes de la Mercee, a religious festival involving street parades, fireworks and more artistic cultural events than you can throw a ham at. The city comes to a stop. Stages are set up, streets closed off. Music lights up the city in day and night. Ilo didn’t know too much about all of this and her Spanish is, ummm, modest so I got to practice my language again and tried to organise everything from free accommodation (muchas gracias Nacho and Riccardo) to understanding the labyrinthine  old town and the scale of the festival.

We did other things too. We went to the beach (her idea), drank a lot of wine (mutual idea), ate huge burgers (my idea), bought a magnet (her idea), went to some cool bars (my idea), ate paella (her idea), had free accommodation (my idea), drank wine in the street (her idea), saw The Kooks free (mutual idea), got lost (my idea) and sulked (her idea).

The highlight of the weekend and maybe of all my times in Barcelona was the Sunday night Diablo firework night, a street parade initiation ceremony for the youth of Barcelona. Teams of drummers are accompany by Catherine wheel carrying demons who charge down the street. The idea is to dance in the sparks until it gives out its final bang. The other idea is to arrive dressed appropriately usually meaning hoodies, plastic glasses and long sleeves. I had a t-shirt, jeans and beanie. Ilo had glasses, no sleeves and shorts. Nevertheless after a bit of encouragement she joined me under the fireworks, hiding under me until the bang and we could flee. The noise, energy and excitement was amazing. Such fun. Later we drank in the street, watched a human pyramid family perform next to us, saw a light show and rumba concert and ate some street noodles at 2am. It was a good day.

Now I’m on to San Sebastian, the jewel of Spanish cities, recommended by everyone who’s been. Follow that with Bilbao, Naples, Venice and Bologna before Jan and I’s crazy plan comes into action. For now i can still hear my ears ringing from the drums and fireworks. Awesome time.

Joy from Joy

I spoke to Jennie today for the first time in a long time. We’re going to Barcelona this weekend for a few days and emailed her to see if she is around. She is and she isn’t. For on the 19th she’s suddenly getting married to her boyfriend. The wedding is on Formentera, just off Ibiza. I’m invited but can’t make it. Yet, I was so pleased for her, a huge smile came across my face.

Her happiness as someone I cared a lot and connected with meant a lot to me. I still remember our husband and wife routine to get free drinks in Borneo in the 5 star and bars. That after I invited her to breakfast, the first morning we met. I knew i had to talk to her. We later spent the days exploring, hiking, hitch-hiking, drinking wine, eating delicious Japanese and Indian food, so delicious it stopped all conversation for the entire main course.

I’m going to Bcn with Ilo, staying at Riccardo for a few days before he goes to Italy for a wedding and leaves us the keys to a city centre apartment, its haunts and options. The grand Festes de la Mercee is on, the weather looks fine and we migh sneak a Barcelona game, plus The Kooks are playing for free. Ordinarily this would be enough, seeing old friends, getting round the city, using it as a gateway to San Sebastian and the North coast from where I try to get over to Rome and Naples to see Andy.

Whilst this stinks of good fortune, I’m aware of what more I have to do this year to realise the plans of next year. Enough is enough for me, a striver with no real idea of an end goal but some vague form of enlightenment. Its time to get back to work. Keeps a man and his plans alive 🙂 I am heading to sunrise before returning to sunset. Gonna be a long, long day.

Secret Barcelona

After a day riding round on bikes, visiting a labyrinth maze in the North of the city, we walked back along the back alleys until we broached the Cathedral in the centre. Packed with tourists searching for that ‘unique’ shot, Nacho recommended we traverse to the right and showed me a small little square off the side where part of the film Perfume was filmed. It was a quiet little sanctuary in the middle of the city, those back streets that spook the tourists after dark. No one else was there at first until a local couple breezed through smiling. Nacho and his girlfriend circled the fountain as I took pictures.

Being my third time in Barcelona, I really didn’t need to see the usual sights. It’s an interesting city architecturally but its real prize is the life it holds. That’s mostly found amongst the cafes, bars and restaurants in old town areas like Born which teem with locals throughout the day. Most tourists don’t get that far though. You could argue Barcelona, a city that’s grown at incredible rates in the last 50 years from being a collection of villages to the metropolis it is today is always full of outsiders. That’s what makes it vibrant culturally and also explains how easy it is even for locals to get lost.

I was in Barcelona for New Year provided by my mate Pedro. We stayed in his family apartment in the centre but spent less than a few hours there. Pedro introduced me to all his family and friends and on the first night we had dinner at his brother’s house with his siblings, played some games and then hit up some nightclubs. The following day we went with his friends for some afternoon tapas, snacking and drinking and planned the evening. These cafes even on the backstreets are packed with conversation, clinking glasses and shouts for more food. It was a good start.

That night was New Years Eve and we headed to Victor’s place where about 15 of us ate cooked ham leg and caviar and drank wine and beer. At midnight, Spaniards eat a grape for each chime of the clock which isn’t as easy as you think!  Later we each got a lantern, wrote a message for the year and went to the roof to light them up and let them be taken away (probably to set fire to trees!). Around 2am, we headed out to a house party next to the beach and drank and talked until morning. It’s the Spanish way. New Years Day started late, involving a drink/chat at a bar overlooking the city followed by a tour via Pedro’s crazy driving and via Puyol’s house.

Pedro flew back to England on the 2nd so I moved to Nacho and Riccardo’s place in the old town area of Born near the beach and from there, rented bikes to ride around the seafront in the unseasonably sunny weather. Riccardo took us all to an excellent Italian restaurant and proceeded to get into another funny discussion with the staff over ‘what is Italian food.’  The last night I stayed out late with Riccardo getting some tapas and drinks in various bars.

I saw Ramblas for the first time on my last day as I wandered to take some last-minute shots. I’d barely taken any. I suppose I didn’t really need to. I was there for the life rather than the photographs, the conversation over the stone and the food over the lights. I owe Pedro and the boys big time for setting all this up. It was a deep, cultural experience. A great start to a some year.

And now its 2012…

Happy New Year EVERYbody!

<– new year lanterns in Barca (credit to Riccardo)

I’ve been meaning to update this with various thoughts, ideas and shenanigans but simply haven’t had time in between trips around the country (London and Cardiff) and out to Barcelona for New Year. However I now have some free space away from the friends, rooftop lanterns and alcoholic endeavours and so will try to orally gesticulate as per normal and maybe inform. Much to be done in the next few days…. 😀

take care

dan

Barca win

There was a very strange assumption that Manchester Utd should be competitive with Barcelona last night. You have to look at the teams and the results they have had. Barca have an incredible team from front to back. United dont. Added to that Barca have been played very well and score goals for fun. United have scrapped by many teams and won a poor EPL this year. Who did you think was gonna win? As Lineker said, if Barca turn up, they win. And they did.

Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolano, the Chilean poet and writer was asked before he died in 2003 where he felt he belonged. After being born and raised in Chile until the age of 15, his family went into voluntary exile in 1968, moving to Mexico City. From there he lived (and disappearred for two years) in El Salvador before spending many years in Barcelona. He returned to the country of his birth only once. Ariel Dorfman stated Bolano simpy didn’t ‘fit in’ in an authoritarian regime. Bolano always felt like an outsider. He referred to himself as Latin American and later clarified it by saying “my only country is my two children and perhaps, though in second place, some moments, streets, faces or books.” I can relate wholly to the last sentence.

I called lost property at Bristol Temple Meads Station today. On Sunday, mild distracted by tiredness and my hangover, I walked out of the cafe without picking up the book resting on the table. The book was by Arthur C Clarke and entitled Childhood Ends. I’d read it before while travelling sometime, somewhere. It’s a simple, well-written and thought-provoking account of the arrival of a superior species over the Earth, the relations with the growing humans and the task they have been set. There is a large philosophical element to the final chapters.

The book itself is interesting but no classic for me. However it was significant for single reason that someone gave it to me in a simple act of thought, generosity and kindness. That man was Wada-San, a 75 year-old Japanese scientist who I used to teach one-one-one 8 years ago. Wada would specifically ask for me and arrive with a topic he wanted to debate or simply talk to me about. He took a liking to the 24 year-old boy, wide-eyed in as foreign a culture as the Western world has to offer.

Wada talked ever-so-slowly, with the voice, manner and face of Henry Kissinger. Many avoided him for those same reasons. His long sentences and drawn-out delivery bored them. But never me. I wanted to learn and believed he had something to offer. He was also a highly respected man in his profession and I was proud he took the time to talk to me. It was clear he was the teacher here.

Before I left Japan, he came in especially to say goodbye and with the book as a present. He asked me to read it and think about it. I thanked him and read it while in South America. Without an email address for Wada, I had no way to convey my thoughts about the book, in particularly the philosophical elements. Still fairly fresh out of university, expansive thinking was still a normal activity.

The overly-polite staff member at lost property checked the left-behind book collection but failed to find Wada’s book. For it always will be Wada’s book. A book he gave me and asked me to think about. A memory, a face, a moment in my life. A small brick of me.