La Masia shines bright

Spain deservedly won the World Cup playing an attractive brand of football.-AP

Not much needs to be said about FIFA's influence, while pretty much everything that happened on the pitch in the upper echelons of European and international football over the last year was in some way connected to La Masia, home of Barcelona's youth academy and the site of the club's footballing soul. Over to Karthik Krishnaswamy.

The two most important buildings in world football are the gleaming, mostly subterranean structure that houses the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, and a 308-year-old farmhouse in Catalonia.

Not much needs to be said about FIFA's influence, while pretty much everything that happened on the pitch in the upper echelons of European and international football over the last year was in some way connected to La Masia, home of Barcelona's youth academy and the site of the club's footballing soul.

Nine players in Spain's World Cup-winning squad graduated from La Masia. Of those, seven — Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez and Cesc Fabregas — were on the pitch during the final against the Netherlands.

All of them — and, by extension, the rest of the team — played a style of football envisioned by (ironically, a Dutchman) Johan Cruyff, when he took over as Barcelona's coach in 1988, emphasising ball retention above everything else, its rhythms captured by the phrase that is now used universally to describe it: tiki-taka.

Tiki-taka can produce breathtaking attacking play, as seen in Barcelona's 4-1 rout of Arsenal in the second leg of last season's Champions League quarterfinals or in Spain's 3-0 thumping of Russia in the semifinal of Euro 2008, but it is, unquestionably, an even more formidable defensive tactic. The opposition does not score if it doesn't have the ball.

During its Euro 2008 and at the 2010 World Cup triumphs, Spain didn't concede a single goal in the knockout stages. At times during both tournaments, Spain's attacking players struggled to translate their mastery of possession into goal-scoring chances. But slowly, their patience began to pay off as their opponents tired out from chasing the ball incessantly.

The semifinal against Germany at Durban was the best illustration of this. Spain wasn't at its absolute best in the World Cup, and didn't once dismantle an opponent. Germany was at its peak, fresh from scoring eight goals in two games against England and Argentina. Even so, right from the start, Germany played deferentially, sitting deep, hoping to get an opportunity on the counter. And that, of course, was the prudent course of action.

Everyone who played Spain, and nearly everyone who plays Barcelona in an important game, knows that this is the way to play. Manchester United did it and won a two-legged Champions League semifinal in 2008. Chelsea did it and failed, narrowly, controversially, to repeat that feat in 2009.

Last season, Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan played that way and beat Barcelona, and stuck to the same game-plan while winning the final against Bayern Munich. A return to Catenaccio, almost, and the sort of devious master-plan that perfectly complements the image of pantomime villain that Mourinho has so carefully cultivated.

And yet, no Inter player — not Samuel Eto'o, for all his goals and tireless work-ethic, not Diego Milito, for scoring in every decisive game that won the Nerazzurri its treble, not even Wesley Sneijder, for his Champions League and World Cup heroics — made it to the three-man Ballon d'Or shortlist.

Instead, there were three La Masia graduates. Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi, the first shortlist featuring three players from the same club since AC Milan's Marco Van Basten, Franco Baresi and Frank Rijkaard in 1989.

Alongside the fillip that this level of success with home-grown talent might have given to Barcelona's rhetoric of being more than a club (its official motto, més que un club, means exactly that), there was also a little erosion, with news that the club's maroon-and-blue jersey will have, from next season, a sponsor's logo, in a deal with the Qatar Foundation worth GBP25m a year. Till now, the only logo Barcelona had sported was that of UNICEF, a privilege the club paid for.

This was visible affirmation of a growing sense that Barcelona's parroting of “més que un club” was getting a little tiresome. With the big-money signings of David Villa and Javier Mascherano, made despite the club's mounting debt, and its ruthless pursuit of Cesc Fabregas, Barcelona was showing itself to be just like any other football club on the planet.

And how can any entity of that size stay immune to world football's dubious moral climate, when the game's governing body — the occupant of the other significant building — sets the tone in even more brazen fashion?

FIFA's reaction to BBC's Panorama documentary, ‘FIFA's Dirty Secrets', was as distressing as it was predictable. The documentary, by investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, who had previously explored FIFA's dark side in his 2006 book ‘Foul!', alleged corruption within FIFA, indicting officials as important as the presidents of CONMEBOL and CAF, the confederations of South American and African football. FIFA reacted not by probing the truth of these allegations, but by spewing vitriol at the media.

FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, who incidentally had been accused of trying to supply ticket touts at the 2010 World Cup, said that these allegations, surfacing three days before the vote to determine the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts, had cost England the 2018 tournament.

“Suffice it to say the Fifa exco (executive committee) as a body could not have voted for England having been insulted by their media in the worst possible way at the same time,” he said.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter, meanwhile, spoke to members of the executive committee about the “evil of the media” just before they voted, according to Andy Anson, the chief executive of England's 2018 bid.

Coincidentally or otherwise, Russia — ranked 140 out of 178 countries in the Press Freedom Index, and a country that has seen over 150 journalists killed in the last 15 years — and Qatar — ranked 121 — won the 2018 and 2022 votes.