Thursday, July 23, 2009

Defending the Fantasista?

It appears that just over a week after FutbolNation followed the lead of every Spanish daily and announced the Eto'o-Ibra trade, Eto'o has agreed to terms and will be joining Internazionale Milan alongside Hleb and a stack of euros - 45 million to be precise. Meanwhile, Barcelona snag Ibrahimovic. And that's it.

Considering Eto'o is probably the best pure striker on earth right now, it's hard to defend the transfer. Guardiola's explanation that the transfer was based on his "nose" or a "feeling" (uttered in English) seems ludicrous and insulting to the player. Add on to this that the Barcelona press and Barca president Joan Laporta insist on categorizing this trade as inexpensive and completely unlike Real Madrid's acquisitions (it seems including players in the deal demonstrates that well-known Catalan savvy was at play), and I'm laughing hysterically with a twinge of anger.

So, can the transfer be defended in any way? The answer is...shockingly...yes. Especially in Barcelona.

First, a few facts.

The transfer was expensive. Exorbitantly so. Eto'o is being valued at 25 million, perhaps in reference to Manchester City's offer. This, however, is deceiving. Barcelona wanted to get rid of Samuel so much, they'd agreed to accept a lower fee. Plus, this figure was distorted by Barcelona announcing to the world that they wanted to get rid of the leper named Samuel Eto'o at any cost. So Eto'o is probably actually worth somewhere between 30 and 40 million euros - even with his contract expiring next year (and in this summer's market these figures seem conservative, especially in light of Barca buying Eto'o five years ago for 24 million). Throw in 45 million in cash, and Hleb (whose year-long loan is valued unanimously by the Spanish press at 7 million) and you're looking at 82 to 92 million euros for Ibra.

Both players are the same age. Though Zlatan's picked up his goalscoring recently, you can't honestly say both players fare equally well in that department. Eto'o had 30 in the league last year, 4 in Champions League. Ibra had 25 and 1 respectively. Ibra does add a bit of an aerial game lacking in Barcelona, and with Barca's midfield he may get better distribution next year. But that's still eight goals over two competitions. In five years at Barca Eto'o played in 177 games, scoring 121 goals (0.68). In three years at Inter Ibra scored 68 goals in 126 games (0.54).

So both economically and in terms of goalscoring (the true measure of a striker), the deal tilts drastically in favor of the Cameroonian killer and Inter. Throw in that Ibra is often, and rightfully, criticized for his disappearing acts in big games, while Eto'o is likely one of the most clucth players in football today (he scored the first goal in each of Barca's last two Champions League finals) and it looks completely lopsided.

In terms of assists and goals Barcelona will likely tread water next year. And the "Eto'o as miscreant" accusation is somewhat of a red herring. Eto'o was a true professional on the pitch, if not off it. Ibra has a temper too, and has fallen out with Mourinho and Sweden's Lagerback over playing time. Eto'o works harder on defense while Ibra is a more classic striker roaming up top. If anything, Barca may take a step down. So, how again, is the trade defensible?

Simple. Every team has their priorities, and Barca's are rather distinct. Real Madrid has played beautiful and ugly football, but these are just means to and end - winning. Barcelona has never been able to win in any way other than beautifully. And while Eto'o may be more effective, clutch, and hungry then Ibra, the Swede is, at the end of the day "Ibracadabra." A fantasista in the traditional Italian sense of the word.

Creative, full of trickery and deception, Zlatan is quick to see a pass invisible to even the most astute defender. His game thrives off of sleight of foot, misdirection, and beautiful touches. He is a creative midfielder with a striker's finish. And in Barcelona, where style and aestheticism have always come before winning (due to, or in spite of Real's dominance), the Ibra-Eto'o trade somehow makes sense. For Guardiola and Barcelona, they had the best, most attractive team in the world last year - there is nothing left to win, just more beauty to which one can aspire. And with Zlatan in the mix, it may end up that Messi and Henry blend into a more attractive footballing trio.

More potent? Unlikely. Better? Hard to imagine. More clutch. Definitely not. But this is what Barcelona is, and will be. Like it or not. In a sense, I respect the ambition. As a fan, I would find the move unforgivable. Because, at the end of the season, at what cost will the additional heel flicks, no-look passes, stepovers, and roulettes come? Less goals? Less critical plays? A power struggle between Messi and Ibra? At some point, doesn't a team need a direct, go-for-goal scorer? Maybe so, and Barcelona won't have one.

It will be hard to fault Barcelona if they play better and win two titles. It may be hard to fault them if they play better and win even one title, considering their past season was, quite literally, historical. And while after a treble the sensation is "What's left?" The reality is, a top club can never think that the only thing they can add to a team is beauty. The titles are out there, and more are available after a winning season (European SuperCup, Club World Cup, Spanish Supercup).

So, if they win no titles, the beautiful plays may come at a very high price indeed. Especially if a title is lost as Ibra just misses one of those shots Sammie would have ripped into the back of the net. Or Ibra dribbles away an open shot at a critical moment. Then Barca wouldn't have just gotten the worse deal. They would have actively lost on the transfer.

The goal count between these two next year will be an interesting duel. It's hard to imagine Zlatan will score more than Eto'o, but the effects each may have on their teams should be more telling than numbers. In his five years at Barcelona the team never won a league or the Champions League with Eto'o playing less than 30 games domestically or 10 games on the continent. The Camp Nou is paying Inter to take away a legend - the third highest goalscorer in the club's history.

It appears likely that the blaugrana will be sitting and stewing at the end of next season, much like madridistas did after Madrid undervalued Eto'o and sold him to Barcelona. Both Spanish giants have now wrongly overlooked Eto'o, but Barcelona adds insult to injury by overpaying to make the costly mistake.

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