Unsightly theatrics dim Barcelona’s brilliance

To be remembered and respected as a truly exceptional team,

perhaps the best ever, Barcelona must stamp out the playacting that

tarnishes its oh-so graceful soccer.

Tuesday against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou would be a good

place for its players to let their ball skills, not unsightly

theatrics, do the talking. By rising above what is expected to be

an ill-tempered match, Barcelona can redeem itself.

Rolling like tumbleweed on the field in feigned mortal agony or

exaggerating the pain of a brush to the face from a rival isn’t

just uncool and unmanly, it’s also cheating if designed to get the

referee to whip out a yellow or red card.

That means you Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez.

That trio all looked guilty of making needless drama from

admittedly bruising challenges in Barcelona’s 2-0 Champions League

semifinal, first-leg defeat of Madrid last week. A dollop of

makeup, lights, cameras, action! and the setting could have been

Hollywood, not the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

Slow-motion video that aggrieved Madrid posted on its Web site

suggested that Pepe may not even have grazed Alves’ right calf with

his studs-first tackle that earned him a red card in the 61st

minute, altering the course of the match.

Even if there was contact, Alves made the absolute most of it,

rolling across the grass like a 4-year-old in gym class.

Perhaps unfairly, the melodramatic way in which Busquets

collapsed, clutching his face, from a throat-high slap from Madrid

defender Marcelo was reminiscent of Robert Capa’s famed ”Falling

Soldier” photo. The black-and-white image supposedly captured the

fatal shooting of a Spanish Civil War rifleman but some Spanish

researchers think it may have been faked.

Pedro for some reason also clutched his left eye socket after a

thumping body-check from Alvaro Arbeloa, although Madrid’s video

again suggests that the aforementioned eye did not touch the Madrid

defender. Capping the dismaying ugliness of it all was the way in

which both sides’ players repeatedly harangued and surrounded

referee Wolfgang Stark like squawking dolphins around a trainer

with a bucket of fish.

Such tactics and behavior should be beneath a team that makes an

art form of kicking and sharing a ball.

This blowout of ”clasicos” – four Barca-Madrid matches in 18

days – hasn’t been much of a spectacle. Absorbingly tense but not

pleasing to the eye. Fear of losing to their classic rival seems to

have suppressed both teams’ drive to win. Still, Barcelona has won

the moral high ground by largely hewing to its philosophy of

attack, attack, attack. That has had the corollary effect of making

Madrid’s understandably defensive tactics and play-blocking

physicality look as nasty as a kid trying to tear the wings off a

butterfly.

But winning cleanly and honestly is important, too. That’s what

Barca manager Pep Guardiola should tell his players before sending

them out Tuesday night for that place in the Champions League May

28 final at Wembley. Their expected opponents are Manchester

United, a team which doesn’t regularly resort to shameful theatrics

to trick referees, especially since Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2009 move

to Madrid.

Hard to imagine United strongmen like Wayne Rooney or defender

Rio Ferdinand pretending they’ve been blinded, maimed or otherwise

poleaxed by a rival player’s faint touch. To be fair, Barcelona’s

Lionel Messi also isn’t in the habit of making an oversized fuss of

the many rough tackles he’s subjected to, which is another of the

many reasons to like and admire the Argentine heir to Diego

Maradona.

The stain of play-acting lasts for eternity on YouTube.

Rivaldo’s Razzie-worthy dive at the 2002 World Cup – when the

Brazilian pretended to have been struck in the face by a ball that

actually hit his thigh, getting Turkey’s Hakan Unsal sent off – has

been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Millions have laughed

at the young Chilean player who made a fool of himself this year by

grabbing the arm of an Ecuador opponent and whacking himself in the

face with it.

Barca’s Busquets has also accumulated a big audience with his

thespian turn in the Champions League semifinal last year, when he

made a mountain of a backward hand to the throat from Inter Milan’s

Thiago Motta.

Surely, Barcelona doesn’t want to be cast as a team of whiners

and divers. The high quality of its soccer deserves honest play of

the highest order, too.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.