In the early hours of Monday morning, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tweeted a picture of himself celebrating one of his goals in Barcelona’s 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid in the Bernabéu Stadium. Alongside it was a similar pose from the Japanese animation character Goku, and the words: “Hello from the finished player.”
So playful. So defiant. So Auba.
He is the epitome of the sporting man-child multimillionaire. In January, Arsenal deposed him as club captain and were willing to write off his £350,000-a-week wage by keeping him isolated, lest his threat to the discipline demanded by club manager Mikel Arteta rub off on others.
Arteta persuaded Arsenal’s American owners to do the same thing a couple of years ago by offloading Mesut Özil to Turkey. And, one has to say, the new team-orientated Gunners are turning their season around.
But so is Aubameyang. The “finished player”, nearing his 33rd birthday, left London at the end of January after he broke club rules by returning late for duty from a visit to his sick mother. It was the end of a turbulent period in which the player had contracted Covid, then withdrawn from Africa Cup of Nations – where he was due to lead his father’s country, Gabon – after a scan revealed lesions on his heart probably caused by the virus.
Hardly the player, then, it seemed, to raise hopes at Barça, a giant of a club fallen on such hard, bankrupt times that it had to release Lionel Messi, the best player of his generation, on a free transfer to Paris Saint Germain.
But Aubameyang has paid off and, not for the first time in recent history, Barcelona is playing beautifully while living on bank loans that almost defy
financial gravity. The club reported debts of €1.3bn (£1.1bn) this season and offloaded as many players as it could. But it still managed to persuade Xavi Hernández to give up his immensely rewarded role in Qatar to return and try to reset the pass-and-move beauty that he and Messi and Andrés Iniesta orchestrated in the famed burgundy and blue colours.
Except that nothing is what it seems. Barça on Sunday played in a yellow strip, the nationalist colours of Catalonia. Real ditched their all-white kit for all-black, ostensibly to denote the 120th year of their formation, but also a financial arrangement with Adidas and a Japanese sponsor.
There is a price for everything, even the most revered contest in Spanish football. Yet Sunday’s 249th version of this game still had its shock value, its
sporting essence, its beauty.
From the start, Xavi demanded the tempo that was instilled in him at the Barça academy under Johan Cruyff and his protege, Pep Guardiola. Pass, move, find space, keep the ball, and if you lose it even for a second, harass
the opponent until you win it back.
Xavi was the general, in effect the on-field coach, even in the company of maestros Messi and Iniesta. Anyone who witnessed the 2011 Champions
League final at Wembley, where Barcelona mesmerised Sir Alex Ferguson’s finest Man United, saw perhaps the best pure football of our lifetime, masterminded by Xavi.
And apparently, his free time in the desert was spent in a darkened room
studying videos of every minute of every game his beloved Barça played – or rather failed to play in the declining spirit under a succession of coaches ending up with Ronald Koeman.
When the lawyer Joan Laporta regained the presidency of the club last year he did not hesitate to do what instinct told him – to give the coaching job to the Cruyff believer Xavi – just as Laporta did when he appointed Guardiola in 2008.
Former players, former academy boys, confirmed Cruyff followers. Xavi said recently that when he completed 100 days in the role that he undertook late last November it felt like 100 years. His players, those who are left and those whom Laporta has managed to beg or borrow on salaries not comparable to the great Barcelona days, find everything they do on the field – and in life – is recorded by the head coach and the fitness trainer. Recorded and reviewed by Xavi and each player individually.
Aubameyang is responding like a man born again, scoring literally in every game and sometimes, like Sunday in the Bernabéu, more than once. Real were without their own leader, the injured Karim Benzema, but the Madrid team that is the runaway leader in the Spanish league was simply outplayed and overrun by a Barcelona that had not won any of the last five Clásicos.
Auba scored twice, a header and an audacious lob over the keeper. Ferran
Torres, a 21-year-old for whom Barcelona will have to find €46m (£38.5m) to pay Manchester City, also scored, as did the academy full-back Ronald Araújo. And Ousmane Dembélé, who had failed to live up to his price tag until Xavi arrived, provided a stream of fine crosses from the right.
One night does not make a season. Aubameyang needs to sustain his inspirational form. Xavi must keep them all at it until the season ends, and then the president will have to conjure up the funds to go forward and make Europe believe El Barça is sustainable.
Many of us are biased in their favour. Like an in-form Aubameyang, we are childlike in the belief that sport played so splendidly is captivating, however mercenary the age.