Three hundred sixty minutes that leave two teams at a stalemate would normally be considered useless. After all, isn’t the point of competition to compete, with side eventually deemed the winner? Over short periods of time, draws are practical, but over 360 minutes? What’s the use of a stalemate if crowning the winner is our goal?
Four games this season from Atlético Madrid and Barcelona have challenged that notion. Except for the most partisan of Blaugrana and Atleti supporters, few could have cared about which side won today. Such a result would have distracted from the purpose, if not undermined it entirely. Barcelona’s full technical precision was again on display, pressed to its limits by an Atlético side that’s taken a completely contrasting approach. Eschewing the game’s new dogma of possession and midfield dominance, Atleti reaffirmed their status as Barcelona’s equals, a status made all the more brilliant as they’ve brought out their opponents’ best while doing so.
Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say so, but it feel true right now: Today’s was one of the best-played games of the European season, something we’d be fawning over if we hadn’t seen it three times before. We saw it twice in August, when the teams played 0-0 and 1-1 matches in the Spanish Supercopa. We saw it again in January as the side waged 0-0 in La Liga. The same qualities that have vaulted Diego Simeone’s team to the top of the Spanish table force Barcelona to use every bit of their technical mastery just to keep up, just as the Blaugrana’s nearly unmatched, exacting control bleeds every drop of effort from the Colchoneros.
It’s the perfect match of opposing styles. It’s soccer’s yin against football’s yang. It’s modernism, possession, and technique matched against timeless emotion and organization. It’s a team that looks beyond the typical trappings of athleticism and brawn facing a side that leverages their power to complement their passion. From the same league, both sporting Argentine coaches, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid couldn’t be more different, yet, after each set of 90 minutes they play, the scoresheet’s left them beautifully identical.
It’s a contrast makes results like today’s 1-1 special – more valuable than a win could have been for either side. Because at this point, a victory would defeat the purchase. The battle’s balance of physique, application, and philosophy has produced some of the best soccer of our lifetimes: what’s become a 360-minute marathon, where each side has brought evermore perfect free soccer out of the other.
Would this same perfection be able to beat Bayern, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, or any of our time’s other great teams? In the wake of what we saw today at the Nou Camp, it’s a scornful view. It’s simple, greedy, short-sighted. It overlooks the obvious: This matchup, over the course of what will six games (by the time the teams meet on the last day of the Spanish season) has given us everything we could have reasonable asked for. To turn off today’s game and ask for something better is to take to watch another sport.
In a sphere were we obsess over results and define quality in terms of bottom lines, Atlético and Barça remind us of the bigger picture. Sport, ultimately, is meaningless, which means there’s nay so much significance you can put into a win or a loss. On a more basic level, the game is as much about the enjoyment is provides as the result. Talent, mastery, performance, and love all translate to victories, but no game can been seen in terms of its victor alone. The game only exists where two teams can meet, and in the space, through four matchups this season, Barcelona and Atlético have provided more enjoyment than was could have possibly expected.
It is, admittedly, a romantic notion, written while still reflecting on today’s game. There is, however, the unmistakable feeling that we’re seeing something special – a confluence that defies comparison in terms of its style, results, and, now meeting in Champions League, stakes.
And ironically, as those stakes escalate, determining a winner becomes even less important. In fact, it may ruin everything if, over the teams’ final two games for the season, anything but esoteric tiebreakers put distance between them. Let away goals decide who advances in Champions League, and let other results determine who claims La Liga.
But in the battle that really matters — the one we’ll get to see two more times this year — let nothing throw off this perfect, symbiotic balance. If anything, find a way to make these games last longer.