First came Uranus, then Cronus and then Zeus – all were king of the gods before being violently overthrown, a fitting most metaphor for the vagaries of historical fashion.

Around 40 years ago there was a great team, full of attacking talent, whose dark side eventually obscured the beautiful game they were more than capable of playing.

Don Revie’s Leeds United – twice league champions, FA and League Cup winners, twice UEFA Cup winners – had wonderful, legendary players such as Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter, John Giles, Eddie Gray and Jack Charlton. Yet few would bracket them with the most famous and celebrated sides in English history – 19th century Preston or Aston Villa, Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal, Bill Nicholson’s Spurs, the Liverpool machine of the 1970s and 1980s, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal ‘Invincibles’, Sir Matt Busby’s Manchester United ‘Babes’ or Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-winners.

The sins of this particular side, one of the greatest ever in their native league, were thuggery and aggression on a scale which made them easy to admire, but hard to love. For every demolition of Southampton was a Charity Shield brawl against Liverpool or various other acts of referee-baiting, fist-pumping anger.

Another great team of this era were similarly undone. Helenio Herrera’s ‘La Grande Inter’, an outrageously talented yet equally cynical side who have been damned by history, dogged by accusations of match-fixing and demonised for popularising catenaccio, a system of football which was not inherently defensive but, through poorer imitations, became synonymous with the dark arts of tactically suffocating Italian football.

Another great club side, maybe the greatest of them all, one whose quality is so apparent that even the most heinous accusation would fail to truly overshadow it, also risks attaching a cutting caveat to their clear quality.


And the Champions League semi-final first leg between Real Madrid and Barcelona was a display of this ugly side of a beautiful team. A game that should be memorable for a wonderful solo goal by Lionel Messi to all but clinch a place in the final for one of the greatest club teams of all-time, was in fact marred by continual play-acting, cheating and petulance, with Barcelona the worst offenders.

The Catalans may have been provoked by Jose Mourinho’s characteristic gamesmanship; they may have been frustrated by Real Madrid’s (recent success with) defensive tactics; they may claim that the better team won through in the end, but this would be a most myopic reading of events.

Of course Mourinho is provocative in pre-match press conferences, but his use of mind games is standard practice, as the antics of Sir Alex Ferguson show. Madrid’s defensive solidity was entirely justifiable and had worked well of late, especially when compared to the 5-0 hammering Los Blancos received in November, and Barça cannot throw their toys out of the pram just because they struggle to break it down. Indeed, they may only have won through the underhand manner by which Dani Alves clearly contrived to get Pepe sent off, thereby freeing space for a previously subdued Messi to work his magic.

Alves in particular has bad form for ‘simulation’ and other offences, but he is hardly alone – any attempt at claiming the moral victory from last year’s semi-final defeat to Inter was completely invalidated by Sergio Busquets’ dive to get Thiago Motta sent off, thereby forcing a Nerazzurri side already protecting a lead no option but to mount an extraordinary, and successful, siege defence.

If there is one thing that rankles so much about Barcelona’s play-acting – other than the fact that as the best side by some distance they don’t need to do it – it is that they spend so much time trying to claim this moral highground, a boast of footballing purity that just does not ring true.

The Blaugrana’s much-vaunted academy is based on a club which has enormous debts despite generating more money than everyone else in La Liga bar Real Madrid, yet they still bulk up the youth squad with injections of cash that Arsenal boss Wenger, ever alert to ‘financial doping’, would never receive at Arsenal. It is all well and good playing intricate tiki-taka football that can be mesmerising to watch, but to act as if this gives the side the right to be allowed to attack teams at will, be indignant against massed defences and undermine the spirit of football is sheer arrogance. To demand the other team adapts to their style and to label them boring or practitioners of ‘anti-football’ when they refrain from laying themselves on a plate is haughty enough; to actively resort to foul means when your fairest fails is an extra layer of hypocrisy.

This Barcelona side are extraordinary: perhaps the best club side ever, with perhaps the best player ever; they play a brand of football that at times is exhilarating to watch and unstoppable to play against. They are destined to reside in pantheon of football gods next to the teams of Arrigo Sacchi, Rinus Michels, Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, full of players such as Franz Beckenbauer, Michel Platini, Romario, Zinedine Zidane and Alfedo di Stefano. But, should their shenanigans and skulduggery continue so plainly and constantly, Josep Guardiola’s Barcelona may sooner or later sit nearer the fallen idols of Herrera and Revie than they would like.