It is an image that is forever burnt into my mind: Sergio Busquets peeking through this fingers to see if his theatrical response to Thiago Motta’s challenge had succeeded in getting his opponent sent off. In the maelstrom that was that 2010 Champion’s League semi-final between Inter and Barcelona, it was the defining image of the soft ‘cheating’ side of Barcelona. That image – akin to the Rivaldo feint in 2002 or Cristiano Ronaldo winking – also served as the icing on the cake that acted as my overall opinion of Busquets. It is an opinion I have only just managed to let go of, to my own personal failing.
One cannot deny that his shameless act of gamesmanship rattled more than just my cage. It solidified many people’s lingering assumptions (at least in the English press) of a player somehow inherently against the ‘true’ values of football: honesty, effort and integrity. This thought stayed in my mind whilst watching him for several years after that fateful game. Whenever I saw him on the ball, I struggled to see past the red mist of my past fury. Almost irrespective of what he did with the ball, it was all I saw: Busquets the talentless cheat.
Feeding into that was my wider judgement of the player: that he was a hugely overrated midfielder. It was a position I took for years, standing by my poorest built of convictions with friends, family and fellow football fans. Key to my critique of the deep-lying lynchpin of modern Europe’s best domestic side was that he was a bad defensive midfielder. His image of being light and feeble was the antithesis of what I saw as the ideal defensive midfielder. In my head, a midfielder who sat deep to protect the back four and compliment his team’s attack from deep should fit the mould of the rugged enforcer. From Claude Makalele and Marc van Bommel to my personal ‘anti-Busquets’ Motta, these players were strong, powerful commanders of the central battleground. They rode above the rest of the pack with strong tackles, towering headers and guttural screams at wayward teammates. My ideal holding man was in essence the classic ‘British’ player. It was in this image that my judgement was so badly misguided.
To my primitive side, Sergio Busquets does not fit my fantasy mould. However, when you see him again, it is impossible to deny just how talented and integral he is to both his national and domestic sides. He does not muscle and tackle because it is not his strength. His skill comes from his uncanny ability to read possession; to be exactly where he needs to be to snaffle the ball mid-pass or catch the attacker offside. He never dives in because he so rarely has to, such is his positional intelligence. From that defensive standpoint, he then recycles the ball with such variation, precision and poise. Watching either Spain or Barcelona without him highlights his importance. Their styles of play – ones rooted in steady possession from the goalkeeper out – need his calm, unwavering ability to recycle possession even when under the heaviest of pressure. In reality, it is hard to think of few better fits of player and system.
If anyone tries to define Rivaldo as just the player diving against Turkey then I cannot wait to prove them wrong. Yet for so long, I was prepared to judge a player similar standards. In a small way, I will never shake my displeasure at Busquets’ playacting, but it cannot be his whole identity. If he was asked to play the enforcer in a team, then my lurking negativity would perhaps carry greater weight. In reality, when looked at without the fog of past emotion, there is no denying Busquets’ true identity: the perfectly suited cog in the heart of two of the twenty-first century’s most decorated sporting sides.