La Pulga, El Barca and “Prefigurative Cooperation”
“La pulga atómica” (the bionic flea), “el extraterrestre” (the extraterrestrial) or simply, “el mejor del mundo” (the world’s best). These are just a few of the nicknames football fans use for Lionel Messi. By now, his genius is unquestioned, evidenced by his growing award collection. In 2012, Messi was awarded his fourth Ballon D’ore, the highest award in world football, an unprecedented achievement in football history. These are now sitting next to his two European Golden Shoes, awarded to Europe’s top goal scorer, and a myriad other individual awards. In addition, Messi continues to break record after record, one of his latest being most goals scored in a calendar year (91), previously held by Gerd Muller (85) for 40 years. He is also Barcelona’s all-time leading goal scorer, and holds the world record for most consecutive goals in club competition. Not bad for a 26 year old!
It gets better with his highlight reel. Here is where your jaw really drops. Take for example his free kick goal against Uruguay in the world cup qualifiers in 2012. In a nod to Ronaldinho, his former Barcelona teammate, Messi kicks the ball under the defensive wall, which jumps in anticipation of a top corner shot. Fooled! Uruguay’s goalkeeper barely saw the ball going into his own net. Then, there’s Messi on a breakaway. In this situation, rather than shooting the ball or attempting to dribble past the goalie, he will often lob the ball into the net, leaving even the best keepers absolutely helpless as they watch the ball drift over their heads. At this point, defensemen can do little more than run back desperately towards the ball, sometimes running into goalposts or accidentally kicking the ball into their own net.
Then, who can forget his goal for Barcelona against Getafe in 2007? In an almost exact replica of Diego Maradona’s 1986 goal for Argentina in the World Cup quarterfinals against England, Messi ran half the field with the ball glued to his feet, evading five players before sliding the ball into the net past a sixth. The best goal in football history, according to many. Maradona himself has declared Messi his successor, but Galeano gets us closer to the truth. Maradona, he tells us, played with the ball attached to his foot, but Messi plays with the ball “inside his foot”, something that is “scientifically inexplicable” (Taringa). Indeed, by now, the debate is no longer whether he is the best football player today, but whether he is the best in the sport’s history. Perhaps the only thing keeping him from surpassing Pele’s legacy is that he lacks a world cup trophy. But what does explain Messi’s genius? His performance with Argentina during the 2010 World Cup gives us some clues.
During the World Cup in South Africa, many accused Messi of massively underperforming. Some even blamed him alone for the team’s disappointing performance. Some of these criticisms were warranted. Not only did Messi fail to score during Argentina’s five games at the World Cup, he also wasn’t much of a threat. Compared to his near magical performance with Barcelona in 2009, it was evident that in South Africa Messi just wasn’t Messi. In Argentina, the press and many fans reacted viscously, often mobilizing nationalist sentiments to explain this turn of events. Going far beyond the standard criticisms, he was often accused of not being Argentinian enough. After all, it was argued, Messi moved to Spain when he was 13, so he therefore lacks sufficient patriotism, supposedly the key ingredient for success. Heard in stadiums and seen on graffiti walls, “Messi no es Argentino” (Messi is not Argentinian), became the popular cat call of disappointed Argentinian fans. (Sturtridge et al). Indeed, in a 2012 poll in Argentina, he was ranked merely third-best sportsman. If disillusioned Argentinians only knew that Messi’s genius has nothing to do with his nationality or patriotism.
Others have tried to explain Messi’s success by pointing to some of his physical attributes and particular skills, a common explanation for success in any sport. For example, it is often noted that Messi is short, giving him a lower center of gravity, which explains his short bursts of speed and dribbling skills. Then, there’s his well roundedness: he can dribble, pass, shoot and run. He also has vision, intelligence, agility etc. All of this is true. However, this list of attributes and skills at best merely explains why Messi is a great player, not why he is the greatest. After all, all great players have unique skills and attributes that make them stand out. Furthermore, there are many players with similar characteristics that are hardly worth talking about (short players abound in soccer, for example). Hence, to really explain Messi’s success, we must look beyond biological traits or individual skills. Messi’s real secret is found in what I call “prefigurative cooperation”.
From “Fragmented Cooperation” to “Prefigurative Cooperation”
A central theme in liberal and conservative political theory is the question of whether people are inherently cooperative or conflictual. Depending on which side you’re on, society is on an inevitable path towards either democracy and cooperation (liberal), or conflict and anarchy (conservative). In contrast to these naturalizing and linear perspectives, a Marxian approach argues that cooperation, competition and conflict are not inherent qualities in people, but rather determined by how society concretely produces and re-produces itself. Using this approach to look specifically at capitalist society, Marx argued that cooperation and competition interact in a dynamic and complex manner, giving the system specific tendencies and counter tendencies. From this perspective, the future is therefore neither predetermined, nor a blank canvas on which anything is possible.
On the one hand, Marx tells us, capital produces a systematic division of labor whereby workers become increasingly “one-sided”. Rather than producing the commodity as a whole through a variety of highly skilled labor, workers become ever more specialized, producing increasingly fewer aspects of one single commodity. In addition, a sharp division is created between intellectual and manual labor, with managers, scientists, and other experts on one side, and manual workers on the other. Hence, rather than being a space where workers can freely share their skills and abilities, the workplace becomes a space of competition, fragmentation and alienation.
On the other hand, capital systematically brings workers together who in their partiality and specialization must nevertheless rely on one another to produce the product as a whole. Without this kind of cooperation, successfully producing any single commodity would be impossible. Marx (1976) captures both these aspects of production in capitalism when he tells us that “the commodity, from being the individual product of an independent craftsmen, becomes the social product of a union of craftsmen, each of whom performs one, and only one, of the constituent partial operations” (p. 457). Hence, in capitalism, cooperation needs to be understood dialectically, merely as “fragmented cooperation”.
Although fragmented, this particular form of cooperation nevertheless unleashes the power of productivity, as previously separate forms of labor are brought together and individual operations are simplified. Furthermore, as large numbers of workers are brought together the advantages of “simple cooperation” are also systematically unleashed. These advantages consist of the qualitative leap in productivity that exists when combining a certain amount of workers to perform a particular task that would be impossible to accomplish otherwise, that is, even if a larger quantity of individual labours was employed. In other words, certain tasks, such as harvesting, for example, are possible only when a certain amount of labor is combined at once.
In addition, as productivity increases, the labor time necessary for the production of useful items decreases, making capitalism a highly efficient system. This captivated liberal political economists, most notably, Adam Smith. Marveling at the efficiency of pin-making factories in England, he came to see capitalism as the only possible system capable of meeting people’s supposed ever-increasing material needs, even of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Hence, the fragmentation and self interest expressed in the capitalist social division of labor became glorified by liberal political economy. As Smith (1982) famously tells us, it is not to the benevolence of the butcher or brewer that we should look, but rather their self-interest.
Challenging the fragmented cooperation glorified by liberal political economy, Marx interpreted the unprecedented efficiency of capitalism as merely creating potential, rather than a fait accompli for humanity. Hence, Marx is quick to point out that the benefits of fragmented cooperation primarily accrue to a minority, the capitalist class, rather than society as a whole. For example, the capitalist pays wages to the individual worker only, not to the collective. In addition, rather than there being a growth in workers’ capacities, capital fosters the growth of an underdeveloped class of “unskilled laborers” whose degree of specialization turns the worker into “a fragment of himself”, and a mere “appendage of the machine”. Finally, the labor process becomes increasingly regulated and supervised by the capitalist, encouraging further suspicion and competition amongst workers. For the conservative minded, this can make civil society indeed seem like simply “a war of all against all”, to recall Thomas Hobbes’ (1976) famous words.
Although the potentialities of a new society normally lay dormant in capitalism, at times, they do emerge to the surface. As Marx puts it, “when the worker cooperates in a planned way with others, he strips of the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species” (p. 447). Hence, although clearly aware of their limits, Marx, acknowledged that cooperatives demonstrate how workers themselves can consciously take control of the labor process. Cooperatives can therefore give life and make explicit the merely implicit powers of the collective worker. In other words, they prefigure a new society, that is, they show us a glimpse of the future within the present. In doing so, cooperatives go beyond fragmented cooperation, expressing what I call “prefigurative cooperation”. In the world of football, we can see prefigurative cooperation in the style of play known as “total football”, nearly perfected by Football Club Barcelona.
Prefigurative Cooperation: Total Football and Football Club Barcelona
Although Barca is the best exponent of total football today, this approach was developed gradually over time, beginning with Argentina’s River Plate of the 1940s. The so-called, “maquina de River” (the machine from River), often considered one of the best teams of all time, radically broke from the tactical norms of the day.
La Maquina River
One of the unusual characteristics of this team was how its players positioned themselves on the field. Instead relying on fixed positions for every player in the field, such as 1-4-4-2 (one goalie, four defenseman, four midfielders, and two strikers), la maquina played with what some called a 1-10 formation, meaning that, except for the goalkeeper, everybody played everywhere (Galeano, p. 86).
Flexible positions meant that, at least to some extent, players needed to know how to play every position, rather than being stuck with the skills and abilities related to a single one. Well roundedness and intelligence, therefore, was valued at least as much as athleticism. For example, Jose Manuel Moreno was known for his goalscoring, but it was Adolfo Pedernera that stood out the most. A brilliant on the field tactician, he became known simply as “el maestro”. La Maquina was a short-lived phenomenon, however, playing only a total of 18 games.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that total football really developed as such. This time, it was the Dutch club Ajax and the Dutch national team that were breaking all the rules. Ajax became nearly unbeatable, winning three consecutive European cups beginning in 1971. At the center of the team was Johan Cruyff, freely moving around the pitch, while his teammates rotated positions to compensate. Cruyff’s innovative style was rewarded with the Ballon d’Or in 1971, 1973 and 1974, a record shared with France’s Michelle Platini until 2012, the year Messi surpassed it.
For its part, the Dutch national team became a sensation during the 1974 World Cup, going unbeaten and allowing only one goal until their defeat against Germany in the final. Once again Cruyff played a central role here. Echoing the style of River’s Pedernera, Cruyff performed the role of both conductor of the orchestra and musician (Galeano, p. 164). The Dutch side became known as “the orange machine” for what appeared to be a highly coordinated style of play. Building on the achievements of River’s la maquina, by the 1970s, the orange machine established two key ingredients of total football, namely flexible positions, and intelligent players that could make tactical decisions during a game.
As groundbreaking as Ajax was in the 1970s, only one club can be said to have taken total football to its pinnacle, namely present-day Football Club Barcelona. Barca’s style was imported into Spain via Cruyff who became one the club’s most successful managers. Cruyff won 11 trophies between 1988 and 1994, including 4 in Spain’s La Liga. He is credited with developing Barca’s famous style known as Tiki Taka, characterized by incessant and often rapid passing throughout the whole pitch, and a seemingly obsessive desire to control the rhythm of the game by keeping possession of the ball. Add to this the flexible position approach established years earlier, and you get a style of play that came to epitomize the saying, “the best defense is a good offense”.
Indeed, Tiki Taka has allowed Barcelona to dominate in ball possession both within Spain and across Europe. For example, in the 2011/2012 UEFA Champion’s League they led in ball possession with an average of 68%, that’s 12 points higher than the second place, Bayern Munich. In Spain’s La Liga the numbers are even more impressive, with recent season averages as high as 75%. This style makes it very difficult for the opposing team to score any goals. In addition, it tires the opposing team, as players often fall into the trap of chasing the the ball around. It becomes a bit of a waiting game for Barca, as it must patiently wait for an opening or an error by their rivals in order to score a goal. It’s telling that the other nickname for River’s “la maquina” was “Caballeros de la angustia” (“the gentleman of anguish”), as fans were forced to wait patiently for the ball to finally go in the net. The same could be set for Barca.
As successful as Barcelona was with Cruyff as manager, the team’s best years were still to come. Josep “Pep” Guardiola, who played for Barca as a midfielder under Cruyff, became manager in 2008, taking over from Frank Rijkaard, who also played under Cruyff in the Netherlands. Guardiola considers Cruyff to be his most important influence. “Cruyff is the one who started it all” (Goal), were Guardiola’s recent comments about the Dutch coach’s contribution to Barca. In his first season coaching Barca, the team won trophies in three key competitions: La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions Lague. During his 5 years with the Catalonian side, Barca won an unprecedented 15 trophies, making Guardiola the club’s most successful coach. Parallel to this is Spain’s unprecedented success on the world stage. Utilizing Barca’s style of play and many of its players, Spain has won two consecutive Euro cups, and the World Cup in 2012.
Barcelona’s new away shirt features the colours of the Catalonian flag.
Tiki Taka’s success is often attributed to a complicated and mechanistic tactical system that is decreed by the coaching staff from above. As we have seen, this characterization has plagued total football since its inception, hence the constant comparisons to machines (la maquina de River, the orange machine). However, as Galeano notes there’s nothing machine-like about this style of football. Indeed, Carlos Peucelle, coach of River’s “la maquina” in the 1940s, thinks of total football as an attempt to develop well-balanced human beings that play on the field, rather than robots that produce machinelike results, as is the case in most modern football (2011).
In recent interviews with FIFA, Guardiola confirms this crucial aspect of total football, explaining that as a coach one needs to adapt the tactics to the qualities of the players and that, ultimately, “the tactics are the players” (Peru 21). Rather than being a complicated system, Guardiola continues,
The principle behind Barcelona’s style was very simple: play with the ball, do everything with it. Every footballer around the world decided to play football because one day in some corner of their small village or big city, wherever it was, they kicked a ball around and enjoyed it. Barça’s system, even if people say it’s very complicated, is as simple as that: we’ll get the ball and just let them try and take it off us; let’s pass it between us as much as possible and see if we can score a goal. That’s what my predecessors handed down to me and the message I tried to get across while I was there too. (FIFA)
In other words, far from being a mechanical system devised on the blackboard by the coaching staff, total football, compared to other approaches, is to a significant extent the expression of the players themselves.
What then explains the constant comparisons to machines that total football teams get? The answer is that people have become used to a style of play based on the individual strengths of one or two superstars. Hence, what appears to be a mechanistic approach, is actually one based on self conscious cooperation. Take the following statistic: halfway through the 2012 season Barcelona completed a total of 13,475 passes. That’s over 5,000 passes more than Real Madrid who are second in La Liga and completed only 8,031 passes. Constant passing is so ingrained in the team that one often gets the impression that scoring is secondary, almost as if cooperation itself, rather than winning, is the goal!
Barca’s passion for cooperation on the field is less surprising once we remember that, as its slogan goes, it is “més que un club” (more than a club). Since the 1930s, Barcelona has been a member-owned cooperative, promoting the values of solidarity and democracy, both on and off the field. Consequently, Barca developed a culture uniquely receptive to total football. Foer (2009) accurately captures how Barca’s member-fans feel about their team:
If a coach adopts utilitarian tactics that skimp on artistry, he gets sacked, no matter the trophies he has accumulated. Supporters of Barca want nothing more badly than victory, except for romance. (p. 227)
The “romantic” desire to cooperate, ingrained in the fans and the club, also explains why Barca always plays the same way, regardless of the opponent or how any particular game is going (something they are often criticized for). This is quite different from most teams, which tend to adapt their tactics to their opponent and on how a particular game develops. Barca’s approach is rather to “impose” its own style and identity on whoever its opponent might be. Cooperation, then, is not merely Barca’s tactic or strategy, but its raison d’etre. Through self-conscious cooperation, Barca indeed begins to “strip of the fetters” of individuality and reaches its full development as a team. It should therefore come as no surprise that total football, with its cooperativist ethos, has flourished here considerably longer than in the Dutch and Argentinian cases.
Another crucial aspect of Barca’s cooperative approach is evident in the way the team breaks down the rigid division between mental and manual labour so characteristic of capitalism. In football, as in most sports, this division is most evident in the relationship between player (manual labour) and coach (intellectual labour), with the first simply carrying out the tactics developed by the latter. However, beginning at the youth level, the coaching staff favors intelligence over strength or speed. As one youth level coach put it in a training video: “the most important thing in training is the process of thinking”. This approach carries through on to the professional team also. Indeed, it is well known that Guardiola admires “intelligent” players. For example, this is what he had to say about Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso in 2007:
“All midfielders can run, pass and tackle – but Xabi has much more. He plays the game with his head. When you combine that intelligence and vision with the talent in his feet, the ball flows much better. With him sometimes the ball smiles.” (Kop)
Guardiola need not envy Barca’s arch rival, Real Madrid, however. He has Andrés Iniesta. Known as “el cerebro” (the brain), Iniesta channels the best of both Cryuff and Pedernera. With an astonishing ability to twist and turn, he can keep possession of the ball even when surrounded, drawing opposing players in, and waiting for just the right moment to make the final pass to Messi. If that’s not an option, he’ll twirl back and regroup, slowing the game down just enough to find a new, seemingly imperceptible opening on the other side of the pitch. It is Iniesta, more than anyone else in the team, that defines Barca and exemplifies the spirit of total football. Not surprisingly, when asked about his role as the one who makes the team “tick”, his response was:
I think a great team comes about when each person plays to his full potential. Barça are better with Leo in the team and Leo plays better with Barça. Football isn’t an individual sport, it’s a team game in which individuals stand out much more when everyone’s pulling together. I play better when Leo’s there and he’s a better player alongside us and that’s what matters: the fact we all feel we’ve a part to play in doing things right. (FIFA, “Iniesta”)
Not only is Iniesta’s response characteristic of Barca’s unselfish team spirit, it also reveals that this is a team that goes beyond formal collectivism, that is, collectivism for its own sake, which is just as problematic as an individualistic approach. It is worth highlighting some of his words: “… a great team comes about when each person plays to his full potential…individuals stand out much more when everyone’s pulling together”. Echoing Marx’s vision of a post-capitalist society in which “the development of each would be the precondition for the development of all”, Iniesta’s comments show us the real secret behind Messi’s individual genius: Barca’s commitment to cooperation. Indeed, the ball “inside” Messi’s left foot that Galeano speaks of is cooperation unleashed.
Importantly, the dialectic works the other way as well. As Iniesta noted, not only does Messi depend on Barca to be at his best, Barca also depends on Messi. As many commentators have noticed, without Messi, Barca often lacks creativity up front, as was perhaps most evident during their disastrous performance against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League. Hence, in Barca, we see a dialectic in which collective well being is dependent on the individual, and vice versa. Importantly, this is a challenge to dominant capitalist relations in which the development and well being of the individual (the capitalist) is dependent on the deformation and underdevelopment of the collective (the workers).
In addition, in this new dialectic, individual greatness acquires a different texture. For example, we can recall the following comments by Cristiano Ronaldo, not unrepresentative of the attitude of many great stars. When asked why some fans taunt him during games, he said: “I think that because I am rich, handsome and a great player people are envious of me” (Independent). Now consider these words from Messi,
I prefer to win titles with the team ahead of individual awards or scoring more goals than anyone else. I’m more worried about being a good person than being the best football player in the world. When all this is over, what are you left with? When I retire, I hope I am remembered for being a decent guy. (Sportsmail)
These words are hardly recognizable as having come from a professional athlete, much less from one of history’s best.
Lionel Messi, world’s greatest footballer, wants to be remembered as a nice guy.
Contradictions and Limits
Defying liberal and conservative assumptions about human nature and history, Football Club Barcelona shows us a glimpse of the post capitalist future right here in the present. In nearly perfecting total football, the club breaks down the capitalist social division of labor, encourages the development of multifaceted players, and self consciously takes advantage of the powers of cooperation. In doing so, Barca expresses what I have called here “prefigurative cooperation”, a more fully developed form of cooperation expressed merely implicitly within the fragmented and alienated capitalist one. And this, I argued, is the real secret behind Messi’s individual genius. Through Barcelona’s Tiki Taka, we therefore see how in capitalism fragmentation and cooperation, present and future, individual and collective interact in a dynamic manner, making history neither predetermined nor a blank canvas.
Glimpses, by nature, are fleeting and unstable, however. A cooperative future remains bound by the daily pressures of capital that, over time, tend to pull it back into the fragmented and alienated present. Furthermore, even at their best, cooperative experiments are far from utopias and can be used to legitimate the status quo. For example, in the 1930s, Football Club Barcelona ranked third in Franco’s most wanted list (after communists and anarchists). Nevertheless, the club was spared from a frontal attack, as Franco believed it to provide enough of a distraction for the popular classes (Foer, 2009).
A similar dynamic could be in effect today as Barcelona fans continue to pack Camp Nou, even as Spain continues to suffer some of the worst effects of the global economic crisis. In addition, Barca’s new away shirt now features the colors of the Catalonian flag. This risks playing into the region’s most recent push for independence led by the neoliberal Artur Mas, an initiative that contains little of the Catalonian people’s historically progressive and legitimate struggle for self-determination.
This complex and contradictory role that prefigurative cooperation plays in society reminds us that a simple evolutionary road beyond capitalism is not possible. Hence, if we are to develop a post-capitalist future, there is simply no way around it, workers and communities will need to self organize and struggle, and in the process develop their own mass political organs capable of challenging the political and economic status quo. However, if such movements or parties cannot integrate the practices and values of prefigurative cooperation, such as participatory democracy, collective self-development and conscious collaboration, the future will remain frustratingly out of reach.
2013 congress of Partido para la Ciudad Futura (Party for the City of the Future) in Rosario, Argentina. Source: Partido para la Ciudad Futura.
Fortunately, we can see progress in Latin America where its growing cooperative movement is developing new political initiatives. In Argentina, for example, we can point to the city of Rosario’s Partido Para la Ciudad Futura (Party for the City of the Future), which began as a social movement that prioritized cooperative production. We can also point to Neuquén’s Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores (Workers Left Front), born out of FASINPAT, Argentina’s most emblematic recuperated factory. Supporting and learning from these and other similar initiatives is a crucial task for the left today.
Manuel Larrabure is a PhD candidate in the Political Science department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His research is on Latin America’s “new cooperative movement” and “21st-century socialism”. He is currently in Latin America conducting fieldwork.
 In 2012, Guardiola took a sabbatical from coaching, and is now the coach for Bayern Munich. Barcelona’s current head coach is Gerardo Martino.
 Not surprisingly, given his style, Xabi Alonso became central in developing Spanish Tiki Taka in the Euro and World Cups.
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