Barcelona lost horribly, 3-0, to Benfica on Wednesday in Champions League. They’ve lost both their group-stage matches so far, both times 3-0. They’re sorry junk, the most juiceless and miserable Barcelona team of my adult life, and furthermore in incredibly deep organizational shit: Broke, with mountains of debt, in desperate need of the financial windfall from a deep Champions League run that now looks, well, ah, let’s just say not super likely.
Very little verging on none of that is the precise fault of one Luuk de Jong, the 31-year-old Dutch striker whom the club loaned away from Sevilla on transfer deadline day, with Antoine Griezmann leaving, Leo Messi gone, Philippe Coutinho just kinda shitty, Sergio Aguero and Ousmane Dembélé and Ansu Fati (at that point) injured, and hopeless grasps at other last-minute striker-corps fortifications going nowhere. He’s also not, so far as I can tell, in any way to be blamed for dead-duck manager Ronald Koeman’s baffling choice, 32 minutes into Wednesday’s match and down 1-0, to move midfielder Frenkie de Jong (blessedly, no relation)—to that point Barcelona’s best attacking player by some margin—to center-back, roughly as far from the team’s efforts at generating goals as he could be sent without getting saltwater in his shoes. Sure, OK, yes: Luuk did botch an unmolested look at an equalizing goal in the 10th minute, when a perhaps somewhat needless cutback pass from a likewise wide-open Frenkie found his foot directly in front of goal with only a flailing keeper to beat and he somehow doinked his shot attempt into the foot of a defender more-or-less beside him. And yes, he likewise made nothing out of another ball young Frenkie headed his way right in front of the goal in the 30th minute. At some point in the second half, I dunno, after my vision had whited over in horror I guess, I seem to remember him being stupidly offside on a set piece that resulted in nothing.
The point stands! The fairest way to regard Luuk de Jong is as a symptom of all that’s wrong in Barcelona, and not the cause of any of it. If years upon years of slovenly roster-building and contemptible direction had not left this former powerhouse chasing off a succession of star players, including the greatest of all time, just to redirect their salaries into debt service, then Luuk de Jong almost certainly would not be playing for Barcelona at all. If the club had not spent the better part of a decade dumping cash on any big name who’d take it—in at least half of cases to paper over prior heedless ego-driven mega-transfers that didn’t pan out—it likely would have neither need nor use for the kind of interchangeable please-just-stand-here-and-try-not-to-hurt-yourself-while-we-aim-crosses-at-your-head doofus who could not even make himself particularly integral to the goalscoring efforts of frickin’ Sevilla. That’s perhaps reason to pity him. It also only makes me hate the very sight of him even more. I fear I’m being consumed by my hatred of this poor oaf.
Barcelona is the first club soccer team I ever gave a damn about and still the only one in which I’ve ever had any real rooting interest. During the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, back when the World Cup was the only soccer thing I knew about, I got blown away by the skill and flair and sheer coolness of Brazil’s Ronaldinho, whom I still regard as the coolest soccer player of my lifetime (side note: to this day I model my FIFA career-mode players after him, in dimension and playing style if not hairdo). When I found out, in 2003, that Ronaldinho was going to some team called “FC Barcelona,” that became by default my team—even though back in those days, before YouTube, before subscription streaming, before (so far as I knew) any of the European leagues could be watched on domestic US television, rooting for Barcelona amounted in my case pretty much entirely to remembering sporadically to check whether they’d won over the weekend and whether Ronaldinho had scored, and being like Fuck yeah if he had, and imagining that it must have been cool as shit. The pattern held, more or less, pretty much throughout Ronaldinho’s and then Leo Messi’s whole damn career: Following Barcelona indirectly and incompletely and largely from afar, or when their Champions League games showed up on TV, while various La Liga broadcast deals kept the threshold for watching their domestic games, as so for real intense fandom, prohibitively high for a distracted bozo like me.
That is, until this season: The season La Liga showed up on ESPN; the season I could finally watch every minute of every one of their matches on T-by God-V instead of on some deep-fried pirated stream on a 13-inch laptop screen; the season Messi fucked off to France; the season the club took one big collective swan-dive into the toilet; the season all of this crystallized itself in the person of a gangly replacement-grade Dutch ogre bumbling around at the front of the attack like a joke being played on me personally. Standing like a fucking coat-rack in the middle of the box while Barcelona—Barcelona!!!—lob in 54 hopeless jump-balls like a goddamn MLS team in case one of them happens to deflect off his cranium just right, because they lack the creativity, cohesion, and dynamism to create goalscoring chances in any of the not-shameful ways. Just having no idea what to do with an unselfish extra pass in front of an all but unobstructed goal, and one-timing it freaking sideways, into a defender’s foot.
Have you ever had the awful dream in which you’re finally getting to do something extremely fun and exciting that you’ve been anticipating fervently, but then it’s suddenly weird and distorted in a way that makes the kind of enjoyment you’d hoped for impossible? I used to have this nightmare all the time, as a kid and teen and young adult: I’d be at a big outdoor basketball court on a busy day of high-level pickup games, and I’d be, like, feverish with excitement to get out there and show my stuff (note: In reality, I was never that good), and finally I’d get picked for the team that had next, and I’d jog out there trying to play it cool but also barely able to contain my joy at finally getting to kick some ass, and the game would start and I’d look down and realize that instead of a ball we were playing with a large Timberland-brand work boot. And I’d have to try to dribble the boot, and pass the boot, and jump-shoot the boot. And some part of my brain would be screaming This is bullshit! It wasn’t supposed to be like this! while the rest of me was just dutifully trying to make the best of it, trying to dribble the boot extra hard in case that might give it some bounce when I went behind-my-back, trying to line my elbow up just right to get good backspin on the fucking boot when I shot it, anticipating that of course I’d miss the shot (because it’s a fucking boot) and trying to, like, salvage some dignity by following the shot for a theoretically easy put-back, and then missing the put-back (again: boot), and then waking up frustrated and weirdly embarrassed.
That’s this. That’s the experience of finally getting to watch Barcelona in 2021 and then looking down to discover that instead of Ronaldinho or Samuel Eto’o or Messi or Luis Suarez or Neymar—instead, even, of frickin’ Dembélé or Griezmann—the focal point at the front of of what used to define coolness in soccer is Luke de freaking Jong. Luuk de Jong is the boot, and I am the frustrated and weirdly embarrassed clown going, This is bullshit! It wasn’t supposed to be like this! It was supposed to be a ball.
In any event, all of this is to say that I call him Luuk de Wrong now. Sometimes, like when he made dog food out of that pass in front of goal yesterday, I downgrade him to Puuk de Wrong. None of this is his fault, but he can go to hell anyway.