BARCELONA - He's a likable guy, Lionel Messi. Modest, in a "Suicide Club" T-shirt and a mischievous smile. When he is not devoting himself to the visitors from Israel he is scoring and assisting on goals, the greatest soccer player in the world at the moment. Surely the "El" in Messi, LI-ON-EL, refers to his Godly status, according to the followers of the Dutch prophet Johan Cruyff and his disciple on the soccer field, coach Pep Guardiola.
The training area for the best soccer team in the world, founded 110 years ago this month, is located in the industrial suburb of Sant Joan Despi. On an autumn morning, the day after a stunning 6-1 victory over Zaragoza in front of 75,000 enthusiastic and orderly spectators ("Not English, not Italians," they boast here) at his home stadium Camp Nou, Messi visited the offices on some brief errands. Guardiola has excused him and key players Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and tall Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic from practice. On the side, tied to the goalpost with an elastic cord for practicing counterattacks, was Thierry Henry, recovering from an injury. Gai Assulin, two days before his first game with the adult squad, was practicing with the other members of the first and second teams.
And then, in a conversation with Assulin and a team executive, a huge mystery out of time, place and context is solved: where the Israel Defense Forces disappeared to. Not the IDF in which the issue of 18-year-old Assulin's service has not yet been resolved, but the old IDF. The IDF of the air force, armored corps and paratroopers of the 1960s, with its flashy actions by elite units, before it fossilized into the Bar Lev Line, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. The IDF that was bold and tricky with talented bastards like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, in the compact form of Ehud Barak, Ami Ayalon and Amiram Levin. A tough guy like Ibrahimovic is a veritable Messi-and-a-half.
Barca knows how to live and overcome the tension between brilliant individual initiative on the one hand and planning, discipline and practice on the other. Not just moving the battle into enemy territory but also an ability to see the whole field and an inclination for passing the ball with pleasing lightness. On top of all this is the credo that no player is greater than the team. Egotistical exceptions, however effective, get used up and spit out, from Ariel Sharon to Samuel Eto'o and Ronaldinho.
The spirit of Barca is the spirit of the city of Barcelona, which next year will realize its aspiration of becoming the seat of the Union for the Mediterranean, which combines the European Union and the Mediterranean countries. It's a continuation, or revival, of what in the previous decade after the Madrid Conference and Oslo process was called "the Barcelona process." The secretary general will be a North African, most likely a Tunisian. Among his five deputies will be an Israeli and a Palestinian.
Only recently, competition among many cities was settled in Barcelona's favor, and France is still fighting to split the honor and influence - Barcelona as political capital and Marseilles as administrative capital. Barcelona's uniqueness is its character as a pleasant and comfortable city open to all, a magnet for millions, among them tens of thousands of Israelis every year. (Gai Assulin from Nahariya, a polite apprentice of the Barca school, giggles when asked whether the most visited boulevard, Las Ramblas, is an imitation of Ga'aton Boulevard).
Barcelona is at the center of four or five overlapping or contiguous entities: the city, the autonomous region of Catalonia, Spain, Europe and the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv is envious of it: Municipal engineer Hezi Berkowitz and director general Menachem Leiba, who visited Barcelona last month, were very impressed by the success of a metropolis twice as densely populated as Tel Aviv, a city in the body of a town, in developing a transportation system and infrastructure so friendly to visitors and residents. This is in part thanks to the bureaucrats' obedience to the elected officials. This is no simple matter: The tourists contribute to the economy, but they don't vote in the municipal elections.
In a Europe that is cold to the point of hostility, Barcelona is a haven friendly to Israelis, but it is best not to nurture any political illusions. The Union for the Mediterranean's positions will fit right into those of the EU, with a wink to the left at the Arab League and to the right at the visitor expected in Barcelona next spring, U.S. President Barack Obama. To win on this playing field, we need the IDF spirit from way back when, the spirit of Barca today, to be reincarnated in political daring
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