When Zlatan Ibrahimović arrived at Barcelona in 2009, he carried expectations as great as his ego. Though his sense of finesse seemed to make him a good fit, his swagger quickly jarred with a culture of discreetness and understated professionalism: he was told to ditch private jets, and, after Guardiola had ordered him to park his beloved Porches and Ferraris, he pulled up to training in a club-sponsored Audi. (An unlikely vehicle for a man who would try to establish his own name as a verb, and refer to himself as Jesus and God.) His struggle to conform was compounded by a lack of playing time, and led to a communication breakdown between him and Guardiola. Like a seventies rock star stuck in a monastery, he felt inhibited and extrinsic. “None of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang—they were like schoolboys. The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed, and I didn’t understand any of it.”
The schoolboy behaviour was part of the glue that held Barça together under Guardiola. The differences with Ibrahimović were not about discipline or respect—read up on the Swede, and you will recognise both words as popular members of his vocabulary—but about self-importance. Lionel Messi was the only real star and, after a newly-appointed Guardiola had ordered people to fasten their seat belts for the upcoming ride, those players who fancied coming along had to pay a price. Unlike Ibrahimović, who would ramble on and eventually leave, Thierry Henry and David Villa accepted subordinated wide roles, while Pedro—and later, Alexis Sánchez—relinquished creative freedom in order to support Messi. Players lavished each other with public praise. Fronting it all was Guardiola, who said that had it not been for Messi, he’d be coaching in the third division.
The selflessness was not constricted to the forwards. Dani Alves was happy to work the flank tirelessly to serve passes to Messi. Yaya Touré, who would smack home twenty league goals for Manchester City in 2013/14, curbed his attacking instincts to play as a defensive midfielder and makeshift centre-back. Sergio Busquets had no problems with being undervalued. “I genuinely enjoy watching the full-back run up the pitch and going across to fill in,” he once said, according to the Guardian. “I spend the game calculating: how many on the left? How many on the right?”
Since then, new signings have adhered to the same principles. When Javier Mascherano came in 2010, he was converted into a centre-back. It could have been a heartbreaker for a player who still views himself as a midfielder but, instead of staying bitter, he acknowledged that it was “impossible” to dislodge Busquets and came to view the positional change as a fair price to pay. “It was worth it, because I’m playing for one of the best teams in the world, with the chance to win titles,” he told the Guardian. Thomas Vermaelen, who joined in 2014 with slim chances of becoming a regular, was once asked by the Telegraph whether he had thought about getting more minutes at a different club. “Yeah,” he replied. “But what can you do, give up the opportunity to play for Barcelona?”
All the same, the most delicate cliques have formed in the forward line, where the scope for individual recognition is the greatest; where golden boots are decided and Ballon d’Ors awarded. When Neymar arrived in 2013, many wondered whether he’d become a new Ibrahimović or accept playing second fiddle to Messi. The tactful diplomacy with which he has since played his cards has been an essential factor in the formation of the MSN partnership. “He’s a leader, the best player in the world,” Neymar said. “And I am here to help him.” A year later, Messi said: “I think that with his quality and fitness, Neymar will become the best in the world.”
Blissfully for Barça, Luis Suárez emulated Neymar when joining in 2014. The Uruguayan has since completed a trident that give defenders no quarter, and that will go down as one of the finest forward lines since Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and Paco Gento. Suárez, who has twenty-six goals and twelve assists in twenty-seven league games, recently told ESPN FC that he does not consider himself one of the best players in the world. Even in a team of this quality, there is still only one undisputed star. “We all know that Leo is the best,” Suárez told La Vanguardia. “None of us attempts to overtake him or equal what he does… If you had several players wanting to compete to be No1, it would be complicated. I’m just here to help. I don’t feel jealousy.”
Some of the sharpest minds in football have recognised the rarity of this relationship. Several have been managers, who face their own fights in creating internal harmony. “Usually jealously exists among players, egos getting in the way of each other,” Diego Simeone said. “But it’s the complete opposite there.” Arsène Wenger remarked that “when you see someone like Messi, who could score his three-hundredth goal, give the ball to Suárez when he had the opportunity to score, that means there’s really something in there”.
Behind the forward trio, the teamwork from the dancing days of 2009 and 2011 has been preserved. “If we have to run five thousand or ten thousand metres for them, then we’ll do it,” Ivan Rakitić told the Guardian. The most recent arrival to fall into line has been Arda Turan. “Here I must defend and attack, and serve the three up front,” he told Mundo Deportivo, according to ESPN FC. “I must change, because here everyone is a star. I also like to do nutmegs and play one-twos, but there are others here who do it better than me…” It did not sound as if Turan had need a lecture by Luis Enrique to realise this; he had merely observed his team-mates. “Although they are great players, they park their egos for the good of the team,” he noted. “I saw the example of Leo against Sevilla, running fifty metres back to defend. It was incredible. I think that if Leo and Ney run, well, I better run even more!”
This type of mindset might be the product of an environment in which the value of modesty has become so ingrained that rebels either adapt or risk being ostracised. As Mascherano told the Guardian, the secret is not that the insiders adapt to the newcomers, but that the newcomers adapt to the insiders. Though many have come and left since Guardiola arrived in 2008, the culture that Ibrahimović so disliked has become a stabilising factor, a guidance for collective and individual behaviour. “We are a team that oozes talent from every pore,” Xavi said back in 2009, ahead of the Champions League final. “But we know that without humility, we would not be here celebrating one title and on the verge of winning another one.” As Barça eye a third treble, seven years on, the song remains the same.