Ray Hudson needs no introduction to fans of La Liga. The BeIN Sports commentator is renowned for his unique commentary style and was kind enough to take the time out to talk to Heavy about all things Barcelona this week.
The former Newcastle United player readily admits he gets blamed for being “too poetic, too romantic” but perhaps it’s Lionel Messi’s fault. As he tells me: “What the hell else can you do when you see this pure footballing entity that is the absolute essence of genius?”
Genius was a word that arose several times while talking about Messi, while in true Ray-style peregrine falcons and pole dancers popped up too. First up though we talked about the title race and Barcelona’s dwindling hopes.
GC: Where do you see the title heading this season?
RH: I think it’s going to Madrid. I forecasted it would be going to Madrid at the start of the season, but I picked the wrong team, I thought Atletico would have a seriously strong push because I attended the game in New Jersey when Real Madrid absolutely got undressed in front of 80,000 people. It was a phenomenal performance by Atletico but it was a false dawn. Last season when Valverde was still the coach, I made a very public statement that Barcelona wouldn’t win anything next year and that, if this spiraling down continued, that Barca would finish with nothing. It’s looking more and more likely that this prediction will come true. It’s a sad state of many circumstances of a club that’s been a little bit neglectful of so many things and I think we’re seeing the culmination of that. I think it’s going to go to the Santiago Bernabeu and I think they probably deserve it over the whole balance of things.
GC: What have Barca lacked this season? They’ve changed their manager, they’ve had a few injuries, Messi’s spoken out against the board, there’s a sense that everything’s not quite right. What are they really lacking at the moment?
RH: There seems to be too much uncertainty throughout the team. To put a big lasso around a multitude of concerns, structural problems, executive fractures within the board, all the way down to an aging group of players that in their halcyon days were the greatest footballing entity that the game of football has ever seen, that was taken to an operatic high note that was deafening, that was so absolutely a work of pure beauty. I’m not talking about going back to the good old days, that is impossible, but there seems to be just too much uncertainty in the overall sphere of Barcelona football club.
GC: Do you have big hopes for Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig? Can they go on and become regulars at Barcelona?
RH: No question. They have an abundance of talent. They keep on flashing this beautiful stuff. There’s a wonderful adjective, stuff. It’s the right stuff. It’s what is ingrained in a footballer, what’s weaned into a player, it is gradually ingrained in that wonderful talent in the Barcelona way. These two players look like its the essence of what is the good stuff, the right stuff of La Masia, the expressionism of Ansu, the confidence, the wonderful fresh-faced beauty of his football. The pace is self-evident, but it’s the art of slow, as I like to call it, where he’s in confined positions and the game slows down and yet he can see through all of that, almost like a Matrix-type set of movements, and get himself goals and assists, a damaging footballer at such a young, precocious age. I would argue, it might be even better in Riqui than it is in Ansu. Only time will tell but the early signs of it are so special.
GC: There’s already pressure on Quique Setien even though he’s been backed by Bartomeu this week. Can he get Barcelona back to where they should be and playing the type of football the fans want to see?
RH: There were good indications at Villarreal but how much of that was a false dawn we’ll be learning more on this crazy run-in to the final of this season. Setien has a set of principles that he came in and played some wonderful football with his previous teams, and a lot of people thought that that type of message would get across to the players.
This is the big game, amongst the biggest of the big boys, you have to not just handle it, you have to do it in a way that produces not just scintillating football, but winning football. That’s a hell of a combination to get when you look at the problems that are endemic in this team.
This is a real clarion call for these players over these next few games. If they are playing for this coach the way they did against Villarreal then I think that will be the saving for Setien. If they start to stink the place up, to put it bluntly, with the type of performances we saw just a few weeks ago, I think there will be a move by the board to say we’re going to try something else.
GC: And would that be Xavi? It is time to rip it up and start again?
RH: I think there comes a time, and it’s strange how time works that way, when Guardiola took over and laid down the law. There’s a man who had the backing of a president who gave him the opportunity. Afterwards have coaches had the power Guardiola did?
It seems for me they need a person who is born in the identity of Barca, recognizes the beauty of the game that the fans want, and has that full support of the board to lead them through this growing darkness, the way they did with Guardiola. Repeating that is almost mission impossible but I think the board and the next coach, whoever it is that comes in, have got to be arm in arm, the way Guardiola and his president was.
GC: We’ve talked about some of the problems at Barca but the one thing they do have is Lionel Messi. What’s it like commentating on Messi? How much fun is it watching this guy play football?
RH: Well, it’s been the pleasure of my life. I’m so proud that some of my commentary is in the Camp Nou museum and will be indelibly linked with, undoubtedly in my eyes, the greatest footballer, purist footballer that we’ve ever seen in all of history. How do you describe a glass of champagne? How do you count the bubbles? You just look at it and know it’s a thing of exquisite and absolute beauty. You know these exaggerations that I get blamed with, he’s too poetic, he’s too romantic, what the hell else can you do when you see this pure footballing entity that is the absolute essence of genius? His whole scope of passing the ball, of dribbling the ball, which is the true art, and always has been of football.
Commentating on his games, it’s just a wonderment and it’s a challenge in so many ways that I have to extend such a variety of hyperbole, of craziness, of ridiculousness, of manic unpredictability, of relating things like a peregrine falcon to Messi, using a description involving the balance of a pole dancer, for example. I just keep digging into this lexicon of madness to describe the madness of Messi because it has been to a point when it’s almost indescribable. You hear commentators all over the world and their descriptions of him and I think he deserves better. It’s not enough to say he’s a genius. Genius undervalues him as a footballer. We’ve seen genius in Cruyff, Maradona and Pele. For me, he elevates above that with his consistency over decades.
GC: There was a report in Spain recently that Messi had stopped contract talks and was thinking of leaving next year. Do you see any chance of him walking away from Barcelona?
RH: I think it’s minimal but then again I don’t think it’s ever been more timely given where the club is now and at the point of his frustration for the club that he loves as dearly as one of his children I would imagine, or damn close to it. This is where, not just his legacy is, this is more than that. This is a player that will be looked at, branded with Barcelona, he doesn’t want to leave.
If he has a bad game, the thing all falls apart. He’s the lynchpin of everything. To have that much expectation, it’s unthinkable, it’s difficult for all of us to relate to how that must be. To produce as a performing artist, let’s not forget, this is not someone with the great expectations of going into a great corporation. He’s got to produce on the highwire, one slip and you’re dead. One slip away and you’re gone, your club’s gone, your team’s gone. Messi papers over the cracks absolutely but to what cost to him as well? He deserves better, he deserves more.
GC: Messi turned 33 in June. How long do you think he can continue to play at the top level for?
RH: I think as long as his health remains as good as it is. He’s so resilient, again the accolades we bestow upon him have got to take all that into account. The fitness will be first and foremost and he’s been blessed that way.
Nobody is more gifted and has the mental capacity to recognize and realize that Mother Nature and Father Time is creeping up, tugging at his shirttails a little bit and making him a little slower, but not in his head. I would say if we’re looking at Messi maintaining that mark that he has, I would say, another two years out of him at the absolute top. The Qatar World Cup would perhaps be the true swansong for Leo.
GC: And finally, it’s the Champions League final eight draw on Friday. Do you think Barcelona can win it?
RH: Absolutely. They’re in with a great opportunity, that has been perverted by this pandemic. And that has to be taken into account. They did the business in Napoli, not in the most resounding way, it was another example of the meh type of performance, that we’ve seen too many of from Barca. But now the field has changed. The whole geography and makeup of this tournament has gone to hell in a handbasket. Are they good enough to play against any of the teams left in this Champions League shakedown that will be in Portugal? Absolutely they are. Are they up to it? That’s a whole new question. They have got as much of a shot as this at anybody at their best. But their best has been too erratic too many times for you to put a lot of money on them to win.