Barcelona's players were called to the Camp Nou early on Wednesday, arriving a couple of hours before the start of their Champions League game with Bayern Munich and a fraction after the start of Inter Milan's Champions League game with Viktoria Plzen. The coach, Xavi Hernandez, had set up everything up specially.
The idea, he said, was for them all to watch the early kickoff together. That, after all, was the game that would decide if they remained in the competition or not, their fate not in their own hands but instead settled 990 km away: If Inter won, they were out; if Inter didn't win, Barcelona would live to fight another day. That same day, in fact.
As it turns out, it wasn't a very good idea. It was never really going to be.
There is a famous episode of an old British comedy series called "Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads" in which Bob and Terry try to avoid the result of an England game so that they can watch the highlights "as live" on the television that night. All day people try to tell them what happened; all day they hide, desperate not to ruin what comes next. Somehow, they manage it, until the very end when they finally find out that [SPOILER BLOCKED].
That episode is from 1973. It was hard enough to do then. It's even harder now, 50 years on. But it still might have been a better idea: get the players in, take their cellphones off them, keep them away from any mention of the other match and then send them out to play, everything at stake, competitive tension at its highest. Maybe even lie to them. Whatever actually happens in the other game, tell them: "Blimey, Viktoria have only gone and done it, lads! They've beaten Milan at San Siro. The miracle is on. Now go out there and do your bit: beat Bayern and we can go through."
Instead, they sat and watched Viktoria lose, which they were always likely to: Viktoria had lost all four games and let in 16 goals. It was 2-0 before half-time. At the moment that Barcelona's players went out to warm up, Inter were scoring the fourth. Barcelona were out, they knew. And within nine minutes, they were losing to Bayern. By the end, they had been beaten 3-0. They had not managed a single shot on target. Only Alex Balde really offered anything. Xavi insisted that what had happened in AC Milan: "affected us psychologically, for sure."
No, really?! Who would have thought it?
Xavi admitted that Barcelona had not competed, and the fact that they knew they were out, that they didn't just now, but had watched it happen, may have been part of the reason why.