Eric Sylvain Abidal joined FC Barcelona from Olympique Lyonnais. At the time he was signed, nobody could have predicted what would happen. At Lyon, he was known for his pace and physical abilities. When Lyon played Manchester United, his job was to mark Wrongaldo into oblivion. Abidal summed up his defensive philosophy like so:
“As a defender, my aim is to infuriate the opponent,” he explained. “I want him to be so sick of the sight of me that he has to move somewhere else on the pitch to get away.”
Many of us have forgotten that he threatened to go on strike, and refused to practice with Lyon because he wanted the transfer to Barcelona. And so it was.
He didn’t get off to the best start, and even he would admit (and did) that his beginnings weren’t what they should have been, but resolved to work harder to become the best left back in the world.
As he accomplished that mission, he defined his role with style, physicality, grace and calmness. Somewhere, he acquired this otherworldly ball control that allowed him to make plays, flip balls around and generally let attackers make fools of themselves. And suddenly, he was the best left back in the world. He resolved the Theo Walcott complexity by putting him on his butt. He marked players out of the match so much that he was free to roam into the center of the pitch, since nobody wanted to even bother coming to his side of the pitch.
His dedication to the cause was unquestioned, and unquestionable. He slammed his head into the pitch to clear a ball against Sevilla. Even more staggering, his body, riven by the capriciousness that is cancer, was beginning to let him down even as he was playing some of his best football.
Everyone knows what happened last season, a season that I still can’t think about and remain dry-eyed. Barca had a friendly at Wembley, and Abidal left a note in the locker room, vowing to return for the Champions League final, which was to be held in that venue. Then came the word: he would be lost to the club for an indeterminate period, due to liver surgery. Speculation was rife. Was it cancer> The player himself, in an interview with L’Equipe, revealed that it was. None of us knew what to do. His friends, teammates and family didn’t know what to do. It was one of the two times Pep Guardiola wept, as did we all.
And then, one day, a wan-looking Le Roi Eric was at practice, looking hungry. It was at that time that magic started to happen, as the hashtag #animsabidal became #waitwhatamiseeing? Because he returned to the pitch, to a thunderous ovation, in the home leg of El Clasic. You know the rest. He started in the Champions League final, played his usual brilliant match and was given the Captain’s armband by Carles Puyol, and allowed to hoist the trophy. As sporting …. nay, human moments go, this one was without compare.
And then came this past season, where Abidal’s play was plagued by uncharacteristic errors and erratic matches. Some said it was a tailspin, and that he had always been overrated. Others just wondered what was going on. When word came, suddenly, that Abidal would be going into hospital for a liver transplant, suddenly it all made sense. On those occasions where he wasn’t the player that he was, it was because he wasn’t the man that he was. I can’t begin to imagine what playing must have been like for him, each match coming and going in a haze that, because he, like any of us, is human, would have to have led to some distracted moments, moments in which despite what his brain was saying, his body, suddenly, wouldn’t do it.
He’s out of the hospital now and recovering, with a goal of leading a normal life. And I, for one don’t care a whit if that normal life includes football. I imagine that Abidal doesn’t either.
Happy 5th anniversary, King. Good to have you with us.