I have learned a lot from this edition of Barça, including that football isn’t just supposed to make you weep tears of happiness.
Life does stuff to us, all the time. One of the things at which it is particularly adept is leavening joy with sadness, a karmic yin/yang that, if you were to sit down for coffee with Life, you’d probably discover that Life does it to keep us balanced.
Two weeks ago on a Tuesday night, some friends and I gathered for our usual Tuesday evening trail ride. It was a magical ride. Smooth, fast, a little fog to make things fun, lots of chatter and everybody was feeling bull-strong. Awesome. Then, at the very end of the ride, a guy who was the fittest among us had a massive heart attack and died. Bang. Life.
I am in process of making my usual season compilation DVD sets, and got to the first Chelsea Champions League match. I decided that Life isn’t going to have that fun with me, again. So I deleted both Chelsea matches, and the home Classic. Because highlights shouldn’t involve sadness, in my world.
When Pep Guardiola left last season, it was at the end of a period of heartbreak — two matches that crushed the team’s Champions League hopes, sandwiching one that crushed its Liga hopes. Life. After an extended period of such unfettered joy, bang. Some wept at the news of Guardiola. Others wondered what was next. But tears had become such a part of this club’s recent history that even as people wept, it seemed part of the status quo. We forget that before that was a staggering, extraordinary, beautiful match at home against Getafe, that found the club playing a kind of football that had been rarely seen that season. Triumph and pain.
Even at the end of the season, a celebration of football in which Barça obliterated an excellent Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Reig final, was offset with the news that its coach, its spiritual father, was leaving. Triumph and pain.
Guardiola said that the only times Barça made him weep was the CWC, and when he found out that Eric Abidal had cancer. Triumph and pain. Abidal returned, kicked cancer in the ass, hoisted the Champions League trophy at Wembley, fulfilling the rendezvous that he promised earlier that season. Then he relapsed, and had his transplant. Triumph and pain.
When Tito Vilanova was named as Guardiola’s replacement, none of us knew what to expect. Yes, his previous surgery for salivary gland cancer was well known, and the club assured us that his health was excellent, that he wouldn’t have taken the job had he not been 100 percent ready to rock. He took the helm and his club took off like a rocket. It is, as of this writing, unbeaten in La Liga. Then came the word that Vilanova’s cancer has, like Abidal’s returned. Because sometimes, cancer does that.
For me, it feels as if Life is saying that nothing can bring us that much joy and not be leavened with pain. That is balance. That is how it is Supposed To Be. But I don’t buy that. Why in the hell can’t life bring you sugarplums, then cotton candy, then ice cream, then a supermodel in a Ferrari? Why isn’t that fair?
When Abidal was diagnosed, I wrote that I would give everything back — the trophies, the accolades, the reams of spittle produced by the hyperbolic gibbering of the world’s press — if that dude could be home with his family, safe and sound and free of the grim specter that stalked him. I make the same wish for Tito Vilanova.
Right now, all that we have are rumors. And because I didn’t want to be stupid, I went online to do some learning about parotid cancer, the kind that Vilanova is battling. I wish that I hadn’t. I stopped at the second occurrence of “rare and often fatal.” It’s that Life thing again. Just this week, word came down from team doctors that Eric Abidal got the okay to start training with the team again, with an aim at playing with the club again by the end of the year. He won. We could look at Life and say “Nice try. You aren’t getting this one.” And in the same week comes the news of Vilanova.
It’s safe to say that even the most die-hard hater of this club feels some compassion, some empathy at the body blows that keep hitting this group. Karim Benzema dedicated his French Footballer of the Year trophy to Abidal. Real Madrid almost immediately posted well wishes for Tito Vilanova. Some would call these classy gestures, but I don’t. We forget sometimes, in our frenzy of dislike that at the end of it all, we are all human beings, all destined for the same fate. Along the path, we search for things that will bring us joy, and stave off darkness. But we are all human, and that humanity finds its ultimate voice in the instant cessation of all hostilities when Life comes calling. We are human, so we do what humans do when Life does what it does, which is comfort and seek comfort.
El Mundo Deportivo, in its official mouthpiece role, is closest to the club and has the most information. Assistant Jordi Roura will take over the club in the short term. Vilanova will have his surgery on Thursday, and doctors say that if all goes well, he will be home with his family by Christmas. Reports that he will step down from the job are premature, as fabricated as the quotes from our players that so riled supporters of opposing clubs. And we will hear a lot of crazy stuff over the next few days, not up to and including a return of Pep Guardiola to the helm. None of it will be true, until it is.
Adria Vilanova, a Cadete A player and the son of Tito Vilanova, has Tweeted “Thanks to everyone for the support. You’re all great, and all is well.”
For now, what we know is this: Life has done it again. All that we can do, which isn’t much even as it is everything, is send positive thoughts the way of Vilanova and the club, and hope. Because sometimes, hope is all that we have.