The club has taken a great many decisions in its long, storied history, but none that I find more detestable than the decision to say goodbye today to Eric Abidal.
This is a club that bills itself as “mes que un club.” That phrase has nothing to do with any footballing aspirations. It is socio-political, referencing the club’s roots as a Catalan institution, a place where more than football is played. It is supposed to be a family.
So THIS is how you treat family?
At the presser, predictably, Abidal was in tears, and broke down again while saying farewell to his second family, his teammates. It’s also a scene that should NOT have been played out in public and further, should not have been played out at all. Let’s have a look at Abidal’s history with the club, in brief:
–Signed from Lyon after going on strike to make his club accept our offer.
–Didn’t seem worth the bother as he struggled a bit his first season.
–Became for many, the best LB in the world.
–Left a note at Wembley after a France friendly, promising a return for the CL final.
–Diagnosed with what we later discovered to be cancer.
–Had a tumor removed, came back to lift the trophy at Wembley, in an astounding moment.
–Relapse, received a transplant.
–Battled to return to the club, did so late in this season. Amazing moment.
–Kicked to the curb.
That’s how I see it, anyhow.
This club has renewed Adriano for four seasons, a player who (yes, I am kidding) hasn’t played much more than Abidal has this season. But that was to squire Neymar around town, while he is recovering from his latest knock. Jonathan Dos Santos sat in the stands and played cards all this season, usually with Montoya as a partner. Bartra played some, because you know, he was looking pretty sad just sitting there. This same club, I believe, has a responsibility to a player that represents so much, and fought so hard to return to it. And it would have been easy.
Give him the full pre-season, and make the decision then. Give him a shot. Renew his contract on a one-year, appearance-based basis. Both would have been very viable options, that were not discussed at the press conference. When asked why the decision was taken, both Sandro Rosell and Andoni Zubizarreta ducked it, dodged it and ducked it again. Then some more. Rosell did say that “everyone agreed,” even as the player said that he wanted to play more, but the club didn’t agree with him.
He has been offered a position, whenever he wants, as director of the club’s global education, or some such crap. It’s hard to read press releases through a mask of tears. It is clearly a sop to make them feel better about cutting loose a player who I think could still be useful to the club. Sub, veteran stability, all assuming that he can reach even the level that he demonstrated in his appearances this season, never mind improving upon that. He entered both matches, and was instantly our best defender. Yes, they were Liga matches against lower-level opponents. Could he have done that against Bayern, or PSG or Milan? Valid question. Would he have been ready to do that next season, should we see any of those clubs again? Again, valid question. But the best way to find answers to questions is to ask them, not resolve them by never asking.
At the presser, Abidal said that he was concerned about how long it takes him to recover between matches, something that was alluded to this season, in the fatigue that saw him subbed out of his last match. And then came the phantom “calf injury,” and he hasn’t played since. He said that he didn’t have concrete offers yet, though I can’t imagine there won’t be a conga line of teams, wanting a potentially excellent defender, for free.
And so it goes.
This is a hard game, and difficult decisions are made all the time. And as with the true price of the Neymar transaction, there are questions we will never know, such as are there dueling medical reports, one saying that Abidal is fine, another saying that he isn’t? We will never know. What is more, I can’t say that I care. If they had those medical reports, why did they play him at all this season? Same risk. It isn’t just a bad sporting decision, it’s a terrible human decision. What if Puyol’s knee doesn’t come back the way he hopes? Is that a cough, Vilanova, or do we have to cut you loose? How’s that tendon, Xavi? You feeling up to it?
This club has, in very recent history, had a heart. It stood by Abidal during the illness, operation and recovery. It should also be noted that the process began last season, when Guardiola was here. The club couldn’t very well evaluate and kick him out then now, could it? But now …. now that he has played, and can sit beside his assassins at a presser and put on a brave, classy face as he always does, let’s do it now.
Surely, the technical staff had a hand in this decision, which means, again, there is stuff that we don’t know. And you know what? I don’t care. Sometimes, a club takes human decisions, and hopes that they work out on a sporting level. There were ways to give Abidal a chance to play again for the club that he loves. And we didn’t take them. Why, I can’t say, even as I can sit here and fume impotently.
From the club’s view
But let’s look at the other side of this. Recall that Tito Vilanova said that we are not a social club. What this presumably means is that his vision is to have a pile of players who can play at the highest level, all the time, any time. That vision doesn’t include Eric Abidal, who has lost a ton of weight, muscle and fitness that the technical staff doesn’t think that he will ever be able to recover. So difficult talks were had with the staff, player and club officials and a hard decision was taken that the player wouldn’t continue. But the club would grant him his freedom, to pursue his dreams of playing until he was 35, and offer him a front office job whenever, and wherever he likes.
This is the right thing to do for a player who has represented so much for the club, and means so much to cules. Most other players just leave the club. Thanks and good night. Abidal will have a job for life, whenever he wants, because whatever president succeeds Rosell would never have the gumption to fire Abidal. Voila. Sound decision all around.
So now ….
Abidal did say that he hopes that the club will let him play a little bit in the last match on the weekend, so that he can say goodbye to the fans in the Camp Nou. I hope that wish will be granted. He deserves that, even as he doesn’t deserve what the club has done to him. No, he might not be able to meet the level necessary to play for this club, but give him a chance. You want to be “mes que un club?” You do that.
Is there room for sentiment in business? Yes, though some say no. And sport, top-level football, is certainly business of the biggest sort.
But the decision to give Abidal a chance is also business, just as the Neymar signing is a marketing signing as well as a sporting decision. Giving him a chance would have shown that the club had a heart and a soul. The icon got a shot. Then, at the end of a match, or very hard practice, you give the player a chance to say “You know what? I can’t do it. You’re right.” Then you sit next to him at a press conference, and you let him announce his retirement on his own terms. And you give him that job with the club. And you smile, you all exchange hugs and it is a happy moment.
Instead, all we are left with is this sad, detestable display by a club that used to have a soul.