“Abidal’s new contract has been written and as soon as he plays his first game, we’ll put pen to paper.” – Barcelona vice president Josep María Bartomeu, 12 December 2012
At the time, Eric Abidal accepted his departure with the grace that characterised his behaviour at Barcelona. He could have raged then about broken promises, about the club’s failure to communicate with him over a period of at least 3 months. He could have said many things, but he didn’t.
Instead, this is what he said:
“I didn’t take a decision because when your contract isn’t renewed, you don’t have a choice,” Abidal said. “The club’s decision is difficult to accept because part of my battle was for my family but also for the club. I would have liked to have finished my career or had another year here at Barcelona. I respect the choice of the club, the staff and the board. I leave with six years of happiness, titles and good friends.”
To many, the image of Abidal raising the Champions League trophy at Wembley was the pinnacle of the Guardiola era. Maybe the pinnacle of modern Barca. It was perfect – the club’s triumph interwoven with a personal triumph that touched so many. We cried and cheered for him. His struggle was our source of strength, as the slogan went.
When Barca subsequently renewed his contract in January 2012, it was a fantastic gesture of faith, a recognition of the role he had already played in making the best Barca ever possible, and an acknowledgement that he was important to the future of the team.
So what changed a year later, beside the glaring fact that Abidal was now, by the club’s own admission, healthy and cleared to play, having made a Herculean effort to recover from a liver transplant?
No explanation has ever been offered for Barca’s decision, as an institution, to go back on its word and decline to offer Abidal a new contract. Or, depending on how much of a fib Bartomeu was telling, to withdraw any standing offer. This in itself was insult enough – by dodging the question, the club implied that maybe Abidal wasn’t quite as fit as they’d made out when he made his emotional comeback months earlier, and made it harder for him to find a new club.
I doubt we’ll ever find out the truth behind the decision to let Abidal go unless someone involved has a decisive break with the current regime. And the fans aren’t the only ones wondering. Some of the players are, too.
The reality is that the decision was and is unjustifiable, even taking the most cold-eyed, pragmatic view. Barca needed and still need a player like Abidal. They scoured the transfer market without finding anyone they could buy to fill that gap this summer. We don’t know if the club doctors genuinely thought he couldn’t play on, but the club certainly never said so and subsequent events make it seem unlikely.
If the club had thought better of its earlier stated decision and wanted to mitigate the risk of offering a multi-million contract to a player with potential health problems, it could have set up a pay-as-you-play deal. Even if they had cold feet about the supposed contract that was ready to sign as soon as Abidal played a game, they could have sat down with him and at least tried to work something out. That would have been prudent and humane, and in line with Barca’s previous treatment of him. Instead, the club ducked all attempts by Abidal and his agent to set up a meeting for 3 months, leaving him in limbo until the end of May, when he was told that despite the club’s public promises to the contrary, his contract would not be renewed.
The club’s behaviour demonstrated a lack of basic competence, if not actual bad faith, and continued a troubling trend.
“For Barcelona to renew with Abidal when they knew he would need a liver transplant shows the greatness of this club.” – Pep Guardiola, March 2012
I cried when Abidal raised the cup. I cried again that terrible day of the press conference as I read about what had happened: the tears of Abidal and the other players, the disturbing, buck-passing performances by Rosell and Zubizarreta, and the equally disturbing failure by any members of the press to ask the obvious questions. This time, my tears were an expression of anger.
Something happened that day as Abidal dried his eyes and Rosell grinned for the press. Something that’s very difficult to overcome – a feeling that we as a club had taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Barca’s image took a hit when we let Abidal go, all the more so because of the way his story had been woven into our club’s recent history of glittering success. Because, and here comes that hated word, Barca’s support of him had become part of our ‘brand’. We didn’t just win. We played well, we won, and Abidal raised the cup. That’s impeccable. Nobody could dent that. Nobody else, anyway.
Eras don’t end with defeats. Defeat happens to everyone. Eras end when we become something other than ourselves.
“The recovery of our manager, Tito Vilanova, and the return of Abidal to active football have provoked emotions that are as intense as or even more intense than anything any title can bring. These have been triumphs of life, victories that reward the struggles of human beings that reach beyond the boundaries of sport”. – Sandro Rosell, April 2013
This is Barca. This is what we do now. We make real people into symbols of mes que un club, to make us look and feel good. We make their stories of struggle and triumph into clip reels set to stirring music, and we use their adversity to make our triumph seem greater.
(Even though it seems a bit much for the club to take credit for supporting Abidal through his long recovery now that we know the club didn’t bear the financial burden. His last contract had a clause that allowed the club to terminate if he was out for longer than 6 months. He and the club agreed to suspend his contract instead, and he wasn’t paid by Barca for the 12/13 season until his comeback. But I digress. That’s not the big problem here.)
What’s not so palatable is discarding the real people after the fact. The club doesn’t get to dump the person and keep the reflected glory. His struggle is not ours to take strength from, because we responded to it with bad faith. We don’t get to talk about how special we are for supporting Abidal through his recovery when the club discarded him after he worked so hard to return.
We don’t even get to look at Abidal raising Big Ears and just feel good about it. Not anymore. Because we know what happened after.
Eric Abidal should still be playing for Barcelona. That he isn’t – and we still don’t know why – doesn’t make us just another football club. That wouldn’t hurt.
Every time Abidal plays for Monaco, every time he goes 90 minutes for France, it’s a personal triumph for him. It’s also a painful reminder for us.
We’re worse because we claim to be better. We’re hypocrites.
I love this team. That's never changed, and it's probably never going to. Fundamentally, I derive more happiness from Barca than frustration and anger, and that's as it should be. Anyone who hasn't enjoyed being a Barca fan this past decade is probably doing it wrong.
At the same time, I have many, many issues with what Sandro Rosell is making this club into. None of these very serious issues have cut me to the core quite as deeply as what happened with Abidal. Hence this post.]