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Football is us. It explains so much, really … the passion, the way we defend our teams and players, our views of those teams and players. It’s a game that we carry in our hearts and minds. It’s pure.
And because it is us, it makes us feel things that are in many ways, irrational. We take a player to heart so that when things happen, it feels like they happen to us, in a strange way. “How DARE they not give Messi the Ballon d’Or?! He is the best!”
It also makes us feel it more acutely when players we lionize are suddenly not those players any longer and sometimes stuff starts to make sense, even as you don’t really believe that it does, as you grasp for tenuous links to make seeming crazy talk make just a shard of sense.
What is the job of a football club? It depends on who you ask. To win? Okay. To make money? Sure. To provide a gentle place for its iconic players to be put out to pasture?
Hang on there, ace. Surely even the most devoted supporter of a player can see how that last isn’t even remotely compatible with that whole winning business.
On yet another level, a football club and the team that represents us, exists to meet a need that so many of us have — to feel something. We don the replica kit, find our way to a gathering place, or hunch over a laptop and a fuzzy stream that gets Whack-A-Moled by those pesky rights managers, and we are united in that one thing … Barça.
Because of that thing, that nebulous thing that unites us all as fans, be it Barça, United, Bayern, RM, Galatasaray, whatever side, the team becomes us, it is us. So we feel things. It isn’t logical. The millionaires capering about don’t care that you are laying on the floor, trying to will a shot just inside the far post. They don’t. They lose, shrug their shoulders and say “Tomorrow is another day.”
No it isn’t! The world has ended today!!”
We sometimes don’t understand, because the vicarious thrill, the living of life via sport, 90 minutes at a time, is a need. And it’s pure.
This week, on three separate occasions, we have been slapped in the face by that vicarious life of a supporter, the pain of things beyond our control, outrage, denial and disbelief. It isn’t just FC Barcelona that is wrestling with notions of identity in the face of what some call foreign ownership, crazy coaches, etc, etc. It is wrestling with what will be a great many changes not only in this summer coming, but in subsequent years. As the club wrestles, so do we.
On Monday, Lionel Messi didn’t win the Ballon d’Or. On Saturday, Carles Puyol was left out of the squad against Atleti. Also on Saturday, some people dared to utter something about Xavi, something odd and unspeakable.
No Ballon for you
When the word came down that Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or, many reactions happened. Strong-hearted culers congratulated a man who probably doesn’t care what they think. Many, many more scoffed and hurled spiteful barbs about tantrums, tainted Ballons and bought awards. Why? Because dammit, Messi is ours. The vicarious life that we live through his exploits demands that satisfaction, that affirmation that he is the best, and therefore our blind trust in a diminutive genius isn’t misplaced.
Messi went to the ceremony, probably already knowing that he wasn’t going to win. He spent much time injured, and despite the calculations people used to insist that he still deserved it, despite a club president saying what he had to say as he called into question the fairness of an award that wasn’t going to his brightest star, it went to the right player.
But vicarious life tells too many that this is immaterial. To hell with that. Ronaldo whined and pouted in the aftermath of an old man’s terrible impersonation. And the voting was reopened with one thing in mind … to steal the award from our Messi.
Mmmmm, no. Congratulate Ronaldo, and fear not for Messi, because he has plenty of baubles for his trophy case, and will acquire plenty more. And even as football is life, stuff happens, and life does what it does.
One operation too many
On Saturday, in the biggest match of the season to date, Carles Puyol didn’t make the squad. Let’s think about that for a second: Captain Caveman, Tarzan, Lionheart, whatever you want to call him, wasn’t picked by Tata Martino to be part of the available match squad. How, and when did that happen? It seems like just yesterday he was slamming headed goals home, running pell-mell as he kissed the badge, emitting a leonine roar of triumph.
Then an elbow, a knee, another knee, and suddenly he’s a Cup player. Does it really happen that quickly, and is Barça guilty of hanging on too long? Recall that Martino was talking about Puyol as a “signing,” one that he was excited about. I don’t know what it does to him to leave Puyol off the squad. He doesn’t have the deep Barça roots, but he has a heart, so he understands.
Every coach has seen an athlete want it desperately, work hard to come back only to find that their performance is shaded by their desire. Someone once said that Barça needs to be “no team for old men,” and that is the struggle. In the constant turnover that happens at a club trying to stay at the top of world football, is there room for sentiment, for the kind of stuff that allowed the great defender Maldini to retire, massive ovation and all, from the Milan club to which he devoted the entirety of his playing life?
It’s painful to watch the players who we admired so, bought jerseys of, fiercely debated performance pluses and minuses of, become human. Even as someone who isn’t a fan of any particular player, I understand what Carles Puyol means to FC Barcelona. Everyone does. He is the fire at the team’s core, the thunder that always threatens to come down from the heavens at the slightest sign of things going awry.
And yet, Pique and Mascherano held down the fort and did so beautifully. Did anyone really ask about Puyol, or expect that he would be in a squad? Not much. A few of us noted it in various forms of social media, but there wasn’t much, probably for a number of reasons, all having to do with denial, and vicarious reality. If Puyol can’t do it any longer, then what? There was a curious silence about the absence of Puyol from the squad list. Nobody seemed to want to say it, or talk about it, but it was there — the end.
It SUCKS when our heroes can’t cut it any longer. Nostalgia is something that everyone, young and old, subscribes to. Puyol represents a period for Barça, a time for many culers that is so hard to let go of. Just as the sale of Ronaldinho closed the door on an era, when Puyol leaves this club, it will be even more momentous.
But make no mistake, leave the club he should. It’s time. I like to think that he understands this. He has been quoted as saying he will retire when he feels that he can no longer help the club that he loves, that he has fought so fiercely for. Unfortunately for our delicate psyches, that time has come. But how will it come? If there is any justice, Captain Caveman will make an announcement before the end of the season, and the last home match will find him at the microphone as ear-shattering waves of adulation rain down upon him, from culers who understand how absolutely titanic this man has been for this club.
Yes, there will be sadness, but that sadness shouldn’t be selfish in that we won’t get to see him charging up and back, matted locks trailing as if trying to keep up with a maniac. Spare a little for a lion whose heart has plenty left but is betrayed by his body and its accumulation of rips, tears, contusions, bruises and various knocks.
Which doesn’t mean it ain’t going to be weird.
Nonsense as a possible portent
This week, when Sandro Rosell said that Xavi basically helped to invent tika taka, many cringed. Lots of folks were making lots of invention claims this week as we rolled our eyes and said “Man, what a bunch of fools.”
And then, suddenly out of nowhere, came the wild rumor that Xavi would be leaving Barça this very summer for a team in the American professional football league, MLS. Suddenly, if you really looked at them in a way that is unacceptably crazy, maybe, just maybe, those Rosell natterings might seem, if you look at them just so, to take on the form of a valedictory for a great player.
None of us want to believe, even as time says “Go to hell” and takes things from us. Someone whose opinion I value said on Twitter during the Atleti clash that Xavi should no longer start the big matches. Wee, under-breath mutterings that maybe our metronome is past it have been going for a while. Then suddenly, one rumor came from one source, then another. Who picked what up from whom? Then a Catalan radio station with a good track record reported that a bid from the New York Red Bulls (yes, the same team Thierry Henry is aging gracefully at) had been tabled.
It’s hard to know what to think, even as a story quotes an MLS source with knowledge as saying that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to the rumors. Two years ago, even one year ago, something like that comes out and we laugh so hard we almost rupture something. Today, suddenly, even if just for a second, we pause.
Like Puyol, I can guarantee that Xavi does not want to stay at Barça for one second longer than he is useful. Their love for the club is too deep and complete. We have said that he needs more rest, that the forwards aren’t moving, that everything is fine and he just has to pick his spots. And he will pull out a performance that makes a liar out of the “he’s done” crowd, and people will stick out their chests and say “See? He still has it,” without analyzing what or how the performances happened. Vicarious life needs that, as we want our heroes to be as they were. Who wants to face an uncertain future? Hang on, Champ.
Yet as Barça face more and more teams that are physical, pressing and aggressive as they flood the midfield, the times that Xavi seems like a raft cast adrift become more frequent. The giveaways come more often, two within minutes vs Atleti, from a player who previously wouldn’t misplace two balls in an entire match. Past it? I can’t say. Past it against certain opponents?
Uncomfortable silences can sometimes be deafening.
Teams turn over personnel. They have to if they are to keep functioning at the highest level, as their supporters demand. AC Milan jettisoned Andrea Pirlo on a free. He then went on to play, define and star for Juventus. Was Milan stupid? Did they err? Nope. He just wasn’t, in light of the demands of that particular team, a player they were willing to keep. Football life is hard.
But MLS? Really? The rumor is almost certainly hogwash, as so many transfer rumors are. If there is any truth to it, I can see it because I just can’t see Xavi playing for another European side, even as I can see him wanting to keep playing for a bit longer. He isn’t ready to retire. Is he ready to dial things back a bit? Quite possibly, possibly not. But I do know this: the best way to honor our heroes is to look at them as they are, even as we remember how they were. It’s magic, it’s powerful. Just as we age, as friends come and go and life takes us through changes, there is one constant, and that is the team, whatever team that is.