“As a defender, my aim is to infuriate the opponent. 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.” –Eric Abidal
This player, this man, has officially retired from football today.
It’s worth a few words on this wonder of a player who, as always when humanity decides to kick sport in the face, reminds us of possibilities and our own humanity.
From rocky starts …
It all began in 2007 when Abidal joined Barça after essentially going on strike at Lyon, who didn’t want to sell him for reasons that would become apparent. He made his debut in August of that year and it’s safe to say that he didn’t show the signs of a player who would become essential to the success of a succession of great championship teams under Pep Guardiola, becoming the French Greyhound who held down the left side with class and style as he lived up his assertion. Teams didn’t attack that side of the pitch, because it was effectively closed, even as his sideline-to-sideline range meant that pretty much wherever he was, that part of the pitch was closed, too.
His acclimation process at Barça was slow, as it often is with foreign players. And typically of culers, many were ready to write him off, already making up their minds about him instead of using that magical word that seems an epithet to so many these days, patience.
And Abidal himself admitted that he wasn’t his best after that first season, in full honesty, but insisted that his best was yet to come as he added understatement to his roster of formidable skills.
For me, and I suggested this back then, the roots of Hlebruary were in the seemingly annual Abidal injury around that time of the season, where he would pull or strain something and it would suddenly become apparent how important he was to how the team defended.
Gerard Pique was off being Piquenbauer, Dani Alves was dancing around the opposing keeper as Carles Puyol was busy occupying the space that others had left behind. Whenever something would go bad and an opponent got a chance, Abidal would almost invariably come streaking in to kill it, using speed and strength to right the ship.
As a player, he was really never rated by too many culers, who watched matches with the blinders of past expectation that limit a player to an initial perception. Or he was dismissed with, “He doesn’t attack enough.” Then, when he added attacking to his game with increasing fluency it became, “He doesn’t attack like Alves.”
None of that mattered to a man who was, we realize only now, irreplaceable. Barça’s defensive complexities began when he left the club, and they have only now begun to assume a semblance of solidity. Because just as Messi saves the team on offense, Abidal did, time and time again, on defense.
But he wouldn’t just do it, he would do it with style and his preternatural calm on the ball, quelling an attack and introducing la pausa on defense before passing it to a waiting midfielder. And yet it wasn’t always style. Dude cleared a ball with his head, slamming his dome into the ground in a battle for possession while laying on the pitch. Any how, any way.
He even scored goals for Barça, choosing important moments to do them. His tally against Athletic Club seized the day for Barça, and he also slotted home a goal in as minor a showcase as the Classic.
And then came the word, a little thing that trickled out that then became grim reality: Abidal has cancer, and will require surgery. Guardiola said that he wept like a baby, and it’s safe to say that many of us did as well because suddenly, it was serious, and personal as it always is when an evil thing tries to take someone from us. RM players wore Animo Abidal shirts, a phrase that also flashed on the Bernabeu scoreboard as rivalries are cast aside when humanity comes calling.
Of course as we all know, his comeback was legendary. Surgery in March, then starting and playing 90 minutes of Barça’s Champions League victory at Wembley, capped off by the moment when Carles Puyol did the only thing that a great Capita should have, in handing the trophy and the armband to Abidal.
It was a moment that Puyol said was his most special in his 15 years as a player for Barça. It is also one of the moments that sticks most indelibly in my memory, because of a truly great story. From the note that Abidal left in the locker room at Wembley, promising to be back in May, to an athlete beating that most evil of assailants in his own body and returning to triumph … if somebody brought that story to you for a screenplay, you would tell them it was too good to be true, and kick them out of your office.
Triumph turned to tragedy when it was announced that Abidal would need a liver transplant because his battle wasn’t over yet. Such was the bond forged with the player that Dani Alves offered to be a donor, before Abidal’s cousin stepped up. The surgery was a success and the player returned to Barça yet again, even as storm clouds were on the horizon.
At a press conference, Abidal sat at a table with Sandro Rosell next to him, weeping as the club that he loved made the decision, despite the assertion that it came after consultation with coaching staff AND player, that it was time for Abidal to quit FC Barcelona.
It is a decision that I still do not agree with, even as I understand that the circumstances were complicated … that we don’t know what the player was demanding, etc, etc. My objectivity clashed with my emotions, made even more raw by seeing a man who had given everything that he had, kicked cancer in the ass then came back to give everything that he had again, kicked cancer in the ass a SECOND time then worked to again be in a condition to give everything that he had for the team. That man deserved a shot with the club that he loved, an assertion with roots in the reality that it’s hard to be logical, to step back and see all sides in a situation such as that.
Time marches on
Abidal went to play for Monaco, part of a back line tossed together by cash and circumstance. He wasn’t the player he was, and many used that as an excuse to say “See? Barça was right.” But he was playing, and he was happy. He signed a one-year extension with Monaco and then on this day a year ago came sudden reports that he was moving to Olympiakos.
People wondered why, and the most persistent rumor was that he was angry that Monaco reneged on the deal with injured ex-Barça keeper Victor Valdes. And truth be told, we like to imagine that rumor is so, that Abidal is such a mensch that friendship and love towers above everything.
But he, as did we all, knew that time was running out because even without health ravages, time isn’t kind to 35-year-old defenders who rely on pace and power as the foundation of their game. And so, today, after an up and down season with Olympiakos, Abidal has retired.
He said that his next role is as yet undetermined, that he has offers from both Barça and Olympiakos. But given his professed love for the club, his roots in Barcelona and his passion, it is difficult to imagine that he will do anything except return home, where he belongs.