It’s hard being Ivan Rakitic.
When he came to Barça, he probably had no idea what he was getting into, probably thought it was going to be fun, and trophies, and strolling around, making passes and dropping bombazos on unsuspecting opponents.
Then he found himself, suddenly, having to babysit right backs who were frequently not where they were supposed to be. Then he had to babysit legends who didn’t really have the legs to do what they used to be able to do. And suddenly, the whispers started. “Sell him, what does he do, anyway,” or “He never was Barça quality.”
Then, in the 73rd minute of a pivotal Classic, it happened. Raktic was given a hospital ball by Busquets. Typically, he selflessly dove in just ahead of a charging Marcelo to bat it back to Busquets, who started the cycle. To Alba, then to Messi. All the while, Rakitic did what he always does, which is be ready, be available. Messi tried something and was dispossessed, the ball bounding to Rakitic who settled, and looked.
Suarez was covered, Messi was covered, Sergi Roberto was coming on the overlap, but the blonde Croatian had something more in mind, something that nobody realized until it was too late. He controlled, moved forward, faked Toni Kroos into the cheap seats, sized up the situation and let fly. Boom. Top corner. Keylor Navas never had a chance. Barça was up 2-1 and for about ten minutes, Barça’s Disney Prince was a hero, the man who struck the winning goal in an immense match.
And he stayed that way until James Rodriguez equalized, just as you knew, somehow, they would. And then, in the 92nd minute, Messi did that magical Messi thing and the world erupted, effusion flowed about the miniscule magigian wiht a flair for doing things that make him the best player anyone has ever seen who is paying attention, and Rakitic went back to being what he usually is — forgotten and underappreciated.
Ryan Catanese, a journalist, said on Twitter that absent context, the Rakitic rocket was the best goal of the match. This is correct. It was a work of art, and not just because of the general fondness for long-distance strikes. It was hit exactly right, with form, venom and all that stuff that it takes to make a memorable goal. And then about 20 minutes later, it became the Joop Zoetemelk of golazos.
Ol’ Joe Sweetmilk was a pro cyclist who finished second in the Tour de France six times. Six. Times. Every time a great cyclist left the game, another one popped up to torment him. His form was immaterial. He was a brilliant rider who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Repeatedly. Like Raktic and his wonder goal. And Raktic in general.
Much of the problem for Rakitic is that he isn’t anything that people think Barça wants, yet his coach knows he is something that Barça needs. He’s like Mr. Wolfe in “Pulp Fiction,” that guy you call when somebody has made a mess. And sometimes, when the mess is too big to be cleaned up, he becomes the easy person to blame because he isn’t Of Barça. He’s an 18m transfer who a few folks got excited about because they were expecting him to do the same things that he did at Sevilla, forgetting that Barça already have people to do those things. So he has to do something else, which doesn’t stop him from being evaluated in the “Barça midfielder” context, which leads to an enumeration of all the things that he is not.
What he is, is selfless. He’s the team cyclist who drifts back to the team car, picks up food and bottles for the star rider, then breaks his legs sprinting back up to his team leader to deliver food, or a rain jacket, or whatever he needs. He runs, and runs. He doesn’t always get there in time, and when he gets tired, his game goes to hell. But even that became, “What, why the hell can’t Rakitic play 90 minutes? Luis Enrique always has to sub him.” But leave him in too long, and it’s “Man, he sucks. What happened? It’s time to sell him.”
Rakitic, like his goal against Real Madrid, is invaluable. We saw glimpses of it a few times this season, when he was subbed off and things went right to hell and nobody took note of the reason why. It was always something else. He and Rafinha can probably start a club of underappreciated men whose surnames start with the letter “R.”
Like almost all players like him, Rakitic won’t care. Just like Keita didn’t care. His coach knows what he can do, and he keeps playing because of what he can do. And every now and again, he unleashes a rocket, then kisses his knuckles and runs like a man who forgot something in his car, rather than a player who has just scored a goal for a massive club.
His golazo happened, and it was fantastic, even as circumstances do what they do. So this one’s for Rocketic, that piledriver of a left foot, and the goal that never happened.