The life of a substitute player is like luggage. You sit in the closet until it’s your time to become essential. If football gave out awards for living your best life, Barça would have a couple of candidates, but the vote for Thomas Vermaelen would be clear.
The Belgian center back has been, low-key, one of the stories of the season — not just for Barça. Period.
We all know how this one began, from sparkling stalwart at Arsenal to a player who couldn’t keep fit, finally offloaded to Barça, complete with mobility scooter.
He passed his medical even though he wasn’t fit to play, and subsequently needed surgery. The vitriol that culers generated about his signing would be sufficient to fill the Camp Nou. He came back, was injured, came back, and worked through a series of knocks before being passed fit for a club for whose supporters he had become a joke. He couldn’t even get his free Audi out of a tight parking situation, a moment chronicled on video to the amusement of club supporters. Couldn’t even drive, much less play CB.
“High winds? Better check on Vermaelen.” “He sneezed, and had to go on the injury list.”
When Samuel Umtiti went out with a hamstring injury, chagrin was the calling card of the fanbase. His form had many, for good reason, calling him the best center back in the game. He was an essential part of the way Barça attacked and defended. Mascherano was battling a number of knocks, and it’s safe to say that few anticipated what would happen.
Vermaelen was fit, and entered the side as a sub. He sparkled. He started the next match, then the next, then the next. He had to, because the only CBs Barça had were he and Pique. But he didn’t just play. His nickname, at one time, was the Verminator for the way that he played his position. Sharp and decisive, positionally adept and master of any header in his area, he was beloved by Arsenal supporters for the very attributes that prompted Barça to take a low-cost shot on him becoming fit and finding him form as a utility player.
Supporters could scarcely believe it. “He started another match!”
It is somehow fitting that in this — so far — storybook season, Vermaelen has been one of the most valuable players in the seemingly interminable stretch on the sidelines for Umtiti, who has returned to the squad for the Betis match. Such is Vermaelen’s form that many are suggesting that with Umtiti back, Pique should be the one who sits, rather than Vermaelen.
That is a long way back for a player who many insisted was never, ever going to be useful for his new club, that he was money thrown down the drain, treated as if his injuries were his fault, that he somehow told his body to let him down once again. Through it all, Vermaelen has never been less than a consummate professional.
In the summer, Vermaelen wanted to leave, and had offers. The club said no. Its new coach, Ernesto Valverde, wanted to keep him. In a interview with Sport, Vermaelen was frank:
“Now I am not playing, so I am in a difficult situation. I can’t play with Barça B, where I could get some form because the Spanish legislation doesn’t allow it. It’s a regrettable situation.”
“I understand the doubts because I’m not playing much for my club, but I don’t feel I need to prove anything. … And what can happen in January is the future, things can change quickly, we will see.”
“I’ve spoken with the manager, of course, and they’re happy with how I am training. It’s clear that in a club like Barcelona, three centre-backs is not enough, you need four or five. An injury or a suspension and I will be back in the squad. For now, it’s not great, but next week could be different.”
Then Umtiti chased after a Celta Vigo attacker, pulled up, and everything changed. The Vermaelen tale is now one with a very happy ending. A player who was looking to leave one of the biggest clubs in world football so that he could get playing time to keep form, dropped into that team’s XI, form intact, to become a defensive linchpin.
Subs are expected to hold down the fort until the key player returns. And while Vermaelen isn’t at the level of Umtiti — no CB in Europe is — the team in no way suffered. It even thrived, and the classy Belgian has been essential. Rarely a misplaced pass, he dropped into the back line as if to the manner born. The player raised in the storied Ajax system fit, his pass completion percentage one of the most telling markers.
There haven’t been a spate of interviews with Vermaelen by major media outlets, which is a shame. His story is fantastic, the comeback from everything to, at age 32, when a lot of players are ready to call it quits, stepping into the spotlight for a European giant, his powers unabated, the right man with the right style at the exact right time.
And should those interviews come, it’s a safe bet that one of his interlocutors will ask him, “Are you happy that Barça said ‘No’ to your transfer wishes?” And it’s an even safer bet that before answering, Vermaelen will smile the happy, contented smile of a player who has overcome so much and now has a new life. He has transformed from perpetually broken joke to an essential cog in a storied run by a team that is walking away with its league and is a Champions League favorite.
Not bad for a “waste of money.”