You suck. I suck. We all suck at something. We all fail, we all strive for somethng yet somehow can’t quite get it right. The one human quality that unites us all is failure.
It explains of lot of the heartbreaking read that surfaced on Monday, as Andre Gomes opened up in an interview about his time at Barça, a period that seems likely to end in summer. A few relevant quotes:
“I don’t feel good on the field … am not enjoying the thing I like to do. … It turned into a bit of a hell, because I started to feel more pressure. With pressure I feel fine, but with pressure on myself, I don’t. The feeling that I have during games is bad.
“I didn’t want to leave my house. Because people look at you, having the fear of going on the street out of shame. … I close myself off. I don’t take the frustration I have out. Then I don’t talk to anybody, I don’t bother anyone. It is like I feel ashamed. Thinking too much has hurt me. I think about the bad things and what I have to do. Although my teammates help me a lot, the things don’t work out the way they want them to work out.”
Andre Gomes is 24 years old, and sounds like a broken player. Football is filled with talents who haven’t quite made it. So many of us recall the brilliance of Adriano, whose career is a story of unfulfilled potential, even as it contains magic moments. For whatever reason, talent doesn’t always equate to success. At a club such as Barça, the talent that draws the club can also doom a player because of the legacy of greatness, and playing with living assassins.
Dembele looked a capering colt against Malaga. Yes, some of it was the opponent. But was some of it the liberation of playing without looking across the pitch at the greatest player to ever live? What kind of pressure must that create in a young player, sharing the pitch with an idol, a dude you watched as you were coming up and hoping to play the game professionally? Thierry Henry, one of the greatest attackers in the history of the game, talked about how hard it was learning to play at Barça. Eric Abidal, still the best LB this club has ever had, struggled his first season and opened up about it. It’s hard to play at Barça even when your head is screwed on straight and you know you have the talent.
It’s easy to point to Ter Stegen or Umtiti and say, “Hmph. They aren’t having any issues.” But if you think that Ter Stegen wasn’t, you’re kidding yourself. The shadow of Victor Valdes, Manuel Neuer, Claudio Bravo, a type of keeper quite different to Ter Stegen and one that, from his worldview, his coach seemed to prefer. It’s easy for a defender such as Umtiti, because you aren’t looking at Messi, aren’t looking at Iniesta and all that history. You aren’t preparing to pass the ball to them and wondering, “What if I hit it too hard? Not hard enough? What if I mishit the ball or don’t play it quickly or to the right spot or am off by a millisecond. What if they judge me, and I am found wanting?”
You start a new job. You might roll in like a badass, but you have doubt. Are you good enough, will this be the bridge too far, where ambition runs afoul of ability and execution. Is this it? There is relief when you realize that you can do it, whether it is playing pickup football with a new group, making your workout more difficult or a new job. A first date? Life is constant in that it flings humility alerts at us, which for most folks, will inspire empathy with Andre Gomes.
You are on the biggest stage in the world, and you can’t cut it. It isn’t that you don’t have the talent. You perform well enough in training where you make the squads, where the coach plays you because he wants to see some of that in action that counts. And every now and again, you do it, which makes the times that you don’t and seemingly can’t, that much more painful and glaring. And the spectators don’t know, don’t care. So they whistle, say you’re a waste of space and money in every possible forum they can. And you see it. You can’t help it.
When Suarez, Ter Stegen and Valverde reacted angrily to supporters whistling Gomes, there was a reason, and it isn’t because they know that if the team is to achieve its goals that it needs everyone, every player, to contribute. Maybe, just maybe, it’s that they know what Gomes is going through. Maybe they see it in training and want him to have that success in matches, and not only because it helps the club, because they are on a team.
The much-reviled Douglas was part of the squad. Players joked with him, he had the same fun in training and hung out with players. Supporters wondered about why, didn’t they hold him in the same scorn as they did? No. Because players understand how hard it is to get there, how hard someone works to fit in and work out. They get it because they have been there, because they have failed. We have all failed.
Messi is astonishing because nothing seems to ruffle him. A few seconds left of a massive match, and he is the exact same player that he is when there is nothing on the line. Iniesta doesn’t feel pressure, doesn’t seem human. Xavi laces a ball into space with a flawless perfection that was unaffected by time or moment. Study after study has looked at what makes those players different, and nobody really knows. It isn’t enough to say they are badasses. They are quite often very even emotionally, but not often enough to draw any inferences from that. They just perform like nothing else matters. Is it focus so complete that doubt doesn’t enter the picture, or so much practice that even at the most insane moments, that pass is just rote execution.
Masia training can do that. Now imagine being a 23-year-old talent coming from Valencia into a cauldron that ages coaches seemingly overnight, ringed by some of the most demanding supporters in the game. You have to relearn how to play, how to control the ball and think about the game, what to do when the ball comes. You have to already know what you are going to do next, even before the ball comes to you. You have to, in effect, relearn the game, but in the most public way. If you fail, how do you deal with what happens next?
Ter Stegen evinces an almost preternatural calm. Imagine being him after pranging that clearance off the attacker’s head for a goal, the goal that cost his team a victory, dropped points that cost the team the Liga championship. No, that specific moment didn’t, but had they won that match, the mind must think. He was affected by that for many, many outings after that. It was clear to see. He somehow got through it, but it had to have been difficult. Was it ever precarious? Were we ever close to losing an amazing keeper for mental reasons? We will never know. But if you don’t see the Gomes interview as a heartbreaking cry for help, a cri de coeur from a player who wants to succeed many, many times more than even the most devoted supporter wants him to …
Andre Gomes is in pain. That pain is affecting his game. His talent is immense, as is his skill set. The greater the effort, the worse the result, it must seem. And they whistle. And he feels like he has let everyone down. Himself, his coach, teammmates, supporters, the club that took a shot on him. Everyone. Teams have psychologists, and that players struggle with mental illness in the form of depression is known. Coming out publicly as Gomes did is rare.
Over the weekend, a few media outlets as well as the official club account, posted Dembele highlights and praise. An astute Twitter observer noted that Dembele’s official account was tagged, as if they wanted the player to see, to understand that he was supported, that he did well, that he was coming along. Dembele was also the subject of social media and media scrutiny. There were reports that he wasn’t going all out, that he was isolated from teammates, that he was struggling with loneliness and his parents’ divorce, and it was affecting him on the pitch. His Malaga performance, including some chatter during warmups with Jordi Alba and others, served to put the lie to that. He looked relaxed and easy, like a talent coming into his role on the team.
Psychology matters. Football likes to talk about “heart,” “testicular capacity” and other things that imply this game that we all love so much is for those who want it, those who have the spine and head to make it. And those who don’t, can get lost. That worldview leaves space for a lot of potential damage. Will Andre Gomes be a casualty? Can he overcome the barriers that he sees right now to achieving his best performance? No idea. But at times like this, football becomes more than a game, represented by the words of a young man whose life is lashed to a thing — something he loves — that he can’t be the best at because of his own demons.