Rafinha, fate and cruel fragility

There was a moment, right after the benign coming together with the Atletico player, where Rafinha was limping, grimacing, making a decision.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s the 20/20 hindsight afforded by history that allows us to wonder if there weren’t competing emotions washing over that chiseled visage, if somehow, he didn’t know. He waved the bench away, and played through it, limping for a bit then running as normal, even as it wasn’t normal and he almost certainly knew that it wasn’t normal.

Rafinha Alcantara has been felled again by another major injury, and will have surgery in a blow that almost certainly means we won’t see him again this season. What makes the feelings even worse, what hits you in the gut as a Barça supporter is that just this week Rafinha threw down a gauntlet, putting to rest all talk about a January move, about his being unhappy at the club that raised him.

“My father was mistaken.”

Mazinho was stirring the pot, and Rafinha calmly turned off the flames. Last season he was plying his trade at Inter on a loan-with-purchase. Was Inter always going to spurn him, cruelly choosing to use him, let him fit in, let him sparkle and then sending him back? Maybe. Probably. His fee was too steep, they said. They had other players they needed to spend the money on, they said. They might even be sitting in the offices, seeing news of Rafinha’s injury and nodding smugly.

But Rafinha returned to Barça, worked and fought, earning a place with Valverde, just as he did with Luis Enrique. Perhaps as both are combative coaches, they see, understand and respect a player who never backs down. Or perhaps they just understand that with the difficulties that limit a lineup, there is a need for a certain kind of player, a unique skill set that is contained in Rafinha.

He is a buzzy kind of player. During the Atleti match yesterday, people in the cauldron of Barça Twitter were slagging his performance without caring to understand what he does. He is unique among Barça mids. He isn’t going to make runs, isn’t going to lace pretty passes or leave mouths agog in rondo-like glitter ball. He is going to work, going to help defend, going to exist in half spaces, going to make himself available for a return pass, will never leave a teammate stranded with the ball.

When he came on for an injured Sergi Roberto and shortly thereafter had his coming together, the knives were already out when they shouldn’t have been. Need a player to selflessly shuttle the ball from back to front? Rafinha will. No, he won’t be lazy and bang a long pass. He will do exactly what he is supposed to. As Masia players go, he always embodied that training, playing with his head up, with intelligence.

Football is a crappy, crappy game, to knock him down at the exact moment that everything was looking good, looking ready for that next step. Rafinha seems to be a player who is always coming back from injury. This is his third major injury in as many years. Football supporters like to make quips about fragile players. Jeffren, who had the medical staff wondering about the cologne that he used. Tello, with hamstrings that seemed always taut, always ready to break. Vermaelen, who can’t shake the injury bug even when he shakes it. And Sergi Samper. The awful, heartbreaking horrible luck of a player who only wants to play football. And Rafinha.

Athletes understand. Time doesn’t care about anything, not even you and your hopes and dreams. You step wrong, land wrong, collide with something you didn’t plan in a way that happened a thousand times before, but this time it’s all different. A serious-faced doctor is talking about your rehab plan, when you were sure it would just be, “Take a couple of days off, and some aspirin.”

It sucks. One injury sucks, when it racks you up for a while. The treatment, the rehab, the physical therapy. And that isn’t even the worst part. The worst part is the uncertainty. Suddenly you don’t trust your own body, the thing that you use every day, that you make a living with, that you hope will propel you to the fruition of your hopes and dreams.

And you don’t trust it. You step gingerly, you wince at something because suddenly you don’t know. The rehab continues even when doctors tell you that you are full strength, good to go, because you just don’t know. Everything has been shook. That is just your first major injury, something that too many athletes read this, know and understand. Now imagine your second, or third major injury. Imagine how that must feel, how psychologically damaging it must be, what you have to do to come back, yet again. It costs. It costs you that edge, that abandon that made you what you were.

Athletes do it all the time. Derrick Rose, Lindsey Vonn, Adrian Petersen, Thiago Alcantara. Surgeries, rehab, months away, people calling you a “fighter” as you go for it yet again. Vonn is chasing a storied record for most World Cup wins, a record she would surely have had were it not for the seemingly endless list of injuries. Rose is lighting up the NBA again, finally, after heartbreak and fear, from being untouchable to so, so mortal.

From this chair, that of an athlete who has been racing a bicycle for 35 years, who has had crashes, injuries big and small, injuries that have cost a precious season, injuries whose duration is measured in time that you don’t have, it’s hard not to remember Rafinha’s face as he limped around, imagine how he must have felt getting the news because you know how that feels, and not fight back the tears. It’s unspeakably cruel.

How will he come back from this knee surgery? Who knows? Some Tweets mentioned his injury and almost immediately gushed about the opportunities it would bring for this or that favored player. Because like fate, supporters don’t care all that much about an injured player unless he is a special one. Messi and his fractured arm had the world on tenterhooks. Rafinha and his busted knee is just a dashed-off “anims.” Moving on. We don’t stop that long to think about injured athletes, particularly young ones. But we should. Empathy is hard, particularly in this exceptionally cruel time in which we live.

Rafinha isn’t going to be able to do the thing that he loves, the thing that he was raised doing, his life. That is awful. No matter what anyone thinks of his skills, it’s awful. It’s doubly, trebly worse because he has been through all of this before, like so many of us have. And like so many of us, he is wondering what is on the other side, whether he will come out at all, never mind how he will come out. That’s hard. Unspeakably hard. It will be worth watching, and waiting, not as culers but as humans, who want to see good things happen to people, who understand the pain of dreams denied.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.