Captain, o my captain

Healing from something traumatic is complex. There are stages of grief, then the acceptance that has to come before someone can manage those feelings, that thing in the pit of your stomach, in the back of your head.

For the players, Anfield was brutal. It was only in the aftermath that we began to understand how deeply they felt it. There were the scenes of Messi at training, looking like he was barely able to keep from weeping. There was the desultory match after the breakdown, where none of the players looked like they wanted to be there.

In the grim, foolish, mostly selfish aftermath for supporters, who went after favored targets and decided that Valverde and Rakitic were the root cause of everything, and both must be sacrified on the nearest pyre, logic and calm had taken a holiday. But as usual, then came Messi.

He, Pique and Valverde had a press conference the Friday before the Copa del Rey final, and a lot of people wondered what was going to happen, even as it should have been clear: Messi was going to be the captain of his team, the frontispiece of the club to which he has dedicated his playing life.

Like bowling pins, he knocked down all of the nonsense:

— He wanted Valverde to stay, and likes him as a manager.
— He never thought about leaving the club, even after Anfield.
— The mess was on the players. Valverde prepped them well.

In the wake of the presser there were gobs of interpretations, most of them based on the worldview of the interpreter, and too many of them bathed in stupidity and then swaddled in idiocy. There was even a #MessiOut hashtag that popped up. Most of them could be summed up in “What else would he say,” or “He isn’t going to throw the manager under the bus.”

It isn’t that simple. In the universe of coded messages, the clearest one would have been Messi simply refusing to do the press event. That would have been his prerogative, and would have made for a very clear message. Any interpretation with roots in “What else would he say,” should start there. He didn’t have to do it. Didn’t have to show up. Didn’t have to bare his soul for the assembled throngs.

Messi is a great many things, including loyal. Messi is also honest. Recall when he blasted the board in the wake of a member snarking about an upcoming renewal. He isn’t shy about putting people on blast. This time he didn’t, and it’s worth asking why.

Captains lead. A player getting the armband isn’t usually a casual decision. Maradona gave Messi the armband for Argentina because he was the best player. At Barcelona, in his first year with the armband, it was different. It wasn’t just that he was the best player, but that he was the leader. That leadership takes many forms, even if it doesn’t take the form of getting in people’s faces at crucial times. He has never been more of a leader than when he faced the media at that press conference, to not only expose some demons but to lay others to rest.

Anfield hurts for him. Even now. It hasn’t been that long. Pique’s remarks made it clear that Rome wasn’t far from the players’ minds as the pressure began to build at Liverpool. But he and Messi sat there and answered questions. All of the origin theories are like science vs Creationism, when nobody can adequately explain the origin, and no matter what theory someone believes in, the question of the first ball of matter is insoluble. Every possible reason that anyone could offer about why Pique or Messi said what they said boils down to this:

They didn’t have to do it.

So why do it? Not only is it what a captain and a leader does, but it’s a crucial step in overcoming this thing that threatens to become an insurmountable barrier instead of an obstacle to be overcome. They are strong as a team, their captain said, and united in support of their manager. Even before the presser, Bartomeu said that Valverde was staying, and the board was confident in him. No way he says that unless he already knew that Messi wanted him to stay. Messi made that clear:

” In the game against Liverpool he was hardly to blame for anything. We as the players are to blame.”
“After they scored the second goal we didn’t compete. You can make mistakes in any game but what we cannot have is a situation where we didn’t compete.”

People taking on trauma is a thing. Supporters of the club laid claim to being “ashamed,” or “embarrassed.” Why? You support and love a club, and the failure of the players can make you sad. We deal with that, and move on. It’s never more important to show your love for someone than when they are at their lowest. In thinking about what Messi did at that press conference, it was exactly that. He didn’t just take one for the team. He stepped forward as a captain is supposed to, to say that no, everything isn’t fine, that this hurts us, but that we have to move on, we have to try again.

As a supporter, any of us can deal with that in any way that we like. What we can’t do is doubt the power and sincerity of a player who has done everything for this club, given it everything that he has, match in and match out. What we choose to do in the face of that sincerity? That is a personal decision. For me, the path is as clear as it has always been: step back, and hail the captain, our captain.


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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.