David Villa announced his retirement from football, effective at the end of the season, when he will be 37 years old.
The forward had a delightful career, one punctuated by class, grace and something of an apogee with the Guardiola Barça sides. One of the more noteworthy things about Villa’s career is how tidy his moves were. He went from Valencia to Barça, to Atleti, to NYCFC and finally Vissel Kobe, where he was reunited with Iniesta. What is, gratefully, missing from his career is the public bleating of a player who overstayed his time at a club that wanted him to move on.
This week, in an interview, Ivan Rakitic talked about being “sad” that he wasn’t playing, disappointed in his sudden move from lineup fixture to bench ornament. “They have taken the ball from me, and I am sad,” is the money quote. He adds that he wants to keep enjoying himself in the game, with the clear implication that he isn’t at Barça. The temptation is to make fun of him, to say that he brought it on himself, to ridicule and fill any mention of him on social media with pithy barbs.
But sport in general and football in particular, doesn’t have an alarm clock that rings, that tells someone when it’s time. Every athlete has to make that decision. Mine came during a big race, and a moment where the option was to shove the bars into a gap, make a hole to sprint through and possibly win (or crash), or back off, finishing out of the podium places. Backing off made it clear that at the senior level, my time was up. The signs were clear, if you choose not to ignore them.
For Rakitic, a player at the highest level of the game, what were the signs? We could see them, already visible last season as play slowed down at his feet, how secure possession suddenly wasn’t, how the shots from distance soared over the goal or plonked with less force. The applause from Camp Nou supporters became appreciative, the kind of applause at a retirement ceremony. Players as they age always talk about the game moving more quickly, rather than they moving more slowly. Increasingly, Rakitic looked like a player for who the game was moving too quickly. This season, he looks like the game is at 2x while he’s in slo-mo, and it’s brutal. “They” didn’t take the ball from Rakitic, unless that “they” is time, talent youth and denial.
And then came Frenkie De Jong.
When asked about the possibility of the Dutch mid taking his position, Rakitic blithely said that spot was taken. And indeed it was. By De Jong. The signs were there, but the Croatian chose to ignore them. Some of it is the arrogance of the athlete who never wants to admit that it’s that time, who doesn’t understand that the purity of grace means never overstaying your welcome. It’s easy to convince yourself that you still have it, that you’re still competitive, particularly at a club with a manager who reveres the veteran player. But the trick of not being surplus to requirements is not to hang on, to understand that moment. Villa slid easily from team to team, always valuable at the new space he chose. Rakitic moved from Sevilla to Barça and, for many years, retained his value. The 18m price was a screaming bargain. Even now he would easily be worth twice that, but his salary is an impediment. A summer move was easier to consider because Rakitic was still the fixture of last season, rather than the cruel revelation of this season, who plays rarely, poorly and slowly.
The excoriation for Rakitic among a segment of the Barça-centric social media world is fierce, unrelenting and cruel. It’s also unnecessary. We can respect him for his years of service, recognize that it’s past time for him to move on and wait for that day to come. But football fan culture is such that it increasingly lacks humor, compassion and empathy. Imagine being Rakitic, just for a moment. Imagine starting the season thinking there would be a place for you. Imagine the arguments with yourself, the conversations with friends and family about whether it was time to move on. Imagine the cruelty of reality as for match after match, you watch a much younger man take your place. Rakitic is 31 years old, a doddering coot only in football time. Having empathy doesn’t mean defending or supporting. It just puts us a bit more in touch with our humanity, in the time it takes to be empathic.
“He’s pulling down a salary to sit on his ass,” many scoff, without understanding what it must be like to be done. One day you’re warming up with Messi, trading passes with him. The next, you’re surplus to requirements, and that’s that. The worst part is that he makes squads, which means almost. Making the squad at Barça where the midfield is stacked probably means being good enough to start at a club where competition isn’t quite so fierce. PSG, United, Inter, Juventus are all places where he would have a much better shot at stomping the terra on a weekly basis, rather than having one of the best seats in the house for the Frenkie De Jong show. Or the Vidal show. Or the Arthur show. Or the Anybody But Rakitic show. And as bad as that show is, the highlights of when he has played this season have to make him feel even worse. Illusion and hope are gone. A player wants to contribute, wants to earn the salary. Players hate not playing, not being good enough. That it’s something that comes suddenly rather than sneaking up in the dead of night makes it that much more cruel. Crapping on him makes some anonymous internet warrior feel better, but it’s also okay to wonder if he doesn’t feel bad enough already. He’s wasted a season with misguided hope, and the hubris of veteran confidence.
January? Maybe. Loan? Transfer? Who in world football can manage his salary? Who in world football would look at how he has played this season and want to take on that big number? It’s easy for us to think, “He brought it on himself.” But we know nothing of the thought process of an elite footballer, of the rationalizations, of the hope. Empathy isn’t a muscle that gets much of a workout these days. Nor is balance. And that is a shame.