Football is back, and caring about it right now is a challenge

Don’t know about you, but my last day in the office with colleagues was Friday, March 13. In the time from then to now has been news about colleagues who have tested positive, gotten ill and recovered, learning to work remotely in ways that we only casually tapped at previously, and no football.

Two weeks ago, when Bundesliga returned, it was exciting to see competitive action again, and like most supporters, my appetite was whetted for my favorite league and best league in the world, La Liga, to return.

Yes, it’s a brazen money grab by people who don’t care as much about supporters as they do about contract and sponsor obligations. And it isn’t about the game, or the competition. It’s just about the money. Can’t get paid if there’s no football, and even empty stadiums can allow clubs to get paid, dependent upon where they are on the food chain. But Liga was back. Let’s do this.

Now, things are drastically less exciting for a great many reasons, most of all that the world has conspired to rob the game of some of its unfettered joy for me. It’s cool that commerce is at the forefront. Nobody is under any illusions about the business side of the game that we love. It’s just the world is in upheaval right now in the wake of the horrific, televised for all to see killing of a black man, George Floyd, while in police custody. And suddenly, games strike me as vastly more frivolous now.

Football was always a psychological dalliance, even with its ability to make us scream, laugh, cry, exult and hug complete strangers in triumph. But the world seemed a simpler place, even when it wasn’t for a lot of people who lived in it. A policeman knelt, mimicing the gesture that became famous when former NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. Under his knee was a man’s neck. The man can be heard begging, pleading, saying, “I can’t breathe,” calling for the mother who had died not that long before the end that he might surely have felt coming, pleading during the gradual process of asphyxiation.

At first, the protests were small, sparks that became a conflagration that has consumed a nation, a world. There has never been a situation that has caused protest events, multiple protest events, in all fifty states. Until now. Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, London were among the global spaces that became part of the struggle, part of the massive cri de coeur from a world in pain.

It’s pretty hard to care about millionaires capering about a manicured lawn right now.

Bundesliga goal scorers took knees, lifted matchday shirts to reveal messages scrawled on base layers in support of Floyd. In practices, teams took a knee, one even took a knee in formation, like a fancy marching band. In America, policemen are being arrested and fired for abusing power, national pursuits such as CrossFit are losing sponsors because founders said or Tweeted the wrong thing. A Chicago delicatessen owner went on an anti-Black Lives Matter rant and a week later, his deli is closed. Permanently. The head of Conde Nast stepped down amist picture of him in brownface at a party, which sparked an avalanche of cultural violations, the kind of casual, everyday racism that so many don’t even know exists even as it breaks the heart of those who feel its effect.

It’s all heavy. So heavy. At times, too heavy for a man who imagines himself, his neck under an officer’s knee. It’s too heavy for my wife, a German-Irish redhead. It’s too heavy for the 500+ people who marched this weekend past through the downtown area of my bucolic suburb, ending at the manicured, lush green park just up the street from my house. There are times when the world says, “We don’t have time for games.” This is one of them, for me.

It is also worth noting that amid all of the clubs that have done things, made gestures however ridiculous and benign, international and national federations such as UEFA and England’s FA that have said they are not going to punish a player for any gestures of solidarity, amid a Bundesliga that took collective knees for a minute before the past matchday’s clashes, the club that we all love has not had enough to say. There was a Tweet, which was nice to see, but not easy to find. You can Google, and search the official sites in English and Catalan, and nothing. For a club that is so quick to align itself with social justice causes when it suits, the lack of anything that can be easily found is disappointing.

The most excellent San Francisco Penya has a Black Lives Matter banner on its Facebook page, and has announced a fundraising drive in support of the ACLU/NAACP legal defense and education fund. It’s a local entity of the global club that is showing a big heart. It’s a gesture, but it matters. It’s what they can do.

Sometimes, we need a distraction from stuff, need something to attract our attention like a new shiny object. Other times we need to see, hear and understand fully, need to wallow in it, to understand the magnitude of what is going on across the globe. That space doesn’t leave a lot of room for football, from my worldview. Yours is probably different, and should be respected. And maybe tuning in on the weekend, seeing those Blaugrana shirts darting about a pitch will bring back the magic, the giddy anticipation of the weeks before the world changed. Maybe. But right now, it’s pretty hard to cheer for anything when all you want to is cry, in a world that can’t even provide the solace of a comforting hug because by the way, there’s also a pandemic.

And that feels weird. Since becoming a fully rabid culer some 20 years ago, this club has been a massive part of my life, and an inordinate focus of my attention. Even as heads were being cracked outside the Camp Nou, the match went on inside amid the backdrop of a carefully worded statement from the club. Then as now, hearts were heavy, but we watched. And many of us pretended to care about the outcome. But this all feels very different. The club will face off against Mallorca, which will also be welcoming back the return Chimy Avila, a player though lost for the season, just as Barça welcomes back Luis Suarez, another player thought lost for the season. And of course, there will be Messi.

The games will go on. By the weekend, the world will be visibly, noticeably calmer even if sadly, it will still be the same place.

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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.