The “only Messi has more” hashtag now includes heartache.
It has for years, really, but the broadside that he unleashed after a desultory, inept display that resulted in a home loss to Osasuna, made that clear. Messi has had enough.
When he said that things have to change after the match, people ran off to fit whatever peg they wanted into that overall notion. “Oooh, Bartomeu is doomed.” “Oh, don’t know how Setien can come back from this.” Or this player, or that player. But the whole thing is rotten and Osasuna delivered a deserved coup de grace, but will anyone listen or see.
Two years ago, Busquets does something different with that ball that he contorted his aged body to head into space, almost like a pre-assist for the Osasuna attackers. Two years ago, Suarez could do something more than stumble around. Two years ago, a chaotic band-aid like Arturo Vidal wouldn’t have been a viable solution. A lot can happen in two years, which was the last opportunity the board had to not just slide deck chairs around on the Titanic. Two years ago, in the wake of a lost night in Rome, when a supporter base would have backed pretty much anything, they chose to stand pat, chose to fiddle, chose to play it safe. That’s what accountants and money managers do.
Say what you want about Joan Laporta, and there is a lot to say, but a cava-soaked spendthrift doesn’t play it safe. Sometimes, drama works. Instead, they added something here, added something there. Nothing too drastic, as their noses turned up to the air like frightened deer sniffing for predators. And a group of men who lacked the courage of their own convictions were aided and abetted by a fanbase with no skin in the game. Love? Sure. Try using that as coin of the realm. We helped this come about with our affection for the doddering, our slavish, selective support that should have been a cleansing fire, our embrace of antiquated dogma.
In this age of social media and a board acutely attuned to it in ways that it shouldn’t be, it’s easy to speculate that Quique Setien was rescued from communing with the cows because “Hey, the supporters love him and his Cruijffian notions of how football should be played.” So after everyone else had turned them down, he was the populist choice, and so many fell for it. “Yeah, NOW things will be different.” Give an aged sprinter a new coach, and the legs are still too old to go fast. Slide the deck chairs around and the boat is still sinking.
Messi saw it all, kept playing like the devoted lion that he is, but he had to know, had to see what was coming. It was too obvious to miss. And Messi has to know because he lives in his own body, with his own skills. And if a footballing mutant is diminished, caught by defenders he used to outrun, touch and control betrayed by muscle and synapse systems that just don’t fire like they used to, what must be happening to mere mortals?
“Pique still has it,” we screamed, ignoring the steps he has lost, the panic that has crept into his game. Busquets is still amazing with the ball at his feet and no pressure, an ideological hothouse that exists when an opponent is compliant like Villarreal was. Suarez can still score a worldie when everything comes together right, a few seconds that make many forget about the other 89 minutes of immobile ineptitude. But everything is someone else’s problem. “Semedo, man,” people say about the punching bag of the moment, never stopping to watch play around a player stranded with the ball because play isn’t building in anything like the way it’s supposed to. Blaming individuals is easier than looking at an entire rotting structure that includes the things we revere. Football is collective action performed by individuals. And when something is broken, it’s rarely one person.
Current fashion is railing against “revisionism” that things were “better” under Valverde. It’s just another symptom of how broken this all is. We hated the football under Valverde, ginned up our own notions of soft, coddled players, stomped around with hashtags. #valverdeout The difference between “better” and “less crappy” is more than semantic. The board fired Valverde for no reason other than panic, and to save their asses from something they didn’t need saving from. Elections weren’t going to happen. They were safe. The players liked Valverde, but that didn’t matter to the board. It was another collapse in a meaningless match in which the team played some of the best football that it had in a while. So we got our “be careful what you wish for” desires. Valverde out. Setien in. Yay?
We enable with our support because we, like everyone else, don’t want to let go. And we flail ourselves with bunches of intellectual birch branches when things don’t go according to theory, flaying hunks of nonexistent skin off in our misery over something we have no real investment in. Not like Messi, not like the players. If Messi really was the dictator that some claim, would this crap have been allowed to go on for as long as it has? “Club de amigos” is a popular thing, bandied about as it that explains Setien’s selections. But if you look at what he has to work with, who’s better than the alleged club members? You were as effective from the space in front of your laptop as Martin Braithwaite was against Osasuna. Suarez comes on and in less than five minutes, wins the free kick that Messi converts into a goal.
The problem isn’t that there is a “club de amigos.” The problem is that there haven’t been any solutions offered, no bravery, no panache. Instead, the board assembled baubles. They had 200 million dropped into their laps when Neymar scuttled away to chase his still-unrealized dreams of more, and they made what to them were sound decisions. Coutinho should have worked, would have worked except that the team doesn’t play the kind of football that would have enabled him to work, and woe betide the manager who tries to change the system in a way that would allow him to work, never mind that his ideal position is occupied by the best player in history. Ousmane Dembele was a rushed, hasty decision, a brilliant player who has a mountain of talent. The only thing bigger than his talent is his bad luck. A backheel, a bit of show meant to fluff the feathers, blew out his hamstring, leading to a downward spiral. He’s now in the midst of another comeback. Antoine Griezmann was added, an associative player of the type they could have called up from La Masia, overpriced and overrated. He should have been discarded after making fools of them with a Pique-produced “Neener, neener!” video. Instead the board persisted. “We’ll show them.” Well, they did. They got their man, another poor fit for a system of play that should have been discarded for something modern ages ago, but we won’t let that happen, so why would they?
“They just have to play the right way.” Arthur, Frenkie de Jong were bricks in that wall, players who were celebrated as the answer before they even kicked a ball in anger, the solution to the screams of “Where is the midfield” of the heretic years of Luis Enrique. “The midfield is back!” Sure. But everything around it is crap, but so many chose to ignore it in favor of favored baubles. “Busquets would be fine if you surrounded him with the right parts.” This would be fine, that would be fine, if only. And now there is no more “if only.” There’s just a roster stuffed with players in the prime of their life if they aren’t being judged by football years. But by that cruel measure, they’re old men, and it shows in a game that says theory is nice, but at some point you have to be able to run, to jump, to solve problems by doing physical things.
We’re angry, we’re disappointed. Now imagine how Messi feels. The captain’s armband brought with it responsibility. He has spoken out more since acquiring that status. He promised the fans a Champions League title. That fell apart in Rome. He spoke out against a technical director who dared suggest players were slacking. He foretold doom and now, railed that it has come to pass. This team would have been good enough to win a league had so many things happened differently. It’s more than board incompetence. It’s empowered players, who don’t just push the ball to Messi. It’s changing systems to account for players on the roster, rather than ideas growing moss in the minds of the entorno. It’s the courage to make the kinds of choices necessary to enable a team to be built around a still-astonishing player. It’s everything, all at once.
When Messi says that things have to change, he doesn’t mean individual things that someone doesn’t like. He can see what we can see if we take the blinders off. It isn’t just the stuff we don’t like. It’s everything.