Why do we need failure?

Samuel Umtiti is working his way back into the Barça squad for what seems like about the umpteenth time.

His trajectory is an odd one, going from being on the list of everyone’s Top 5 centerbacks in the game to an injury-wracked shadow of himself. In posting a brief video of him in his prime on Twitter, the comments started:

“He’s done at Barça.”
“A waste”
“Vermaelen”
“sacrified on the altar of the World Cup”

What Untiti is, at the moment, is a player who is 27 years old, what should be the peak of a CB’s career, with an astonishing injury history. His biggest one is the ongoing knee trouble, but he’s had hamstring problems, calf problems, a foot injury, even tested positive for COVID. He’s one of those players of whom it can be said if anything might happen, it probably will.

But the oddest part of the Umtiti story, and players like him such as Dembele, plagued by fragile bodies and awful luck, is the willingness to write them off, almost like we need the failure so that we can be right. Sports fandom seems to have a fear of being let down, of hoping for something good to happen then having those hopes dashed. During the Atleti match, when Carrasco drove Dembele into the Wanda pitch, only leaving off the sack dance, and Dembele lay there, the only thing a lot of people thought is “Here we go again.” It’s almost like a sigh of relief came. He came back from his laundry list of awful luck and injuries, was playing well, was the best player on the pitch on a few occasions this season and endangering the “He’s a waste. Sell him.” narratives. The spectre of a shoulder injury almost seemed a relief. “See? Told you we couldn’t trust him.”

Dembele is back in the squad for Dynamo, where he will almost certainly start, a continuation of his path to becoming the player that so many were excited about when he arrived from Dortmund. Umtiti, another fragile Frenchman, had already become the player that some were thrilled at getting from Lyon. And then things started to happen.

Some of the anger — let’s call it what it is — directed at him is based on his choosing to play the World Cup for his country rather than opting for surgery. This is diffcult to understand, because playing for your country is something a lot of players would kill for. And France was a favorite that year, and lived up to that billing by winning. Umtiti is now a World Cup winner, which not a lot of players can say. Of course he’s going to make the call, and any of us would as well. Yes, his club is paying his wages, but come on. The problems came after the World Cup when, for whatever reason only the player knows, he didn’t get his knee fixed.

Rehab, a brief comeback then a relapse, and we are where we are, with a gleeful mob wanting to see the back of him. Football supporters need more patience, more compassion, more empathy. What if that were any of us, and we saw people saying, “He got his raise and then checked out. He doesn’t care about the club, only getting paid.” And Umtiti is just one example. So is Dembele, Barça itself is another, the relief at the state in which the club finds itself seized upon like the man who for years has carried around his “The World is Going to End” placard, crowing in joy as the giant asteroid hits.

A lovely thread by Lala of tutu fame, , @Oohlalafootball on Twitter, put the Atleti match into perspective, and the role of sports in real life as an escape. Typhoons, a pandemic, a coming holiday season that will be spent away from our families because of concern about viral risk. A team losing a football match is like, “Okay. Moving on.” Even when a negative result comes, football is still a game to us. The people for whom it is a job don’t even freak out as much as we supporters do after a result. It’s work. That day is done, gotta get ready for tomorrow.

The beauty of athletics for me, which is probably in part due to my almost lifetime as an athlete, is possibility. Every match, every pass, every play is the possibility for something extraordinary. To me, the saddest thing about Messi right now is how that has been stolen from us, by time, by an awful club president who didn’t understand how to treat an icon with respect and dignity. Possibility. And yet, the essence of sport is failure. Different teams win championships, win matches. A huge upset brings glee because for just a moment, sport has become every wonderful thing that people who play it, who watch it, who follow it, hoped it could become. Often, even the vanquished can’t resist a smile and a congratulatory hug for the surprise winners. It is at those times that sport becomes the beating heart of humanity, something beautiful.

Without hope, and hope for joy, what do we have? Some of us cheer for Dembele to become the player that we hoped the club signed, root for Coutinho to find his mojo, think that maybe, just maybe, this start will be the one for Griezmann and want Umtiti to find something of what he once had, especially now at such a vital time. What else are we supposed to do?

Many find the answer to that question in, “Gird our loins behind a wall of misery, a wall of anticipating failure and joylessness,” to stave off disappointment. But where’s the joy in sport then? Where’s the beauty, the bliss of a redemption tale? When Dembele took that pass from Messi, dribbled then smacked that thunderstrike into the Betis net, the smile almost cracked my face open. No, not because I’m a fan of Dembele, but because I’m a fan of good things happening, of joy and redemption. We love a good comeback story, seemingly except when we’re already written things off. Then it’s “Dammit, don’t mess up my narrative.”

But here’s something: Make room for joy and hope. It’s okay. Sunshine costs us nothing. The 90 minutes we spent watching our team, even if it doesn’t play like we wanted, or achieve the result we wanted, is still 90 minutes away from the real world, 90 minutes away from our troubles. A player working to come back, to achieve some level of what they lost is like a drama, a physical high-wire act. It’s okay to wish good things for them, to have hope. Hope is an essential human condition. Without it, what do we have? And when we toss it away so that we can feel like we’re “right,” to anticipate misery then crow in satisfaction when it comes, what are we left with? The “glass half full or half empty” analogy is so grim when we dump out the glass ourselves.

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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.