The late, great Nina Simone, when asked what freedom meant to her, had a simple answer: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.”
And for the first and probably last time that the iconic singer’s words have a football parallel, it’s impossible not to have those thoughts come to mind in the wake of a Barça victory over Levante that was more than a little levitating for a number of reasons, and something of a happy accident.
Levante was the perfect opponent for a team that needed life, needed something good to happen, like a long-distance shooter who gets a groove back from the free-throw line. Placid, complacent and accepting of its fate, Levante, like La Real, were dispatched with ease by a Barça team that thrives against this kind of open, optimistic opponent bereft of pressing, and cynical fouls and shithousery.
Anybody who was impressed by this win shouldn’t be, which isn’t to say that impressive things didn’t happen, all due to circumstance. Pedri is injured, Frenkie De Jong suspended and Sergi Roberto was pulled at the last with gastric distress. The result was a midfield of Nico Gonzalez, Gavi and Busquets, and something wonderful happened.
When Nico was announced, many wondered if someone they thought of as a DM would have the necessary fluency to work as a CM. They needn’t have. A recent visit to Barcelona and the luck of the B team being at home gave an opportunity to watch Nico live, in the flesh. With B, he drove the ball, a combination of Busquets and idealized De Jong. Forward runs with the ball at his feet, runs into the box to unleash shots, Nico was playing like a tall, strong CM who could also defend, rather than a DM. From misfortune for Sergi Roberto came opportunity.
Gavi featured in that same B match, and the other luck of that trip was being able to watch him live against a league opponent then against Bayern, appearances characterized by the same quality: fearlessness. It isn’t that Gavi doesn’t care, even if it is often said of players who approach the game with abandon that they play like they don’t care. Gavi plays like he wants to dictate proceedings. He wants the ball, demands the ball, chases the ball, acts offended when the opponent has the ball and works to get it back. He plays the same whether facing Costa Brava, Bayern or Levante, and it’s beautiful to see. He’s a technician, but with bite, as if a young Gennaro Gattuso came back as a Barcelona Masia product.
Gavi and Nico, along with Busquets, became this fluid triangle of creativity, none constrained by any particular position. There was (shudder!) one-touch football, sublime moments that led to two of the three goals, and incisive passing that placed ball control at the forefront of proceedings, buttressed by a constantly moving dynamo in Gavi.
That the first goal came from a penalty given was lovely, a chance to feel what it was like to celebrate a goal after such a long scoreless streak, a gimme that Depay struck with the kind of fury that had the keeper guessed right and gotten to it, might have carried man and ball into the net. From that moment on the confidence grew. That the team beat Levante wasn’t a surprise, nor was it particularly impressive.
What made this match extraordinary, of course, was the return of Ansu Fati after what seemed an eternity. Hope, false starts and enough knee operations to almost require the fingers of a second hand, when he rolled onto the pitch it was as though fireworks went off everywhere in culerdom.
“Why can’t we have nice things” is one of those overused sayings, but it’s a very real feeling among Barça supporters. And here was a Very Nice Thing, complete with friends, family, medical support team and pressure sufficient to fill the Camp Nou, because of the specter of “What if?” Four surgeries is a lot right? What if. The number 10, most recently worn by some guy named Messi, now graced his back. No pressure, kid.
Fearlessness is a necessary thing in sport, a quality the young have in abundance. They play with such freedom because they don’t have fear. Fati came in and immediately got to work like he had never been gone. Fouled, rolled, got up and got back to work. A run here, a shot there, as one of the most anticipated re-debuts by a young player was going brilliantly, as if even the opponent wanted him to do well.
And then, late, with the outcome already decided, the ball came to Fati’s feet. He charged at the opponent, a teammate alongside him, but absolutely nobody in the stadium expected that pass to happen. Every one of the months and months, all of the rehab work, and uncertainty, and fear, and everything — it all demanded that the most anticipated shot of the day happen.
Fati darted. He jinked a bit. Then he lashed at the ball in that characteristic way of his, hips a catapult like those of Messi, so that he can smite the ball without much backlift at all. The hard, low shot flew past the keeper in a blur, and pandemonium ensued. Everybody and their mamas have written about that moment, about Fati running into the stands, celebrating with his brother, the tears of his father.
What makes the moment noteworthy for me is that it was like the capping of a display of what football with no fear is like. Young talents play without fear because they are unfettered by failure, by pressure, by the expectation and what happens when that expectation isn’t met. Pedri said that he just plays football like he’s having kickabouts back home with his brother. No fear, no pressure. Gavi entered a Bayern beatdown and acted like it was 0-0 and that he alone could influence the outcome.
We always expect young players to act young, and they do, when they err. But we want to preserve that magic, the bounce, the optimism, the “Why can’t I take that shot, why can’t I complete that pass or make that tackle?” It’s the fearlessness that captivates us, especially as we anticipate yet another week of watching psychologically damaged veterans go through the motions of trying not to lose. Kids are like, “What? I don’t understand this,” and they caper, unfettered by anything like fear or expectation. It’s the freedom, the beautiful freedom, that captivates us.
We watched Nico and commented on how he seemed to be struggling as he felt his way into the match. But the one thing he never lacked was freedom, courage and energy, so that when he found his way into the match, he and Gavi were like football glitter bombs as the ball pinged around the midfield. Much was made of the tally of Masia or B team talents on the pitch at the same time, when the most extraordinary thing was the freedom. When you don’t know you should be worried about screwing up, you don’t do it. Underdogs don’t win because they’re underdogs. They win because they don’t know they aren’t supposed to, freed from the fear or being the favorite. They’re just playing,
Young players, particularly those moved up a rung to fill in for more storied counterparts on the first team, are just there, just playing. Here today, gone tomorrow so lets make the most of the moment. They are for the future but every now and again, the future is now. Right now, a beautiful thing in a perfect moment at the end of a perfect match.
Reality will return along with the tenured veterans, and the screen will lose a lot of the brightness, the vivid quality that illuminated everything, like the Barcelona sunshine.
Fati’s goal had to go in because everything else was right on that day, even Gavi and Nico showing Busquets what life was like unfettered. This was a day for the young, a day for freedom and no fear. Levante was the macguffin, a plot device through which this wonderful drama could play out, a day that made us believe that we can indeed have nice things.
Another opponent, a Cadiz or Atleti or Athletic Club would have been churlish, even cruel on this day when so much nice stuff needed to happen. A team needed to see that it could win, a supporter base needed to remember that the team it loves could still play football, still win a match. Young players needed to fluff their feathers, the comeback kid needed to complete the road back. Fate and football can be grateful for the supporting actor role played by Levante, who held reality in abeyance for a lovely day’s drama.
We don’t know how not to worry. Being a grownup is worry. Bills, work, life, food, housing, stuff. Being young is about no worries, no fear. Fati dug in his feet and charged because what else would he have done? Gavi whirled, twirled and passed because what else would he have done? Nico surged, controlled and strode the midfield like a casino floorwalker because what else would he have done? And football fluourished, along with the necessity that we forget, in the thrill of the freedom and fearlessness on display, that reality lay in wait in the person of the next Liga match, away to Atleti. But that is a story for another time.