In sitting down to think about what this magical season has meant to me, I keep returning to two words:
I have spilled a lot of tears over this club over the years, tears of joy and sadness, tears of rage and frustration. But never before has a simple moment of unassailable, deep-running humanity broken me up as when Eric Abidal hoisted the Champions League trophy, the cup with the big ears, aloft with a triumphant bellow.
Yes, everybody loves a good cancer story right? Chills ran down our spines when on March 17, 2011, it was announced that Barcelona left back Eric Abidal had undergone successful surgery to remove a growth from his liver.
“Was it cancer,” was the obvious question. The club was close-mouthed as was the player, and everyone connected to the club but also in world football, watched and waited for signs. He was recovering, recovering, recovering and then suddenly, there he was at practice. Video released by the club revealed a thin, somewhat wan-looking player in street clothes, watching ball drills as intently as if it was about to be his turn.
And we waited. No, not because we wanted our left back to return, but because as human beings, we all wanted this to be a benign tumor, so that we could look cancer in the eye and say “You can’t have this one. Not yet. He has living to do, a family to love, friends and teammates who will walk through brick walls for him.”
Then he returned to training, and we couldn’t believe it, but it got even better. Suddenly, in the second half of a Champions League final-clinching draw at the Camp Nou, a cheer erupted that could probably be felt all the way back to the Lair of Evil as No. 22, Eric Abidal, entered the match to help close things out.
It wasn’t quite as if he’d never left, but that was to be expected. But he could have given up an own goal and it wouldn’t have mattered, because Eric Abidal was back.
Sports is filled with stories of athletes triumphing over adversity, and inspiring teammates. From Brian Piccolo, who won even as he lost his battle with illness, to Willis Reed’s limping, knee-busted return to the court, we forget that this game is so much more than a mere game. When we say sports is life, moments such as these are exactly, precisely what we mean. And for Abidal, the race was not only for fitness, but against the things that would deny him a promise.
In November 2010, when France played England in a friendly at the new Wembley stadium, Abidal left a note in the locker room that said he would be back for the Champions League final in May. And let’s go ahead and think about that one for a moment.
The season wasn’t really that old, and its direction was as yet, unclear. Fans were joyful, but nervous. Not Abidal. He believed in his team, so much so that he left that note, that promise that he would be back. And so it was, on May 28, when it was announced that Eric Abidal would be the starting left back for FC Barcelona in the Champions League final, that sport, even one of the biggest events in the world, was transcended by life its own, glorious self. Because Le Roi Eric was back, and in brilliant form. He played 90+minutes and did so with all of the style and grace that made him our best defender by a country mile this season.
What made the return even more amazing was not the comeback from the surgery, which in effect involved a small incision. It was the fact that, as Abidal laid bare during an interview with TF1, one of the French national TV stations, the tumor was malignant. But for Abidal, cancer was just another attacker to be faced down, another pitched battle to be won. He didn’t need his feet or legs, but he did need his heart, and the love of everyone who cared about him. #animsabidal was the Twitter tag, as a world of cules poured out their hearts to a football player who suddenly became a human being.
For me, Abidal epitomized this season because his battle made the game suddenly small. And in that Final, in which we delivered a “hiding” to United, I believe that Abidal’s return made it so simple for the club to kick butt. “If he did that, this is nothing.”
His comeback also matches a club that had everyone reeling for a bit when, in its first home match, it went down 0-2 to newly promoted Hercules. Then, like the defender who has come to epitomize the club this season, it went on a tear. Abidal’s season highlight was an astounding Copa del Reig match against Athletic Bilbao, in which he also scored a delight of a goal, just as the club’s season highlight was a transcendent, 5-0 demolishing of one Evil Empire.
And the parallels continue. The club limped through February, always the darkest season, but it got it done. Adversity beckoned with a bit of viciousness, courtesy of Tomas Ujfalusi, one that had Messi’s ankle looking like a gutted watermelon, and still the club soldiered on. As we drew EE in the Champions League semifinals, after having dispatched Arsenal amid acrimony and anything except acceptance of the hiding that it really was, the struggles against fatigue and injuries continued.
Four Clasics in 18 days, a disgusting display of credulity-straining behavior that ascended to new heights of nastiness. We dove, they dove. We fouled, they fouled. Messi launched a ball into the stands in frustration, their coach accused us of having a nefarious relationship with UEFA and UNICEF, red cards came, and an ignorant world cringed, a world that if it had any indication of what the hell this rivalry meant, had any more exposure to the Liga other than “Hey, this Barcelona club is hot right now,” wouldn’t have been surprised for an instant at the mud-wrestling pit this four-match sequence became.
But, at home, as the players celebrated making the Champions League final by tossing Abidal into the air, there was a sense of destiny brewing, that this was a club that couldn’t be stopped. And, as it turns out, it couldn’t, as it buried Manchester United in the Champions League final, a whipping that players and coach doffed their caps to, a match in which Eric Abidal played more than 90 minutes, a match that if you had asked him back in March, in his heart of hearts, did he think he would be playing in at all, much less starting, he would have said “No. No way.”
And yet, there he was. So when I look back at this season of immense triumph over everything, every obstacle that dared to assail this club, it is impossible for me not to think of Eric Abidal. He was an inspiration to me, most assuredly an inspiration to his teammates and much of the footy-mad world. And at a time when the vilest allegation was leveled at Sergi Busquets, a race-tainted slur that had so many questioning the club and what it stood for, there is great beauty in the fact that, more than any other player for me (including Messi), a dark-as-night black player, a defender from France, came to epitomize this club and its struggle.
It just had to be.