May, 1999. I had just experienced three confident days on my own in Madrid. Music, museums, and majesty. The sink in my tiny bedroom was clogged, but my Spanish was up to par. Off to Barcelona!
Barcelona: I departed the overnight train from Madrid and realized I hadn’t brought enough money with me. Worse, the station concierge told me that all the hotels were full. (A couple days later, I learned that Manchester United and Bayern Munich were in town for a thrilling Champs League Final. So many chubby, pale, sunburnt drunkards, spewing their anthems, separated by black-garbed Spanish military/police carrying machine guns.)
I eventually sorted out my funds in the station, and realized that the Catalan language barrier (not Spanish!) had contributed to my confusion. (I was looking for a hostel, not a hotel.) I paid for my room, celebrated, and hit Las Ramblas.
As dusk became darkness, I noticed the increasing cacaphony of car horns. Crowds were gathering; people were hanging from lightposts, lighting flares, and singing. I asked around and learned that FC Barcelona had just won the league title.
Two days later, I happened upon a medium-sized square in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. The Barca team bus arrived to greet the swelling of several hundred adoring fans. The players spoke from a second-story hotel balcony. I remember Figo, and I was in awe of the adoration. (Also on that balcony: Reiziger, Rivaldo, Kluivert…)
(The team that won La Liga during my first night in Catalunya also featured Xavi Hernandez and Josep Guardiola…)
Barcelona showed me Gaudi, as I stopped traffic to take pictures of his organic living spaces. Barcelona gave me La Sagrada Familia, again by Gaudi, perhaps the most beautiful of all unfinished architectural masterpieces.
I stood in line to see Picasso’s early sketches, accompanied by a street-guitarist. I watched young boys, in school uniforms, showing and telling a disturbingly large, silver handgun, out of sight of the cops, directly beneath the towering coastal statue of Columbus/Colon.
My one awkward memory: I had learned that Barca had won the league. People were celebrating all around me that night. There were pre-made cardboard cutouts of the trophy. I saw a woman who had 4 or 5 of those trophy cutouts. I asked her for one, using body language more than words. She shook her head, “no”.
I found my own cardboard trophy on the ground, trampled and dirty, with the handles torn off. I still have it.
I was just shy of my 25th birthday. Cesc had just turned 12.
Where were you then, Fab 4, and where are you now? What were you doing as I dove, headlong, scared but optimistic, into your culture?
Had you already planned your future?
I want to ask you where your heart is, but you’ve already answered quite clearly: You were in Barcelona then, and you’re in Barcelona now.
I remember four years ago, when you and van Persie scrapped for each other, when you fouled for and defended each other.
I remember your deft, game-changing passes, and your passion. I remember how you pledged yourself to Arsenal, even when we knew you would return to your home. I remember how you sacrificed yourself, and cracked your leg, scoring that penalty.
I remember when you were tough, how you wanted to inspire, how you could foul hard and be fouled hard.
I remember, even during this season, how you made the game more beautiful.
But I also remember that you “reportedly” threw a pizza on Sir Alex Ferguson, how you “supposedly” spit at Hull City in the tunnel, and how, most recently, you “might have” shocked David Moyes with your entitled, unprofessional rant, directed at the refs at halftime…
Tonight, I remember how you spent so much time hugging your future Barcelona teammates after the game three weeks ago, on your “home pitch”.
Tonight, I remember how you felt compelled to repeat the “Barca love-in” in the Barca tunnel, before a world-wide audience, just minutes before a really important game for your current teammates.
(Steven Gerrard owes you a bitch-slap for making a mockery of the tunnel-tension!)
Tonight, I remember how casually you allowed Puyol and others to “surprise you” by engulfing you with a Barca jersey during the days after your World Cup win.
Tonight, I remember the countless, class-less quotes by your future teammates about how one day you’ll return.
Tonight, I remember how Arsenal, the team that should look up to you, struggled, chased, fouled, injured themselves, took on three opponents at once, and gave their all…
Tonight, while “your” Arsenal was spending 90 minutes on life-support, gasping for air, you seemed content to play the role of a yellow pylon. Yeah, you jogged occasionally, you touched the ball roughly ten times. But was your hair just right for the cameras?
Oh yeah, you also provided your future teammates with one of the most careless, stupid, casual back-heeled passes any of us could ever make, right outside of your own penalty box. 1-0, Barca.
Congrats, boy wonder. This game was win-win for you. I get it: don’t dribble or pass too much, for you might embarrass your boys; they might have to tackle you, and that would be really awkward! But of course, don’t foul them hard like you’re capable of, for they might worship you a bit less…
This game was for you to soak up your future glory, while your past tried its best to grind out a draw.
Cesc, it’s time. You have brought us thrills, you have made Arsenal a bit more mouthwatering, you’ve enticed the likes of Chamakh and countless future signings.
You have been sublime. But van Persie, Nasri, Wilshire, and Song outshine you now. And they actually seem to care about their team, and their teammates.
Thanks for the memories, but it’s time. Arsenal is growing in confidence and solidarity, but you’ve been a distraction for the last two summers.
Good luck Cesc. I hope the best for you. I hope for 50 mil for you. Parting is such sweet sorrow…
(Unless you help us win the FA Cup or the league!)
Thank you, Fab 4, for everything. It’s time to return to the land of cardboard trophies.