FC Barcelona is a mess. Fiscal shenanigans, players it can’t register, a looming FFP investigation, debt out the wazoo.
But for a night, for one beautiful night, everything was gone except football and humanity, and it was amazing.
Barça and Manchester City squared off in a friendly, a make-up match for the one postponed due to the pandemic. Many were asking, “Why a friendly, why now,” but this was the day and the time. And in reality, the timing was perfect. With a week to go in a bloated, festering, avaricious transfer window, what better reminder that there are beautiful things in the world than a friendly for a great cause.
Juan Carlos Unzué is the reason everyone, everything came together. The man with deep ties to FC Barcelona as goalkeeping coach, player and assistant coach retired due to complications with ALS in 2020. And you can be forgiven for asking why, in the history of a club with so much tragedy and sadness attendant to its footballing halcyon days — Iniesta family miscarriage, Abidal cancer, Vilanova cancer and subsequent passing, Unzué diagnosis — does it have to happen again.
And nobody knows the answer. I do know that someone smart, far smarter than I am, once said to me as I was going through a turbulent time, that hard times are when you find out exactly who loves you, and who matters to you. On a remarkable night at the Camp Nou, more than 91,000 people turned out. Yes, the lure was in part the narrative: Guardiola back “home,” with Xavi, and all the star players. And no, they wouldn’t have turned out in those numbers if it was just a straight benefit for ALS, bereft of football, but let’s not quibble about any of that. It was wonderful.
There were even performances from the likes of Sergi Roberto and Gerard Pique that turned back the clock, as if even they were aware of the necessity of being magic on an amazing night. And if your eyes were dry during the speech Unzué gave, you’re stronger than I.
We need good things to exist in the world. And we need to be reminded that those things exist. It would have been easy for this friendly to not happen, easy for the two giant clubs involved to not find time, easy to say that the season has started, and everything is inconvenient. They didn’t, and in reality, they couldn’t. Even the match ended in a draw, fittingly, because the only real winner on this night was an amazing man and the charitable cause he is helping to champion.
ALS is an affliction that takes vibrant humans and withers them. It’s ugly and evil and there is work being done to fight it, so that it can stop doing what it does, because life is hard enough without the capriciousness of bodies that fail us for reasons that perplex even the best minds in medical science.
Sport is a balm for many things. We forget this as we argue about players, and formations, and transfers, and who’s in or who’s out. We forget about the way it can transform us, lift us as a unit to special places as we unite in love and joy with perfect strangers. More than 91,000 people got to witness that, got to be part of that on an amazing night in Barcelona. And even as another chapter of sadness is written in the history of a club that has had more than its share, it’s worth remembering what they felt, what we felt as we watched. No, not the match, but everything around it, from the genuine affection the two managers displayed to the warmth that felt like it filled the Camp Nou, even as those of us who couldn’t be there watched on our various screens.
It was all so beautiful, even with the undercurrent of sadness. It was a balm that we all needed so much. And THAT is why that match, that friendly, on that day.