Adeu and gracies, Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets was a thug, one of those players who would do anything for his team. “They put one of ours in the hospital, we put one of theirs in the morgue,” level thug.

But that kind of work didn’t manifest itself in fouls, or slide tackles, just in moments that made it clear that he just wanted to win. Someone on Twitter asked what everyone’s favorite Busquets moment was, and for me it was the “peekaboo” against Inter Milan. It worked. And he didn’t care. Just got back up and kept bossing the midfield. Recriminations are for the weak.

Think about the mental steel you need to not be the biggest, or strongest, to not be particularly fleet afoot and not at all athletic. Busquets runs like someone just learning how to run, kinda waddling almost. He runs like he isn’t very good at it. Yet Sergio Busquets defined the game for club and country in a way that made him an automatic starter long past the point where his physical skills still made his inclusion a lead-pipe cinch.

For me, it started back in the days of The Offside: Barcelona, the blog that I started commenting on and eventually, writing for. Pep Guardiola came in and replaced Toure Yaya — a quintessential, almost prototypical modern DM — with Sergio Busquets. Man mountain moved aside for a gangly thing that looked like the inflatables that flap in the wind at the goal end of the Camp Nou.

And we argued. And debated. And his early performances didn’t help, but he bedded in quickly and once he bedded in, that was that. He was durable, rarely injured, sufficiently taciturn that he rarely got suspended for shooting off his mouth, rarely drew yellows. He ended the debate by becoming football.

Yes, there is the famous quote about when you watch Busquets, you see the game, and a lot of stuff like that is hyperbole. Busquets played with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, and all of them were deemed more essential, more magical than him. It’s difficult to imagine he cared. He doesn’t talk much, doesn’t do social media, doesn’t have statistics that anyone can point to and say, “See?”

What musician ever gives credit to the metronome?

Busquets was a daredevil for a team that treated playing out of the back like a religion. He was in a spot where, if you lost the ball, it was an opponent goal. He played for a team that had, that revered ball-playing keepers, who would play the ball to him, in space, a few terrifying meters in front of his own box. And he would take that pass and do the right thing with the ball. Almost every time. He did the right thing so often that we stopped marveling at it. It was reflex. He passed the way he defended, not by doing anything flashy but rather by understanding what needed to be done. Simple passes, little feints and drag backs or the exceedingly rare spin.

And he didn’t lose the ball.

Ball retention is a hard thing in football, because you have the thing that everybody wants. Opposing defenders press, clog passing lanes, foul and harass. Busquets had the ball an astonishing amount of the time as he shuttled it off to where it needed to go. Keeper to Busquets to a CB back to Busquets to Xavi back to Busquets forward to Iniesta to try a run then back to Xavi then back to Busquets, rinse, repeat.

He went to the Spain national team and did the same things, and became just as indispensable there as for his club. Even after Xavi and Iniesta left, Busquets the metronome was still there, keeping time and helping the band make lovely music. He didn’t do anything that you could point to, but he did everything.

Detractors will point to the “peekaboo,” to the simulations, the going down as if shot, all the things on and off the ball that he did to gain any advantage for his team that he could. He was South American in how quickly he could move from writhing agony to popping to his feet to rapidly resume play. He was easy to slag off because you had to, have to watch him to understand what he does. But even more, you have to understand what his team was trying to do, what football needed him to do. That ain’t easy, because football likes players who DO stuff. Messi makes runs, Iniesta performs feats of invisibility, Xavi dished out through balls like candy. Busquets was just the guy who had the ball just before the guy who actually did something with it. There isn’t a stat for that, nor is there an effective way to describe it except to say that Busquets was the right action. He’s like electricity. Nothing flashy, but try living without it. His excellence was defined by his absence, by how his teams played — or didn’t play, more correctly — when he wasn’t on the pitch.

In offense, he moved it along. In defense, he was somehow there just as the opposing player got the ball and was about to turn to do something. In went the gangly leg, out came the ball and there went Barça, off on another caper. This excellent read from Sid Lowe featured a headline that called Busquets a “unique talent.” And he was. And is. Anyone who quibbles doesn’t understand the meaning of the word and further, hasn’t watched Busquets.

Possibly the most eloquent argument to be made for his astonishing abilities is that past the time when a replacement should have shoved him aside, he is still starting for club and country — because he doesn’t have a replacement. His unique way of seeing the game and executing the simple things that need to be done can’t be replicated. Nobody talks about “the next Busquets” because there isn’t one. And there won’t be one.

The time to discuss tactics, to discuss what his departure will represent for his team, his manager isn’t now. This time, this space is to pay respect to one of the most unathletic great athletes to ever grace football pitches. Sometimes when we discuss omnipresent players who don’t quite deserve to be, we say they’re like luggage, just in the closet. You grab it because it’s easy, and who has time.

Busquets is that weathered, perfectly worn leather valise that you use for everything — country weekends, a carry-on for a week’s vacation, going to the gym. It’s a perfect, perfectly useful bag that is just right every time you grab it. It does exactly what it’s supposed to, and you don’t realize how good it is until you carry another bag. Busquets isn’t just unique. The man is a legend for club and country, underappreciated by many but impossible to replace. Gracies, you gangly damn genius.