Crime and punishment

Crime and punishment

Crime and punishment

Barca striker David Villa returned to the sport from injury only to feel the force of insensitive rules


When a man has been the best of his kind, and then is laid idle by injury for eight months, the pain of withdrawal becomes cerebral rather than physical.

For David Villa, the relief at coming back on Sunday was beyond words.

He entered the field late in the game between Barcelona and Real Sociedad and was given a standing ovation by 75,000 at the Camp Nou. When he then scored a trademark David Villa goal 10 minutes after joining play, his celebration was preplanned and personal.

He stripped off his scarlet and blue jersey, revealing a black shirt imprinted with a photograph of his wife and their two daughters, and the words: “Imposible sin vosotras” – Impossible without you.

Inevitably, the referee showed him the yellow card. The sanction, carrying the same weight of punishment that is issued to a player who threatens the livelihood of another with a reckless foul, shows how insensitive the sport sometimes is to its most important people, the participants.

We should not blame the referee, Jose Luis Gonzalez. He simply obeyed the diktat of FIFA that allows no discretion in these matters. A player removes his shirt, so the book says that the caution is mandatory.

The incongruity of that rule is that nobody has any choice. Players are compelled to wear advertising on any part of their apparel – in Barcelona’s case, for a remote state, Qatar. But those players are forbidden from revealing underclothing bearing personal and heartfelt messages to their loved ones at a time of extreme emotion.

It all smacks of a game ruled by people who never played, or forgot how it felt to do so.
Villa, now age 30, could miss a vital game later this season if he receives another yellow card. He would no doubt trade that punishment to have made the gesture.

“Because of me,” he said after Barcelona’s 5-1 victory Sunday, “I am sure it has been a difficult time for them as well.” His wife, Patricia, knows how it feels to be sidelined because she was a soccer player before they started their family.

And she, and quite possibly their girls, know what their man has been going through since his left tibia was broken last December while he was playing against Al-Sadd of Qatar during FIFA’s money-making Club World Cup tournament in Yokohama, Japan.

Profit for FIFA, pain for Villa, and the subsequent loss for Barcelona of its Spanish and European titles.

Injury is part and parcel of the professional game. Barca had to make do without not just Villa, but also Eric Abidal, the left back who needed liver transplant surgery; the captain Carles Puyol; and the new striker Alexis Sanchez, who also missed long stretches of last season.

In a tough match that included yellow cards for some fearful tackles, Madrid risked its goalie and captain, Iker Casillas, for more than half the contest after he appeared to be groggy, maybe even concussed, after he banged heads with his own defender, Pepe who spent one night in hospital.

His temporary absence, and even Villa’s lost eight months, cannot be compared to what we are about to witness at the Paralympics in London.

There will be thousands of men and women who strive for sporting excellence despite being born handicapped, losing limbs in wars or accidents, or otherwise suffering disabilities.

Nevertheless, Villa missed a crucial chunk of his prime. Barcelona missed him, for all that Lionel Messi scored 73 goals last season.

And Spain missed him, even though it retained its European championship without him.
“He suffered a lot,” said Barcelona’s playmaker, Xavi, on Sunday. “He has had a considerable injury, and the best news tonight is not that we won 5-1, but the return of El Guaje,” or the Kid. “We have missed him.”

Tito Vilanova, the coach who has stepped up after four years assisting Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, made similar observations.

It almost went unnoticed that Iniesta, the angel of Spanish soccer since he scored the World Cup winner in 2010 and was again the nation’s shining light at the Euro 2012, came on to provide Villa with his goal.

Iniesta exchanged passes with Villa and cut the ball back into Villa’s path for the final goal. Those who have followed his career know that Villa – the scorer of 266 goals in 547 appearances – knows instinctively where the bounty lies.

His shot was crisp, short, intuitive and completely out of the reach of the goalkeeper. Off came the shirt, up went the yellow card admonishment, and after the emotion came the words: “I’m happy,” Villa said.

“My goal is not to be the same as before. I wanted to use these months to be better.

When I scored, I really wanted to enjoy it from within. You are lucky when so many people help you – my daughters, my wife, the coaching staff, teammates.”

No man, not even a striker, is alone. The comeback would have been impossible without the support, even if there is a consequence to spelling that out in the way that Villa did.