I’m going to let you in on a little inside information. Everybody knows that footballers have text groups on WhatsApp. I have one just for my friends from home, and I have another just for my Barca teammates. But my favorite one might surprise you. Earlier this season, when we were already 8 or 9 points clear of Real Madrid in the league, I started a special group for some of the guys on the Spanish national team who play for Real Madrid and Barcelona.
If you only read what the media says, you would think that we hate one another. But, in fact, we all get along really well, and we text back and forth about tactics and football philosophies and even the books we’re reading.
…. No, come on, of course I’m joking! All we do in that group is talk shit to one another about Barça and Real!
It’s the best. We’re just like little kids. And the truth is, it’s especially hilarious for me right now, because now we’re up 15 points on Real in the league. So I’m getting very creative in my responses. Last season, when the Real guys were winning everything, they were feeling pretty good. They were talking shit constantly whenever I saw them at national team training.
Man, every time they won a match last season, they were posting shirtless photos on Instagram from the locker room. Remember that?
They were smiling and flexing their muscles like The Rock and saying #HalaMadrid and posting little trophy emojis. This season, though, it’s a different vibe. All their Instagram photos are looking very somber. “3 points today. We must keep working harder!”
So I’m texting them in the WhatsApp group, “Come on guys, why so serious?!”
Then I put a little crying emoji, and a laughing emoji.
I even made a special name for the group. It’s called: CONGRATULATIONS.
I can joke around with those guys, because they are my brothers on the Spanish national team. We might hate each other’s clubs, but we are all playing for the same country, with the same dream, and that’s something that I’m very, very proud of. Ever since I was a little boy watching Luis Enrique bleed all over his jersey at the ’94 World Cup, my dream was to play for the national team.
I’m extremely proud to wear the badge every four years at the World Cup. Maybe that will surprise some people. If you watch television in Madrid, they’ll tell you a very different story about me. They’ll say that I’m a traitor, and that I want to tear the country apart because of my public support for the Catalan people’s right to vote in the independence referendum.
I have never even commented on how I would vote. I am not trying to be a politician and sway people. What I believe is irrelevant. I am just one opinion out of millions. But what I do believe is that the 7.5 million people from my homeland of Catalonia have the right to vote on this question in a peaceful manner. The issue is very complicated, and it requires a lot of thought and debate. It’s a tricky position for me to be in, personally, because the happiest moment of my life was winning the World Cup for Spain, but on the other hand, being Catalan is in my blood. That’s my people, my heritage, my land. And when 80% of people in Catalonia say they want the right to vote, I believe they should be heard. If that opinion makes my own countrymen dislike me … well, I am perfectly tranquil with that thought.
It’s funny, I noticed some people in America have started telling the NBA players to “just shut up and dribble” when they express their opinions on real problems in society.
It’s ridiculous, no?
It’s the same here in Spain. They say, “Just shut up and play football. It’s all you know.”
Sorry, but I will not just shut up and play. It’s not all I know. There’s a lot more depth to footballers than most people realize, and I think it’s important that we express ourselves and our views. Footballers are human beings, and that is something that is being lost in the media world that we live in today. There are things going on in our lives that the public has no idea about. Yes, you can google match results, and you can google transfer rumors, but you can’t google how a person feels, or what motivates them, or what they fear.
Let me give you some examples from my own life.
I look back on the last 10 years of my career, and I’ve won the World Cup, the Champions League, La Liga, the Spanish Cup … I’ve won it all, as I like to remind my Madrid friends on WhatsApp ?
But 10 years ago, I was almost f***ed. My whole life could have turned out very different if it wasn’t for Sir Alex Ferguson.
I arrived at Manchester United a boy, and I left a man. It was a crazy time for me, because I had never been away from home before. I spent my first 17 years growing up in Spain in Barcelona’s youth academy, and it almost felt like I was playing for the local school team or something. I knew everybody there, and I was close to my family. So, to me, football was just fun. I didn’t understand the business side of the game at all. Then I arrived at United, and honestly, it was a complete shock.
One of my very first matches at Old Trafford, we were in the dressing room getting ready, and I was nervous as hell. Imagine it — I’m 18 years old, and I’m sitting in that little dressing room putting on my socks next to Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand. I wanted to be invisible. I was thinking, Just do your job and go unnoticed.
So we’re sitting there waiting for the gaffer to come in and speak to us, and I’m literally sitting right next to Roy Keane. The dressing room is so small that our legs are almost touching. There’s no space at all.
It’s dead quiet. All of a sudden, you could hear this little vibration. Very soft.
Roy is looking around the room.
I realize it’s me. It’s my cell phone. I left it on vibrate, and it’s in the pocket of my pants, stuffed in the clothes bag that’s hanging right behind Roy’s head.
Roy can’t find where the noise is coming from. Now he’s looking around the room like a maniac. His eyes are darting everywhere, and he’s trying to figure it out. You know the famous scene with Jack Nicholson in The Shining, when he bursts through the door? That’s what he looked like.
He screams out to everybody, “Whose phone is that?!”
He asks again.
He asks a third time.
“Whose. Bloody. F*****g. Phone. Is. That?!”
Finally, I spoke up, like a little boy. Very softly, I said, “I’m so sorry. It’s mine.”
Roy put his arm around me, and he laughed, and he told me not to worry about it.
…. No, come on, of course I’m joking! Roy lost his mind! He went nuts in front of everybody! It was incredible. I almost shit myself. But it was a good lesson.
Now, in 2018, everything is different. All these kids are on their iPhones before the matches. But back then, in 2006? It was a different world. You didn’t do that. Especially not at United. Not in Roy’s dressing room. It was one of a thousand mistakes that I made when I was at United.
“Whose. Bloody. F*****g. Phone. Is. That?!”
It wasn’t just the football that was difficult. It was the language and the culture and the loneliness. The isolation was the worst part. Being away from your family at 17, and being surrounded by grown men, by legends, by a manager like Sir Alex … it was very complicated. When people wonder why talented young footballers don’t make it abroad, I can assure you it usually doesn’t have anything to do with their technical quality. There’s always a lot more going on that you don’t see. The first two years I was in England, there were so many nights when I would come home from training and in Manchester it would already be dark outside at four in the afternoon, and I would be in my flat all alone. It was depressing. Then, of course, my mother would call me, and I’d lie and say, “Oh no, it’s going great, Mum. Everything is great.”
But it wasn’t going great. It was shit. I wanted to quit and come home to Spain. I remember during that time, my father always said something to me that was extremely important.
I’d complain to him, “I don’t know, Dad. The manager doesn’t trust me. These guys are so strong. I’m miserable.”
And he would say, “Well, you know what? Maybe today was bad. But the sun will always rise again tomorrow.”
I don’t know why, but it made me feel better. It kept me going. And I was very lucky, because, as naive as I was, and as raw as I was, Sir Alex was phenomenal to me from the very first day. The best managers all have this quality — even when they’re not playing you, and even when they’re hard on you — they make you believe that they really care about you. Sir Alex was like a second father to me. He made me earn it, but eventually he gave me my chance.
In 2007, after two years in England, he told me that I was going to play about 25 games that season. Everything started well. I was getting to play a bit alongside Rio. And then, in November, we went to play in Bolton.
I can still picture the ball floating in the air.
It was a set piece. I was supposed to be marking Nicolas Anelka. Bolton chipped the ball into the box, and I thought, I’m going to be aggressive. I jumped up to head the ball away, and I completely missed it. It was like something out of a nightmare. The ball just … kept floating. It was that yellow and purple Premier League ball. Remember that one? It floated right over my head like a balloon.
I landed and turned around in horror. Anelka controlled the ball and scored easily. We ended up losing 1-0, and it was my fault. As a young defender, when you make a mistake like that, the manager simply cannot trust you anymore. Even if he wants to trust you, he can’t. I could tell, literally at the moment that Anelka controlled the ball, that I had lost the faith of Sir Alex, and probably the faith of most United fans.
Sir Alex promised me 25 games that season, and I ended up getting 12. It was an extremely difficult time. That mistake felt like the end of my career. It ended up being the beginning of it, but only because of what Sir Alex Ferguson did for me. You see, toward the end of that season, my agent told me that Barcelona were interested in bringing me back. Truthfully, I could not believe it. My exact words to him were, “That doesn’t make sense. I’m not playing at United, so why would they want me?”
And he said, “Well, they know you. They believe in you.”
Of course, I was thrilled. I wanted to go home. But I knew that I had to have a very difficult conversation with Sir Alex. There was no buyout clause in my contract, and United could set whatever price they wanted, so I had to convince him to let me go. It was one of the hardest conversations of my life, because he took such great care of me. But I walked into his office, and I was honest with him. I said, “Listen, I feel like I’ve lost your trust. Barcelona is my home. I want to go back. I hope you will let me go.”
We had a long conversation, and he decided that I was sincere, and he agreed to let me leave at the end of the season.
But that’s not the end of our story. Football can be very complicated. At the end of that season, guess who we had to face in the semi finals of the Champions League? Of course, it was Barcelona. I had no real chance of playing. I was the third-choice centre back. But right before the first leg at the Camp Nou, Nemanja Vidić came down with an injury. All of a sudden, I was going to have to step up and play in front of 90,000 people, against my boyhood club.
Sir Alex was like a second father to me.
I was excited, nervous, shocked … everything.
Before the match, we had our usual two-hour siesta at the hotel. Of course, I couldn’t sleep. All of a sudden, there’s a knock at the door, and I look out the little hole …
It’s not the maid. It’s Sir Alex.
I knew something was going on, because he never came to see players before the match. I opened the door and he said, “Gerard, I regret to inform you that I can’t play you today. The deal is almost done. If I play you, and you have a bad game, they’ll say it’s because you’re headed to Barcelona. So I can’t put you in. I just want you to know why.”
The truth is, I was pretty devastated. Even though I wanted to go home, I was ready to give everything for United and Sir Alex in that match. It was my dream to play at the Camp Nou in the Champions League. It hurt very badly. But in the end, Sir Alex made the right decision. Everything worked out for the best for everyone. We got a 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou, and then we eliminated Barca at Old Trafford. We went on to win both the Champions League and the Premier League, and I was able to go home under very good circumstances.
Because of Sir Alex, I experienced one of the rarest things in football. I left in the best way possible. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but that mistake against Bolton was the best thing to happen in my life. In the end, Barcelona paid only $5 million for me. I arrived as the fourth-choice center back. No one expected much from me. But thanks to Pep Guardiola’s football brain and his belief in me, I was playing alongside Carles Puyol by the end of the season. Carles took me under his wing and was a huge influence on me. I learned so much from him, and we formed a partnership that extended to the Spanish national team.
If you would have told me when I returned to Barcelona that, in two years, I would be standing next to Puyol lifting the World Cup trophy, I would have thought you were absolutely crazy. But football is a funny business, and that is exactly what happened. That’s how quickly everything changed for me. And it really makes me think about fate. If I don’t make that mistake against Bolton, does it work out that way? If Sir Alex decides to keep me on for another season to get a bigger transfer fee for me, does it work out that way?
There are so many things that happen in a footballer’s life that people don’t see. And that’s why I’m writing this. And that is why I need to tell you another quick story … Because, as I said, football is very complicated. It’s not like the movies. When I was 24 years old, I was on top of the world. I had won everything — La Liga, Champions League, World Cup. I was playing under a genius manager in Pep Guardiola, who really believed in me from the moment I arrived. I was playing for the club I had loved since I was a boy. It was perfect.
And then …
I had the worst season of my career.
Everything seemed to fall apart in 2012. I don’t know why. Perhaps I had lost the fear that drove me to that level. But for whatever reason, I started questioning myself. As the season went on, Pep started to lose faith in me. For the first three seasons, we had a phenomenal relationship. I still revere Pep as a manager. But the truth is, it was an extremely hard time. He wanted his players to be obsessed with football 24 hours a day, and at that point in my life, I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t as committed to that philosophy. Pep simply didn’t trust me anymore, and the crucial moment was when he decided not to play me against Real Madrid in the league. That was crushing to me.
I started to think, Is this it? Is the dream of playing for Barca over? Is this how fast it can go away?
Then, in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal against Chelsea, something pretty crazy happened. Another turn of fate. We had lost 1–0 in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, and I didn’t play. Pep started me in the second leg at the Camp Nou to try to turn things around, but I honestly cannot tell you anything about the match.
Early on in the game, our keeper, Víctor Valdés, accidentally kneed me in the head during a clearance. I was knocked completely unconscious. When I got to my feet, I stayed in the game somehow, and I know that I ran around for about 10 minutes, but I truly cannot remember anything that happened. Eventually, the doctor noticed that I was struggling and they pulled me out and put me on a stretcher and rushed me to the hospital.
I woke up the next day, and I couldn’t remember anything from the match. I couldn’t even remember who won. I was in a complete fog.
It turns out, the match ended 2–2, and we were knocked out. Within a few days, Pep announced his departure from Barca. It felt like an era was coming to an end, and I thought that perhaps my time was up, too.
That season really made me think about my career, and my life. It was a wake-up call. When our team was playing for it all, Pep didn’t believe in me anymore. Then, when he finally turned to me, I got knocked out cold. Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I had woken up the next day and found out that we had gone through against Chelsea. I was out with a head injury for weeks, so I definitely wouldn’t have played in the final. Maybe we would have won the Champions League. Maybe Pep would have decided to stay at Barca. Maybe he never would have regained his trust in me. Maybe I would be at another club right now. Instead, Tito Vilanova arrived as the manager the next season, and he gave me a chance to regain my place.
There are so many moments like this that happen during a long career that make you think about fate, and chance, and how things could have gone differently. But that’s not what we read in the headlines. In the headlines, things are simple. In real life, the most interesting things are happening beneath the surface.
For example, people often ask me what it has been like playing with Messi for so many years. If I had to explain it in one sentence: He is an alien.
He is not from this planet.
He’s the only player that I can recall seeing play for the first time, way back when we were 13 years old, and saying to myself, “Oh, this kid comes from somewhere else. This is not human.”
He is an assassin. He’s the greatest I’ve ever seen. But, you see, it’s not about the way he attacks. People ask me, “What’s the most incredible thing I’ve seen Leo do on the pitch?” And they expect me to tell them about him dribbling three defenders. And trust me, I have plenty of those stories.
But for me, the reason that I know he’s from another planet is because of what happens when he doesn’t have the ball. Perhaps you can’t see it on TV, but I can see it on the pitch. You have to see his face when he’s sprinting to win the ball back from a defender. He has a look in his eyes that I haven’t ever seen in another footballer. It is what makes him so great. He is not interested in the spectacle. He rarely even does stepovers. He’s cut from a different cloth. His greatness is in his obsession with winning the ball.
Maybe that doesn’t make for a great headline. But when I think about Messi’s true magic, it’s not in something you can find on YouTube. It’s about a subtle expression in his eyes. His greatness would take me another 5,000 words to explain. Perhaps in another article!
And that brings me back to the beginning. As I get older and prepare for the final World Cup of my career, I have been thinking about my place in the world. I have been thinking about how I got here, and what else I want to accomplish in life.
As athletes, I believe that we should use our platform to connect with people and let them into our lives and into our minds a little bit more. I think this mentality is needed now more than ever.
If you watch television in Madrid, the media will tell you that everyone in Barcelona is trying to destroy the country.
If you watch television in Barcelona, they will tell you that everyone in Madrid is trying to oppress the people.
Everyone is the bad guy now, depending on where you watch TV.
They say the national team is in turmoil because of political differences. In truth, we almost never talk about politics. I’m too busy telling the Real guys that they’re f***ed in the league, and they’re too busy talking to me about refereeing conspiracies!
I’ve been a footballer for more than half my life. I’m 31 years old now. I used to say that I would be retired by 30. Honestly, do you know what keeps me going? It’s the experiences I’ve had in the locker rooms. It’s getting to know footballing geniuses like Messi, and Puyol, and Neymar, and Roy Keane (even though he almost murdered me).
In the end, football is a long trip. You win. You lose. You embarrass yourself. You make mistakes. You laugh, you cry. You do dumb things to pass the time. Maybe you and your teammates even set an assistant coach’s motorcycle on fire (before buying him a brand new one, of course … I’ll leave that story for another time!)
Hopefully, you grow from a boy to a man. This is what makes sports beautiful, for me. It’s all just one long story.
Welcome to The Players’ Tribune Global.
One of my goals is to never shut up.