Andre Gomes' honesty about his "hell" met with warm reception
When Andre Gomes ran onto the pitch Wednesday night, the Camp Nou erupted. There were cheers and clapping, they started chanting his name and every time he got the ball, there was applause. Every successful pass and every move was greeted with appreciative cheers. All of which was a bit different to the last time Barcelona had played at home: Every time he had got the ball then, against Atletico Madrid, there was a collective intake of breath, a fear or an irritation even, and a kind of murmur went around the stands, a muttering, sometimes even whistles.
That made things worse, the sense of vulnerability deepening and Atletico alerted to it, isolating Gomes and setting opponents upon him. The last thing a vulnerable player wants is Atletico knowing he's vulnerable, a pack of them running his way. It wasn't that he was doing anything especially wrong; it was more the sense that he might, that he was an accident waiting to happen. That sense increased the possibility that it would.
At one point, the Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde looked up at the crowd, turned back and swore. It was said to himself but it was about them, about the reaction and the damage it could do, about the harm it could cause his player and his team. How much damage it was already doing, not just that day but all those others. Valverde knew it mattered; they would find out a week or so later. And that was what explained the change.
Ten days had passed between those two games at the Camp Nou. In that time, Gomes hadn't scored and he hadn't done anything particularly good on the pitch. He hadn't done anything to win them over; in fact, he hadn't done very much at all, not on the pitch. What he had done was talk. In an interview with the magazine Panenka, which was carried out at the end of February but published on Monday, he spoke out about the "hell" he was going through at Barcelona.
"I don't feel good on the pitch," he admitted. "Maybe it's not the right word to use but it has turned into a kind of hell because I have started to feel more pressure. The feeling that I have during games is bad," he said.
Nor was it just on the pitch. "On more than one occasion, I didn't want to leave my house because [of the way] people look at you," he added. "You fear going onto the streets out of embarrassment. I close myself off. I don't talk to anybody.
"Thinking too much has hurt me. I think about the bad things and what I have to do. In training, I am generally relaxed although there can be days when I feel a little low on confidence and it's noticeable."
The article spread everywhere, fast. Its headline read: "Thinking hurts me." Best to forget it all, but how do you forget it when your own fans remind you with every game?
Those fans, though, were reading this too. They could hardly miss it: here was a footballer speaking with unusual honesty. He was exposing himself, admitting his weakness, revealing just how difficult he was finding things. Two days later, he would have to play against Chelsea in the Champions League. His situation took centre stage and soon he would have to do the same. In the pre-match news conference, Valverde was confronted with it, asked his opinion. So was Sergio Busquets.
"We knew something of Andre's situation, but it's a very personal thing. We have tried to help him, advise him, be at his side, but he is the one that takes it home," Busquets said.
"Players and coaches are [generally] careful not to show any insecurity or weakness and Andre has done so, which is brave," Valverde added.
Largely, others agreed. The interview had been careful, honest and nuanced, and Gomes spoke articulately. It may even have come as a kind of release. Aitor Lagunas, who carried out the interview, spoke of Gomes as an intelligent man and said that he had the feeling that by talking and sharing, Gomes had taken some of the weight off.
Mental health is a difficult issue, one that should wisely be treated carefully and sensitively. Amateur psychology does not help and nor does diminishing its importance, still less dismissing it.
It is not clear how significant Gomes' problems are, whether there is something very significant to be addressed, but Valverde suggested that he was under the kind of pressure that many, perhaps even all, players face.
"It is not new and he is not the only one: it has happened to us all in one way or another and we have to find ways of confronting that and carrying on," Valverde said. "This is not something I have not come across before in my career, as a player or a coach."
On a basic level, there is something in that and the reminder was welcome. So was the corrective that came with it. Too often, something very basic is forgotten: Players are people. Too often their lives are assumed to be easy. While pressure is a recurring theme, it's not often that kind of pressure. The narrative includes pressure games, pressure penalties, managers under pressure of getting the sack, sure, but not so often pressure per se.
The numbers of people affected by what you do, people who in some way depend upon you, only heightens that. When they lose, there's the sense of having let down thousands of fans. Apologies are common as if defeat is done deliberately. Some players take that very, very seriously, to their own detriment. They usually can't admit weaknesses; they have to compete. Any sign of weakness or vulnerability is often seized upon; those who display it can be dismissed simply as "losers."
Alvaro Morata recalled a conversation in Turin. "I'd just finished training one day," he said. "It had been a terrible, terrible session -- one of the worst in my life. I couldn't even control the ball. The physio asked what was wrong and I told him I was sad. I was crying. I was there on the treatment table and Gigi Buffon was next to me. Afterwards he took me aside, alone, and said that if I wanted to cry, do it at home. He said the people who wished me ill would be happy to see that and the people who wished me well would be saddened by it."
When he prepared to head to England, those closest to Morata were keen for him to get tougher, maybe even nastier, just as his former Juventus teammate had suggested. Buffon always thought that Morata had everything to be among the world's best "if only he could get over his mental hang-ups."
On some basic level, every player has to. Or, at least, they have to live with what comes with the game. Some take it in their stride but not all of them do.
It's not just talent. Footballers are usually expected to have a certain temperament too, to be strong and tough. And here's the thing: mostly, they are. Publicly exposed, examined endlessly, judged daily, harshly too, it can be difficult to handle. It goes way beyond the field -- as a related aside, is it surprising that there are not more Eric Cantona-type incidents? -- and into their lives. Out there, there are few places to hide.
"I've seen brilliant players be a disaster here; it's not enough to be good at football," one Real Madrid defender says. Coaches talk about the value of players not being "conscious" of how important it is, or can be made to feel. Victor Valdes talked about the goal at Barcelona not measuring what it measures everywhere else. He talked about feeling "liberated" the day he thought his Barcelona career had ended, suddenly able to let go. But he clearly didn't let go entirely. "A year at Barcelona is like two anywhere else," he said. He liked to surf, out where there's no one to bother you, "just the occasional fish swimming past."
It is not unusual; everyone confronts it, Valverde says. Mostly, that goes unseen and unexpressed, but with Gomes it was brought into the open. It was "brave," the manager said. It also changed things. And while it is important not to oversimplify issues of this nature, nor suggest that solutions are easy to find -- nor indeed suggest that Gomes' case is anything it might not be -- there was a sense Wednesday night that things might be a little different for him now, a sense that supporters were made aware of something usually out of sight in which they too played a part.
If nothing else, purely in football terms, there was a recognition that maybe they could help, that there was a person out there that they wished well and didn't want to damage. Gomes had shared his feelings and done it with them. When he came on, they roared. They were on his side.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.