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Fortunately, really, Ryan Babel broached the awkwardness first. A few months ago, a friend had alerted him to a column I had written at the turn of the decade, the one in which I suggested Babel, rather than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, should probably be considered the most significant player of the 2010s.
Babel had read it. The idea that the advent of social media was the most significant shift in soccer’s culture over the last decade resonated with him. Kindly, he said he had enjoyed it — enough, in fact, to share it on his Twitter feed. This was the awkwardness. That is something I should have known, something I would have liked to have known.
But it was something I did not know, because Ryan Babel blocked me on Twitter years ago. As we were arranging a time to meet on Zoom, I had gone back and forth on whether to bring this up with him. Part of me wondered if it might be quite a funny way to start an interview. Part of me was convinced it would be disastrous.
Would he ask me to explain, and I would have to admit that I had no idea why he had blocked me? Would it make it look like I had been nursing the wound for years? Had I better just check to see if I’d said anything really bad about him? Would it remind him that I had, at some point, offended him? Would it put him on edge? Or would he just cancel altogether?
When the time came, I reminded him that I wouldn’t know what he shares on social media — he might be retweeting a lot of my work, for all I know — because of the, er, situation. “Yeah,” he said, with a grin. “Someone told me about that.” He did not seem angry about it. He looked quite comfortable on his sofa. So I asked: Does he remember why?
No, he said, but he remembers he was “quite sensitive to criticism at the time.” He was still getting used to Twitter as a medium back then. He had grown up on MySpace and Facebook, but Twitter was different. He was one of the first players to adopt it, but he saw quickly that it had a “different dynamic.”
“The others were still quite private, so you could express yourself more,” he added. “Then you come to a platform where you are exposed to the press. It was totally new.”
In those early days, he said, he made “mistakes.” There are things — he does not specifically cite it, but let’s assume one of them was mocking up a referee in a Manchester United jersey and getting fined $12,500 — that he would do differently if he could go back in time, or if there had been someone around, as there would be now, to advise him on his social media strategy.
What is striking, talking to Babel (once we have smoothly sidestepped the awkwardness), is to what extent those early mistakes came to define him in the eyes of the soccer public, and quite how stubbornly we hold on to our initial impressions of a player as a person, quite how steadfastly we deny that player the right to change or the chance to grow.
It was not just social media. During his time at Liverpool, Babel was criticized, too, for his fledgling music career; he had been a talented enough keyboardist to play in a band at festivals in his native Amsterdam. From a young age, he had been made to treat soccer as “business,” so he had come to find his pleasure in music.
The idea that he was too busy collaborating with rappers and tweeting to dedicate himself to his craft was never true, not in any real sense — most people are afforded the right to have a job and an outside interest — but it stuck. It was bestowed with explanatory power: Babel’s form wavered not because he was in a Liverpool team that was in constant upheaval, but because he was distracted. To be an athlete, Babel said, is to “have your life lived by other people.”
After a while, theories promulgated on the outside have a habit of seeping into soccer. It was determined that Babel was not making the most of his talent; that he was drifting. Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch national team coach, told him he had to play every week to be selected. He became “desperate” to move, and ended up leaving Liverpool for Hoffenheim in Germany.
“It was not a decision I made with my heart,” he said, but to stave off external pressure. He did play at Hoffenheim, every week. Van Marwijk dropped him anyway. Babel moved on again, back to Ajax, and then to the Turkish club Kasimpasa. “I had a lot of setbacks in those years,” he said.
When he moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2015, to join Al Ain, it seemed to confirm the idea that he was destined never to fulfill his potential. “It was a typical end-of-career move,” Babel said.
He relished the chance to “experience another culture,” but he is honest enough to admit that his rationale was largely financial. If soccer treated him as an asset, then he would treat it as a business. “I decided I would make decisions that made me happy,” he said.
And that, for much of soccer, is where the Ryan Babel story ended. Even he knows that moving to the Gulf can look more like a player’s seeking a final payday in the sunshine. In the eyes of many, Babel was finished. When he left Al Ain, in 2016, he could not find a new club.
“I had been somewhere that people did not consider real football territory,” he said. “I had a lot of anxiety that it was the end for me.” He was reduced to training with Ajax’s second team. He had been a Dutch international only a few years before. He was 29, what should have been his peak, but in soccer’s eyes, he was finished, an empty promise, a forever lost boy.
Four years later, Babel is still playing. Deportivo La Coruña rescued him from free agency, and within a few weeks of thinking his career was over, he was facing Messi and Ronaldo. Besiktas, in Turkey, picked him up from there, giving him another shot at the Champions League. He has had spells at Fulham and at Galatasaray and now a loan back to Ajax. Last year, he even regained his place in the Netherlands squad. He now has 63 international caps.
He is in the full flush of an Indian summer. A player deemed a failure at 27 is still going at 33. Whether he has failed to hit the heights he might have is impossible to say, but his career, by almost any metric, has been a long and successful one. Those early mistakes seem distant now; not, perhaps, because the way we see Babel has changed — soccer, after all, does not permit characters to grow — but because the way we see soccer has.
Where once Babel’s extracurricular interests were seen as a distraction, now we almost expect soccer players to have another life — a clothing line or a charity initiative or a tennis tournament.
Over the years, Babel has doubled down, diversified. He has a record label — “music is a little bit business now, too” — and a property portfolio and a suite of investments in start-ups. He reads Robert Kiyosaki and tries to pass on investment advice to younger players. It is not the work of a young man unable to focus.
His use of social media has changed, too. Once, it seemed almost unprofessional for a player to be on Twitter. A decade on, every player is there. An entire generation lives its life on Instagram, and Babel has the air of a pioneer. Ryan Babel did not change to fit in with soccer; the rest of soccer changed to fit in with him. Well, at least that is what I assume happened. It is hard to tell. I’m still blocked.
The Squandering of a Legacy
There is something in the way Riqui Puig moves that is immediately familiar: how he makes short, sharp bursts into two or three yards of space; how he stretches out his palms to demand the ball; how he turns his head, right and left, left and right, glancing constantly over his shoulder like a spy trying to shake a tail.
Puig carries with him the imprimatur of Barcelona. It is too early to say what sort of career he will have — he is only 20, and he has played only a handful of times in La Liga — but he plays in the same way, with the same mannerisms, as his immediate predecessors: Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta. He may or may not ever match their successes, but he has had the same education as the greats.
This is what Barcelona was supposed to become, of course: a tireless production line, churning out imaginative, impish soccer players one after the other, the principles of Johan Cruyff and the ideas of Pep Guardiola passed down from one generation to the next, an empire without end.
It is hardly novel to suggest that it has not quite worked out that way. It has been obvious to much of the soccer world that the sun was setting on Barcelona for some time; this season alone, the signs were there in September, in January, in February, in April.
Watching Puig against Atlético Madrid this week, though, illustrated not just to what extent Barcelona has lost its way, squandered its legacy, but the shame of it. Puig was everything a young Barcelona player should be: smart and adventurous and brave, a hopeful in a team of superstars who kept demanding the ball long after everyone else had lost heart.
But around him is a team that is timeworn and faded. A club in chaos. Barcelona was the best team, and the best club, in the world, once. It was perfect: a model that could last forever. And yet here it is, five years from its last Champions League title, needing to start all over again.
Your Weekend Guide
Spiritual sustenance has been hard to come by these last few months, so we have to take it where we can get it: the song from “Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga,” for example, or the heartwarming returns — to prominence and to fitness — of Santi Cazorla and Bruno Soriano at Villarreal.
Cazorla is well into the second season of his comeback after losing almost two years to injury. Just how good a player he has been is best illustrated, perhaps, by the fact that he not only made it back onto the field, but back into Spain’s national team last year.
Soriano, Villarreal’s captain, has, if anything, been even more cursed. He had been absent for more than three years when he returned last week. He is 36 now, but if he is even a fraction of the intelligent, calming influence he used to be, he may help Villarreal overtake Sevilla and claim an unlikely place in the Champions League.
That attempt continues on Sunday, when Villarreal hosts Barcelona. Earlier in the day, Real Madrid will face Athletic Bilbao, knowing that with the right combination of results, the Spanish title race may well be all but finished.
On Saturday, Bayern Munich can claim its second trophy of the season — with the Champions League still to come — in the German cup final: a slick Bayer Leverkusen team lies in wait in Berlin, hardly a pushover. As an appetizer for that, the most compelling Premier League game of the weekend sees Wolves host Arsenal. One of the two has a genuine chance of qualifying for the Champions League. It is not Arsenal.
Last week’s column on soccer’s inability to jettison the attentions of the far right brought a raft of emails, including Richard Blackett’s observation about the image of Burnley’s coaching staff taking a knee. “It carries another story, one that speaks to an age-old problem in English soccer: Where are the people of color?”
Richard is quite right, of course: Only five of the 92 clubs in England’s top four leagues currently have nonwhite managers. There is scarcely better representation in coaching. This week, the game’s authorities in Britain announced a program to help more coaches of color gain experience — a welcome, if inexplicably belated, initiative — but a study was also released highlighting just how deep-rooted the problem is.
The way we talk about players is, I think, significant: By reducing Black players, in particular, to their athletic abilities, we are allowing our biases and prejudices to diminish their career prospects. These are all small steps, of course, but they are small steps in the right direction. It suggests that the players’ determination to support Black Lives Matter is being heard.