Lionel Messi and Jack Grealish: Understanding the special pain shared by Barcelona and Aston Villa supporters

Maybe Nick Hornby said it best in Fever Pitch.

It is a strange paradox that while the grief of football fans(and it is real grief) is private – we each have an individual relationship with our clubs, and I think that we are secretly convinced that none of the other fans understands quite why we have been harder hit than anyone else – we are forced to mourn in public, surrounded by people whose hurt is expressed in forms different from our own.

For Aston Villa fans this summer has been a constant rainstorm of emotional topsy-turvy, an avalanche of distress and relief, unrelenting and highs and lows. The end seemed everywhere and nowhere. Yes, I am talking about Jack Grealish leaving the club. Our Jack. Our six-year-old wonder from Solihull, who raised eyebrows every day at Bodymoor Heath with claret and blue in his veins. 

Our captain. 

Our Jack. 

Our Jack who is no more. He is with Manchester City now as his immediate dreams cannot be denied any longer. To say I wish him success is the undoubted truth. We cannot ask anything more from the boy. He gave his all for Villa, including his own well being, so I can’t deny his ambition. This is a sentiment, however, that comes with thorns in my throat. As I write this, just after his official unveiling at Manchester City, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I will talk about him on the podcast, in the studio, and express the joy that we all see on the pitch when he touches the football, but just know that there is soreness in my words. I’d also like to say that I don’t expect everyone to understand. Like Hornby insinuates in his book – a fan’s grief is like a fingerprint, unique only to the sufferer and this game of ours, whether it’s being played or not, can be so, so cruel or so, so joyful. Only the recipient can know what end they fall on. 

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At least it won’t be the same as when I refused to talk for two weeks when Dwight Yorke left. I’d like to think I’m a little bit older and wiser now. 

Probably not. 

That’s the thing about loving this game. Age means nothing because the relationship we have with our club and the players we adore, always makes us feel like we’re kids. There is a Peter Pan syndrome to football. The game is our Neverland. 

But honestly, while Jack’s exit is painful, the months before, when his destiny was unknown, were worse. It was like a million daggers. That’s what killed me. This is why I am happy that it’s over, because Aston Villa will always be the bigger point, the bigger factor, the only thing, and to take care of its future is the priority. 

But I am also not here to talk about Aston Villa, or, at least, not just about Aston Villa.

As Lionel Messi’s shocking exit from Barcelona erupted late last week, I started to think about the fans, the player, and the hole this breakup leaves behind. It became a symbol of this game and the connections we build with certain people, especially the special ones. Messi’s departure is about the destruction of a dynasty, yes, but it’s also about the end of love. For Barça fans, it’s darkness personified. The conclusion is even worse because of how it happened, at the hands of football’s biggest (needed) enemy: money, or at least the poor use of it. 

The club’s economic disarray ended up as Messi’s biggest opponent. Ultimately, Barcelona’s biggest downfall was Barcelona itself.

Barça fans are crying outside the gates of Camp Nou, not just because their greatest ever player has left, but because their relationship is over. The kid from Rosario who became a child of Catalonia is now gone, and it wasn’t even his decision. That’s what hurts the most. When your own story is not even determined by your decisions, but by those of an employer who has their eyes on something else. It’s something uniquely anti-football and a stark reminder that even when you’re Lionel freaking Messi, some parts of your story are outside your own control 

This piece, however, is less an explanation of the events (better people than me can give you more context) but more about the bond between lifelong player and fan. When Francesco Totti left Roma – the only club he had ever known – after 30 years, fans all over Stadio Olimpico couldn’t stop crying. They turned into lost children because their hero had fallen. 

“This is far worse than retiring as a player,” said Totti. “Leaving Roma is like dying. I feel like it’d be better if I died.”

To anyone who knows this story, you know he was not kidding. An amplification of emotion? Maybe. But the club, for a lifelong player, is not a club, it’s a family, your blood, your soul. When that’s taken from you, the outcome might not be death, but it’s understandable that for Totti, and players like him it feels like it.. For the supporter, this is also true and even though the club continues without them, like family, everybody forever recalls the member who is no longer there.

This is why this summer was painful for me and why Barcelona fans are still suffering, knowing that their hero, their brother, is gone. We don’t know these players. Not really. But this game makes us feel as if we do. It’s why we live every emotion through their artistry, and when they leave, the lights go off, and the art we once knew is only a memory, knowing too well that the only option is to move on. 

And that’s what we’ll do, because the cathedral, the club – not the owners, not the board, but THE CLUB – still needs us.

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