This piece originally appeared on thefalsenine.co.uk.
The date is November 29, 2010. Camp Nou is full to capacity and Barcelona lead Real Madrid by three goals to nil. Nearly 100,000 Culés plus a global audience of millions are enthralled by one of the greatest team displays ever.
David Villa, assister of Barça’s second goal and scorer of their third, stands in front of his team’s left-back, Éric Abidal, as Madrid keep the ball on the opposite flank and try desperately to find a way back into the game. Possession eventually turns over and Villa begins to run forward.
On the opposite side of the pitch, Lionel Messi receives the ball from Sergio Busquets. He immediately turns and drives at Ricardo Carvalho and Sami Khedira. As Messi reaches them he darts to his left, skipping past the German midfielder, and Villa sprints through the blind spot of the Madrid right-back, Sergio Ramos.
Right on cue, Messi pings a perfect diagonal through-ball between Pepe and Ramos, leaving El Guaje one-on-one with Iker Casillas for the second time in three minutes. He lets the ball roll for what seems like a millisecond too many and then stabs it under the onrushing Casillas for 4-0.
Camp Nou erupts, José Mourinho silently stews and the ecstatic Villa slides on his knees before being mobbed by delirious teammates in celebration of another picture perfect goal.
It is Villa’s seventh for Barcelona following a hugely anticipated big-money move from Valencia, for whom he scored 128 goals over five seasons. He is Spain’s all-time leading scorer on 44 and was top scorer in the sides that won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. At the end of this season he will add a Champions League winner’s medal to his collection, scoring in the final.
El Guaje is not just The Kid. He is The Man. The Master. El puto amo, to appropriate Pep Guardiola’s phrase.
Two-and-a-half years on, David Villa is seen less as the world’s deadliest striker and more as Eeyore personified. It is not really his fault, but his second and third seasons at Barcelona have nonetheless been absolutely miserable. It shows.
A mitigating factor is the eight months Villa missed between December 2011 and August 2012, having fractured his tibia at the Club World Cup in Yokohama, Japan. Even in this era of relative medical wonder, the effects of such an injury should not be understated. Simply recovering and returning took immense courage, even if most observers agree that Villa has yet to return to the dizzying heights he hit before his injury.
What is sometimes forgotten is that even before breaking his leg, Villa was on the way down. It was public knowledge that he had been earmarked by Barcelona officials as the team’s weak link: as another outsider who, like Zlatan Ibramimović, was effective in his own way but was not perfectly in tune with teammates who knew each other inside-out.
His relationship with one teammate in particular was called into question. Lionel Messi’s emergence as not only the world’s pre-eminent player but as the best of all time saw him regularly fielded as Barcelona’s central attacker – the role that, until Francesco Totti and Messi redefined it, was referred to as the number nine; the role that David Villa had been promised when he moved to Catalonia.
No-one outside of football knows just how much tension there is between Villa and Messi but ‘none’ is clearly not the correct answer.
Since Pep Guardiola took charge in 2008, Barcelona have been particularly notable for their players’ extraordinary camaraderie. Even though players like Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have won everything there is to win, they celebrate every goal as though it were a late winner in the World Cup final. Theirs is the closest of groups: they hang out together off the pitch; they never argue on it.
Well, most of them never do. The only two that have had repeated and heated on-field disagreements over the years have been David Villa and Lionel Messi. Videos of their most famous bust-up, against Granada in October 2012, went viral within minutes. Even if reports of outright hatred are hyperbolic, it certainly looks as though the two went through a spell of deliberately playing bad passes to each other – or simply not passing at all.
The ultimate victim of it all has been David Villa. The combination of outsider status, career-changing injury and Lionel Messi has seen what should have been his best years become his ‘what if?’ period. The unhappy time in which the planet’s best striker became just another po-faced deadbeat lost in the wilderness.
March 12, 2013. Barcelona face Milan in the second leg of the Champions League round of sixteen. They are 2-0 down from the first leg and need something akin to a miracle to go through to the next round.
David Villa, fighting to find form despite a lack of regular playing time, starts the game as Barcelona’s central attacker. Lionel Messi occupies the space just behind him. Villa’s desire to justify the faith placed in him is obvious from the kick-off. He appears hyperactive, jumpy with zest, almost… nervous.
The first half is all Barcelona. Just as Messi’s clever movement occupied Real Madrid’s centre-backs in the historic manita Clásico and allowed Villa to score twice, Villa’s lateral movement and simple presence in the box occupies Philippe Mexès and Cristián Zapata, creating space for Messi to slam home two spectacular goals. Barça are playing as though it were 2010 again. The miracle is on.
In the fifty-fifth minute, Milan are penned on the edge of their penalty area, frantically trying to prevent the goal that would put them behind on aggregate. As a Barça attack breaks down, Zapata lashes a clearance up-field. He doesn’t catch the ball well and it stays low, close to the turf, and zips towards Stephan El Shaarawy. What looked a hopeless punt could prove a killer ball.
Barça have looked vulnerable to counters all night and a breakaway goal here would spell the end for them. But before the Rossoneri forward can control the ball, Javier Mascherano hurtles past him and makes a vital interception. The Camp Nou crowd cheers as though a goal has been scored.
The ball falls to Andrés Iniesta, who flicks it back to Xavi. Spotting David Villa in space wide of Milan’s left-back, Kévin Constant, Xavi slips a quick pass forward, tempting Constant into a hopeless lunge that leaves the defender on his backside and Villa one-on-one with Christian Abbiati.
Villa controls the ball with his right-foot, looks up and picks his spot in the goal’s far top corner. He looks down at the ball, steadies himself and strikes with his left. The movement lasts less than a second but it seems to take aeons. For Villa, the entire Earth stands still.
Then the ball hits the back of the net and a cacophony of euphoric Catalan screams brings Villa back to reality. Once again, he wheels away towards the corner of the pitch, slides on his knees and is swamped by his colleagues.
Theirs is a prolonged celebration, a mark of the goal’s redemptive quality. The players remain huddled, slowly filing away one by one until only Villa is left. He gives out one more victorious roar to los Culés, who immediately return it with interest. Despite the tears in his eyes, or perhaps because of them, David Villa is once again The Man.
Like most spectacular comebacks, it doesn’t last.
Villa starts both of Barcelona’s quarter-final ties against Paris Saint-Germain but is twice unimpressive and twice substituted. Familiar suspicions are aroused regarding compatibility with teammates and recovery from injury and he finishes the season in and out of the starting lineup. With each passing week his expression grows more morose.
It is never a good idea to take Twitter at its word, but sometimes we can only hope that what we see on-screen is indeed true.
On June 10, 2013, Brazilian journalist Fábio Sormani posted that Carles Puyol had, while on holiday in New York, confirmed to him that David Villa’s time at Camp Nou was finally over. Puyol did not know where he would go – that was yet to be decided – but he would definitely not be at Barça come August 31.
Ten days later, Villa scored his third international hat-trick in Spain’s 10-0 Confederations Cup win over Tahiti. His record tally now stands at 56, some twelve clear of Raúl in second place and 21 clear of the only other active player in the top ten, Fernando Torres. True to current form, he barely smiled after scoring his goals and left the field looking depressed.
But for bad passes from his teammates, he would have had six or seven goals. He would have forced his way back into the first eleven. Why was he playing for the second string, anyway? What if…? Such is Villa’s existence right now.
The unfortunate fall of a footballing icon is usually a bountiful source of schadenfreude for fans – Michael Owen’s post-Real Madrid career was a case in point – but in David Villa’s case there is no joy to be taken from his misfortune.
At thirty-one, he has a good few years in him yet. He will probably never recover his crown as the best number nine in the world. Too much time has passed since the glory days and he is unlikely to find himself on a stage that will allow him to prove his ability so definitively. Nonetheless, I hope that he gets a move to a club where he feels valued and can produce his best for three or four seasons more.
It would be cruel if a player that has given so much in effort and in joy was not afforded the luxury of going out with a bang. If not a bang, a smile will do.