I found myself stranded, paralyzed with anxiety, crippled with dread, as I was rendered helpless, waiting for a faceless individual somewhere to make a decision on my future. It was April of 2015 and I had embarked on a quest for a piece of paper: an extension of my work visa that would legitimize my status in Canada. A process that was supposed to take 45 days, took 245.
I was alone, a mere 7,991 miles away from the nearest person I could call family. My life was a ticking time bomb – without the extension of my visa, I stood to lose my job, get deported, and watch the life I had built for the past six years crumble in the blink of an eye. Emotionally unhinged and incapable of rational thought, I turned to FC Barcelona. Living vicariously through them was the indubitable way to avoid the reality of my existence.
With an over-extended work visa, I was trapped. Living in a foreign land, I was reduced to a barcode, a commodity whose value to a country would be determined on whim, without the slightest hint of remorse. I became a shadow of myself, feigning the minimum level of competence in front of my colleagues and friends. I was drifting, my interactions perfunctory, and the mere act of existing itself seemed laborious. My reality resembled scenes from Inception – stuck in limbo, helplessly floating through hallways, hoping to avoid the volatile projections of my subconscious. There’s a quote by the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland that resonates with me every time I veer off course: “You’re not the same as you were before,” he tells Alice. “You were much more muchier…you’ve lost your muchness.”
For mystifying reasons, I had always struggled to open up to my friends, but I had no qualms about placing my faith in the hands of strangers at Barcelona and hoping they would control their fate in a way I couldn’t control mine. Give them the power to either fix what was broken in me, or rip my already-frail heart to shreds. I was desperate to latch onto anything that would keep me from hurtling into an abyss of despair. I embraced Finagle’s quirkiest rule: Do not believe in miracles. Rely on them. Barcelona was now the buoy that would help me stay afloat during the gloomy months.
Time was fast running out on the validity of my legal-resident status in Canada, like sand in an hourglass on fast-forward. I was stuck in a job as equally vexing as watching Gonzalo Higuaín squander chance after chance in finals for Argentina. Quizzed weekly about the status of my work permit, I could only respond with a shrug of my shoulders – an action that was far from endearing to the auditors. I would wake up every day hopeful that this would be the one my frazzled nerves would be soothed. But immediately I would panic, wondering if today my extension would be denied, forcing me to uproot my entire life and alter my life trajectory entirely.
I was drawn to Barcelona primarily because of the clouds of uncertainty – reminiscent of the ones in my life – wafting around the club. Barça began 2015 cloaked in doubt, the entorno in turmoil. Sure, they’d been winning, but not the right way. A Jordi Alba own-goal in a loss to Real Sociedad threatened Barcelona’s determination to exorcise the demons that had engulfed them during their previous trophyless season. The consequences of that result were exaggerated, but it did the trick: Barcelona shifted up another gear. They began to categorically re-establish themselves as the best team in Europe. Their transformation was simultaneously understandable and inexplicable. It was like watching William Ernest Henley compose Invictus. Like watching Howard Roark sketch a building. Gloriously minimalist at first glance, until a closer look revealed the complexity of technique and the audacity of players to achieve that simplicity.
Twice a week, for 90 minutes, Barcelona introduced me to new realms of pleasure. It was juxtaposition at its finest: as I helplessly watched my life unravel, I could only watch in awe as a team of athletes achieved the kind of cohesion and clarity I desperately craved. In my real life, I was walking on eggshells, waiting with bated breath for a decision on my fate in Canada. In the pseudo-reality I had come to inhabit with Barça, I was gliding, à la Andrés Iniesta across the midfield vs. PSG. Subjected to weekly, veiled threats of my dismissal from my job, I was downright vulnerable. When Barça came out to play, I felt I was wearing a Kevlar vest.
While my life was buffering, Barcelona was steamrolling through Europe. The juggernaut that they were, opposing defences were left in shambles in their wake. Fans and foes alike were befuddled. The tenacity they exuded was in stark contrast to my mental fragility. There were days when rushing to the subway only to have its doors shut in my face would provoke a mini meltdown. Meanwhile, the team took on their staunch rivals and demolished them with apparent ease
I remember when Lionel Messi casually slid past Bayern’s defence – incapacitating Jerome Boateng in the process – and impudently chipped Manuel Neuer with his weak foot. The Bayern defender, Rafinha, could only watch the ball softly land in the back of the net, his attempt to contort his body to block the shot rendered futile. The Camp Nou erupted. The sheer delight and shock etched in everyone’s face stirred something deep within my psyche. It was the first time, in a long time, I had felt an emotion other than fear, rage, or anguish. As Martin Tyler bellowed on the commentary, “Only football can make you feel like this!” I realized it was the first time in my life I had experienced a sense of unbridled joy.
When Barcelona encountered Villarreal, Real Madrid and Roma in the span of three weeks in November 2015, an impromptu and confounding display of athleticism followed. Like Legolas hurtling down the steps of Helm’s Deep, slaughtering Orcs on the way, the opposition was dealt with in a casually emphatic manner. Staggering performances like that from Barcelona made my world seem open to a myriad of possibilities. The irony is painful, I remember thinking throughout 2015. How can I simultaneously be brimming with hope and be so devoid of it?
On a frigid morning in December, my eight-month-long quest came to an end. Citizenship and Immigration Canada had graciously decided to cease tormenting me and approved my work visa. Waves of relief washed over me. I was deemed worthy enough to live in this country. The isolating and dismal existence I became accustomed to came to an end. The immigration officers may have finally given me that piece of paper, but Barcelona had given me so much more.
Barcelona is blessed with a ludicrous array of talent engaged in a relentless pursuit of excellence in the tough tumble of La Liga. The blind faith I had in them, no matter the odds stacked against them, had me questioning my actions for the past few months. If I believed so deeply in the ability of 11 men and their coach – men who weren’t remotely aware of my existence – to overcome numerous trials and tribulations, why not extend the same courtesy to myself?
Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona have committed to a meticulous recalibration of their desire, technique, and attitude. It is evident in the way they approach games – fearless, yet restrained. I found myself darning back to wholeness my shredded belief in myself. Through the shadowy blur of passing months, Barça had helped me muster the courage to endure, to believe that we all have it in us to regain the lost muchness by dint of our own effort, and craft our own tomorrow.
Looking back, I have oscillated between crippling agony – watching the team get dumped out of the Champions League by Atlético Madrid and squander a ten-point lead in the league – and overwhelming relief and ecstasy, as the past two seasons culminated with them winning the treble and domestic double. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty I was plagued with throughout 2015, the footballing extravagance displayed by FC Barcelona was the brief, bi-weekly glimmer of hope I was fortunate to witness. Their sustained brilliance struck a chord with me: the kind that was at once both mesmerizing and disorienting, both thrilling and sobering, spurring me onto further action, while lulling me into a state of inaction.
On the cusp of a new season – no matter the outcome – they will continue to be my safe haven, my anchor in the turbulent sea of life, the solitary, shining beacon of hope. In the grandeur of this team, I had found the comfort that seemed so desperate to elude me in my personal life. I stopped enduring life, and began to enjoy it.