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Gago's case shows the perils of players speaking their mind

Fernando Gago signed his death warrant recently. Real Madrid's Argentine midfielder told ESPN on July 24 that Barcelona was one of the best sides in history, better than Real Madrid and that beating it was impossible. The problem, he said, was that the fans do not want to accept that. They certainly don't: within minutes Gago was, to use the Spanish phrase, being called everything but beautiful. Mostly, he was being called out.

Forums and social networking sites had their knives out, a virtual angry mob with virtual pitch forks and flares. Soon some in the media followed suit. He was a traitor, bitter and ungrateful. He was a disgrace, breaking every rule there was. He was not worthy; he was rubbish, a fake, a charlatan. They never did like him anyway. He had forgotten that Real Madrid was the greatest club on earth, the most successful in soccer history. He had to leave. He had to be kicked out. This was unforgivable.

Others suggested that it had been a deliberate ploy to force an exit: he wanted to go, now the club wanted him to go too. It couldn't possibly keep him after that. Nor should it. Goodbye and good riddance.

Gago's words were not especially wise. Perhaps he should have been aware of their potential repercussion and in black and white they looked pretty stark; any comments, stripped of intonation and context, do. But were they really so bad? Here was another outcry, a social panic based on ... on, what exactly?

Gago hadn't said anything that was not true, but then the first casualty in footballing wars is so often the truth. Soccer is about passion and identity. For fans at least, it is about loyalty -- blind loyalty, mostly. Anyone who says anything against you is immediately the enemy. And if he is one of your own he is a traitor. Everyone else is biased; even though bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. In a crowd, rivals are easily denounced too; on forums and online, attacks are easy, launched with impunity and anonymity.

All of which is normal. Meanwhile, the attacks are also virtual and not real. Not normally, at least. Nor should they worry us unduly. And yet the reaction was still over the top: any sense of perspective had been lost. In doing so, it revealed a problem.

Gago had not said anything offensive toward his club. In fact, the most offensive thing he did say, even if he did not intend it to sound that way, was probably the remark that was not picked up and reported or commented on. The remark in which he noted: "I was lucky I didn't play in the clásico; I just saw it on the television."

The tone of the interview was relaxed and light hearted; Gago talked for some time about a whole series of issues. But few bothered to listen to the original. They simply took the comments and ran with them. The words were taken out of their conversational context: not just by the media but also -- and this is the point so often overlooked -- by the fans. Besides, even reading the words in black and white should not have been sufficient to cause such outrage.

Gago said that Barcelona is one of the best teams there has been in history. Which is true and which far from denigrating Real Madrid could be read as a eulogy because it was a side able to take the Copa del Rey off Barca. He noted -- and this, which might have irritated the fans who can think of nothing worse than admiring their opponents, was not picked up either -- that Barcelona is the kind of side that you admire. "You look at them and think: 'I want to play like that'," Gago said. And he noted that four games in 18 days was "too much" for everyone, which it certainly was.

He then said that Madrid could not beat Barcelona. Which is true -- that's "could not (did not, past tense)", not "could not (it was impossible)" or "cannot (we are incapable)." And in the Champions League they could not. "That must be hard for the fans," Gago was asked. "Do they see the difference between the two sides?"

"It's hard," Gago replied, "so, no, the analyst or the player can but the fan doesn't." If anyone doubted that was true, the reaction proved as much. So fans can't see the difference, because they want to win so much. And the problem is? Again, what Gago had said was no big deal. Again, he was right.

More right, in fact, than he perhaps intended: one of Madrid's problems over the last six or seven years has been the failure to see that soccer is a sport and that in a sport you can lose. A club like Madrid must always seek success but that refusal has seen it throw out projects and change coaches, managers and even sporting directors prematurely, destroying stability and turning sporting principles on their head -- which rather than guaranteeing the success it craves makes it harder yet.

Gago had not really offended anyone yet he had succeeded in offending many. He had simply told the truth and not exactly an earth-shattering truth either. He had done so in a calm, rational and non vindictive manner, too. Yes, he was ill-advised to do so, but did it really warrant the backlash? Has the game, those who follow it and report on it, really become that precious, that touchy, that easily offended? Have people really taken leave of their senses?

Quite possibly. Gago's words reinforced something that had already been revealed by Thiago Alcántara in the previous few days. The Barcelona player had been attacked for admitting -- quite naturally -- that he did not know many of the England U-21 side and that -- shock horror -- he hoped to win the European U-21 Championships (which, by the way, his team did, having dominated England in its first game). He was accused of being arrogant, a "cocky" so-and-so who'd "slammed England's nobodies." He was taking the mickey. The England player Marc Albrighton responded sharply, noting: "the Spanish are obviously good at mind games."

No one seemed to want to accept that maybe, a few days before the tournament and therefore before the in-depth briefings had been held, far from pushing an agenda, Thiago was responding to a question, simply being honest. He didn't know many of the England players. Not yet. And why would he? He was happy that Arsenal's Jack Wilshere wasn't playing -- and why wouldn't he be? How many of the Spanish players would the English players have known, even though Spain's team had 750 first division appearances between them?

A few days after that, Thiago was in trouble again for saying that his dream had not been to play for Barcelona necessarily, but simply to play professional soccer. Again there was trouble. How dare the Brazilian born in Italy not declare his undying love to the Catalan team; how dare he countenance the idea of playing for another club? He was even forced into an apology, forced to announce: of course it's my dream to play for Barcelona. The truth, it seems, hurts. Far more than it should. Every time a player says something remotely worthwhile, he is set upon.

None of which would matter but for one thing: the fundamentalist and sensationalist agenda does have an impact which impoverishes the game, impoverishes access to it, and certainly impoverishes coverage of it.

With every pathetic protest, every overblown, one-sided sense of hurt pride and moral outrage, players become more and more aware that everything they say can and will be taken down and used in evidence against them. Even when it is not evidence of anything. And we complain when footballers' remarks are desperately dull, almost unbearably anodyne. And we moan when they lie and then act surprised and cheated upon when they leave. And we wonder why they would rather not talk at all.

Fernando Gago should indeed leave Real Madrid. Not because of what he said, which wasn't much. But because of what he did on the pitch, which wasn't much either.

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