Many were surprised when, on May 30, Barcelona announced they were severing ties with their experienced French defender Eric Abidal.
Both player and club had experienced a lot together. There had been the good times, the triumphant successes and the glorious runs; and there had been the bad times, the dark news about the defender’s illness and the long, painful days of rehabilitation.
Soon after his release, Abidal agreed a new contract with former club AS Monaco, one of the two sides who look set to dominate the French top flight with their stupendous financial muscle.
This article looks at the move and examines why it could be a roaring success for both player and club.
A Point to Prove
The fact that Abidal has only signed a 12-month contract may be a point of motivation for the veteran international. The club will surely wish to have a trajectory of growth and will likely hope to have outgrown aged players such as Abidal, Ricardo Carvalho and, to a lesser extent, Jeremy Toulalan in the coming seasons.
At 33, Abidal is unlikely to have too many seasons ahead of him at the top level. However, this season provides him an opportunity to prove his worth to Monaco and demonstrate that he can be an imposing figure in Ligue 1 in the future.
Similarly, Abidal may resent having been let go by Barcelona.
A few years ago, the club—despite being a corporate goliath—earned much goodwill by seemingly being a beacon of all that is true and noble about the sport. The way they stood by their French defender as he recovered from a career—if not life—threatening liver transplant certainly earned them plaudits.
However, recently the club’s image has been tarnished. No longer can they be seen as the paradigm they once were. First that sneaky, almost cynical, Qatar Foundation sponsor slipped inconspicuously onto the team’s shirts, then Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova fell out, and finally, Leo Messi was accused of tax fraud.
It’s hard to decide whether to add Abidal’s release to that list.
At first glance, it is totally fair for Barcelona to decide not to continue employing the veteran defender, especially one who has missed so much football over the last few years.
At the same time, however, Abidal expressed unhappiness at being kept waiting by Barcelona, with the club apparently reticent to commit to keeping the defender on the books.
The lack of transparency and communication between player and club has created a rift between Barca and Abidal, and the Frenchman departed on sour terms.
Surely Abidal will view his move to Monaco as an opportunity to prove to Barcelona exactly what his former employers are missing.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
The defender recently suggested that he is feeling better and on finer form than at any time over the last two years. It may be that a combination of the end of his injury and illness woes and a return to Monaco might prove to be a perfect whirlpool of fates, enough to inspire Abidal to a fine Indian summer to his career.
Players such as Joe Cole, Craig Bellamy and even the great Johan Cruyff have all been renewed by a return to their boyhood clubs late in their careers. It may be that Abidal is able to ride the wave of euphoria and goodwill that will accompany his return to the Stade Louis II to enjoy a fine finale.
A Sense of Identity
While Monaco’s recent signings have been expensive megastars with no previous connection to the club, or even to the French league, Abidal offers a very different profile.
So far this summer, the club of the Principality have spent enormous money to lure three of the world’s finest players to the Riviera.
Porto pair Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez were signed for a monstrous fee of €70 million. While the duo may become part of the furniture at Monaco, they will need to forge a connection with their new club.
Radamel Falcao is in a similar situation. The striker has cemented his name as one of the world’s finest forwards over the last few years. He will be expected to hit the ground running at his new club, but he may need help adapting to a new league and an unfamiliar collection of teammates.
As an experienced veteran, an established defender and a familiar face, Abidal—thanks to his Monegasque roots—will surely play a central role in integrating the club’s new stars and retaining a crucial sense of identity.
Excluding Mamadou Sakho and, to a lesser extent, Clement Chantome, a sense of local identity has all but evaporated from Paris Saint-Germain—one of the clubs likely to be Monaco’s closest rivals moving forward.
The Importance of Experience
While it cannot be argued that Monaco have struggled to attract top talent to their project on the south coast, their progress cannot be completed by a smattering of star talents alone. Over the course of the season, the acquisitions of Abidal, Jeremy Toulalan and 35-year-old Ricardo Carvalho may prove just as important as the high-profile imports of Rodriguez, Moutinho and Falcao.
The two elder statesmen will offer experience in abundance. The pair will likely be ideal role models for the club’s younger players, men like Lucas Ocampos and Nicky Isimat-Mirin, to emulate. They should give manager Claudio Ranieri a crucial touchstone in the dressing room.
Finally, I doubt that club owner Dmitry Rybolovlev has bankrolled the team at such great expense in order to achieve stability in the league. Rather, the Russian owner will have fairly exalted expectations.
Abidal and Carvalho have traipsed the very top of the game, have won league titles and have played in Champions League and World Cup finals. They know what it takes to succeed at the absolute pinnacle of the sport. The same cannot be said—yet—for Falcao, Moutinho or anyone else in Monaco’s squad.
The veterans may prove to be invaluable.