Sergio Busquets' new contract a deserved reward for Barca's quiet star
"It all happened so quick," Sergio Busquets says. He started the 2008-09 season at the municipal stadium in Santa Eulalia (capacity: 1,500). He ended it at the Estadio Olimpico in Rome (capacity: 70,600). From Spain's regionalised third division, with 350 teams spread over 17 groups, to the Champions League final in nine months. A European champion aged just 20, a year later he was a world champion with Spain.
Even the pitches had small in tercera, let alone the stands, now here he was on the greatest stage. "Quick" is one way of putting it.
Pep Guardiola gave Busquets his debut against Racing Santander at the Camp Nou. Barcelona didn't win that day, the pressure building on their manager after a defeat and a draw in the opening two weeks of the season, but by the end of the season they had won it all. League, Copa del Rey and Champions League. The Spanish and European Super Cups followed, then the World Club Cup. The titles have kept coming; Busquets is 26 and has already won 16 trophies for Barcelona, plus two for Spain.
"I did preseason with the first team but then I went back to the B team. I got called back up to the first team and we won all those trophies," he remembers. "As the seasons go by, you get used to it but for it to happen in such a short space of time, to be playing a European Cup final you'd expect to only watch on telly, was special. You're in the dressing room sitting alongside Xavi and Iniesta and you almost don't believe it."
"The first time is always the best. All the successes are important but with the first trophies everything is new. You don't know what you're going to find, the excitement and the nerves. And you can't control [those nerves] as much as you do later when the years pass by and you can say: 'I've played in a lot of finals now, I'm used to it."
Back then, Busquets was not even used to being on the pitch all the time. He had not been playing regularly for Barcelona's B team. Now he barely misses a game for the first team, or in fact for Spain.
Luis Enrique recently admitted that he would like to rotate the midfield more, that he would like Javier Mascherano to play more often there, rather than at the back, but that it is difficult for him to do so because he does not want to risk playing without Busquets. After all, he says, Busquets is "almost perfect." Some at the club would remove that "almost."
Busquets has played 313 games for Barcelona already. This season he has missed just one league game, against Eibar, and they do not want him to miss many more for years to come.
Clubs have asked about him (Manchester United among them) and in an interview with The Guardian this week, he admitted that he would like to play in the Premier League one day. But on Thursday evening at 6 p.m. local time, Barcelona announced that they had renewed Busquets's contract. On Friday lunchtime, he was at the Camp Nou to sign a deal that runs until the end of June 2019, with an optional year on top.
When he last renewed back in August 2013, they had promised that his deal would be improved if he continued to be important and he upheld his side of the deal. In terms of salary, the new contract places him roughly on a level with Gerard Piqué and Andrés Iniesta but behind Xavi, Luis Suárez, Neymar and Leo Messi. His buyout clause remains 150 million euros.
The statement that announced the news on the club's website was short and succinct -- 101 words were enough. Busquets would not have wanted much more. He is not a person who stands out; instead he shuns the spotlight. Interviews are rare, adverts rarer.
"People haven't had the opportunity to live in a footballer's skin and although there are many positive things, it's not a bed of roses," he says.
"You lose and you don't get over it until the next game or, if its a tournament, the next year. Or beyond. And on a personal level, the most difficult thing is the lack of privacy. There are things you can't do because you don't have the anonymity a normal person has."
Being recognised is a problem, but it is tempting to suggest that Busquets's problem is that he has not been recognised. Well, it would be tempting to suggest that if he didn't give the impression of it not being a problem at all, of not caring in the slightest. Besides, he knows that those who do matter know that he does matter.
Busquets is not a player to score goals or make them. The stats talk of a club career in which he has never scored more than one league goal and over the last three complete seasons the assists count, in all competitions, reads: three, two, one.
For a player who bails teammates out and has made more tackles than anyone other than Dani Alves over the past five years, nor does he play at being the hero. There's no drama, no fist shaking, no shouting. Instead, he just plays. He has played more passes than anyone else at Barcelona this season but he is not looking for the ball that stands out; he is looking for the ball that keeps everything going. He can look a little gangly, sometimes even ponderous, although waiting may actually be one of the things he does best.
Asked if he is like Pep Guardiola, the manager he says has been the best he had and the manager who took him from the B team, he says: "In terms of football attributes, no. In terms of the way of seeing the game and the way of thinking about football, yes." But when he talks about the game, although his explanations are both revealing and convincing, although he is assured, engaging, and his position is clear, there is none of Guardiola's philosophical touch.
Nor is there the zealous defence of an identity that you get with Xavi Hernandez, despite being the son of a former goalkeeper at the club. There's no grab at glory or protagonism, no desire to write himself into the story. Instead there is a calm normality, a rationality about it. He talks, in short, pretty much how he plays. When he talks at all.
Busquets joined Barcelona later than some youth team products, arriving at juvenil level from Jábac. He was a forward then. When he made his debut for the first team, it was as an interior, not the deepest midfielder, not the pivote he quickly became. Positioning, passing, pause and personality were key components of his game, one that improved everyone else's game too, quietly providing what his team-mates need. He talks about the role as a cerebral one as much as a physical one.
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Johan Cruyff describes football as being about associations; Busquets became the perfect partner for everyone. They live better with him. "He plays always thinking of others," Guardiola said. "He understands messages immediately, knows the team's needs and adapts to them discreetly: he sees problems and provides solutions. He plays with simplicity and clarity."
Gerard Piqué said he had the best one-touch game in the world; Xavi Hernández claimed that in fact Barcelona sometimes play at "half-a-touch," the mantra that Charly Rexach used to insist on in the academy, and that no one interprets that better than Busquets.
This new contract has arrived without fanfare and there is something a little curious about Barcelona securing the image rights of the team's least image-conscious players as part of the deal. But it is a measure of his significance on the pitch that everyone welcomed the announcement not just as good news, but as necessary. Busquets has been fundamental, his case made quietly and consistently, without cheerleaders and godfathers.
Others have been and gone, Busquets remains. Why? Because they need him.
Because while others may not notice how good he is, his teammates do. You can put others there but it won't be the same. Here's another measure of Busquets importance for Barcelona: because of him Yaya Touré departed and Javier Mascherano was recycled as a defender. And no one raised a voice. Not them, and not him.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.