How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sergi Roberto

GIJON, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 24: Neymar of FC Barcelona celebrates with his teammates Sergi Roberto Carnicer of FC Barcelona after scoring his team's third goal during the La Liga match between Real Sporting de Gijon and FC Barcelona at Estadio El Molinon on September 24, 2016 in Gijon, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

This is a repost of an article originally featured on our site last season by Sameer Riyaz about the potential rise of Sergi Roberto. It’s a very interesting read, especially in light of Roberto’s ascent to stardom this season. And also because Sameer is such a great writer. He concluded: “As things presently stand, the simple fact of the matter, unpalatable though it may be, is that Sergi Roberto’s future at the club is the brightest out of all La Masia prospects bar none.” How’s that for prescience? Enjoy the article!

We live in a world where romanticism is on the wane. The ‘beautiful game’ is no different. The scholars, the free thinkers, the poets of the sport – the César Luis Menotti’s, the Jorge Valdano’s – are a dying breed, their voices silenced, anachronistic even, in light of a singular, objective truth: numbers. And when it comes to statistics, trophies reign supreme: they validate the endeavors of the game’s luminaries, quantifying their greatness or, by contrast, serve as a source of amusement when it comes to ‘lesser’ players – who can forget that Bebé has more Premier League winners’ medal than Steven Gerrard? Or that Eric Djemba-Djemba has a Champions League medal to his name? Even closer to home, Douglas Pereira is a treble winner.

Sergi Roberto fits neither of these descriptors. Not even his most ardent fan would claim that he is amongst the best in the world for his position – or even has the potential to be – while one would be similarly reticent to relegate him to the bracket of footballing caricatures. Five years after his first-team debut with Barça, he remains an unknown quantity. And yet, the man who arrived as a 14 year old boy from Tarragona has ten major trophies to his name, including three La Liga trophies and two Champions League’s medals.

Has there ever been a player so highly decorated and inconspicuous in equal measure?

Perhaps it is precisely because of his relaxed demeanor and bread-and-butter game that culés have, somewhat unfairly, deemed Roberto surplus to Luis Enrique’s requirements: “sell him!” once voice cries out, “loan him!” cries another, “it doesn’t matter what you do, just don’t let him eat up Sergi Samper’s minutes!” yells a third, louder, more indignant.

Maybe if he was more of a character, more of a personality, be it on the pitch or off it, fans would rally behind the young midfielder; Gerard Pique’s self-imposed role of King Jester in the dressing bought him an extended period of good will during the most testing spell of his Barça career, while Neymar Jr.’s flair has seen culés defend him through thick and thin – some even wrongly going so far as to absolve him of all responsibility for his fiery sending off against Colombia in the recently-concluded Copa America.

Either of these qualities would help fans relate to Roberto, to feel a sense of intimacy towards him. He possesses neither. As such, he continues to remain unknown, and human nature dictates fear of the unknown: fear that he’s a passenger in the squad, fear that he’ll never be good enough – perhaps his double-helix structure doesn’t read ‘Barça’ like the others– and lastly, fear that his inclusion in the side will stunt the growth of the latest crop of La Masia perlas.

Like most fears, the above concerns are irrational, not to mention fallacious. If that statement has elicited a sense of incredulity, believe me, I can empathize for I too was like you not all that long ago. Then, one fine morning a few years ago, I understood what – or rather, who – Sergi Roberto really was: the Catalan Seydou Keita. And then it all clicked.

Keita, or ‘Keite’ as he was more lovingly known amongst fans, was an ever-present under Pep Guardiola’s trophy-laden spell at the club, yet he was never a starter. Capped 188 times, the Malian had more appearances for the blaugrana than club legends such as Quini (178), Ronaldo (51), Romário (82) and Diego Maradona (73).

Perhaps the most telling comparison can be made with Deco, who, rather curiously, also recorded exactly 188 appearances for Barça and was signed for 15M – one million Euros greater than the fee paid for Keita, excluding Ricardo Quaresma’s 6M valuation as part of a player-plus-cash deal.

Deco was an instrumental part of Rijkaard’s Barça, wholly deserving of his place in the starting XI, which necessarily relegated club icons Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta to the bench at the time. When the duo commanded the spotlight, it was up to Keita to close out games for the blaugrana, allowing Guardiola to wrap his star midfielders, particularly Iniesta, in cotton wool.

Proving to be the exception rather than the rule, Keita never once complained about a lack of minutes and his continued rejection from the playing side and maintained an excellent relationship with Guardiola, as evidenced by the latter famously describing the former as the team’s “moral barometer”. The Malian knew his qualities, and more importantly his own limitations, and recognized from day one that he was never going to be the midfield man for Barça.

Keita’s self-sacrifice never betrayed a lack of ambition: anyone with a functioning pair of eyes could tell you that he worked harder, ran faster and gave more than any of his colleagues the second he set foot on the Camp Nou turf. Trophies are won by squads, not teams, and there’s no shame in helping the club in whichever way you can. Who amongst you is brave enough to suggest Keita was not a contributing factor towards each and every one of the fourteen trophies collected under Guardiola?

But what about the one that got away, that mistake, Thiago Alcántara? How could he and Keita have co-existed when the Malian – inarguably less “Barça material” than Thiago in every which way – ‘stole’ his minutes? Well, simply put, he didn’t: Thiago featured 45 times in Keita’s last season – a figure which only dropped to 36 the following season after the return of the prodigal son, Cesc Fabregàs, for a lavish sum.

If the parallels haven’t yet begun to take shape and you’re left scratching your head wondering what this all has to do with Sergi Roberto, allow me to fill in the gaps.

Like Keita, Sergi Roberto is not, and most likely never will be, a starter for Barça.

Like Keita, Sergi Roberto has come to accept this status quo, not once demanding more minutes from Luis Enrique either by himself, or by proxy (vis-à-vis a pesky agent). The number 20’s rejection of several clubs, most notably Stoke City – the wet Wednesday night get-away for La Masia graduates in recent years – illustrates that acceptance and indifference are two separate qualities however, and that Roberto has every intention to push for a starting role, no matter how unlikely it may be.

Like Keita, Sergi Roberto is a coach’s wet-dream: the very definition of ‘solid if unspectacular’, hardly ever putting a foot wrong, simultaneously allowing for games to be closed out without fuss or noticeable drops in tempo, and for rather more illustrious colleagues to be spared the battle in pursuit of victory of the war.

Like Keita, Sergi Roberto is good enough for Barça, even if that has to be qualified to read ‘good enough as a substitute’. For some – sorry Douglas, Adriano Correia – that in of itself has proven to be a rather tricky task, reinforcing the notion that a squad player at one of the most elite clubs in the world can be equated to a starter in an upstart mid-table side.

Like Keita, Sergi Roberto is unlikely to, and cannot be held responsible for, stunting any of the unpolished diamonds coming through La Masia. The fact that Roberto has been converted into a pivote and understudy for Sergio Busquets means that Rafinha Alcántara has one less rival for a central midfield berth, while Busquet’s continued brilliance and longevity means that Sergi Samper will most likely have to come to terms with playing 20 yards further up front than what he is used to if he wishes to be a starter for the club. Feel free to question and/or castigate the signing of Arda Turan now all you like, all the while noting the similarities with the aforementioned Fabregàs transfer.

Unlike Keita however, Sergi Roberto does not have adoration or respect from the majority of culés. The dissenting voices that plead for his departure one day, bemoan the decline of La Masia the other – irony as delicious as it is disheartening.

I’ve previously written about the ‘tale of the two Sergi’s’, whereby I stated that Samper is “one of the most gifted young midfielders in world football, let alone at Barça” and that he is “infinitely more talented, eye-catching and mature than Roberto”. I stand by this: Samper is the future of the club, and when the rampant mismanagement that has plagued Barça’s youth as of late subsides – hopefully sooner rather than later – his time will come.

As things presently stand however, the simple fact of the matter, unpalatable though it may be, is that Sergi Roberto’s future at the club is the brightest out of all La Masia prospects bar none. If that sounds damning, and I’m sure it will be for many of you, it shouldn’t be: La Masia’s goal has always been to strengthen the first team – who here among us have the divine right to dictate the exact terms for how and when it chooses to do so?

Make no mistake, Barça are stronger with Roberto. For as long as the ball stays round and the game is played with eleven men on both sides, no team can ever be harmed by the presence of a footballer who gives his all for the club.

Now that you know him, you need not fear him: his name is Sergi Roberto Carnicer, he plays for the name on the front of the shirt, not the back, and he deserves your respect.

Image: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty

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  • James Anderson

    Amazing post… which reveals a nice bonding among team-mates!!!

  • Celestine Nwachukwu

    ‘Make no mistake, Barça are stronger with Roberto. For as long as the ball stays round and the game is played with eleven men on both sides, no team can ever be harmed by the presence of a footballer who gives his all for the club. ‘Spot on there. He’s now priceless

  • Martin

    Beautiful! I’m going to remember the last phrase… “he plays for the name on the front of the shirt, not the back, and he deserves your respect.”