What is a professional footballer?
They can be heroes, they can be villains. They are symbols of our tribe (or of some enemy tribe). They are cyphers into whom we pour our hopes and dreams, but also our fears and frustrations.
Sometimes we forget they are people, just like us but with better foot-eye co-ordination.
I was reminded of this when watching David Luiz’s interview with BT Sport after his man of the match performance against Manchester City on Saturday night.
During the conversation, with Luiz still flushed from his recent efforts, he gave the usual professional footballer answers, praising his team mates, referring to “giving one hundred per cent” and so on.
He was also honest about the gulf between Arsenal and the likes of Man City (“the other team is miles away in front of us, but we were humble…”).
But then the interviewer got to the question he really wanted to ask. Just a few weeks earlier Arsenal had succumbed to a humiliating defeat against Manchester City in an empty Etihad Stadium, and Luiz had been the chief villain.
The Brazilian had gifted City a goal just before half time and then, early in the second half, gave away a penalty and got sent off in the process.
The interviewer obviously wanted to raise these past indiscretions but didn’t quite have the courage to just come out with it. Instead he beat around the bush:
“And what a different story to the Premier League game against Manchester City just after the restart,” he mumbled, “when there was a lot of criticism of Arsenal’s spirit, a lot of criticism of the defending…”
Luiz knew what was being asked and put the interviewer out of his misery by interrupting.
“A lot of criticism on me, no? You can say that.”
He went on to say that he had taken the blame for those mistakes and had been working hard every day.
It reminded me that the players we support and idolise and curse and criticise are not oblivious to what is being said about them.
While blogs like this one (and the many others in the Arsenal blogosphere) devote whole columns to how crap certain players are (I have done it myself), with plenty of pile-on in the comments, it’s easy to imagine that none of this negative vibe reaches the players. But it clearly does.
Luiz knew what we are all saying about him after the Man City league game. He already knew what plenty of pundits – amateur and professional – have long said about him (that he’s unreliable and accident-prone).
But his interview on Saturday was a reminder that he is trying. Trying to be the best he can. Trying to do his job. He talked about surviving.
It made me warm to him a little more, despite the frustration he can inspire.
None of this is to say that we cannot or should not criticise players. It’s our right as supporters and, often, it serves as a form of catharsis for us after a bad result. Angry people always want someone to blame and footy fans are no different.
But when we’re firing our barbs, let’s always keep a little space in our hearts to remember the humanity of our targets.
David Luiz will always be David Luiz. He will have mad moments in defence in the future, but hopefully he will have more games like Saturday’s, when his leadership, experience, bravery and skill helped propel us to another FA Cup Final.
He has been a zero and a chump for Arsenal at times this year. But the story of this season is not over and, who knows, maybe he’ll end it a hero and a champ.