Yes, this is The Book. “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World” by Graham Hunter is out, published by Back Page Press. If you don’t already have your copy, you’re a terrible slacker and may flying monkeys plague your existence. Now if you want to keep the flying monkeys away, you can order your very own copy direct from Back Page Press, or your very own Amazon. And that’s .com, rather than any stray warrior maidens, who might or might not be able to acquire a copy for you, and ….
Crap. Never mind.
When we saw that the book was coming out, we got to thinking about what we would want to ask Hunter who, for those of you who are just emerging, bleary-eyed from under rocks and stuff, is a Scot journalist who covers the Beautiful Game and in particular, La Liga. His work is characterized by (okay, permit a little journalist-on-journalist pride here) wit, style and a fairness that, even despite him having written a book on the club, still never makes people accuse him of being a closet Cule. That’s saying something.
Anyhow, your mods put their brains together, of course minus my contribution, and we came up with a dozen questions to ask Hunter. Yes, there have been other Q-and-As with Hunter. Many of them, in fact. But this one is the best. Not because we’re beating our BFB chests, though that’s part of it. But Hunter provides some extraordinary insight into a club, debunks some myths and clears up many a misconception on the parts of your mods, fans and Cules everywhere. Because Hunter had a lot to say, we’ll offer the answer in two posts, today and tomorrow. So with no more mucking about ….
In terms of organizational models Barca is now almost synonymous with youth development and promotion, even though it’s a myth that this has been the focus of the club for a long time. The period after Cruijff left as manager was marked by a different model, that has only recently moved back toward internal development. What were the key drivers to moving the club back towards the internal youth development model? What lessons have been learned and have those lessons been assimilated into the operations and culture of the club? Is there a risk that the club again will again abandon this model and return to short-term thinking, and are there any safeguards to prevent this from happening?
Well, I don’t entirely agree with your premise. Especially when you say ‘the club’ What changed after Cruyff was sacked in 1996 was that the first team was coached by another former Ajax legend, Louis Van Gaal. He was responsible for the debuts of Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta and Valdés. What IS true is that both during his time in charge and when the club was managed by Serra Ferrer, Charly Rexach and Raddy Antic, the board consistently invested huge sums and huge wages in first team players who were, only rarely, worth that investment.
So the look of the first team changed and the policy at board level also changed. But what it is important to acknowledge is that the beauty of the Cantera/Futbol Base at Barcelona is that it hardly missed a beat between 1996 and now. The ethos never varied, the selection policy never varied, the training methods hardly varied and while there were occasional variations of formation the fact was that the youth system had all the consistency, intelligence, philosophy and success which the first team began to lack.
Two key factors drove the club back towards USING the youth talent better. One was the arrival of a young, Catalan, fresh-minded board between 2003 and 2010 which appointed Txiki Begiristain as director of football and which fought very hard indeed when Frank Rijkaard and Henk Ten Cate were minded to loan out players like Messi and Iniesta to gain more experience elsewhere. The board and Begiristain believed in promoting quality from the cantera and it became patently obvious that the latest candidates — Messi and Iniesta — possessed more than enough quality.
Factor two, obviously, was the arrival of Guardiola who a) absolutely believed in the concept of cantera and teaching players in-house so that they were perfect for the Barça style and b) who had just come from a year of getting to know kids like Busquets, Pedro, Jeffren and so on.
As to risk, well that always exists and it would be naive to deny it. The current President was, once, a believer in the team needing to be bigger and stronger. You would hope that he has enjoyed the intervening years sufficiently to change his perspective. However I must note that it was Sandro Rosell who backed Pep Guardiola’s initiative to make all the coaches in the youth system full time — a major financial investment.
What’s your view of the Qatar Foundation sponsorship in terms of its benefit or damage for the overall organization as well as its effect, if any, on what the club has traditionally stood for? Or does nobody care except militant socis?
OK. The first thing to say is that the Socis mass approved shirt sponsorship during the 2003 elections which brought Laporta to power, and then were offered the chance to re-approve or reject it during the first AGM held under the Laporta reign. As such the club and its Socis were ‘spoiled’ in that the first shirt ‘sponsor’ was a stroke of genius — Unicef being the brainchild of Ferran Soriano and Evarist Murtra. At first people didn’t understand it but the message of Barça paying money to benefit Unicef in order to earn having that logo on the shirt became ‘of the moment’. It was new, fresh, interesting and laudable.
There are some things about Qatar society which (having learned them since the ludicrous award of the 2022 world cup) I would want to distance myself were I in charge at Barça. And I was critical of FCB allowing themselves to be associated with a Foundation which helped fund a cleric whose teachings were abhorrent to right thinkers. That said, few sponsorships are perfect and FCB most certainly needed the income,
From your perspective, what role does Catalan identity politics play in the club’s philosophy, formation and/or outreach in the twenty-first century? How has it changed, if at all, from previous eras? Given Barcelona’s popularity throughout the world, how does Barcelona as a Catalan club relate to Barcelona as a global brand?
Well during the research for the book a former Vice President, Ferran Soriano, who I like and respect very much, told me that this whole idea of Catalan identity was something they thought long and hard about during the search for a sponsor. There is a very widespread philosophical importance placed on Barcelona as a Catalan club, as a Catalan icon and all the cultural packaging which goes with that. But Soriano admitted to me that during the Unicef discussions the club was well aware that Mes Que Un Club might be a declaration which is understood in Spain and in some of the other countries the FCB brand wanted to impact on but generally, in Thailand, US, Japan, India, China etc it was no more than a slogan which would mean little or nothing.
That was part of the idea of hitching their wagon to Unicef in that it is a world organisation and would communicate FCB values much more clearly. I’d like to believe that this club now has a more modern and open view of its Catalan identity in that sequentially since 2003, the Presidents and Vice Presidents have been Catalan and proud of that, but with world experience and a world outlook.
On the playing side there is no doubt in my mind that there has been an added value to the fact that so many of the first team are Catalan or feel that Catalunya is their home and that they understand the role the club plays in that society (Messi, Iniesta) — it has added unity and strength of purpose/spirit.
Many sports journalists describe “cycles” in a club. This season, for instance, many Spanish football fans view Real Madrid under José Mourinho as “coming into their own”, while Barcelona’s trajectory remains fluid. What happened this season, do you believe that the club will be able to sustain its record of excellence and if so, for how long?
FCB this season are a complex mix of slight relaxation, regular injuries, wafer-thin margins between winning and drawing and the head-on collision with a remorseless and very effective RM side in La Liga. From the outset I felt that the pre-season was much sloppier than previous summers, that the hangover from Wembley lasted too long and that this was the first season since the Guardiola era started when everyone got a big break — there was a collective sigh and a collective relaxation I think. Minor, very minor, but sufficient to drop the level slightly. I still firmly believe that had we not all been knocked over by the performances and stats of the last three FCB seasons then this term would be regarded as something close to vintage. Three trophies, several outstanding performances, three Clasico victories new players introduced into the squad via the market and the cantera — there has been huge achievement.
Guardiola can be taken at face value when he praises RM. They have a clearly evolved playing style, they are fitter, faster, more consistent, they are scoring more than last season, Mourinho has managed his squad and their motivation quite well and, the key, the Spanish players in the squad are absolutely driven by the idea of beating FCB to the big two tournaments. Re the FCB excellence. For so long as Guardiola stays in charge there will be an absolute emphasis on excellence and, generally, it will be achieved. Viz the long term, there is a bedrock of excellence in the first squad and coming through from the next two tiers of junior football. If FCB appoint intelligently when PG leaves I see no reason why Barça should not continue to be competitive and excellent. Thirteen trophies won out of a possible sixteen is, however, freakish and should not be the standard via which future ‘excellence’ is judged. (Editor’s note: AHEM!)
This concludes Part One. In Part Two, Hunter discusses big signings, flops, management styles and why David Villa is NOT a flop. See you all tomorrow.