–Did you know that Jose Mourinho came thisclose to being our coach instead of Pep Guardiola?
–Or that we almost screwed up in the case of a kid named Lionel Messi?
–How about that a lesser player’s situation gifted us with Andres Iniesta?
–Hmmmm, maybe you’d be surprised to learn that La Masia wasn’t always La Masia?
For those who might have been living under a rock or something, a book about our beloved club came out in February: “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World,” written by footy journalist and La Liga big brain Graham Hunter. We did a Q&A with Hunter, which you can read here and here.
The book came together through an extraordinary series of interviews, background conversations, personal observations and data objective and subjective, with an aim at giving interested readers the best chronicling of this extraordinary team.
Now this is a pretty neat trick, given that there aren’t really that many books about this assemblage of players and its coach, which surprises me, for the simple reason that there’s money in that there Blaugrana.
Now my assertions of lucre-seeking won’t shock anyone, since I can state with a fair degree of certainty that Hunter and Back Page Press aren’t doing this as an act of altruism. But where most books that come together in an effort to hitch themselves to a lightning bolt are craptastic, thrown-together things, this book is a very good work of journalism, that needs to be on the reading list of everyone who is at all interested in our club.
There’s a lot that informed cules already know, but there’s also a lot that we didn’t know, all presented with precious little nonsense. One might argue that the full, unalloyed Champions League rant by Pep Guardiola, presented in its uncensored, properly translated glory, is alone worth the price of the book. That’s something that’s difficult to argue against.
But the cradle-to-grave chronicling of this club, from futbol base to complete, world-killing colossus, is exceptional as well as exceptionally informative. That’s a pretty neat trick to pull off about such an extensively covered, all-consuming subject such as FCB.
Hunter isn’t a cule, and I don’t even think he’s a fan of the club. He set out to, in his words, “chronicle the manner in which this squad, under a brilliant man, Pep Guardiola, proved that they have been the greatest team in the world between 2008 and publication (of this book) in 2012.” And further, that “Barca regularly produce football which is uplifting to the spirit.”
This is what fascinates me about this book, one which I’m sure has marked Hunter as a cule to many a person, supporter or otherwise. But in fact Hunter is fascinated with a phenomenon. Just as people came to the club for Ronaldinho or Messi, many are attracted to Barca because of the football, the world-beating nature of its cadre of wee ones, who are passing their way into hearts, minds and history. It would have been easy to deliver a sop of a “Boy, aren’t they great tome” that pleased one and all, but Hunter (usually) doesn’t do that, which brings me to one of my nits to pick with this book.
Effusion needs balance
Barca can speak for itself. Yet there are times when Hunter, for reasons of setting the hook, veers into hyperbole. This is fine, because it isn’t a work of pure, objective journalism, but it strikes me as excessive at times. In the opening “Road To Wembley” chapter, no fewer than ten different football greats are cited, all saying that Barca is among the best clubs that they have ever seen, all in slightly different ways. Is ten too much? Good question. For me, it was, because I was interested in the part that comes next: How it happened.
It is this that is one of the best parts of the book, because he takes us behind the scenes of a club that set its collective jaws and, driven by what the feeling of losing in the Copa final to Real Madrid (Note: For the rest of March, for that lovely, lovely gesture by the club and its players toward Eric Abidal in particular, the Evil Empire will be called by its real name.), went on to take care of business in a way that culminated in a blizzard of expressive, dominant football that the entire world saw.
He builds the road to Wembley and that Champions League final, brick by brick, from that Copa defeat, to Osasuna, to all the rest. We learn that the club wanted to sit there on the pitch, watching the opponent celebrate, to understand, to set the hook, to build the desire for more, the desire to never, ever have that happen again. This book is built on moments such as this, behind-the-scenes tidbits that make the results make perfect sense.
But again, there’s that setting the hook a little too deeply. The Wembley chapter has a wonderful comment from Manel Estiarte, that makes it clear why everything works. It ends perfectly. Hunter, however, chooses to have the last word, telling you what you have already read, in effect. Not necessary, and it also dilutes the power of the Estiarte comments, to my view. Is it off-putting or annoying, to a degree sufficient to make anyone reconsider the book? No. But it’s worth noting.
That tendency to restate the obvious rears its head on more than a few occasions, such as when Hunter relates the story of a player who injured himself as a child, playing the game he loved. “Tough lad, that ….” isn’t necessary. It’s clear from the story told, and its context. Moments such as those made the editor in me roll my eyes, even as I flipped the page like an addict looking for his next fix.
Because what Hunter has done with this book is create a true page-turner. It isn’t a mystery or thriller, because it’s impossible to make events that have already transpired a mystery. I always wonder how people who made the film “The Right Stuff” thought about trying to build the “Did he or didn’t he die” suspense around test pilot Chuck Yeager, who was all over TV at the time the film came out, doing commercials for AC Delco batteries. And yet, just as they pulled it off, Hunter manages to make you interested in a subject that you already know about. He does this by being a journalist, a chronicler of events, but events that you didn’t know about.
La Masia wasn’t always the wonderful thing that it is. Johan Cruijff had a huge hand in creating it, making it so, even as he was being treated shabbily by the club. And even when the club was going through its “Anybody except our boys” phase, La Masia kept on track, churning out little diamonds. Hunter tells the stories of many of these players, going behind the scenes about how Andres Iniesta benefited from a then equally talented friend; how the club almost screwed up with a young player named Lionel Messi, how a board member took it upon himself to start making good on the compact the club had with the player, as the board had precious little seeming interest in doing so.
It is this kind of information that makes this book such a delight, even through cringe-inducing moments such as the sentence, “All hail El Guaje. In fact, no — Viva Villa!”
Interspersed with chapters about aspects of the club and its immense recent success, chapters that build joy and suspense by using valuable information, are segments on “making-of” matches, important moments chosen by Hunter that illustrate key moments in the success of the club. There are the tests by Shahtar Donetsk, the Clasics, the Liga matches that dangled failure over a precipice, every important match in an array of successes that make the excellence of this group sound logical, like it makes sense. The right things get the right amount of weight, at the right times. Messi and Guardiola get more page space, and they should. But you also get to know Dani Alves, and Hunter’s view on his value to the club.
This isn’t some starry-eyed tome, despite my editor’s nit-picking. Hunter doesn’t have kind words to say about the Eto’o-for-Ibrahimovic deal, the way in which Ronaldinho let himself go, or the tiff between Rosell and Cruijff that has resulted in one of the most important architects of the club’s success taking his talents to Chivas instead of keeping them at home, where they belong. And yet, you shouldn’t go into this book thinking that it is an objective piece of journalism. Far from it. Hunter has a point of view, as differentiated from a bias. And he isn’t shy about letting you know exactly what that point of view is.
You get the roundabout path of Pep Guardiola back to the club he was seemingly born to coach, a compare/contract of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, the Odd Couple of the back line. You get the doubts, the flirtations with Mourinho and the board’s unanimous “feeling” (that word …. oh, that word) about a coach who, despite his successes past and present, didn’t seem the right man for the Barca leadership role.
Hunter is best when he doesn’t get in the way of the story, something that he doesn’t do in many of the player profile chapters. At times, Hunter sounds like a fan. The cule and soci in me likes that. The cranky editor in me wishes for more distance during those moments. Is Hunter’s approach perfectly fine in the context of the book’s stated mission? Absolutely. Does it strike the ear incongruously, given the painstaking efforts that Hunter does make to deliver all the information that he can to help his readers understand exactly how this wonder of a club was built? Absolutely, again …. to me.
When there is information, a story to be told and a hungry journalist willing to tell it, Hunter’s book crosses the line into extraordinary. His chapters on La Masia and the club’s futbol base are an absolute delight, from beginning to end. You can actually see our little wonders being shaped, now and for the future, the way they are all taught to play, the ones who make it and the ones who don’t and further, exactly why they didn’t make it, are all here. And it’s wonderful.
This club, in a recent match, had 9 graduates from La Masia in the starting XI. And it kicked the crap out of its opponent. That is spectacular, a feat unrivaled by any club. Hunter makes it all make sense, even the value of losing for players who can get so used to winning that they get complacent, and stop doing the things that brought them such glory.
No, there isn’t as much on the Rosell/Laporta time and falling out as I would have liked, but as a voracious consumer of that information then and now, my filters are a bit finer. Hunter makes it all make sense. You understand why and how it happened, how Sandro Rosell went from a valued member of the Joan Laporta regime, one that turned around the moribund fortunes of the club to glorious effect, to an enemy of the ex-president. Do you find yourself wishing that some of the sources were better? Yes, even as they were the players on the scene at the time.
But when failed presidential candidate Marc Ingla has unkind words to say about Rosell, they might be true, but the more you know about matters, the more you want a true outsider speaking on the matter. Is this impossible, given that an true outsider wouldn’t have the same level of access and information? Absolutely. And it is probably true that Ingla’s words are truthful and from the heart. They give amazing insight into so many aspects of that time that shaped the destiny of the club at that time and in the present, making any seeming perspective flaws easily forgivable.
There’s even the text of Rosell’s letter of resignation which, then as now, makes me want to grab a table leg and get on a plane to Barcelona. Hunter just presents it, and lets his readers make up their own minds.
This last bit for me, is ultimately why I recommend this book so highly, even as I lay out its very few flaws. It is a sterling work of journalism. Guilty of a bit of excess? It happens. But “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World” does exactly what it set out to do, which is give a window into a remarkable time in the history of this delight of a football club. Cules will love it, casual fans will love it, neutrals will find it as informative as those who think they know the club inside and out. It makes something seemingly absurd and meteoric as a club becoming one of the best, if not the best football club in history, make perfect sense. Which, when you think about it, is pretty remarkable.
Recommended without hesitation, it goes without saying.
BFB will, once we figure out how to do it, raffle off this signed copy of the Hunter Barca book. So stay tuned for that. It goes without saying that only BFB family members, registered as of today, will have the opportunity.