Thursday, March 1, 2012
Dennis J. Seese
The rich, colourful tradition of Spanish football journalism and the garbled, secondhand reverberations of what journals like El Pais are writing make me curse the inadequate retention of my high school Spanish on a day-to-day basis. Especially since the tale of the astonishingly graceful and relentless march to greatness being forged by today's FC Barcelona has been crying out for a proper, comprehensive English language chronicle/celebration for some time now, as global admiration for the Catalan juggernaut only deepens.
Enter veteran football journalist and ESPN.com contributor Graham Hunter, a Barcelona resident who has gained privileged access to the club at essentially every level over the past decade. This access has allowed Hunter a unique vantage point from which to provide a probing, wide-angle view of the levers and gears that constitute the formidable Barca machine in his new book Barca - The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.
Hunter traces of the origins of the current team back to 1988, the year that marked the return of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff to Camp Nou. As Barcelona coach, Cruyff built and guided what is known in football lore as 'The Dream Team', a side featuring Pep Guardiola that would famously win the European Cup in 1992. But, as Hunter contends, Cruyff's most important and lasting contribution from this era was his insistence on restructuring the entire Barca cantera (youth system) to uniformly adopt and instil the philosophies and techniques underpinning the beautiful, attacking, one-touch possession-based style of football that would become Barca's trademark in the modern era. In a relationship that holds many parallels to that of his own with Rinus Michels, Cruyff's vision and philosophy would prove hugely influential in the development of Guardiola. Hunter cites Cruyff's decision to promote Guardiola from the cantera in 1990 as a pivotal moment in the historical trajectory of the club. The decision vindicated Cruyff's insistence on implementing dramatic, systemic changes to the youth system when Pep quickly became a catalyst for The Dream Team's success on his way to building an iconic Barcelona playing career.
One of the book's major strengths is the voluminous number of interviews with everyone from Xavi to ex-director of football Txiki Begiristain. Hunter's interviews with Xavi, including one conducted in the dressing room after last year's Champions League final, are fascinating and fluid (like his playing style). They cover everything from the difficulty he had adapting to first-team life, his friendship with Iker Casillas and, of course, his legendary obsession with accumulating touches and controlling the ball. The story of Xavi's early struggles with the widely-held perception that he was Guardiola's replacement in the waning days of Pep's Barca career is repeated often, but Hunter is able to draw new details and observations from his subject, including an admission that the Spanish maestro once gave serious thought to a transfer to Old Trafford. The political dynamics represented by the Xavi and Casillas friendship offers an illuminating glimpse into the multifaceted identities of the Spanish national team, including the cultural divides it can sometimes overcome.
The chapter on the friendship between Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol is an excellent access point into the collective psychology of the team. Hunter deftly weaves together interviews - Pique is particularly articulate and willing to open up - with biographical sketches of the two men to establish for the reader a tangible sense of the unity and closeness exhibited between members of this extraordinary squad.
Barca - The Making of the Greatest Team in the World contains unique features such as 'Making-of matches' - a selection of momentous matches, briefly recounted by Hunter, who underlines their significance to Barca's growth. The book also includes numerous appendices, most notably the list of 'Hiring Criteria' for Frank Rijkaard's replacement.
Hunter examines Barca's rise from every angle and manages, ultimately, to strike a delicate balance between wise football writing and perceptive portraiture that makes for a compelling read.