Book Reviews

More than a football club

B. Baskar | Updated on: Dec 15, 2021
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The story of FC Barcelona’s ascent and descent

FC Barcelona’s journey as a major global footballing juggernaut is inextricably linked with Dutch legend Johann Cryuff’s career and personality. So in a sense Simon Kuper’s  ‘Barca: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Football Club’,  is as much about Cryuff as it is about FC Barcelona. There is an entire section with four chapters dedicated to Cryuff in the book.

Josep Guardiola, player and later coach, says that it was Cryuff who built the ‘cathedral of football’ at Barcelona.

The other central figure in Barcelona’s story is Lionel Messi.

Barcelona is a club that is supported by its legions of ‘socis’ – dues paying club members – and its solidly bourgeois (Burgesia) directors.

Kuper says today’s FC Barcelona is at once an uniquely global club as well as intensely parochial. The club’s board has always been filled with local Catalan speaking ‘Burgesia’.

Till the 1970s FC Barcelona was very much living under the shadow of their more illustrious rivals Real Madrid. During the 1950s and 1960s the club even suffered from an inferiority complex, thanks to Real Madrid’s stupendous success both in Spain and Europe during that era.

All that changed after Dutch legend Johann Cryuff, with his rockstar looks and image, joined the club in 1973. Cryuff and coach Rinus Michels (who preceded him at Barca) wedded FC Barcelona forever with the revolutionary ‘Total football’. It was during Cryuff’s time at the club that the Barca-Real Madrid rivalry became the ‘El Classico’.

After his playing days, Cryuff was to return as Barcelona’s coach in 1988, the crowning glory being Barcelona’s first ever European title 1992 at Wembley. It was under Cryuff’s stint that Josep Guardiola came into his own and would later coach Barca so successfully.

Kuper spends a considerable part of the book describing the ‘Masia’, FC Barcelona’s famed football academy and how the club's golden generation – Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique and Victor Valdes – came out of it. It was here in the academy that Cryuffian football was refined and perfected.

Kuper describes in detail how the academy is run, the role of coaches, and other staff and how academics was given equal importance as only a small fraction of the trainees would end up having a career as professional footballers. The staff would go the extra mile to create a ‘home away from home’ for the trainees.

FC Barcelona’s golden era began in 2008 when much against expectations an inexperienced and untested ‘Pep’ Guardiola was named coach – and what an inspired decision that turned out to be. Guardiola’s reign coincided with the incredible talent from the academy moving into the first team to win many a league and Champion’s League Title – the piece-de-resistance being the victory over Manchester United at Wembley at the 2011 Champion’s League final. It was in this era that Barca truly became a global entity and at the heart of it was Lionel Messi with his extraordinary skills and talent.

But this talented bunch of players – much like the West Indies cricket team of the 1980s – was a once-in-a-generation event. Kuper says the Barcelona board took success for granted and became lazy. Once the talent supply from the academy started drying up and the effects were there for all to see.

Barca rode on Messi’s superstar status, earning billions through its global merchandise sales. But the seeds of Barca’s decline later were also sown in this era, as the club that once championed a collective identity under Cryuff became increasingly reliant on Messi – both on and off the pitch.

Kuper pulls no punches while dissecting the tragicomic saga of Messi’s departure from Barca. This delightful book is as engrossing as an ‘El Classico’.

Footnote : Just last week, after 18 years Barcelona will not feature in Champions League’s knock-out stages. Things can’t possibly get more bleak at the Nou Camp.

(B Baskar is a senior journalist with The Hindu Business Line) About the Book

 Barca: The Inside Story of The World's Greatest Football Club

Simon Kuper

Hachette India

Rs 799; 360 pages

Check out the book at Amazon

Published on December 15, 2021

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