Barca: The Making Of The Greatest Team In The World – Graham Hunter
Graham Hunter’s Barca: The Making Of The Greatest Team In The World is about how this world-beater team evolved and became so successful. In the process, we also get insights into Barcelona’s history, about former presidents and vice-presidents and what led to the birth of the idea the current Barca philosophy is based around. The focus is on the members of the current team, Pep Guardiola (a fascinating chapter on his Barca journey as a player and then a coach) and of course Johan Cruyff, without whom none of this would have been possible.
“This current Barca team also carries the Cruyff DNA in their genes. The way they practice and train, the way they play…the way they feel that creative football and entertaining the crowd is as important as winning …Without Cruyff, no dream team. No dream team, no total football. No tiki-taka, no Rijkaard, Laporta and without Cruyff and Rexach, Guardiola wouldn’t have made it into the first team.”
Hunter is a sports writer who moved to Barcelona in 2001, and has the distinction of being the only English speaking journalist to have ever interviewed Pep Guardiola during his time as Barcelona coach. He is also, more importantly, a true cule, a passionate fan of the club, and this combined with his footballing acumen make for a very interesting and mostly enjoyable read. It isn’t without flaws but the positives easily overweigh them and I’ll get there later.
The seeds for the current Barca success were sown back in 1989 when Cruyff restructured Barca’s La Masia Youth Academy (which was nowhere near the institution it is now). The 3-4-3 formation was compulsory, the keeper was urged to be a pro-active field player, one touch was introduced, as was the insistent now-trademark forward pressing after losing possession. All the boys were rigorously trained in ball possession, quick ball control and motivated to try out things. Cruyff also deemed that the exceptional ones should be put in teams with older boys to develop their play and resilience, and made the La Masia coaches fully professional. Unsurprisingly the prolific Dutchman features prominently throughout this book right from his time as a Barca player, to his reign as a savior coach before being unceremoniously (and wrongfully) sacked, and his even more triumphant return to save the club from the steep decline during Rijkaard’s later years.
Just as the Barca success and brand is based around a foundation of values and principles, this book revolves around certain core elements, moments, people who bind together the continuing narrative of the Catalan club and play an integral part in its success, philosophy and history. The main narrative is interspersed with player biographies and detailed discussions/match reports about key fixtures from their journey to becoming Champions League winners for the second time in 3 seasons. While this is a very interesting way to structure the book, it can be a little bit confusing for the narrative to keep moving back and forth in a very non-linear fashion. This might seem like a mere quibble given the very compelling content that makes you want to read more, but having to back-track in order to find your bearings does slow down the process of reading.
However it becomes less noticeable because Hunter has a very engaging style of writing that creates a vivid sense of place, atmosphere and character. He explores and reveals many interesting anecdotes from on the field and behind the scenes, including how close young and emerging talents Messi and Andres Iniesta came to going on a season loan to the then Alex McLeish managed Rangers, or how Jose Mourinho almost got the job as Barca manager before Guardiola. He reveals how Pep Guardiola nearly took up the managerial position at Paul Jewell’s Wigan before Barcelona came calling! And how players like Busquets and Pedro would never have made it into the Barca first team, if not for Guardiola (who himself massively owes Cruyff), similarly with small but intensely creative and talented players like Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and Messi. There is also much about the club’s deep rivalry with Real Madrid.
The player interviews are really interesting and give you a real insight into the very different pieces that make up the puzzle at Camp Nou. We get a rare peek into their personal lives, their families, their upbringing and of course their struggles to make it at Barca. We also get a sense of the collective spirit and psychology of the players, and the Cruyff philosophy improvised and improved upon by Guardiola. It fits in well with Hunter’s descriptions of Guardiola and his coaching staff’s meticulous training sessions with the first team squad, the hard work, perfection and extreme professionalism demanded from the players and already practised by their manager.
One of the most insightful chapters is the one detailing the strong friendship between two unlikely, opposite personalities – Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. Pique in particular is very articulate and we get a closer look at the unity that binds not just this centre-back pairing but also the rest of the squad. Hunter even brings up an important point when discussing the political and cultural dynamics in the Spanish national team – the importance of the friendship and mutual respect between Xavi, a Catalan and Casillas, a staunch Madridista.
Another particularly enjoyable chapter was the one devoted to the cantera, the Barca youth system’s structure and functions, how the boys are trained in the Barca philosophy so that it seeps into their DNA, their use of the rondo as an integral training drill and more. It also includes mentions of friendships and relationships that evolved within the system and still exist to this day, only increasing the great dynamic present in the current squad in spite of all the pressures. The writer has a great knack of weaving together all the different strands of a story into a tapestry that does full justice to his subject material.
There is also elaboration on the not-as-nice subjects like the Ibrahimovic disaster, the decline of Rijkaard’s reign and the weight thrown around by stars like Ronaldinho, Deco, Eto’o, the disagreements between Laporta and Rosell, and between Rosell and Cruyff (that resulted in the latter being stripped of his honorary position on Barca’s board of directors), as well as how Eto’o proved to Pep that he was worth keeping but eventually had to be let go, among other things. Txiki Bergiristain (the then football director) and vice presidents, Marc Ingla and Ferran Soriano form important parts of the main narratives, as do former presidents Joan Gaspart, Joan Laporta and current president, Sandro Rosell, as well as Charly Rexach.
However Barca: The Making Of The Greatest Team In The World isn’t a strictly objective view. (The title can tell you as much!) The writer’s aim is to trace the roots of Barca’s current success and he doesn’t move away from it. It isn’t a problem because Hunter has plenty of evidence to back up his points whenever necessary and makes a lucid, non-biased case for the main story of the narrative. But the book on a whole has a tendency to go into hyperbole at times, with the writer’s obvious passion for the club transforming into a worshipful attitude that slightly mars the enjoyment derived from the actual emotions and stories which are already interesting enough.
There is also a feeling that some of the other lesser-known players were more of an afterthought. There are mentions of Busquets, of Abidal’s inspirational recovery from illness, of Valdes as a kid at La Masia, but they seem fleeting and you want more. Another point that makes its absence felt is a mention of the stark financial gap between Barca, Real Madrid and the rest of the La Liga and how that was an importance factor in Barcelona being able to achieve all that they have. But as pointed out before, the positives far outweigh the negatives and this remains a very enjoyable and informative read for any football fan, so go pick it up if you haven’t!