The Lords of the Ball – J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legacy and FC Barcelona

The unlikeliest confluence of FC Barcelona with JRR Tolkien’s works of high fantasy. Join us, as we throw light upon the beauty of sheer “pedantry” and legacy.
The Lords of the Ball - J.R.R. Tolkien's Legacy and FC Barcelona
The Tolkienian Legendarium of FC Barcelona. Illustration by Charbak Dipta.

In the summer of 1930, somewhere in North Oxford in the United Kingdom, a 40-year-old Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was wrecking his nerves over a stack of examination papers when he penned, on the back of one of those bothersome documents, one of the most popular sentences in English literature:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Meanwhile, more than fifteen-hundred kilometers away from Oxford, in the Catalan city of Barcelona, a football club was standing at the threshold of a socio-political turmoil brewing within their region.

The members of Football Club Barcelona were no hole-dwellers. Nor did their years of toil and danger commence with the arrival of an old wizard and an unexpected party of dwarves. In fact, it was the heartbreaking loss of the one who marked the beginning of their years of struggle: the unfortunate demise of Joan Gamper, the Club’s founder.

Nevertheless, when the Club made their commitment to social, political and cultural reform public, the declaration had as much an element of bravado as displayed by a certain Bilbo Baggins in Professor Tolkien’s tale. The Club’s official newsletter in October 1932 had established the popular sentiment that Barça were indeed more than a club with words that ran in the following fashion:

“Our club’s popularity undeniably includes elements that are not related to sport.”

In the years to come, all of it would fall into place to become part of the epic legendarium that FC Barcelona have been building. Football, of course, is at the heart of it. For all who arrive within the footballing realms of Barça, the sport itself gradually transforms into a form of artistic expression. That Barça are the flag-bearers of Catalan nationalism is a fact that dominates general belief; but that their football reflects the very sentiments of the people they represent, is a detail that lies for the poets and the artists to capture.

“It is natural that when a region is silenced it turns to football.”

– Simon Kuper in his book Football Against the Enemy

In 2001, about twenty-eight years since Tolkien’s demise, a New York Times book-reviewer pointed out the sheer “pedantry” in the Professor’s creations, adding to the not-so-vast anti-Tolkien lobby that finds itself perplexed with the author’s obsession with detail.

A few of that lot have given wings to their own creations, with much less grandiose and even lesser attention to detail to proclaim their flagship “coming-out-of-Tolkien’s-shadow” club. It does the job – for the sustenance of world literature at least.  But the Professor’s legendarium still manages to outshine most of it. And it does so with the very pedantry that irks the anti-Tolkien folks and makes an addictive opiate out of the reader’s patience.

Now, picture the players of FC Barcelona passing around amongst themselves a spherical piece of synthetic leather. The orb one calls a football is the object of desire here, and yet it is hurled across the length and breadth of a green turf from one man to the other. There’s another group of 11 men sharing the same pitch, their brows knit with concentration in an attempt to decipher the movement of the ball. One can tell that they are eager to claim it but the men in the blue-and-red shirts haven’t allowed their rivals’ booted feet a touch of their most prized possession. On the sidelines is the rival coach who’s running out of nails to chew upon, frustrated by the sheer “pedantry” with which Barça have been building their play.

Each little flick of the ball means something when the Blaugranes have possession, and their opponents know it all too well. Once in a while, the ball-bereft men will even try something out of the ordinary to step out of Barça’s shadow, like breaking formation and huddling up to crowd a key player to stop him from passing anymore – an action lacking grandiose and an eye for detail. Two times out of ten the huddling would do the job of getting the ball, but more often than not, Barça will manage to shine through most of it. A tiny gap in the opponents’ breaking ranks is blank parchment for Barça to write a climax, the arrival of which would appear to be all too inevitable when the unfortunate opponents would sit down to run a replay of their 90 minutes with FC Barcelona as if to figure out where the hell did they go wrong.

They will eventually realize that the beauty is in the intricacy of it all, a virtue that stems from struggle and mishap. And as improbable as it might seem, this is where a Catalan football club and a British writer of high fantasy come closest to each other in the most unlikely of confluences.

In a letter written to Herbert Schiro on 17 November 1957, Tolkien had mentioned that his tale was not really about Power and Dominion before he went on to reveal that “it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness.” At three, he had lost his father to rheumatic fever. When he was 12, acute diabetes claimed his mother’s life. During the First World War, he enlisted in the British army, surviving the War through trench fever that got him away from the combat zone. Years later, Tolkien would recall, “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

Tolkien’s legendarium had Elves that embodied the concept of deathlessness through their “serial longevity” of life. In Barcelona, it is football that has remained timeless.

Barça’s period of turmoil and instability included Joan Gamper’s death, the arrival of the Second Spanish Republic, the Spanish Civil War and the assassination of the Club’s president Josep Sunol. Let’s just say that these series of events took the most out of Barça. Under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the Camp Nou was the only place in Catalonia where the Catalans could speak their regional tongue. Naturally, it was football that would become a primary form of expression for a suppressed population.

Historically, the Club were not the best of performers – something that came automatically with a dictator’s fascist policies.

In his book Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, Phil Ball takes note of Barca’s years of failure through the successes of the other club from Barcelona, Espanyol.

“It should come as no surprise,” Ball writes, “that their [Espanyol’s] brief golden era coincided with the period in which their city neighbours were still trying to play the game with a ball and chain attached to one foot, their best players exiled, their president a Madridista stooge, their language banned and their every attempt to reconstitute the club viewed as a political act.”

However, despite all of this, once Barça began the process of steadying themselves through football, they never looked back. And ever since, the ideology they have towards this sport is as much an embodiment of deathlessness as Tolkien’s Elves. It is therefore natural for FC Barcelona to have their own pantheon of Elven kings and lords walking tall and proud among the Catalans, which in fact, they did.

Of the coming of Elves in the fictional world he fabricated, Tolkien wrote of how the elegant beings “walked the Earth in wonder” and “began to make speech” in a land so far bereft of such voices. The author went on to attribute the creation of music to the Firstborn of the Elves, mentioning how their singing filled even the gods with wonder, compelling one of those higher powers – a huntsman of sorts – to get off his horse and simply sit and listen.

Between the fabrication that belongs to Tolkien and the concrete actuality that is embodied in the Camp Nou, there is little difference. For along the stands of Barca’s cathedral there echoes a name pronounced with as much reverence as Tolkien endowed his Firstborn Elves with. After all, Johan Cruyff was the Elven King who made music out of Barca’s football and was the primary theme of the most romantic chapters in the Club’s legendarium.

As a player, the Dutchman was the marvel of Catalonia, but as a manager, he achieved heights that for many may as well stand right next to godliness. His involvement in the Catalan catharsis through the 5-0 rout of Real Madrid during the 1973-74 season may be counted as his tribute to the spirit of an oppressed Catalonia; however, it was his Dream Team that can definitely be perceived as his Elven homage to the footballing world.

Cruyff has long departed to the Undying Lands, where all the High Elves go, but Barca’s legendarium has carried on.  Through many a Cruyff turn and elastico, and across a series of magical la croquetas and impish body feints, the epic has only grown into unprecedented proportions. What has remained constant over the years is one thing: beautiful football, during the course of which the players have played varying yet similar parts. Over the changing ages, little has changed between the times when the duo of Koeman and Bokero would pounce upon an opponent who dared approach a fragile Guardiola and the times when the men in blue-and-red shirts surround an opponent to give the poor bloke a piece of their mind for a rash tackle on the likes of either Iniesta or Messi.  

Like the Dream Team of old, they still write romantic verses upon the grassy turf with nifty touches on the ball and graceful movements off it. Almost with the stealth of a hobbit, one is compelled to think, until the moment comes when the parchment needs to be double- folded and tucked into a scented envelope.

The final act unfolds with the swiftness of the dove’s flight, accompanied by the sighs of doting lovers even as the noisier spectators watch on with resounding “oohs” and “aahs”, providing a sort of musical backdrop to the solitary second that a lean and tall Busquets uses to twist away from an opponent; a crescendo of claps join in when Jordi Alba mimics lightning as he sprints towards the opponents’ half in the left flank; heartbeats do a drum roll as Iniesta conjures a spell from over the midfield, and the rules of physics are shattered as Lionel Messi tears through the ranks of the opponent and sends the ball rolling past the man between the posts.

It’s almost like sending sweet love letters to the back of the net.

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Piyush Bisht

Penman. Journalist. Playmaker. Spends a pretty hobbit-like lifestyle speckled with either creative foolhardiness or slothish procrastination