Far-fetched? Completely incredulous? Well, it very nearly happened. It’s not long ago since McLeish, cannily exploiting his relationship with then-Barcelona number two Henk ten Cate, almost pulled off the transfer coup of this or any century. We know Messi to Rangers was a live possibility, not an urban myth of the type, which once had Brazil’s Socrates togging out for University College Dublin, because it is diligently reported in a fascinating new book on the Catalan institution. In “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World”, Graham Hunter, a Scottish journalist based in Barcelona, offers a revealing and instructive glimpse behind the curtain.
In a week when player power contributed to the departure of Andre Villas-Boas from Chelsea, it’s heartening to read about how Guardiola treats and is treated by his galaxy of stars, all of whom shine that bit more brightly than the over-rated triumvirate of Lampard, Cole and Terry. The Barcelona players evince humility and appear to worship the boss. Equally, he appears to cherish them, crucially without ever compromising his authority. The manner in which he jettisons anybody who doesn’t buy into his program is especially pleasing.
In this regard, the cases of Alexander Hleb and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are particularly instructive. One doesn’t turn up for training on time or in the right frame of mind and soon finds himself on the way to Birmingham City. The other doesn’t appreciate Barcelona having a way of playing that demands he runs around a bit more than he wants to and is soon flying back to Serie A.
As a resident of the city, Hunter is immersed in the place, the club and the culture. This makes him uniquely qualified to tell this story and he does the job in fantastic detail. Aside from nuggets of insider information that speckle the narrative, there is also superb technical analysis of the games. Indeed, Hunter offers the kinds of insight into memorable goals and cameos from the past few years that will send you scurrying to YouTube to watch them all over again, now equipped with more understanding of how and why stuff happened.
Aside from brilliantly reporting the protracted saga that was Messi’s move from Argentina to Spain (including a magnificent cameo involving a contract being signed on a napkin), and repeatedly celebrating the greatness of the current side, Hunter goes much deeper into the evolution of Barcelona over the past quarter of a century. He deftly explains the enduring influence of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels on the style of play while touching on the nefarious politicking at board level.
“Pass precisely, move well, pass again, pass, pass and pass,” he says. “I want every move to be smart – that’s how we make the difference from the rest of the teams, that’s all I want to see.”
Guardiola offers that advice when in charge of Barca B, but that’s exactly the same regime he operates with the A team. As Hunter points out and as we all love to tell our kids, watch how often his players go for the simple pass rather than the complicated one.
Indeed, that sort of material is why this is a book to hand to any child who plays the game of soccer and is old enough to read. If they are interested in the game at all, they probably already salivate every time Barcelona are on their television screens. This tome will allow kids to see the success is no accident, a savage work ethic underpins all the talent, and everything comes down to one essential thing. A man can have no greater love than to give 90 minutes for his friends. I’m not sure whether that quote was the work of Brian Clough or the Irish punk combo, The Sultans of Ping FC. Whatever the provenance, it perfectly sums up this Barcelona.
Graham Hunter’s “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World” is published by Backpage Press and is available wherever books are sold.