Catalan cry

Barca: A People's Passion

Jimmy Burns <em>Bloomsbury, 366pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0747541957

Over the past decade, football has turned into a megalosaurus, oversized, unbalanced, aggressive and quarrelsome, its gargantuan feet blundering through the social strata. An ineluctable fact of the present is that the megalosaurus is now the subject of a more upmarket form of football writing: social and cultural criticism. Jimmy Burns's Barca: a people's passion is the latest example.

The book centres on the inseparability of FC Barcelona from the politics of Catalonia, with sufficient time given to matters of the playing field and politics/history to gratify both the football and the political bore. Burns takes as his theme the motto "Som mes que un club" ("We are more than a club"), interweaving Barca's footballing history into the fabric of 20th-century Spanish politics. The research is impressive. The author manages notable interviews with Frederick Witty, son of one of the Witty brothers, who, with the Swiss Hans Kamper, founded the club in 1899; the great Magyar midfielder Ladislao Kubala; the widow of Pepe Samitier, Barca's first big star in the 1920s; and Jose-Maria Minguella, the agent par excellence. The result of this rigorous investigation is a panorama of stories from all angles, among them the memorable anecdote that the maroon and blue shirts are almost certainly derived from the rugby shirts of Merchant Taylors', the Wittys' English public school.

The most compelling part of the book involves the Spanish civil war and the political chaos of the football clubs at this time - Josep Sunyol, Barca president and Catalan nationalist, was executed by fascist troops in 1936. The support of the republican movement in Barcelona resulted in reprisals from the fascists when the city was taken. Franco's repression of all things Catalan left FC Barcelona as the remaining expression of Catalan separatism; and the regime's favouritism for Real Madrid, allied to the decline of Espanol (the second team of the city of Barcelona, formed by Castilian immigrants), engendered the rivalry between the two clubs. I cannot think of any other fixture quite as resonant with politics and history as the Madrid-Barca "derby", save the "Old Firm" clash in Glasgow, but this is on a bigger scale: the Castilian ruling class against the Catalan separatists. Unsurprising, then, that when he took Barca to the championship in 1985, Terry Venables should remark: "I felt it had nothing to do with sport at all."

On the playing side, Burns's thoroughness impresses again. Chapters are devoted to influential players, the unfortunate coaches and the presidents. The interplay between the three is a wonderful collage of the farce and absurdity that must characterise any football club, the president unhappily tottering on the precipice of chance that is a game of football. The names are from the pantheon of footballing heavyweights: Samitier, Kubala, his fellow Magyars Kocsis and Czibor, Cruyff, Steve Archibald, Ronaldo; the coaches include Herrera, Menotti, Bobby Robson, the forgotten Vic Buckingham and Cruyff again, whose popularity could never decline once he named his son Jordi after the patron saint of Catalonia.

Burns is well informed on them all, especially so on the politicking and machinations that characterise the underworld of the transfer market. This is illustrated in his account of a player who never played for Barca - the Argentinian Alfredo di Stefano, perhaps the greatest of them all. Barcelona and Madrid had been trying to sign him for over four years, and a compromise was reached that he would play two seasons for each club. This was rejected by the Catalans, and los meringues subsequently won five European Cups under his leadership and brilliance.

There is the occasional slip: does Burns really believe that George Graham and Howard Kendall had serious reputations as coaches in 1984 and were rivals to Venables? Is the ground Les Corts or Las Corts? Why does a caption to a photograph of Ronaldo holding up the Cup Winners' Cup describe it as the European Cup? No matter. Well researched and documented, the book will provide matter for anyone interested in football and the use of football for political ends. Perhaps FC Barcelona is "mes que un club". Oddly, having read the book, it seemed like any other: irrational fans with impossible expectations, an empty, morbid stadium in poor seasons (Archibald found it numb compared to White Hart Lane during a European semi-final), dejection in defeat, exhilaration in victory, heads rolling as the president clutches to power - the usual. Barca is big, possibly the most glamorous club of all, but it is out of proportion; the only problem is that books such as this, despite its quality, serve to glamorise what is ultimately a trivial game. The megalosaurus has grown a bit more. But who will slay the beast?

Henry Sheen is a philosopher and essayist