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28 July 2021

How FC Barcelona turned an alternative club culture into sporting genius

Barça’s history comes wrapped in legends – or are they myths? 

By Ed Smith

Culture, according to Raymond Williams, is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. In the 40 years since his judgement, culture has expanded into yet more opaque territory. Management gurus and sports coaches, even those with the best intentions, haven’t made the term any easier to define. The more we talk about “team culture” the harder it is to capture.

Culture is the subliminal theme of Simon Kuper’s new book Barça: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Football Club. Barcelona’s best performances during the era of Lionel Messi, their star player, probably amount to the technical, tactical and aesthetic high point of football’s history. Writing that list of descriptors, the term “moral” hovered in my mind. But can there be a superior or elevating way of kicking a ball into a net?

Barcelona’s history comes wrapped in legends – or are they myths? Is the club a democratic bastion against Franco’s Spain? (Up to a point, though Kuper argues that the godfather of modern Barcelona, Johan Cruyff, who was Dutch, had little objection to Francoist rule; he wondered in his memoir: “What is fascist?”) A last stand of non-commercial values in a sports landscape obsessed with the bottom line? If it ever was, it is no longer: the club’s shirt logo changed from “Unicef” to “Qatar Foundation” in 2011, and has remained commercial since. Barcelona present themselves as “more than a club” but lined up in favour of the European Super League.

Kuper, who writes a socio-political weekly column for the Financial Times, has long been in love with Barcelona. Cruyff was his first hero. But Kuper’s inside-access analysis of the club is unsentimental. Three mini biographies – Cruyff, Messi and Pep Guard-iola – are woven into an overarching question: what makes Barcelona so special?

The chapters devoted to Cruyff, who played for the club and then transformed it as a manager, are essential reading for anyone interested in innovation or high performance. The book is both a debunking and a restoration. Kuper, a restless cosmopolitan thinker (brought up in the Netherlands, hence his early devotion to Cruyff; English; resident in Paris), has tracked Barcelona for decades. He formed his own world-view, and developed his understanding of how ideas move and mutate, in tandem with the unfolding of the story he has waited for more than a decade to tell properly.

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Cruyff emerges from Kuper’s portrait as impossible, flawed and brilliant. It is exceptionally rare that a player of genius has the same level of analytical insight. Cruyff did. Add into the mix “a quasi-pathological case of self-confidence” and you will start to imagine the atmosphere on the training ground during the years he coached Barcelona (1988-96).

Cruyff believed in what he (and Rinus Michels) called the conflictmodel. You’re wrong about everything: that was Cruyff’s starting point. The footballing foundation of the club’s “culture” – which seemed so sunny and benevolent at its fast-passing peak – was actually the imperial arrogance of a supreme autodidact.

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Make a list of earnest sporting clichés: Cruyff inverted them all. After enduring one team meeting as a player, he waited for the coach to leave the room, removed the tactics from the board and announced, “Obviously we’re going to do it completely differently.” He urged players to stop running around, and look and think instead. That was his preference for his own style of play. An English tailor who made clothes for many 1970s footballers recalled that Cruyff was the only one to walk off the training field without a drop of sweat. He skipped training runs and later banished them as a coach; Cruyff did, however, retain his devotion to smoking.

As a boy, Cruyff had played cricket and baseball for Ajax juniors, which fixed his vision of sport as a unified enterprise. All sports were variants of the same thing – the quest for space and the vision to grasp how it could be achieved. He was interested in “stealing bases” in baseball, which led him to reflect: “You had to know where you were going to throw the ball before you received it, which meant that you had to have an idea of the space around you and where each player was… You’re always busy making decisions between space and risk in fractions of a second.” Later, this concept settled into Cruyff’s aphorism: “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake.”

The most audacious cricketer of his generation, AB de Villiers, said almost exactly the same thing to me. Teammates and opponents often feel that De Villiers knows the ball that is coming next, a gift he attributes to a multi-sports education: “When I played rugby, I could time a pass, find space, put a man through a gap. It’s the same thing.”

***

Cruyff’s confidence was majestic. A club, he said, should be run by one genius and one organiser (he didn’t see himself as the organiser). He made the risky decision to banish Barcelona’s meddling club directors from the dressing room when he was coach. “You don’t need to get changed,” he explained, helpfully. He stood motionless during a mass on-field brawl: “Why intervene when absolutely nothing of interest is happening?” When baffled journalists didn’t follow his arguments, Cruyff clarified: “If I’d wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better.”

Cruyff was contrarian to the core. When bombarded by the opposition, instead of shoring up the defenders, he would bring on an extra creative player. Besides, with fewer defenders, he argued, there were fewer people to make defensive mistakes.

There was an unresolved tension between Cruyff’s aloof character and his collaborative insight. The “controlled chaos” that Cruyff espoused – 11 players constantly thinking, moving and creating – took football to its joined-up extreme. Yet Cruyff was personally a man apart, islanded by a lack of empathy. “Cruyff wasn’t by nature a ‘one for all and all for one’ kind of guy, like Liverpool’s Bill Shankly,” Kuper reflects. “He just believed that the fullest expression of football was team play.” Perhaps Cruyff subliminally understood this, even if he didn’t admit it or articulate it. Simply: if Cruyff could put into his teams the one thing he lacked as a person, his revolution would be complete.

The fullest resolution of this would belong to Cruyff’s greatest student and disciple, Pep Guardiola, whom Cruyff identified and promoted as a player. Here the question of Barcelona’s “culture” re-enters the story. Cruyff was sacked as Barcelona manager in 1996. “Why are you trying to shake my hand, Judas?” he asked the club official undertaking this daunting mission. When the facts were confirmed, Cruyff smashed a chair and added for good measure: “God will punish you for this deed.”

For the decade after Cruyff, Barcelona was still a giant and successful club but without such a philosophical point of difference. (Shakespeare would have had this conceptual interlude briskly narrated by an unknown walk-on part before hastily returning to the protagonists.) And then, in 2008, Barcelona surprisingly turned to a manager who had only one season of experience, coaching the Barcelona B-team: Guardiola.

Guardiola was both an arch-Cruyffian – “I knew nothing about football until I met Cruyff” – and an ex-club captain who represented a kind of palimpsest of Barcelona’s ideas and institutional wisdom. An insider in the way Cruyff couldn’t be, Guardiola embodied a reconciliation between Cruyff’s convictions and the club that those ideas had shaped. In Guardiola’s famous formulation, it was Cruyff who had “built the cathedral”. Guardiola would restore it, enhance it, add new light and lustre. Barcelona’s High Style was about to begin. After Manchester United lost to Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League Final, Alex Ferguson said simply: “Nobody’s given us a hiding like that, but they deserve it.”

Kuper diverts our eye away from the dazzling but familiar skyline and instead takes us inside the cathedral close, to La Masia, the Barcelona academy, from which Guardiola had emerged. The author visited and studied La Masia long before it was the most imitated football academy in the world. In 2010, La Masia graduates had a complete monopoly of the three finalists for the Ballon d’Or award: Messi, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta.

Kuper terms La Masia “a university of the pass”. “Exchanging passes with teammates was a kind of conversation,” he adds, “just as a jazz combo in a jam session communicates without words.”

La Masia also took a pioneering stance on developing rounded graduates who didn’t play football to the detriment of everything else. Instead of ritual bullying and all-day training, football was capped at 90 minutes per day and life nurtured beyond the pitch. The club had a responsibility to those at the academy who wouldn’t go on to make it. Besides, it needed intelligent players to deliver such a sophisticated style.

In 2015 La Masia’s then director Carles Folguera could boast to Harvard: “Among top European clubs, we have the highest rate – 50 per cent – of 18- and 19-year-old players studying at the university level. Unlike most clubs, we are happy with more hours spent studying rather than the gym.” La Masia was never really about instructing people how to play, but instead creating an environment where talent could flourish.

“The secret of La Masia was never coaching,” Kuper stresses. “It was scouting.” Football belonged to the players, not to coaches, and the best thing “the system” could do was to find the best players and give them opportunities. In Barça’s case, appropriately, they inverted the assumptions of the moment. When everyone else was trying to predict height so they could sign up players destined for physical supremacy, Barça invested in short, skilful players (consider the tiny trio who dominated the Ballon d’Or in 2010). This primacy of talent ID over coaching informed the club’s wider culture and the opinions of its protagonists. “Messi’s view of football,” Kuper explains, “was that the coach should pick the best players and not worry too much about tactics.”

***

Kuper ends in a minor key. The production line of La Masia slowed to a trickle as Barça became a buying club and others imitated it effectively; the relations between Messi and the club have been fraught, and Barcelona now languish under £1bn of debt. If Barcelona were once more than a club, they are now somewhat less than their brand.

Did Barcelona come to believe in the specialness of their own “culture” a little too much? Most likely. And sport never stands still, as Barcelona should have learned from their own relationship with migrating ideas. As soon as a sporting culture believes it has a monopoly on innovation, it is already becoming decadent. 

Ed Smith is the director of the Institute of Sports Humanities

Barça: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Football Club 
Simon Kuper
Short, 384pp, £20

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This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special