A couple of months ago, there was a faint yet definite air of mortality hanging around Barcelona. While at times they've been just as reliably ridiculous as ever, at one point they were ten points behind Real Madrid in the league, and while that was in part down to the nonsensical near-perfection of Jose Mourinho's side -- who, until the end of February, had dropped just 7 points -- the Catalonian side were also in (relatively) poor domestic form, particularly away from home. Watching football is, in some ways, a pessimistic business, and as anybody who's seen 24 Hour Party People will tell you, the best of times, like the worst, are always passing away. Was Pep Guardiola leaving? Were the muscles of Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol -- conductor and first bassoon respectively -- tightening beyond use? Was Mourinho doing what Mourinho does?
Now, however, the gap at the top is down to just four points, with a Nou Camp Clásico to come. Andrés Iniesta is 27, Cesc Fàbregas and Leo Messi both 24, and another generation of coltish triangle fetishists are beginning to sprout. Guardiola may be staying on. Crisis? Pah. But still, impermanence is football's very essence, and it seems likely that we are nearer the end of Guardiola's Barcelona than we are the beginning. What better time to consider how they got there in the first place?
In his history of Spanish football, Morbo, Phil Ball writes:
Barcelona fans labour under the touchingly innocent belief that everyone else in the world, apart from Real Madrid and Espanyol fans, is happy to accept that their club is the biggest on earth and quite simply the bees' knees of the whole football cosmos.
It's a quote worth bearing in mind when approaching Graham Hunter's new book, an attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of where this Barcelona team has come from. On the one hand, this is an impressive feat of journalistic and investigative writing, impeccably sourced, skilfully written, and never less than interesting. On the other hand, it contains lines like "I genuinely believe that the current FC Barcelona team, its football and its personalities, has given us something which, if not unique, I don't expect to see rivalled, let alone equalled in my lifetime."
As with so much that surrounds Barcelona, how the reader responds to this will depends on how the reader responds to the team in general; should you find this Barcelona team grating -- and there plenty of reasons to, some valid, some not -- then you could, if you wanted to, dismiss the book with that most injurious of charges: hagiography. It would be easy to conclude that Hunter is problematically enthralled by his subject, and so has abrogated critical responsibility in favour of obeisance to the mighty and all-conquering Catalans; if you're so minded, reading about "this glorious team" that plays "football which is uplifting to the spirit" will do little to shake this.
Yet this would, for the most part, be unfair. Even the most meringue-crazed Madridista would have to admit that by the standards against which football teams are judged, Guardiola's Barcelona score pretty highly: three league titles, a Copa del Rey, three Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups, two Champions Leagues, two World Club Cups. (Or, if you want the other standards by which football teams are judged, whacking great wads of cashmoney from Nike and Qatar, and a gargantuan presence in emerging markets.) They are objectively amazing, and so any book that didn't mirror this amazingness couldn't be a fair book.
Besides, 'hagiography' wasn't always a brickbat thrown at inadequate biographers. It used to refer to the telling of the story of a saint, back when such things were written, and saints stand, by their fundamentally divine natures, above and beyond the normal constraints of critical writing. It's hard to escape from the fact that at the centre of this story are a group of people -- Guardiola, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, and particularly "the greatest player of modern, perhaps any times" Messi -- who are so extraordinary in what they do that, while 'football as religion' is a thin and tired trope, they stand in similar relation to we mere mortals as saints did to their wide-eyed congregants.
Naturally, some of the rougher edges are sanded down. In particular, you will struggle to find a less-critical portrait of Sergio Busquets without asking the midfielder's mother. Those notorious hand-over-mouth mutterings to Marcelo are neatly elided in one line of the introductory chapter -- "UEFA cleared Sergio Busquets to play, pushing aside Real Madrid's accusations" -- while Busquets' profile doesn't contain the word "dive", nor any of its euphemistic kin. But then we never get told about St. George's cruelty to geese, either. Certainly, it would be churlish in the extreme to deprive anybody the right to get a little bit misty-eyed about Messi and his war on superlatives. Even if they annoy you, they're really good.
So if a certain air of worshipfulness is sometimes evident, then on the whole it's worth it. Some of the anecdotes will be familiar -- Leo Messi signing his first contract on a napkin; Gerard Pique nearly braining himself as a small child -- while others are genuinely surprising, including the wonderful revelation that Pep Guardiola nearly signed for Paul Jewell's Wigan. (The Dream Team's pivote gracing the DW Stadium? It's an odd thought.) Hunter sketches each personality skilfully, and his access to the club ensures that his own strokes are given shade by the opinions of others: Xavi on Messi, Messi on Iniesta, Iniesta on Xavi, all passing praise from one to the other, a tiki-taka carousel of mutual esteem. The resulting portraits are affectionate, evocative, and resonant.
Perhaps even more interesting, if less overtly glamorous, are the chapters devoted to the form and function of the club. Two chapters in particular stand out: one on the functions and structures of the cantera, the other on the political machinations that led Sandro Rosell to the presidency. These are genuinely revelatory insights into two under-examined aspects of the club, and in a sense, these two chapters are the most impressive, simply it would be so easy to misjudge the recounting of the dry business of training schedules or the impenetrable intrigues of culé politics. A similar balance is struck in the chapter on Johan Cruyff, a figure so individually fascinating, and so crucial to Barcelona in so many ways, that one chapter barely seems adequate. Recognising this, Hunter focuses on where Cruyff plugs into Barcelona as they are now: his influence on Guardiola, his revolution of the training methods, and his at times benevolent, other times obstreperous presence in the political machinery. Again, it's a chapter that could drown in detail, and doesn't.
The one striking absence from the book, however, is a failure to place Barcelona's pre-eminence in the wider context of Spanish football. The rivalry with Real Madrid has its own chapter,which focuses in particular on Mourinho's attempts first to land himself the job that eventually went to Guardiola, and then (once he ended up on the other side) to provoke, chide, irritate, annoy, and generally get right up the nose of his rivals. It is fascinating, particularly the account of Mourinho forcing himself onto the post-Rijkaard shortlist -- Jorge Mendes' brass neck plus speed dial, if you ever fancy trying it yourself -- and then delivering a presentation simultaneously impressive and repellent. But it doesn't go any wider, and the book singularly fails to contextualise Barcelona within the hegemony that the two clásico-disputing clubs hold over the rest of the league, a hegemony with sporting symptoms -- in Guardiola's three-and-a-bit seasons, the points gap between 2nd and 3rd has been 8, 25, 21, and currently stands at 29 -- but a financial basis.
As Sid Lowe has noted, the distribution of television money in Spain allows Barcelona and Real Madrid to operate on budgets at least four times larger than any of their Spanish counterparts. The big two receive around €125 million a year; the next largest is Valencia, who get around €42 million. And that doesn't include Champions League money, which is, thanks to their dominance, more or less guaranteed. A proposed new collective television deal enshrines the duopoly, guaranteeing the top two a share of 35% of the revenues; an attempt by José María Del Nido, president of Sevilla, to table a more equitable (yet still unbalanced) arrangement was attacked by both Rosell and Florentino Pérez, happy, apparently, to sing in harmony on this issue.
You could argue, perhaps, that because the book is explicitly about Barcelona, that this stuff isn't relevant to the story of how they became themselves. And of course the rivalry between Real Madrid/Mourinho is the most entertaining, the most fun, and the most morbo-tastic side of things. But the competitive and financial disparity is so stark and so fundamental to the shape of Spanish football that the absence of any detailed discussion is both disappointing and, in a book so keen to (rightly) promote the magnificence of the cantera system, jarring. It seems impossible that enjoying a financial advantage over the rest of the country (bar one) could not have affected the rise of this team in one way or another -- their ability to fully professionalise the coaching staff? the wage bill? their debt? the capacity to buy at a massive loss, then shed after one season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic? -- and yet on this one crucial point, the book is silent.
Ultimately, if you were looking for a basis to dismiss the book as failing to live up to its own subtitle, then this could give you cause. But that would be a shame. For everything that is in there, Hunter manages to walk that difficult, Brian Cox-esque line between wanting to tell you how something works, and wanting to tell you just how brilliant it is. As a journey through the lives of a unique clutch of outstanding footballers and their manager, and perhaps the greatest period in the history of one of the world's pre-eminent clubs, it is never less than entertaining and often brilliant. It's just perhaps just a touch too willing to capture its subject from only its best side.