How the best footballer in the world made Barcelona the biggest club in the world

BOOK OF THE WEEK

BARCA: THE INDOOR STORY OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST FOOTBALL CLUB

by Simon Kuper (Short books £20,384 pp)

As anyone who has hosted a football match knows, it can be a nightmare to find someone to referee. Around 2013, a children’s indoor soccer tournament was a referee short in New York.

When organizers asked the gathered parents if anyone knew the rules well enough to control a game, a Spanish-looking man in a baseball cap stepped forward.

Simon Kuper explores how a small regional football club became one of the most admired sports organizations in history in a new book, as the world's best player Lionel Messi (pictured) confirms he is leaving

Simon Kuper explores how a small regional football club became one of the most admired sports organizations in history in a new book, as the world’s best player Lionel Messi (pictured) confirms he is leaving

He appeared to interpret his role broadly and continued to pause the game to advise both teams on positioning.

The parents, who only wanted to see their children win, became nervous. “Come on, let them play,” they shouted. But the man in the baseball cap, on a sabbatical in New York after four monumental seasons as Barcelona coach, happened to be Pep Guardiola, the most successful and best-paid football manager in the world.

You can take the man out of Barcelona, ​​it seems, but it is much harder to take Barcelona out of the man.

Simon Kuper’s brilliant new book explores the club’s extraordinary appeal as he explains how a small regional football club became one of the most admired sports organizations in history.

Until recent weeks, that is, when chronic mismanagement at the club was exposed, the world’s best footballer, Argentine Lionel Messi, as his prized asset, took a tearful farewell from the place he had been home to for more than two decades. transfer to oil-financed Paris St Germain. It was a story so epic it made headlines all over the world.

Kuper examines whether an individual is more important than the organization he serves. From 2017-2021, Messi was paid more than half a billion euros, according to leaks of his 30-page contract – more than the total income of an average top team. But it was probably fair: Messi was so good that his shots and assists accounted for almost half of Barcelona’s goals.

A Barca player credits Messi: “You play here with the best players in the world, but he is way above that. . .’ As Messi’s salary tripled over the years, contagion in the dressing room became a problem: as soon as Messi got a raise, his teammates wanted one too. No surprise there.

Kuper tells a fascinating story about watching him in a match: from kick-off he took a walk around the opponent’s defenses, seemingly ignoring the ball but looking at his opponents, calculating how their defenses were, at one point. let a ball pass to let it come into contact. He was not ready to play.

From 2017-2021, Messi was paid well over half a billion euros, according to leaks of his 30-page contract.  In the photo: Messi with his wife, Antonela Roccuzzo

From 2017-2021, Messi was paid well over half a billion euros, according to leaks of his 30-page contract.  In the photo: Messi with his wife, Antonela Roccuzzo

From 2017-2021, Messi was paid well over half a billion euros, according to leaks of his 30-page contract. In the photo: Messi with his wife, Antonela Roccuzzo

It was the same every game. His old coach Pep Guardiola explains: “After five, ten minutes he has the map in his eyes and in his brain, to know exactly where the space is and what the panorama is.”

As football developed across Europe in terms of speed, skill and tactical innovation, Barcelona began to be surpassed by other clubs.

A succession of poor results, excessive spending and Covid brought the once best club in the world to its knees.

In 2021 their star player, now of age – he was 34 and too expensive for the failing club – had to leave. The foundations of this football cathedral were irreparably weakened. An era came to an end. Kuper, journalist and prolific author, has always loved Barcelona – both the place and the club – hence this book. It began as a history of the club during its prime, and an exposition of his near-perfect level of skilled, brilliant, dazzling football, until Barca began to fall apart.

Kuper’s skill is that you feel your presence as these momentous events begin to explode.

But this is much more than a book about a football club. It is perhaps above all a tribute to Kuper’s hero, Dutchman Johan Cruijff, who is recognized as one of the greatest players of all time.

Messi (pictured) became too expensive for Barcelona in 2021 and switched to oil-funded Paris St Germain

Messi (pictured) became too expensive for Barcelona in 2021 and switched to oil-funded Paris St Germain

Messi (pictured) became too expensive for Barcelona in 2021 and switched to oil-funded Paris St Germain

He was also blessed with a ‘quasi-pathological case of self-confidence’: after a team encounter as a player, he would wait for the coach to leave the room, wipe the tactics off the board, and say, ‘Of course we’re going to do it completely different.’ Cruyff’s influence on modern football is lasting, with his emphasis on speed, flexibility, high pressure, electric passing and mesmerizing skills. Never the fastest of the players, probably because of all his smoking, he had an almost supernatural ability to slow the game down until everyone was in position to do his bidding.

The great Eric Cantona, supreme footballer and now a very funny actor, put it well: ‘If he wanted to, he could be the best player in any position on the pitch.’

Without Cruyff there would be no modern Barcelona.

Kuper is especially good at the details of life in Barcelona. And it’s a good life: relaxed training, unlike the brutal regimes at Atletico Madrid or Juventus, in a great city. If you have a few seasons with Barcelona, ​​you can support your family forever: in 2019, before the pandemic, the average base salary in Barcelona was £10.4 million (€12.2 million) per year, the highest for any sports club on earth. Everything is handled for you, which is why Messi had no idea about his own illegal tax dealings. (He and his father were given 21-month suspended prison terms five years ago.)

BARCA: THE INDOOR STORY OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST FOOTBALL CLUB by Simon Kuper (Short Books £20,384 pp)

BARCA: THE INDOOR STORY OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST FOOTBALL CLUB by Simon Kuper (Short Books £20,384 pp)

BARCA: THE INDOOR STORY OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST FOOTBALL CLUB by Simon Kuper (Short Books £20,384 pp)

Food and wine is always plentiful and excellent. Many foreign players became wine connoisseurs playing for Barca. Kuper even includes tasty recipes for Barcelona staples, including something called leche merengada, a soothing drink to help players relax and sleep, although you’re unlikely to get a £10m reward package.

Details of the players’ lives are dazzling. Young footballers would settle in a Barcelona mansion with a huge entourage: their agent, physio, a few elderly relatives, their current girlfriend, plus random camp followers and old friends from home who have become financially dependent.

Diego ‘Hand-of-God’ Maradona, who played for Barca from 1982-84, lived with a clan of friends and relatives, a personal physician and trainer. A journalist who went to see him one afternoon while he was recovering from hepatitis recalls: “Diego was lying in a bed in the garden. Around him more than ten people were eating and drinking. . . It was the first time I’d seen sniffing white powder from a corner of the ping-pong table.’

Barca’s manager at the time, Luis Menotti, who also loved his nightlife, moved the team’s training schedule from mornings to 3pm to suit their habits.

An agent recalls setting up three bank accounts for a new signature at Barca: a joint account with his wife, an account for their expenses such as rent, and a third account that the woman was not told about.

Ultimately, this great book is about much more than football – it’s about Spain, about Catalan culture, about the psychology of management, about developing young people, and above all about the three remarkable men who shaped the modern game – Cruyff, Messi and Guardiola.

And the moral of the story, if we look at the mess of today’s Barcelona? That, no matter how brilliant, sooner or later everything must pass.

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