Sunday, October 31, 2021

We had everything

(This is an English version of my review of "Barça," the book written by Simon Kuper. The book review is originally published in Catalan in the paper version of the November issue of the magazine Política & Prosa)

Barcelona is a city that has everything, prosperous and powerful. It is one of the best places to live on the planet, if you can afford it and you have the opportunity to do it. It is the place they chose to work and live some of the great talents of football, such as Cruyff and Messi. The love story between Barcelona and the great talents of world football is told by journalist Simon Kuper in his book about Barça, published in the summer of 2021 after two years of research. Kuper came to study the success of the club, and has also ended up writing an extraordinary chronicle of its sporting, organizational and social decline. 

Between 2008 and 2012, with a prelude in 2006 and a brief resumption in 2015, Barça became the most successful football team in the world and the one that played the most attractive game. The human and random roots of this prodigy are explained in this book, and have little to do with the skills of the officials who ran the club during those years. On the contrary, the last chapters of the book explain how the directors who presided and continue to preside over the phenomenon, were and are unable to govern the cycle and give it continuity, and have led the club to a decline that has already begun, of unpredictable duration and dimension. 

Sometimes it takes an outsider to tell us the truth, like in the movie Spotlight (where a Jewish journalist from Florida shook the waters of Catholic and inbreeding Boston), or like the BBC with the attacks of March 2004 in Madrid, or as the New York Times with the Russian connection of the Catalan independence “process.” The publication of the book coincided with the traumatic departure of Messi, about which neither the board that finally announced it, nor the local media, had been able to warn in time of its inevitable nature (if Kuper had the data of the financial collapse, current President Laporta also had to have them in the fall of 2020 when he ran for the job). Kuper is an unashamed cosmopolitan (what some contemptuously call a “globalist”), immune to identity demagoguery and capable of valuing diversity and imagination. To write the book, he spoke empathetically with half of Barcelona (and valued its plurality) and had wide access to the club and its protagonists. 

The football of the last 50 years will probably be analyzed in a while as the result of two shocks. The first shock, produced by the confluence of the Bosman Ruling and the new television and competitive formats in the 1990s, took Barça very well prepared, and laid the foundations for successes, which also had a random component (a difficult to reproduce generation of players from the academy), around 2010. The second shock, however, that of the Covid-19, with the sudden reduction in revenue (and the consequent desperate search for new formats such as the Superleague or the World Cup every two years), has taken the club at a very bad time, and may negatively condition its performance in the coming years. 

The good years were based on an academy that had been solidifying in the 1980s and 1990s, based on good coaches and infrastructures, which made Barça an attractive place for Messi or Iniesta. And they relied very fundamentally on a tradition of good football that had arrived in Barcelona from the Netherlands in the early 1970s, first with Michels and then with Cruyff the player. The arrival and slow consolidation of Barça as a hub for Dutch "total football" was the result of a process of trial and error, testing what seemed to be successful elsewhere. Between Michels and Rijkaard (from whom it can be said that there have only been pro-Dutch head coaches, with the exception of Tata Martino, although before Guardiola there was speculation with Scolari and Mourinho), the best coaches were signed, be they German, English, Argentine or Spaniard. Kuper expresses his admiration for Cruyff and Guardiola as coaches, and more generally for Dutch football. Cruyff was a genius who revolutionized tactics (radicalizing Michels’ offensive concepts) and Guardiola systematized and professionalized the bet. The author of the book draws a parallel between football innovation and Schumpeter's concept of "creative destruction" in economics. Van Gaal, an intermediate step with much worse press than Cruyff and Guardiola, who made Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta and Víctor Valdés (mainstays of Guardiola's Barça) debut in the first team, as the author of the book says, was a “cruyffista,” though he would never admit it.

Admiration for Cruyff is not blind and uncritical. Kuper explains his misunderstanding with the Dutch star in an interview, and recalls that Cruyff was lucky with some of the titles he won as Barça coach, and that, like other football superstars, he was surrounded by chamber journalists and flatterers (“yes-men”). Perhaps one of Cruyff and Guardiola’s main innovations was to value short, relatively fragile players, who were traditionally undervalued by clubs. As in the book and film Moneyball (where Michael Lewis explains how manager Billy Beane revolutionized the baseball transfer market), the tradition was based on prejudices about the physical appearance of the players, that Cruyff and Guardiola's Barça (and also of Van Gaal and numerous coaches of the academy) left behind. Another virtue that Kuper praises is that Guardiola was influenced by ideas from other sports, something that a multi-sports club like Barça facilitated. The fact that Kuper is not as uncritical as the local press does not prevent him from sometimes exaggerating his praise a bit. For example, when he says that Guardiola (a coach whose successes have always been accompanied by huge quality players) "like Cruyff was only trying to sign players who were in the top ten or who played in places that the Masia could not cover" . Certainly when he wrote this he did not have in mind the names of Romerito, Korneiev, José Mari (signed by Cruyff), or Chigrinsky (signed by Guardiola). 

Barça does not escape some empirical regularities of football: the economy of the superstars that shake the finances of the clubs, the populism of the directors, the need to share income with rivals… But, in addition, the directives from the successes around 2010 succumbed, perhaps understandably, to the “hybris” of thinking that they were endowed with a magic wand, and they never thought that bad years would arrive, as if that success were not absolutely extraordinary. Barça has become a case study of how to fail in the preparation for the future. The financial pressure of the big stars reached its climax in the second decade of the 21st century with Messi, the best player in the world, and the financial and sports discipline was relaxed. No one dared to tell Piqué, Busquets or Alba that their time had come. Although Barça ranked as the highest-revenue club in the world, it also ended up as the most indebted. This happened especially with Bartomeu as president ("a gazelle among lions", perhaps because of all the recent presidents he has been the farthest from the cores of football corruption), but his weakness also stems from an environment uncritical with the big stars and a Cainite climate among the families of the bourgeoisie who want to preside over Barça, a club that combines the democracy of the members and the oligarchy of the leaders (one must have enough collateral to be one). If Kuper does not fall into the false dichotomy between Cruyff and Van Gaal, he falls even less into the supposed contrast between Rosellistas or Laportistas (derivatives of the names of two presidents), so familiar to the Catalan press. They are all members of what journalist Cristian Segura has called the Upper Diagonal (the rich neighborhoods of the city) in the book "Gent d'Ordre." Over time some of those who have praised Cruyff so much have forgotten key aspects of his legacy, such as that the academy is about traing and its coaches should not be punished when the teams do not win what they are expected to, or that the dressing room is inviolable. 

At some point, Barça as an organization stopped learning and being open to the best of what was happening in the world of football. If Spain gave a Dutch Football lesson to the Netherlands at the 2010 World Cup, Bayern gave Barça a Total Football lesson in Lisbon, still with Messi, Suárez and Griezman. Today, the best Total Football is played in England and Germany. Meanwhile, Barça no longer have distinctive features and has become a club with the defects of so many others, returning from hunting without any piece in recent times, as influenced by the inertia of Catalonia in the independence process: “the unarmed army of Catalonia fights against himself,” says Kuper in a description of the extraordinary political climate, which highlights the risk that a Barça with an openly pro-independence president (like Laporta is) will stop uniting Catalans. The book was just written coinciding with Laporta's accession to the presidency in 2021 after a campaign in which he promised that Messi would continue (it would be so easy for him to convince the Argentinian), and before Messi's departure, that no one in the local press could anticipate. Kuper has no illusions about the ability to manage of an impulsive Laporta, who is remembered in the book for an unfortunate sexist incident on election day. 

Possibly the success of 2008-2012 was a unique mirage, but if talent could not be retained, much more could have been done to maintain the ability to produce, acquire and retain it, or plan the succession. When Cruff, Maradona, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, or Ronaldinho left as players, Barça continued to win titles. It will be difficult for it to happen again, because the shock of the pandemic has hit Barça at a bad time. But it is not written in stone that it can never happen again, because there is still a rich and powerful city that attracts with its magnetism, and a large community of fans with a feeling passed down from generation to generation.

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