Football player made Barcelona the world's greatest club

A very Messi ending: How the best football player in the world made Barcelona the world’s greatest club — and then was shown the red card

  • Simon Kuper explores how Barcelona became an admired sporting organisation
  • Before the pandemic, average basic pay at Barcelona was £10.4 million a year
  • Lionel Messi bade a tearful farewell to the team after playing from 2017-2021
  • Footballer had been paid over half a billion euros, according to leaked contract 

BOOK OF THE WEEK

BARCA: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST FOOTBALL CLUB     

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

As anyone who has organised a football game knows, finding someone to referee can be a nightmare. Around 2013 in New York, a kids’ indoor soccer tournament was a referee short.

When the organisers asked the assembled parents if anyone knew the rules well enough to control a match, a Hispanic-looking man in a baseball cap stepped forward.

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

He turned out to interpret his role broadly, and kept stopping the game to advise both teams on positioning.

The parents, who just wanted to see their children win, grew fidgety. ‘Come on, let them play,’ they shouted. But the guy in the baseball cap, on sabbatical in New York after four monumental seasons coaching Barcelona, happened to be Pep Guardiola, the most successful, and best rewarded, football manager on the planet.

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

Simon Kuper’s brilliant new book explores the club’s extraordinary pull as he explains how a small regional football club became among the most admired sporting organisations in history.

Until the past few weeks, that is, when chronic mismanagement at the club was laid bare, as its prized asset, the world’s best footballer Argentinian Lionel Messi, bade a tearful farewell to the place which had been home to him for more than two decades to transfer to the oil-wealth funded Paris St Germain. It was a story so epic it forced its way onto front pages the world over.

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

A fellow Barca player gives Messi due credit: ‘You’re playing here with the very best players in the world but he’s quite far above that . . .’ As Messi’s salary tripled over the years, the contagion in the dressing room became a problem: as soon as Messi got a raise, his team-mates wanted one too. No surprise there.

Kuper tells a fascinating story of watching him in a match: from kick-off he went on a stroll round the opposition defence, seemingly ignoring the ball but looking at his opponents, calculating how their defence fitted together, at one point letting a ball passed to him roll into touch. He wasn’t ready to play.

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

It was the same every match. 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 is the space, and what is the panorama.’

As football evolved all over Europe in terms of speed, skill and tactical innovation, Barcelona began to be outstripped by other clubs.

A chain of poor results, excessive spending and Covid was bringing the club that was once the best in the world to its knees.

In 2021 their star player, now ageing — he was 34 and too expensive for the failing club — had to go. The foundations of this cathedral of football weakened irreparably. An era was ending. Kuper, a journalist and prolific author, has always loved Barcelona — both the place and the club — hence this book. It started out as a history of the club through its greatest years, and an exposition of its almost perfect level of skilful, brilliant, dazzling football, until Barca began to fall apart.

Kuper’s skill is that you feel you are present 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 paean to Kuper’s hero, Dutchman Johan Cruyff, acknowledged as one of the greatest players of all time.

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

He was also blessed with a ‘quasi pathological case of self-confidence’: after one team meeting as a player, he waited for the coach to leave the room, wiped the tactics from the board and said: ‘Obviously we’re going to do it completely differently.’ Cruyff’s influence on modern football is permanent, with his emphasis on speed, flexibility, high pressing, electric passing and mesmerising skills. Never the fastest of players, probably due to 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 he could be the best player in any position on the pitch.’

Without Cruyff there would be no modern Barcelona.

Kuper is especially good on the granular detail of life at 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 couple of seasons at Barcelona, you can support your family for ever: in 2019, before the pandemic, the average basic pay at Barcelona was £10.4 million (€12.2 million) a year, the highest for any sports club on earth. Everything is handled for you, which is why Messi had no idea of his own illegal tax dealings. (He and his father were given 21-month suspended jail sentences five years ago.)

BARCA: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST 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 unwind and sleep, though it’s unlikely to get you a £10 million pay packet.

Details of the players’ lives are eye-popping. Young footballers would set up in a mansion in Barcelona with a huge entourage: their agent, physio, a few older 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 doctor and trainer. A journalist who went to see him one afternoon when he was recovering from hepatitis recalls: ‘Diego was in a bed in the garden. Around him were more than ten people eating and drinking . . . It was the first time I saw white powder snorted, from a corner of the ping pong table.’

Barca’s then manager, Luis Menotti, who also liked his nightlife, moved the team’s training schedule from the morning to 3pm to suit their habits.

One agent recalls setting up three bank accounts for a new signing at Barca: a joint account with his wife, an account for their outgoings like rent, and a third account the wife wasn’t told about.

Ultimately this superb book is about far more than football — it’s about Spain, about Catalan culture, about the psychology of management, about developing youngsters, and crucially about the three remarkable men who have shaped the modern game — Cruyff, Messi and Guardiola.

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

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