This article reviews this excellent book which deals with the success that Barca have enjoyed under Pep Guardiola's leadership
One of the most talked about sports books of the year, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World chronicles how FC Barcelona have emerged as one of the greatest club sides in the history of the game and potentially the best ever. Written by Graham Hunter a widely respected journalist and pundit, who Sky Sports viewers will be familiar with, Barca looks at how Josep Guardiola, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and a host of other hugely gifted individuals have all come together to lead Barcelona into the most successful period of the clubs illustrious history.
Hunter's book is truly deserving of the praise it has received around the footballing community, the book's major focus is on the two key protagonists in Barcelona's rise to dominance; Pep Guardiola and Leo Messi. Hunter looks in detail at how Barcelona first became aware of a minute but talented Argentine making his name in Rosario, Argentina. Hunter chronicles every step that Messi has taken which has led him to the very pinnacle of the world game. From his arrival in Barcelona into an all conquering youth team containing Gerard Pique and Francesc Fabregas both of whom thought the diminutive Argentine was a mute, so shy was Messi when he first arrived, right up to his match winning strike in the Champions League final last May.
The real charm of the book is some of the unique anecdotes that Hunter has unearthed through countless discussion on and off the record with people connected to the club, such as the fact that the first contractual agreement between Leo Messi and FC Barcelona was drawn up on a napkin that happened to be lying around, and had that contract not been scribbled down, we could well be talking about Messi as a Real Madrid galactico. Another quirky tale is how close both Messi and an emerging talent named Andres Iniesta came to spending a season on loan at Rangers under Alex McLeish.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the "Messi story" is how the club identified the dangerous path that was being laid out in front of the young star by Ronaldinho and Deco, who after leading the club to a Champions League and successive Liga titles, were rapidly spiraling out of control and risked taking an infatuated Messi with them. Ronaldinho had fallen rapidly from grace and the endless partying that was the catalyst for his decline was causing him to lack focus and intensity on the pitch as well as gaining weight at an alarming rate. The club were concerned that Messi, who adored both Ronaldinho and Deco, would follow his idols down the same path and that a once in a generation talent would be lost. Once this conclusion was reached the judgement was swift and ruthless. Ronaldinho and Deco, two men who had been at the heart of the clubs accomplishments were ejected from Catalonia without hesitation, Messi was given Ronaldinho's iconic number 10 shirt and the club never looked back.
This was not the only issue with Messi though, a series of serious injuries, specifically muscle tears continued to curtail his progress and every time the Argentine began to build up a head of steam for the climax of the season another injury would strike him down.
Again the action of the directors; Txiki Begiristain, director of football and two vice presidents Marc Ingla and Ferran Soriano was decisive. Messi's traditionally Argentine diet of red meat and carbohydrates was out and instead fish and vegetables were the in. A physio, Juanjo Brau who remains with Messi to this day, was appointed with the task of accompanying Messi everywhere he went whether it was for Barcelona or Argentina and the emphasis changed from injury recovery to injury prevention. The fitness record of the Argentine since then is remarkable; Messi has played over 50 games for Barcelona in every season since Guardiola took charge and the idea of resting or even substituting the Argentine goes down so badly with him that for the most part Guardiola simply doesn't bother.
Leading on from the prior discussion over the fall of Ronaldinho and Deco, an interesting aspect of Hunter's work is that he recounts how Samuel Eto'o who was regarded as expendable, along with Ronaldinho and Deco, fought to prove Guardiola wrong and proved himself worthy of a place in the team, scoring 36 goals in the season including the opening goal in the 2009 Champions League final. Despite this though, Guardiola, who had told Eto'o that one strike would be his cue to leave the club, saw a lack of intensity in his stretching before a match and that from then on, Pep had decided the Cameroonian had to go.
If the story of Messi is one critical element of Hunter's reasoning for Barcelona's success, then the other equally important individual is Pep Guardiola. Hunter talks us through how the great Johan Cryuff kick started Guardiola's Barcelona career and how this once great player then came to be the coach of the team he adores. Hunter speaks to a wide range of people including Guardiola himself about what it is that makes him such a special coach and one who has had such unprecedented success so early in his career.
Hunter emphasises the sheer amount of work that Guardiola and his staff put in to prepare for matches, which in itself is a perfect illustration of the point that no matter the talent of a squad and a coach, dedication and professionalism is a constant necessity. Guardiola happily admits that he often stays awake to the small hours of the morning watching footage of Barca and their opponents until he encounters that "eureka moment" when he identifies a chink in the opposition armour which he then has complete faith in his phenomenal team to exploit.
One aspect of Hunter's excellent book that did disappoint slightly, although this is not so much a criticism as it is a greed for more, is the lack of discussion over how Barcelona have gone about their transfer business under Guardiola. An interesting aspect would have been discussing what it was that the club looks for in their marquee signings. Some characteristics such as excellent technique and work rate etc go without saying but it would be fascinating from an outsiders perspective to see the recruitment process that occurs at one of the worlds top club. Did they foresee Dani Alves being able to dominate one side of the pitch on his own in the manner he does? Did they identify Javier Mascherano as a truly viable option as a centre half? Were they truly confident that Seydou Keita, who physically is quite different to the majority of their midfielders, was going to ease so effortlessly into the side.
As well as chronicling the paths taken by Messi and Guardiola, Hunter looks at other components in Barcelona's success. A centre back pairing that in the past three years has led their club to three La Liga titles, two champions leagues and their country to a world cup that came together and how Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, of radically different backgrounds and personalities compliment each other perfectly.
Or how young men such as Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez, who both looked unlikely to ever break through into the first team at the Camp Nou, are now integral parts of the side. In a generation where many aspects of football contribute to a growing sense of weariness and cynicism, Barca focuses on what football fans wish to see, hear and read. A close bond between a team, many of whom have grown up together, and a fun loving and joyful dynamic which is still present despite the immense pressures of the modern game. Similarly personal traits and relationships which were first noticed on the training ground at La Masia that continue to exist.
Next time Iniesta is subject to a poor challenge, don't be surprised to see Victor Valdes, the first person Iniesta met when he moved to Barcelona as a 13 year old boy, rushing to his defence. Equally whenever Leo Messi is hacked down, expect to see Pique and Fabregas, the two guys who looked after Messi when he first moved to Spain, standing up for their long time friend.
Ultimately if your at all interested in the achievements and dynamics of Barcelona under Guardiola and the methods employed to enjoy such a period of success then Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World is surely now the seminal work in such a field. As you can infer from the title the book does not dwell overtly on the faults and flaws of Barcelona and its players and incidents such as last seasons semi final against Madrid, when both teams contrived to produce a pretty unpleasant match that was only partly saved by two brilliant goals from Messi, are quickly dealt with.
All the major figures in Barcelona's recent history are covered, the fall from grace the team suffered under Frank Rijkaard, the 60m Euro purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the rapid deterioration of the Swede's position at the club, its all here and is explored in clear and consistent manner, interspersed with 5 key matches that helped make Barcelona the team they are today.