Inside the Cathedral
introduction: Barça and Me
I now see that I began researching this book in 1992, when I walked into the Camp Nou as a twenty-two-year-old in a torn jacket. I was traveling around the world on £5,000, with a typewriter in my rucksack, writing my first book, Football Against the Enemy. I stayed in the Hostel Kabul on the mugger-rich Plaça Reial, eked out my money by skipping lunch, and dined every night on a falafel from a stall. Barcelona, long considered a shabby provincial backwater, had been freshly renovated for that summer's Olympics. I had never known it was such a beautiful city. I played bad chess in the sun at Kasparo bar, and decided I wanted to return here one day. I had come because I was fascinated by the local football club. I grew up in the Netherlands (which may show here and there in this book), so my childhood hero was Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who first came to Barcelona as a player in 1973. By 1992, he was the club's head coach and spiritual leader. Cruyff was both a great footballer and a great thinker about football, as if he were the light bulb and Edison in one. He is the father of Barcelona's style, which is a thrilling one-touch high-pressing game of constant attack. In this book I'll argue that he is also the father of modern football itself. One day in 1992, I took the metro to the Camp Nou to see if I could interview him for Football Against the Enemy. The kindly press officer, Ana, took in my dubious journalistic credentials and torn jacket and suggested I interview Barça's elderly first vice president, Nicolau Casaus. In hindsight, he probably needed to be kept occupied. Ana told me he had no English, but waiting outside his office I heard him repeat several times, in an American accent, the word "siddown." He seemed to be practicing for me. When I went in, Casaus was smoking a large cigar. I asked whether the club's motto-MŽs que un club, "More than a club"-referred to FC Barcelona's political significance in Spain. Speaking Spanish, he replied that it didn't. He said people of different parties and religions supported Barça. So why the motto? "Barcelonism is a great passion," he answered vaguely. Politics seemed to be too sensitive a topic for him. I didn't know then that he had spent five years in jail under the Franco dictatorship as a Catalan activist, after initially being condemned to death. I nagged Ana to produce Cruyff, but she fobbed me off with his assistant, Tonny Bruins Slot. I was secretly relieved: the thought of meeting my hero was overwhelming. Football in 1992 was a more intimate business. Barça in those days trained on a pitch beside the Camp Nou. One morning before training began, I was given a seat outside the changing-room door to wait for Bruins Slot. At this point I think I'd met one professional footballer in my life. Michael Laudrup emerged from the changing room and glanced at me. Then Cruyff came out, with a football in his arms, walking at top speed ("If they time normally with me, they're always just too late"). He was bantering simultaneously with a changing-room attendant and a Colombian journalist hoping for an audience. It was a beautiful morning, he was about to train the European champions, and he wanted to let the kid in the torn jacket share in his happiness. I'm fairly sure he beamed at me from a range of two yards, but by the time I managed to get out "Hello" in Dutch, he was gone. Bruins Slot came out and asked how long I needed. He was in a hurry to get to training. I said twenty minutes. Bruins Slot was unmistakably a working-class Amsterdammer like Cruyff. He took me to a lounge, found me black coffee in a paper cup, wandered around looking for an ashtray, used another paper cup instead, and then engaged me in a two-hour argument about football. He never did get to training that day. "We have a copyright, a patent," he said. "You can imitate every patent, but there is a finishing touch which only one man has. “Cruyff created the great Barça. In the words of his chief disciple, Pep Guardiola, he built the cathedral. More than that, Cruyff arguably created modern football itself. He is the Freud or Gaud’ of the game, the most interesting, original, and infuriating man in football's history. The cathedral of Barça was later updated by Guardiola and perfected by Lionel Messi, before it began falling into decay. Messi is the other person who prompted me to write this book. I have always wanted to understand how he does what he does on the field. Once I began sniffing around Barça, I became interested in something else: his power. The quiet Argentinian might seem like Cruyff's polar opposite, but in fact he inherited the Dutchman's role as the most influential character inside the club. For years, outsiders mistook his blank gaze and public muteness for a lack of personality. Barça people had long known him as a domineering and scary figure. Over time, FC Barcelona has morphed into FC Messi. That may not end well. It turned out that I was studying Barça as it unraveled. I had first come here at the start of the club's glory days, in 1992, and I finished as they seemed to be drawing to a close, in 2021, with Messi 34. It felt a bit like writing a book about Rome in AD 400 with the barbarians already inside the gates. I began my research thinking I was going to be explaining Barça's rise to greatness, and I have, but I've also ended up charting the decline and possibly the fall. Over the decades, I got to know Barcelona as a journalist visiting for stories. When you reach middle age, you fall asleep after lunch, but there are upsides, too: you have built up a contacts book, some sense of how things change, and a back catalog. Beside me in my office in Paris as I write is a bookcase containing two-hundred-plus notebooks filled with all my research since 1998. There are interviews with Barça players and coaches past and present such as Rivaldo, Lilian Thuram, Neymar, and Gerard Piqué, and my one encounter with Cruyff, an amiable evening in the living room of his mansion in 2000 (after which we fell out traumatically).I have even played in the Camp Nou. In 2007, I won FC Barcelona's annual sportswriting prize, and a crew from the club's TV channel wanted to film me kicking a ball around the pitch in my street clothes. When I ran onto the grass, it was so thick, short, and perfect that I actually laughed. The field has the maximum dimensions for a football pitch, to create space for Barça's attacks, and I felt I was gamboling on a vast lawn. There was even a small crowd: a few dozen tourists doing the Barça tour. I dribbled around trying to imagine what it was like playing here in a match. Looking up at the stands of Europe's biggest stadium, I thought: This is strangely familiar. Strip away the fancy packaging and it's just a football field, like every other you've ever played on. That thought must have reassured some debutants down the decades. In the center of the field it was almost possible to forget that anyone was watching, but when I dribbled down the wing, I was excruciatingly aware of the tourists. The spectators there stare straight at you. Near the touchline, a player is closer to them than to the action in the goalmouth. I could pick out individual faces. It was possible to feel, for a moment, a relationship with this or that person in the stands. I took some shots at the empty goal, and each time the ball went in, the tourists cheered ironically. Lord knows what they thought was going on. When I placed the ball to take a corner and looked up toward goal, my glance took in the entire stadium. It was a theatrical moment: for a second or two, the game was at my feet, and I had a sense of myself as an actor, performing for an audience. I would later learn from a psychologist at Barça that top-class footballers shut out these impressions. During a game they hear the shouted instructions of their teammates, but not the chants of the fans. My final prompt to start writing the book was a visit to Barcelona in 2019. I had come to research an article for my newspaper, the Financial Times, and I happened to arrive on the day that the club awarded the sportswriting prize. Club officials insisted I come to the awards ceremony and to lunch afterward. I ended up sitting for hours at a table in a nook of the Camp Nou, drinking wine and chatting with President Josep Maria Bartomeu and various club directius (literally "directors," but really more like counselors to the president). That was when I realized that Barça regarded me as an alumnus. The media department cheerfully set up interviews for me with Bartomeu, with the then head coach Ernesto Valverde, and with many of Barça's ordinary employees: doctors, data analysts, and brand managers. Access is the hardest thing in football writing. Around the same time that I started this book, I asked a lower-division club for an interview with a youth coach, got no response, phoned and e-mailed for weeks to press my case, and was finally told no. Most big clubs now offer journalists little more than a seat at a press conference to hear the managers' self-justifications, some off-the-record "briefings," and, every few months, a fifteen-minute "sit-down" with a player determined to say nothing. I published my newspaper article, but thought: there's loads more to say. I wanted to understand Cruyff and Messi as people, not as demigods. And I wanted to study Barça not as a theater of dreams but as a workplace. This is a club created by fallible humans who went to work every day and quarreled with each other, tried things and made mistakes, and ended up creating something Catalan and international, brilliant and flawed, of its time and eternal. What is office life at Barça like day-to-day? Who are the people who run the club? How much power do they actually have over the players? How does Barça manage talent? How do the players live? What should they eat, and can anybody persuade them to eat it? I asked my contacts at the club whether they were willing to open their doors to me for a book. They were. Nobody at Barça then or since tried to interfere with what I was writing. No favors were exchanged in the making of this book. From spring 2019 until a last snatched visit during the pandemic in September 2020, I visited Barcelona regularly for research. I dredged up my shaky Spanish, became part of the city's Airbnb problem, and learned to have lunch at three p.m. (Absolutely no skipped meals this time.) My day job at the Financial Times is writing a sociopolitical column. It was a joy to switch from the coronavirus, climate change, Trump, and Brexit to writing about the greatest in human achievement. I used to worry that football was a lower subject than politics. I don't anymore. Football in Barcelona turned out to be deliciously intertwined with food. Barça people really do use wineglasses and sugar packets to explain formations. Over a four-hour lunch of paella and white rioja, Albert Capellas, former coordinator of Barcelona's Masia youth academy and now coach of Denmark under-21s, used a pepper pot, saltshaker, and bottle of olive oil first to set up a midfield and then to teach me how to make pa amb tomˆquet, the classic Catalan delicacy of bread smeared with tomato. Capellas became one of my best informants, not just on food. I like my life in Paris, but I would move to Barcelona like a shot if the family would let me. The Born neighborhood of the city, or Gràcia, or the bourgeois streets on the lower slopes of the Tibidabo mountain, or nearby beach towns like Gavà Mar and Sitges exemplify the European dream: that perfect blend of beauty, good weather, cuisine, wealth, a manageable pace, friendliness, mountains, and sea. Before each visit, I sent press officers a list of interview requests. Interviews with first-team players were hardest to arrange. Sometimes the club itself struggles to contact a player directly, and is blocked by his agent or press representative or some random member of his entourage. I interviewed three club presidents (one of them freshly released from jail) and midfielder Frenkie de Jong, but I learned the most from my conversations with dozens of mid-ranking club employees: everyone from nutritionists to video analysts to social media experts. Many of them seemed delighted at the chance to explain the thing they spend their lives doing, whether that is coaching kids, setting up the new professional women's team, or running the club's business office in some distant metropole. The club wouldn't allow most of these staffers to be quoted by name. The book is in my voice, but it channels what they told me. In short, though I have had some access to the players, I've had more to the people who run the club day-to-day. All the while, I was doing my best to understand this parochial Catalan workplace with a global reach. How does Barcelona the club sit within Barcelona the city? How did Barça transform itself, in thirty years, from Catalan to European to global club? What was gained and lost along the way? How did Barcelona create arguably the best youth academy and best football team in history, and why did they fade? Why is the latest version of Cruyffian football played not in Barcelona but in Manchester and Munich? I found out that the Barça Innovation Hub, a kind of in-house think tank quietly launched in 2017, was asking just these questions. The Hub's job is to reimagine professional football. Its staffers think about everything in the game, from virtual reality to beetroot juice. They admitted to me that they didn't know how football worked (nobody does), but they were at least starting to figure out which questions to ask. Barça's urgent attempts to understand how exactly it did what it did-something it had almost taken for granted in good times-made my quest all the more interesting, at least to me. Several interviews ended with pre-coronavirus hugs. José Mourinho, himself an alumnus of Barça, once scoffed, "Barcelona draw you into the trap of thinking they are all likable, nice, friendly people from a perfect world." It's true that smiles at Barça can conceal oceans, but (and I hope I'm not being naive) my experience is that people here actually are likable, or at least friendly. For nearly thirty years, they've always treated me nicely, and my rule of thumb for football people is that if they are even nice to journalists, they're probably nice to everybody:
Copyright © 2021 by Simon Kuper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.