2009 was the most difficult year of his career for Andrés Iniesta. The then 25-year-old FC Barcelona midfielder did not play badly, but for months he suffered from mental complaints that were reminiscent of depression. At one point he felt so bad that he asked his parents if he could sleep in their bed. Besides them, Iniesta found support and understanding from his employer. The club organized professional help and Barca coach Josep Guardiola encouraged him to leave training if he felt the need to. “Don’t ask for permission, just go,” said the trainer. “You are important: you and you alone.”
The story of Iniesta’s depression returns in a new book about FC Barcelona by British journalist Simon Kuper, which will be published in Dutch translation this Tuesday. For Kuper, the club’s handling of the psychological problems of one of its star players symbolizes the sense of family at Barcelona. The Catalans dominated the biggest sport in the world at the time, but within the club there was room for friendliness, civilization and an interconnectedness rarely found in other top teams.
It was just one of Barça’s quirks that, according to Kuper, made the pretentious club slogan mes que un club (“more than a club”) was more than a hollow phrase at the time. FC Barcelona also played eye-watering football with self-trained players, was a beacon of Catalan anti-nationalist resistance and was the only club in the world with the name of an aid organization (Unicef) on its shirt.
In a story that is as extensive as it is entertaining, Kuper explains how FC Barcelona managed to do this, only to fall prey to pride and commercial temptations. That the author, who has been following Barca since the early 1990s and spoke to numerous stakeholders, has had the publication of his book coincide with Lionel Messi’s departure for Paris Saint-Germain shows a special sense of timing.
The legacy of Cruyff
For Dutch readers who have never seen Johan Cruijff play football or coach, the first chapters read as an introduction to the origins of modern football. It is common among trainers to talk about ‘Cruyff’s legacy’, Kuper explains what it entails and how much recent successes of FC Barcelona are part of it.
At a time when the defensive catenaccio was the norm, based on fixed positions and physical duels, the thin Cruijff invented ‘total football’ at Ajax, in which everyone attacked and defended. “The players of Ajax were able to switch positions so fluently that you couldn’t even speak of positions anymore,” Kuper writes. „The game of Ajax evolved into what Cruijff would call ‘a controlled chaos’. […] He saw football as geometry, a game of space.”
Johan Cruijff also became the great innovator at FC Barcelona from 1973. First as a footballer, who gave Barca dribbling, fitting and above all directing confidence with a rare league title and victories over arch-rival Real Madrid. But even more so as a coach (1988-1996), by teaching the club the art of dominant positional play and the use of space. ‘Rondos’ started to determine the training sessions under his leadership, long runs were a thing of the past. In 1992 Cruijff’s ‘dream team’ won the European Cup 1.
Even more important than Cruijff’s influence on the first team was his renovation of youth education. He made of La Masia “the university of the pass,” Kuper writes. “Exchanging passes with teammates was a kind of conversation, like musicians in a jazz combo communicating wordlessly.”
And he paved the way for boys like Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and most importantly: Lionel Messi, who came to Barcelona when he was 13. Before Cruijff got involved, La Masía selected like other clubs by length. There was no room for small players. Cruijff thought that Barcelona should scout small, technical footballers with a good overview.
Best batch ever
Kuper’s book is not an homage to Cruijff. He writes extensively about his quirks and shortcomings as a trainer. Without Cruijff the tiki-taka football of Messi’s Barcelona would not have been possible, but neither with Cruijff as coach. He was too capricious, too undisciplined and above all too fond of conflict for that. Guardiola was the one who turned Cruijff’s ideas into a coherent vision and renounced his conflict model.
He was helped by probably the best crop a youth academy has ever produced, with Messi being the biggest star of them all. The Argentinian won the Champions League with Barcelona four times, and he became national champion ten times.
But FC Barcelona came to believe in its own superiority. While other European clubs watched and took Cruijff’s ideas further, the development in Catalonia stagnated. La Masia stopped supplying top talent and the club became increasingly dependent on Messi, who demanded an astronomical salary in return. A series of expensive bad buys brought the club to the brink of collapse.
Even sadder is how the club sold itself to finance its expensive roster. Unicef disappeared from the front of the shirt in 2010. It was replaced by the ‘Qatar Foundation’. The club, which once revolved around local supporters, started all sorts of initiatives to earn as much as possible from fans worldwide. Barça became a Disney version of itself. ‘More than a club’ FC Barcelona has long ceased to be, concludes Kuper. As he sums it up: “The club has come to mean less and less to more and more people.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 17, 2021