One night in October, Paris Saint-Germain played a league game against last season’s French champions, Lille. In the first half, Lille dominated completely. Thirty minutes in, Canadian Jonathan David scored for Lille, with a dazzlingly quick movement.
At the other end of the field, Lionel Messi stood there in his PSG shirt, looking puzzled but admiring of the goal. Messi was subbed off at half-time, allegedly with muscle strain. PSG came back to win 2-1.
How did all this happen: Messi gone from Barcelona to PSG, Barcelona almost bankrupt and sinking, languishing in the middle of the La Liga table at year’s end, and already out of the Champions League? The mess that surrounded the Messi move and Barcelona’s collapse into mediocrity is one of soccer’s great mysteries, or an outright tragedy, depending on your loyalties.
Much of the mystery is solved in Simon Kuper’s book The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the making – and unmaking – of the world’s greatest soccer club. In what is 2021′s best book on soccer, Kuper probes deep into culture, on and off the field, and the finances of FC Barcelona. It’s a book, he says, that he’s been researching since 1992.
While writing his first book Football Against the Enemy, he visited the Nou Camp, the club’s home stadium and nearby training academy La Masia. He became fascinated by the club’s traditions and values, an institution owned by its supporters, dedicated to developing its own roster of great players and playing an outsize role in the politics of Spain’s Catalan region.
At that stage, Messi was five years old in Rosario, Argentina, and already attracting attention for his skills. And at age 13, Messi would arrive in Barcelona with his family. He’d get needed medical treatment and be schooled and nourished at the team’s academy into becoming one of the best players in the world.
He would experience little except Barcelona, staying for 18 years, and be at the core of a team that won the La Liga championship 10 times, the Spanish Super Cup eight times, the Copa del Rey six times and the UEFA Champions League four times.
Kuper didn’t get to interview Messi for this book, but he talked to many Barca players, officials and friends. The picture of Messi that emerges isn’t all that surprising. He’s reclusive, private, family-centred, likes routine and is absolutely certain of his own worth for Barcelona as a player.
This book, long in the making, was written before Messi left for PSG and in an uncanny coincidence, was published the week Messi tearfully announced his departure. The tears were real; the players and his family have, apart from occasional vacation returns to Rosario, known nothing except Barcelona as club, city and home.
The author’s fascination with FC Barcelona has its own roots. Kuper grew up in the Netherlands when Johan Cruyff, as a player, and with coach Rinus Michels at Ajax, revolutionized how soccer is played – with economy of movement, ceaseless short passing and a flexibility of tactical structure on the field that depends on team unity.
Cruyff eventually left to play for Barcelona (Michels went, too) and became its manager, an enormously influential figure in forging the Barcelona style and philosophy. The picture that emerges of Cruyff (who died in 2016 and was interviewed by Kuper many times) is strange but endearing. A chain-smoker since he was a teen, Cruyff hated long, strenuous training sessions and his genius was to invent a style of play that was less about running and more about ball control and precision.
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Eventually, Lionel Messi became the perfect player to use everything established by Cruyff, later honed and perfected by Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, who has played under Cruyff and became his assistant and student. Under Guardiola, Barcelona’s glory years began in 2008 and continued even after Guardiola left, exhausted by the internal politics of a club owned and controlled by the city’s “burgesia,” or merchant class.
The glory years, when the club became a global phenomenon, made it lazy, suggests Kuper. Fewer young players emerged from its academy and those who did often left, knowing that breaking into a team anchored by Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique and Victor Valdes was unlikely. As money poured in from TV rights and merchandising, Messi demanded more and more every season. His father, Jorge, did the demanding.
Messi quietly asserted himself in the backrooms, asking the club to acquire new players that would suit his style of play, and dispense with others. Between 2014 and 2020, the club spent close to €1-billion ($1.45-billion) on acquiring players, often overpaying for overrated youngsters who never lasted long.
And when Messi got a pay raise, everyone in the team knew it, asked for a raise and got it. The payroll was staggeringly large. Between 2017 and 2021 it is estimated that Messi was paid €555-million.
Kuper is excellent on both the internal politics of the club and roles played by the most junior staffer to the club president, and the meaning of what happens at La Masia, where the focus is not just on developing skills, but the science of nutrition, sleep and psychology.
There is also a fascinating analysis of how the Barcelona style of play is created, from the training sessions to the instructions given to players about how and when to move the ball forward.
Anyone who watched the team – and Spain, which absorbed much of the club’s technique – will agree when Kuper says, “None of this is trivial. What Barca created, in the world’s most beloved sport, is one of the most cheering of human achievements.” Reading the book is, by the way, an entry into understanding why Ted Lasso is a brilliant TV show.
As for Messi, he couldn’t see the writing on the wall: Barcelona had accumulated massive debt and could not afford to pay him. In 2020, he had been tempted to leave, probably for Guardiola at Manchester City but, as Kuper reveals, his father’s amateurish approach to negotiations meant Messi had to stay, and take a pay cut.
In 2021, Jorge Messi tried to reach a similar deal, but that proved impossible. COVID had tipped the balance; the loss of revenue from games not played had made Barcelona a financial basket case. Even if Messi played for free, the club was barely functioning, mired in deep debt.
Now, Messi plays for Paris Saint-Germain, sometimes playing well but often looking forlorn and puzzled; lost in the mess of it all, something that even he, the genius with the ball, cannot comprehend.