totalBarça Exclusive: Graham Hunter discusses new book, Barça of yore and Pep’s future

totalBarça Exclusive: Graham Hunter discusses new book, Barça of yore and Pep’s future

When the helpful people at BackPage Press got us an interview with Graham Hunter, author of the recently released Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, we couldn’t help but send the renowned football journalist a bagful of questions. Mr. Hunter, gracious as ever, took time out of his busy schedule once again (he gave us an interview in December, 2011) to tend to our long list.

Since Mr. Hunter lately has been a sought-after subject among interviewers, totalBarça tried to ask him questions that covered a range of topics—from discussing his writing process for the book to his observations on how Futbol Club Barcelona has evolved since he arrived in Barcelona a decade ago. Some questions deal with the future of the club, such as the prospect of a Xavi-less FC Barcelona, and others with his opinion on club-related issues such as the feasibility of the socio model. Hunter’s replies are fun and frank, and more importantly, full of insight. We hope you enjoy this most comprehensive (and extensive) email interview with the prolific Scot. We guarantee that it’s worth the time and instilled comfort reading Hunter’s views on the club’s future. And if you haven’t gotten a copy of the book yet, you might want to reconsider after reading this interview.

What aspects of FC Barcelona did you want to address and analyse and what misconceptions did you want to clear up in the book?

The first thing I was attempting to do was explain a) why this era has been so successful and entertaining and b) why it was so different from the two previous seasons when Barcelona were pretty awful.

I didn’t really think too much about misconceptions although, you are right, there are some. One is that Barcelona are currently this good simply because of their talent. That ignores years of training and preparation, [Pep] Guardiola’s attention to detail and ability to inspire, and the intense practice, which FCB put into improving their passing, pressing and creativity.

What inspired you while writing the book?

A couple of things inspired me. The first was that I realised it was my privilege. When I was young, I loved football, dearly, and my team, Aberdeen, reached the greatest success of their entire history just when I was old enough to enjoy it to the fullest. For some people around the world, Barcelona means that much to them, but if they are in India or China or the US or Australia they might never get here to watch it. And because of the internet there is a wide spread of information and opinion, but not all of it is well sourced and accurate. So I felt that if I was to put all this effort into telling stories about a club and people I have gotten to know very well over the last ten years, then there wasn’t just a responsibility to myself and the publishers, but to the audience too.

Moreoever I felt that if I’m going to write about FC Barcelona, the greatest modern team and perhaps the best of all time, then my work and my writing HAD to be of the same high standard. This wasn’t an attempt to sell a book because there is an eager market, I wanted to really chronicle them and their development with every ounce of skill I had.

Were there chapters that you struggled with?

There were only two chapters where I found it hard. The first was the one about [Gerard] Piqué and [Carles] Puyol. Why? Well I met Piqué, socially, very early on in my time in Barcelona, before he even left for [Manchester] United. From time to time we have shared small social time together, some private laughs and I like him very much. But it would be false to say we are close friends because the guy has become a superstar and his life has changed. It’s not like we pop out to have dinner every couple of weeks! So writing about him I found slightly odd. However, I hope that professionalism came out.

The other was the presidential chapter. [Joan] Laporta finished his reign making some grave mistakes but I genuinely think that he was the catalyst for absolutely exceptional change—a football resurrection. During his time he made some extraordinary decisions. The new president, Sandro Rosell, I knew a little bit [about him] when he was first on the board but haven’t dealt with [him] so much since. I truly wondered whether his dislike for Laporta and [Johan] Cruyff can be counterproductive and because Rosell is clearly an energetic, intelligent man I hoped very much that he would take the correct path with the club and not get tied up in fighting wars with Laporta and Cruyff in particular. However, so far, I’m impressed with the way he’s trying to run the club. So I tried to reflect that in the chapter.

Can you share with us the writing process? How long did it take to complete? What sort of research went into it? Were there any interviews you were glad you were able to get?

Effectively it was written from mid June to late December—slow by my normal standards, but quick I think for a serious book. I was not helped by the fact that the players went on holiday, went to the US on tour and then came back to find that Pep Guardiola had banned all of them from any one-to-one interviews! Luckily, I had interviewed most of the squad at length over the years.

A couple of crucial interviews, and the ones I enjoyed, were with the former vice presidents Marc Ingla and Ferran Soriano—two bright, articulate men. Then there was a gem of an interview with Txiki Begiristain, a guy who I hold in very high regard. He wanted the interview to be for information, not quoting, so I stuck to that. But he helped guide me immensely.

Research was long and laborious—my notes, other books, hundreds and hundreds of old press conferences and newspapers, conversations with friends and people at the club. I put in a lot of time to try and be sure that accuracy was the bedrock for my thoughts and analysis.

It must have been challenging balancing both everyday work and completing the book.

It was tough. I subsequently learn that lots of those who write long books like this try to carve some sort of hole in their calendar. I didn’t. I was writing for ESPN, the Mail on Sunday, UEFA, broadcasting for Sky, Radio Five, Talksport, Newstalk in Ireland, filming for Sky, writing for Champions magazine, writing for Evening Standard, the Express, and so on. Got through it somehow.

I’m presuming that the club knew that you were working on the book. Did they give you special access to help you in your research or aided you in any manner?

Yes, no and no.

You have been following the club for over a decade now. What major changes, if any, have you seen at Barça apart from changing presidents, boards and players?

Numerous. When I arrived, the crowds would often be under 50,000 on match day. The socio (member) numbers have gone up by nearly 100,000 compared to when I arrived. The new training ground and the new Masia residence for young players are also absolutely massive changes and fundamental for the future. There has been a rise in the number of Catalan players in the team. It’s the emblem now but it wasn’t then. My first teams would have included Enke, Bonanao, Rivaldo, de Boer, Kluivert, Cocu, Quaresma, Luis Enrique, Andersson, Geovanni, Motta, Overmars, Luis Garcia, Rochemback, Christanval and Saviola. NOT the identity we see now.

Jonathan Wilson in a piece recently in the Guardian discussed whether Guardiola’s side could break Béla Guttman’s three-year rule, which states how a great team lasts a maximum of three years. Do you think that given Barça is now 10 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, that the rule is actually coming into motion? Or do you think that Barça does have it in them to break this rule and be considered one of the greatest sides in football?

I didn’t know about the piece or the rule. I have to say that I think the argument is already irrelevant and will continue to be so. Normal teams might win three trophies in three, four or five years. Barça have already won three this season. Spanish Super Cup (which was a herculean pair of games against Madrid, so don’t say that it didn’t matter) plus the UEFA Super Cup against Porto and the FIFA Club World Cup in which they thrashed Santos. Being crowned World Champions was very, very important to Pep and to the history of this club. Moreover, losing a league to a Madrid side this excellent (IF they finally do lose it) is simply a return to something approaching human standards after 13 trophies out of a possible 16. Moreover, there are sufficient, exceptional players of the right age and motivation, plus many very good young ones coming through that I doubt Barcelona will suddenly stop being a force.

You’ve been closely following Barça’s future being developed at La Masia. Do you think with the work going on there and the kind of players emerging that Barça’s supremacy is guaranteed for a long term?

Well, supremacy is a strong word. But the Futbol Base, rather than the Masia, which is only for residential players, is so well run, so full of talent, that the club is so focussed on bringing them through and the coaching at ALL youth levels has just been made full-time professional that I’d be surprised if the club wasn’t stocked with very strong talent in the short/medium future.

What was your greatest moment (interview, game, conversation) in all these years you’ve lived in Barcelona?

Too hard to choose. When I was sent to spend the morning with Cruyff in his house and film a long interview about his life I was in heaven. My idol. And it was magical.

Then to spend some time with Ronaldinho, interview the young Leo Messi one on one when he didn’t have to be at a desk with a room full of people and NOBODY came knocking at the door to say ‘Time’s up’, to sit twice in Guardiola’s office and to do the UEFA interview before both the Champions League finals, to be invited into the Spain World Cup-winning dressing room because people trusted me and to get up to one or two larks with the players, all of those seem to me experiences to treasure. In the book, I detail two little moments behind the scenes at Wembley in May 2011 which surprised me and were uplifting.

But the greatest moments, by a distance, have been available to everyone. I love writing and broadcasting and I’m aware that I’ve worked my way into a privileged position but what I love above it all is the football. And thanks to this group, I’ve seen performances which are unequalled in my life and I don’t expect to see repeated.

Different versions of the press and fans have their own view on this, so who do you personally think is more tactically astute; Pep or Mourinho? And why?

I don’t think that is proven yet. Mourinho has been repeatedly successful in different countries, different languages, different football cultures, and although there is a common theme in some of his football, he has also adapted. Guardiola was the right man for this job, it is now clear. He is deeply football intelligent, he is intensely hard working, he has a different philosophy of football than Mourinho and he is full of tactical and creative ideas. But in order to compare them fully, I’d prefer to wait until Guardiola has worked at another club, perhaps two.

However, in the battles between them at Barça versus Madrid level, there has been a superiority not only in playing resources, but in Guardiola versus Mourinho. That wasn’t quite so clear cut when it was Inter vs Barça though.

How do you picture Barça after Xavi? How do you think Barça’s football will change? Is there someone to step up and take his place?

Well, first of all there is no new Xavi. He is an exception in every way and replacing him for Barcelona or Spain cannot possibly be like for like. Pep once told a good friend of mine, Peter Jenson of the Independent, that he didn’t view [Andrés] Iniesta as the Xavi replacement in due course. So the purchase of Cesc Fàbregas is one option, although he likes to get forward and score more than Xavi has managed. The emergence of Thiago Alcântara is interesting as is that of Sergi Roberto and, in due course, Sergi Samper.

Sometimes in sport, generally, you appreciate what you have while it is there because the future doesn’t offer anything similar. Such is the case with Xavi—a gem of a man and a brilliant footballer. He’ll be back though. There might be a day when Guardiola is the president and Xavi is the coach.

How does the ambience in the dressing room and the close bond between the players affect the results and the squad’s endless ambition to win more trophies? How will it affect them when an important player retires, or leaves the team?

Good question. I think the answer is that atmosphere is fundamental. Before Pep took over things weren’t right and standards slipped. Okay, some of that is about personal and collective discipline. But when the atmosphere is collegiate and people get on sharing the same goals then it’s harder for things to go wrong. Simply because of their ages, the clock is ticking on Puyol and Xavi. But they will be missed more in a playing than atmosphere sense because there was a time when both of them were in the squad/team (2006-2008) and it still didn’t stop standards from slipping.

But stepping back a bit, the key thing is that Pep has been something of a pied piper in terms of atmosphere and feeling and unity. He knows that there is a burnout and that after a certain period either the squad or the coach needs to be changed. Let’s see when he thinks that is.

Why and when did you become a Barça fan?

No, you are on the wrong territory there. I’m a journalist who pitched up in the city of Barcelona when the team was horribly poor and I moved to Spain for Spanish football—not for FC Barcelona. I moved there for two reasons, as opposed to Madrid, because I’m an Aberdonian and I like to live by the sea and Steve Archibald, who was a star for my team, Aberdeen, played very successfully for Barça and I was friends with Terry Venables, the ex-Barça coach, both of which influenced me.

The reason I have written this book is not because I’m a supporter, but because I’m a writer who happened to be in the right place at the right time for several years.

Out of the current roster, who would you look up to as a person?

Well good question again. I think Xavi represents a great deal of what I’d like to think I would be if I had that talent; articulate, intelligent, always hungry, dignified in defeat, cheeky, patently loving every single moment of what he does, honorable, capable of a strong friendship with Iker Casillas. I admire all of that.

However there are others. [Éric]Abidal is a friendly, fair, proud and wholly likeable man. He’s very popular in the squad and there’s a reason for that. Another who deserves mention is [Victor] Valdés. I respect the way he gets on with his work; never dropping his standards, coping with pressure, always fit, always prepared to speak to the media after either victory or defeat.

Truthfully, however, if you compared my attitude to life and some of my decisions, the guy who I’m actually most like, in personality only, is Piqué.

Out of the current roster, who would you like to take under your wings as a person to mentor?

Hmm. That’s presuming a great deal. Do I have qualities which would make me good at that? Not sure. But in the spirit of the question perhaps Cuenca. I think that there is a lovely talent in there, indeed I think he’ll graduate from being a winger to being someone who can play creative passes in behind the strikers. He has a lovely balance and vision. However he’s still a very young, shy fella. My message would be, (never mind being mentored by a daft Scot) copy Xavi.

Who do you think approaches life and football in the best manner—anyone outside of the current Barça squad, past squads or from other teams altogether?

I’m friends with the Scotland captain Darren Fletcher and recently he’s had an awful run of bad luck, missing two Champions League finals and being struck down with a virus, which is hurting his career. But he’s creative, cheerful, calm and still deeply in love with the game. I like that and respect that.

I’m not sure whether you know my Sky Sports Revista de la Liga colleague Terry Gibson but he famously played for Wimbledon, Spurs, Manchester United and Coventry and is one of the nicest most interesting men I know.

I knew Sir Alex Ferguson in his Aberdeen days and have worked around him for almost the length of my professional career. A complicated man but one whose passion for football, for winning and for turning out teams which play the right way, I also admire. During my time in Spain the guys who have impressed me most, as men, would be Xavi, Casillas, [Vicente] del Bosque and Luis Aragonés—all of whom have treated me very well.

Even with Barça’s current financial state, would you recommend new or old clubs to follow the socio concept?

That is a complicated one. So long as people do NOT think that it is a perfect system and cures all ills, then yes. For any faults in the presidential-voter system there is accountability and there is no prospect of this ‘sold to a mystery owner who we cannot trace and whose past is a mystery.’ Clearly there have been better and worse presidents in the socio model but there is a degree to which the club owes the socios both in terms of behaviour and philosophy and there IS a means via which those who are in control can be called to account. It’s also a revenue generator. Barça’s socios must earn the club around €25m per anum.

Why can Real Madrid be so dominant but not be able to beat the current FC Barcelona squad?

I’m not sure that they are ‘so dominant’. They should win the league title from this point but that’s yet to be proven—one win in ten meetings between Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, the league and Champions League for Barcelona last season etc.

If the real question in there is ‘why can’t Real Madrid beat FC Barcelona at the moment’ then there are a multitude of answers. Mourinho has made too many errors for a top class coach during these games. Far too many. His players have caused their own problems with a) too many red cards not one of which was false b) too much emphasis on physical play and not enough on simply beating FC Barcelona at football and c) losing confidence in recent matches.

I do not believe that the gap is massive. But here are the key elements. Messi is the single biggest factor. Barcelona’s passing system and ability to tire Real Madrid out is another. Mourinho’s major errors in tactics is another absolutely major one and, finally, I think that, man for man, Barcelona have consistently put out teams which have fewer weaknesses and more good players. That’s normally a recipe for winning.

P.S. Too few people identify what a disadvantage for Real Madrid the errors which both Pepe and Marcelo make in crucial moments of the Clásicos are.

What sort of song comes to mind when you think of Barça’s style of play?

Hats off to you. Brilliant question. When Pep did his deliberate ‘rant’ before last season’s Champions League semifinal, I had the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” in my head. But as for Barcelona’s play … perhaps Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas” and “King Creole” for their speed and confidence, and his songs “That’s the Wonder of You” and “If I Can Dream” for their magnificence and soaring orchestral  power.

Where do you think Guardiola will end up going if he decides to leave FC Barcelona? Who would be a worthy successor?

Where he WILL go is subject to too much transfer market interference. Will the United job come up sooner than the Arsenal one or the Manchester City one? We don’t know. First. I don’t think he’d want to work for the Chelsea as we know it. Roman Abramovich seems too trigger happy, too prone to interfering. I can’t see it. United. That with Arsenal seems his most logical choice. But City want to sign Messi one day. They recently tried to sign Ferran Soriano as chief executive and that would have meant taking Txiki Begiristain–both of which would have been been brilliant moves. So Pep at City one day? Perhaps, yes.

He admires the Bundesliga and a club like Dortmund or Munich would be a good fit and one day he will live and work in Italy again. He likes it very much there.

But next? I think England. And perm from Liverpool, United, City or Arsenal. Just my opinion.

How do you think the restrictive membership can affect Barça’s fan following in the long term.

Honestly? Almost not at all.

Are you worried that you will now invite the wrath of Real Madrid fans? Be labelled a Barça-biased writer for life? It’s not a bad thing, you know.

Well I have mixed feelings on that. I strive to be independent and have done all my life. One of the first disappointments when you become a professional journalist is that you see your club (which is Aberdeen) behind the scenes and you begin to have some illusions shattered. Sad but necessary. So then you have to learn to write objectively when you report on them. From that point onwards its easy. Be accurate, be honest, communicate.

I think I have been fair and accurate and unbiased in recent reporting of the Clásico battles. But it’s clear that, frankly, there are some really stupid people out there in the world. Because they are fans and they love their club, they think that any article which differs from their view is biased. Normally I’ll ignore that, but if people are abusive then, on Twitter at least, I’ll stand up for myself.

What I MUST emphasise is that simply because there is SO much to praise about FC Barcelona at the moment that in NO WAY means that I will be shy of criticising them when I feel it is fair and accurate. Some who mistake me for a fan and nothing else will get a shock. But that’s life.

Finally, words of wisdom for aspiring football writers.

If you want to write about football these days it’s easy. If you want to do it well, it’s harder than ever because it’s tough to get the access directly to players and coaches, or tougher than it used to be, and to get your writer’s voice heard amongst the millions who now write blogs and communicate on Twitter etc. means you have to stand out.

However; 1) Be articulate, passionate, honest and accurate. 2) Pull no punches. 3) If you love football, and if not, don’t write about it, then let that love for the game shine through. 4) Avoid bias. 5) Study what you are writing about and build up your knowledge so that you are something more than just an opinion bumping into a computer. 6) Enjoy.

The print edition of Graham Hunter’s Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, released by BackPage Press UK, comes out February 17. You can purchase the book straight from BackPage Press here or head to Amazon here. Watch videos of Graham Hunter talking about different aspects of FC Barcelona on BackPage Press’ YouTube Channel.  Follow BackPage Press and Graham Hunter on Twitter for more updates.