Last night, I taped the Colbert Show (tonight, 11.35 PM ET) and was asked by Colbert to explain the allure of football. It was a timely question. I don’t know about you, but I am still whistling “Hey Jude” while recovering from the weekend. A Premier League opening round of human wonder. 10 games. No draws. 34 goals. Full stadia. Stirring scenes. Football as it should be, with the players matching the moment delivering one virtuoso individual display after another as referees let the game unfurl without interference. There is nothing like football, when played the right way, to make our collective spirits soar.
One note before I dive into the big story in this email, which is about the implosion of Barcelona: It was a total joy to talk to Colbert about my book, Reborn in the USA. I have always joked that I love America more than Kenny Powers. I actually believe that is true. Yet, I know that Springsteen and Dolly Parton are above me. And I like to think Colbert is above even them. The Lebron of loving America. So to chat about that love at such a complex time was incredibly humbling. Tune in and watch. I am hoping they do not cut out the bit where he asked about John Oliver and Liverpool’s asterisk season.
No one understands Barcelona better than the Paris-based Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper. Today, my friend releases The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the Making--and Unmaking--of the World's Greatest Soccer Club. Few writers have better timing as he releases this mesmerizing volume straight into the whirlwind that is the traumatic loss of Messi and the financial chaos which has caused it. Full disclosure: as you will read, I think Simon is a genius. The way he writes about football -- the way he has always written about football -- has informed so much of my own thinking. I remember one of our earliest conversations, I urged him to return to writing about the game full-time. He needed a break for so many reasons. I am personally thrilled he is back. The game of football is better off when Simon is writing about it. I blurbed the book. This is what I said:
“Simon Kuper is an incredible storyteller. He sees football as a mirror which reflects the world around it. In the same way as Barça claim to be ‘more than a club,’ this is more than a football book. It explores visionary creativity through Cruyff, the limitations of genius through Messi, and human decision-making lived out under conditions of hysterical pressure. A must-read that is about football in the same way Animal Farm is a tale of horses and pigs.” And I mean it. Here’s my conversation with Simon Kuper.
ROG: You have long been my favorite football writer. Your early work, Football Against the Enemy, pioneered a style that understood football as a mirror which reflects the society, history, and culture that surrounds it. That is a common enough approach now, but you really trailblazed it...what were your own influences?
SK: My influences weren’t so much in soccer but in other sports. Actually, American writers were probably the main influences. When I was ten, my Dad, who’s an anthropologist, was attached to Stanford for a sabbatical year, so in 1980/81 we lived in Palo Alto, which wasn’t then a superrich place yet, just a fairly regular university town. As a sports-mad 10- to 11-year-old, of course I fell for baseball and gridiron football, collected baseball cards, played touch football on the school playground, became an Oakland A’s and Oakland Raiders fan, and began reading American sportswriting, especially about baseball.
One day my Dad bought me these two anthologies of baseball writing, edited by someone called Charles Einstein. I read extracts by people like Phillip Roth and Bernard Malamud again and again. But the piece that really stayed with me was by a writer I’d never heard of, this guy John Updike. When the Boston Red Sox hitter Ted Williams had retired, Updike had gone to interview him and had written this really sophisticated, insightful character portrait.
I thought: hang on, this isn’t like the football profiles in “Shoot” magazine. So I began to sense: you can write about sportspeople as actual 3-dimensional humans, and just as American writers used baseball as a way to see America, I eventually – years later – tried to use football to understand countries a bit better.
ROG: I blurbed your book and said that it in the same way as Barcelona claim to be “more than a club,” it is more than a soccer book. Other than access, what big story did you believe was trapped in there that you wanted to tell?
SK: I think it’s a story of genius and the beauty of human creation. I never wanted to be just a sportswriter, because I wanted to write about politics and society and the world and things that really mattered. I dreaded having a life where you think, “It’s Tuesday night, so I’m writing the Aston Villa 1 Newcastle 0 match report, or listening to the stupid self-justifying nonsense that some manager is purveying in the press conference.” I’m glad the Financial Times gave me a general column that allowed me to escape full time sport.
But actually, the last five years have made me reconsider whether sports really are a second-rank activity. The horror of climate change and Brexit and Trump and Covid-19 have helped me appreciate just how much sport matters. Messi, Cruyff, and the great Barcelona team of the Guardiola years are beautiful creations - humanity at its best. I wanted to understand these three men. And I wanted to write a portrait of a football club from the inside: day to day, how does the thing actually work – or not work? Imagine FC Barcelona as an ordinary workplace, like an insurance company, or a factory – how do they make the sausage and how do they all get on?
ROG: What was the moment you enjoyed most when reporting the book?
SK: Kicking a ball around the perfect lawn of the Camp Nou, shooting some goals, taking corner-kicks where you look up and see this massive stadium envelop you. I’m not joking. This actually happened.
ROG: Your book comes out at this moment of implosion and public humiliation for Barcelona. Did you have any sense of that in the time you spent inside the club?
SK: It took me a couple of months but then I realised it. When I began the book in early 2019, I thought: I’m going to tell the story of their greatness. I could see there were cracks in the ceiling of the cathedral, as it were, but they didn’t seem a huge deal. You go back to the end of April 2019, they’d beaten Liverpool 3-0 at home in the first leg of the Champions League semi, they were favorites to win the thing, and they won the Spanish league. Then they go to Anfield, and in the second half….
By early 2020, I understood: the whole thing is collapsing. There’s no more money, other clubs play more modern football, even England is producing Barcelona-style ballplayers, and Barça have been buying the wrong players since 2015. It’s like writing a book about the Roman empire when the barbarians are already inside the gates.
ROG: Knowing what you know about the tectonic plates that are always shifting under football, changing the global balance of power, if you are to predict Barcelona's future, what do you see for them and why?
SK: In 2019 a couple of Barcelona executives told me: when Messi leaves, we might become Man United post-Ferguson, i.e., maybe we won’t win prizes anymore, but we’ll still be a giant club with a global fanbase.
Now I think that’s the benign scenario. The worst-case scenario is collapse: Barcelona become the Leeds of 20 years ago. My bet would be an outcome somewhere in between those two extremes.
ROG: A bass line to Messi's goodbye is a lingering sense that clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan had no choice but to push for a Super League. Do you believe, despite its self-immolating launch, we will see the idea exhumed and back to life? If so, within how long?
SK: It’s dead, man. Even in this stupid industry, nobody’s going to be stupid enough to try a Super League oh, for at least a few months. And then it will fail again. Even the fans of the Super League clubs don’t want it. People have been talking about a European Super League literally since the 1960s. In a sense, we already have one: the Champions League. I think the ideal balance for the big clubs, even in base financial terms, is Champions League plus domestic league. There might at most be a shift in emphasis – e.g. a Premier League of 16 or 18 teams, and more Champions League games.
ROG: Will Football eat itself? If not, what will stop it?
SK: Nah. Professional football will survive us all. It has proven it can survive on tiny earnings – think of the 1890s or even the 1980s – and it can thrive with billion-dollar clubs today. Even when clubs go bust, they survive – you can’t get more sustainable than that. A club goes bankrupt, everyone gets hysterical, and months later it has been refounded. Look at Bury or Macclesfield recently. Take England as an example: almost every English professional football club that existed in 1921 still exists today. And they’ll still be here in 2121, except in the towns that will have been washed away by the sea. Or maybe the football club will be the last bit of the town that survives – a sort of FC Atlantis.
I cannot recommend Simon’s writing enough. Not just this Barcelona book which I truly encourage you to inhale. But Ajax, The Dutch, and The War is one of my favorite books of all time. As proof: I recommended it in the list of great summer reads I just wrote for Amazon.
One last request: Please share this email with your friends and encourage them to sign up for it. I am going to be doing a lot with this in the year to come, and value the chance to turn this into a real 2-way Conversation. Please let me know what you think of it. I would love, love, love to hear.
Big Love to all of you. Especially you Spurs fans who now must be considered as true challengers to Rafa’s Everton as they seek to defend the coveted Champions of August Trophy. Let’s count down to the weekend together.