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inside story

Total Football

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Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World By Graham Hunter BackPage Press, 478 pages Best Price: Rs 969 (15% off) at shopping. indiatimes. com

Every match Barcelona plays is imbued with magic. It starts with the very first touch on the ball and continues for 90 mesmerising minutes as 10 men in blue and red striped jerseys pass the ball around, mostly among themselves, squeezing their opponents' space to one half of the field.

The ball moves at the pace of an ice hockey puck, passes are completed with one touch, sometimes just a caress, the defensive line moves up so far sometimes it is in the centre of the field. And up ahead the quartet of Xavi Hernandes, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and the sublime Lionel Messi dart and swoop across the opponents' terrified defenders, each capable of popping the ball into goal anytime.

This is a team that won everything in the incredibly competitive and high-skills world of Spanish, European and world club football - for the last four years. Opponents like Real Madrid or Manchester United, no pushovers themselves, were humbled in defeat after defeat.

The word 'humbled' is chosen carefully. In game after game, Barcelona played not as if they wanted a victory - that would be simple enough - but to win in such exquisite style, with such grace and mastery that the opposition would feel humbled. If a straight push into goal would suffice for lesser teams, Barca's preference might well be an insolent chip over the keeper's lunging arms.

Rarely do you get to see this sort of mesmerizing football. The Brazilians of the Garrincha-Pele era and the Socrates-Zico years played this game, as did the 1970s Cruyff-Neeskens Holland team. The great Diego Maradona did not need a team: he took to the field and lit it up alone. And for at least eight years now, an astonishingly long time in top-flight competition, Barcelona has played the divine game.

Someone needed to write a book to explain this, describe the people who brought this about and give us the inside track on the 'greatest team in the world. ' Graham Hunter has written that book.

Chronologically, the pre-history of this Barcelona team began in 1988, when Johann Cruyff, who had played for Barca briefly in the 1970s, joined as coach. He brought many fine players with him like Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup and a fine central midfielder called Pep Guardiola, who would one day build the most successful Barca side yet.

But more crucially, Cruyff built a system of playing attacking, aesthetically beautiful football in Barcelona. Over time, this system - devised by Cruyff's mentor and Ajax's genius coach Rinus Michels in the early 1970s - would become the DNA of Barca, starting with kids as young as six in its famous school La Masia, all the way up to its cup-winning seniors.

As beautiful as it looks, total football is famously tough to master and practice. Each player has to have the skill - and stamina - to play in any position. Head-up, one-touch passing, so elegant to watch, needs hundreds of hours of practice in training.
But what of Messi you must be asking. What about Puyol, Abidal, Pique and Mascherano? Where are Xavi, Iniesta and Villa? What about Pep Guardiola? Satisfyingly, all of them loom large in this well-researched book. There are match reports and player profiles, club politics, the transfer market and wonderful anecdotes.

Yes, some things are missing, especially the politically charged relationship between Barca, the team of the rebellious Catalans and Real, which was the team of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. But unlike Philip Ball's Morbo, this is not a book on the sociology of Spanish football. Hunter sets out to tell the story of Pep's Barca and does so wonderfully.

Yet, through one week this April this same team, playing the same beautiful game, lost the Spanish league and crashed out of the European Champions League. Coach Guardiola, perhaps burnt out from his frenetic run with the team, retired.

It took the world four years to figure out how to beat Barca's brand of total football. They finally did it by parking nine players in defence, the way the Italians decided to control the Brazilians decades ago.

For Barca, the next step is logical - to figure a way around this ugly, ultra-defensive football and reclaim their place at the top of competitive football. If, without Pep, Barca pulls it off yet again, they'll achieve Cruyff's - and Michel's - dream of turning total football into a system that, with some talent, can be replicated time and again.

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