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n taking a cab in London, one of the first questions I was often asked, after it was established that I was a Yank, was whether I was a football fan (soccer to Americans) and, if so, what club I supported. Fearing offending the driver and possibly finding myself with a higher fare, I found it easiest to flip the question back on the cab driver. The club I support would, and will, remain nameless for the sake of civility, but the “beautiful game” as Pelé called it is a truly fascinating thing and one that transcends mere fandom into something greater for so much of the world. 

The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the Making—and Unmaking—of the World’s Greatest Soccer Club | Simon Kuper | Penguin Press | August 2021

I am, at best, a football fan of convenience. I’m a supporter in that if a good match is on, I’ll watch it, doubly so if my club happens to be playing. I get much more into football when it’s the World Cup or Champions League finals and can certainly name the big players, but don’t actively follow. This likely makes me a die-hard fan in America, but barely a fan at all when compared with the rest of the world. There is nothing like a die-hard football fan in London, Madrid, or Rome, and certainly nothing like a FC Barcelona fan that bleeds red and blue. 

And to be sure, FC Barcelona is an entirely different animal in an entirely different ecosystem. While I was nominally aware of this, it wasn’t until I read Simon Kuper’s “The Barcelona Complex” that I fully appreciated this club’s history and its importance more broadly to Barcelona itself. It will come as no surprise to regular readers of my reviews that I’m a fan of the Financial Times, and that is how I first encountered Kuper’s columns and, later, his books. His previous book “Soccernomics” looked at the economics and data science behind the world’s most popular sport, but “The Bareclona Complex” is a much more in-depth look at this one club and how it achieved such dominance, before it fell back (by its own hand) to the realm of mere football mortals. 

Kuper writes with an infectious excitement about the club and the sport, but one that is still quite grounded. He’s a fan to be sure, and an excellent journalist, but his fandom is not uncritical and is tempered by his professionalism. “The Barcelona Complex” is neither Lionel Messi hagiography nor is it a super-critical expose—the latter of which seems to be a trend in at least American sports writing (especially when it comes to Tom Brady and the Patriots). 

“Mes Que Un Club” is a Catalan phrase that means “more than a club”, an unofficial motto of sorts for FC Barcelona, and Kuper brings that expression to life. One of the few truly locally owned clubs—with its thousands of dues paying fans and locally-selected directors—Barcelona is very much part of the fabric of Catalonia and embraces the Catalan identity. The history Kuper presents is utterly fascinating and one about which I had no idea. To be sure American sports teams have very local if often uneven identities. Having grown up in New England, I’m well aware of the bitter rivalries of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees baseball teams, both of which have their regional groundings. But the Red Sox and Yankees are not so fundamentally connected with a regional political identity or independence movement as FC Barcelona is—for as much as it is a global brand, it retains that deep Catalan connection. 

That Kuper manages to connect not just the rivalry on the pitch between Madrid and Barcelona (the famed annual “El Clasico” match), but also the intricacies of football and the evolution of the modern game, the business and economics of the sport, and the personalities so well is a testament to his writing and passion for the sport. This is not a book about how FC Barcelona’s success will translate to your board room—as Kuper writes, outside of a few clichés here and there, there is very little overlap. Modern professional football is a wholly talent-based industry. Whereas (and with apologies to any investment bankers out there) one investment banker is largely interchangeable with another, there is only one Lionel Messi or Ronaldihno. Modern football clubs are less unified teams and more of a collection of highly-paid general contractors brought together for a short period of time. 

“The Barcelona Complex” is an education in football. I learned more about the sport and its strategy in a few hundred pages than I’d accumulated in all my past conversations over a pint or two watching a match. It is truly a fascinating sport and one I imagine more Americans would enjoy if they understood what was happening on the pitch and why. 

There is no small irony in the fact that the talent-based nature of the sport was both a recipe for FC Barcelona’s success and the trigger for its gradual decay. Messi is a truly one-of-a-kind footballer and Kuper has the data to prove it in terms of goals and assists per game, dribbles, and other statistics. But FC Barcelona’s reliance on Messi and building the club around him alone was not a long-term strategy. A short-term route to victory, absolutely, but something that was unsustainable as he aged and which flew in the face of the club’s own model for success. 

“Barça”, like many European football clubs, operates its own youth academy called “La Masia de Can Planes” or just La Masia—a hypercompetitive program for future football stars. Masia differs in that it places a greater emphasis, according to Kuper, on investing in the footballers both on and off the field, offering them real educations and supporting their personal growth. Young players gradually progress through a Darwinian process, with the top rising to the highest ranks of European football, but representing only a small portion of those who start. American sports have nothing similar. There are, of course, youth sporting leagues such as Pop Warner football and Little League Baseball, but these are addendums to the educational process, not replacements. 

FC Barcelona’s Masia generated some of the sport’s leading talents, talents that saw the club win championships, overcome its arch-rivals in Madrid, and establish a global brand for which there really is no American comparison: at one point, FC Barcelona had more followers on social media than the entirety of the NFL, combined. Messi anchored the team and the team, keen to keep him, catered to his every whim and perceived desire, making changes to coaches, players, and line-ups alike. Buoyed by success, the club sought to make big ticket transfers, embarking on an unsustainable spending spree with increasingly limited funds (due in no small part to Messi’s skyrocketing salary) in hopes of replicating that one-man model, at a time when the rest of the sport caught up to Barça’s level of talent and strategy for the game. 

Not surprisingly, when making a multi-million pound or euro investment in a player, the club wants to ensure that they get the most value for money. Barça, like other clubs, sought to provide the best support staff for their players, while working to unlock the secrets of their high-level talent. Interestingly, there just isn’t enough data on these top-tier players to understand what makes them tick, or what makes them successful. There is a risk, too, in that the pursuit of data-driven success, unique talents may get overlooked—the Billy Beane “Moneyball” challenge. Of course, it’s hard to force your world-class player to avoid the temptations of fame or to avoid the pitfalls of family and hangers-on. While Barça may have had more success than some of their English club counterparts, youth, fame, and money are always a dangerous prospect. 

Ultimately, Barça found itself in a losing position. Messi was aging. Plans to build on the global brand and turn Camp Nou into a Disney-style resort landed flat as the world went into Covid-related lockdowns. It bucked the trend of selling out to Russian oligarchs or Middle Eastern governments, or even selling brand space on its uniforms until very recently. Barça’s uniforms only had UNICEF on its shirts for some time, but now also host the logo of Rakuten, the Japanese Amazon. 

Perhaps most alarmingly for the long-term health of the club, it consistently failed to replicate the level of success it once had, imperiling the attractiveness of its brand. Everyone likes a winner, but once a club starts losing, that’s when only the real fans remain. The club also seems to be struggling to adapt to the new information economy. It’s one thing to have the aforementioned followers on Instagram or Facebook, and another entirely to have that data directly. Here, FC Barcelona is not alone in struggling to find a way to cut out the information-broker middleman of Silicon Valley.

It’s a testament to Kuper’s writing and reporting that you really do not need to be a fan, diehard or otherwise, of Barça or football writ large to enjoy “The Barcelona Complex”. To be sure, fans will get a lot more out of the book, but this is one of those books that goes beyond the “sports” genre into something more—it’s as much about business, culture, strategy, and personality as it is about football itself. 

There is a temptation to draw conclusions or comparisons to geopolitics, business, or economics, but I think it’s best to let Kuper’s book stand on its own merits. It’s a fun, enjoyable, and fascinating look at the world of football, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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FC Barcelona & The Beautiful Game

Photo by Klemens Kopfle via Unsplash.

January 22, 2022

In a break from his staple diet of geopolitical readings, Joshua Huminski reveals his fandom for the "beautiful game." Huminski reviews Simon Kuper's "The Barcelona Complex," which delves into the rise and fall of FC Barcelona, both driven by its reliance on the incomparable Lionel Andrés Messi.

O

n taking a cab in London, one of the first questions I was often asked, after it was established that I was a Yank, was whether I was a football fan (soccer to Americans) and, if so, what club I supported. Fearing offending the driver and possibly finding myself with a higher fare, I found it easiest to flip the question back on the cab driver. The club I support would, and will, remain nameless for the sake of civility, but the “beautiful game” as Pelé called it is a truly fascinating thing and one that transcends mere fandom into something greater for so much of the world. 

The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the Making—and Unmaking—of the World’s Greatest Soccer Club | Simon Kuper | Penguin Press | August 2021

I am, at best, a football fan of convenience. I’m a supporter in that if a good match is on, I’ll watch it, doubly so if my club happens to be playing. I get much more into football when it’s the World Cup or Champions League finals and can certainly name the big players, but don’t actively follow. This likely makes me a die-hard fan in America, but barely a fan at all when compared with the rest of the world. There is nothing like a die-hard football fan in London, Madrid, or Rome, and certainly nothing like a FC Barcelona fan that bleeds red and blue. 

And to be sure, FC Barcelona is an entirely different animal in an entirely different ecosystem. While I was nominally aware of this, it wasn’t until I read Simon Kuper’s “The Barcelona Complex” that I fully appreciated this club’s history and its importance more broadly to Barcelona itself. It will come as no surprise to regular readers of my reviews that I’m a fan of the Financial Times, and that is how I first encountered Kuper’s columns and, later, his books. His previous book “Soccernomics” looked at the economics and data science behind the world’s most popular sport, but “The Bareclona Complex” is a much more in-depth look at this one club and how it achieved such dominance, before it fell back (by its own hand) to the realm of mere football mortals. 

Kuper writes with an infectious excitement about the club and the sport, but one that is still quite grounded. He’s a fan to be sure, and an excellent journalist, but his fandom is not uncritical and is tempered by his professionalism. “The Barcelona Complex” is neither Lionel Messi hagiography nor is it a super-critical expose—the latter of which seems to be a trend in at least American sports writing (especially when it comes to Tom Brady and the Patriots). 

“Mes Que Un Club” is a Catalan phrase that means “more than a club”, an unofficial motto of sorts for FC Barcelona, and Kuper brings that expression to life. One of the few truly locally owned clubs—with its thousands of dues paying fans and locally-selected directors—Barcelona is very much part of the fabric of Catalonia and embraces the Catalan identity. The history Kuper presents is utterly fascinating and one about which I had no idea. To be sure American sports teams have very local if often uneven identities. Having grown up in New England, I’m well aware of the bitter rivalries of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees baseball teams, both of which have their regional groundings. But the Red Sox and Yankees are not so fundamentally connected with a regional political identity or independence movement as FC Barcelona is—for as much as it is a global brand, it retains that deep Catalan connection. 

That Kuper manages to connect not just the rivalry on the pitch between Madrid and Barcelona (the famed annual “El Clasico” match), but also the intricacies of football and the evolution of the modern game, the business and economics of the sport, and the personalities so well is a testament to his writing and passion for the sport. This is not a book about how FC Barcelona’s success will translate to your board room—as Kuper writes, outside of a few clichés here and there, there is very little overlap. Modern professional football is a wholly talent-based industry. Whereas (and with apologies to any investment bankers out there) one investment banker is largely interchangeable with another, there is only one Lionel Messi or Ronaldihno. Modern football clubs are less unified teams and more of a collection of highly-paid general contractors brought together for a short period of time. 

“The Barcelona Complex” is an education in football. I learned more about the sport and its strategy in a few hundred pages than I’d accumulated in all my past conversations over a pint or two watching a match. It is truly a fascinating sport and one I imagine more Americans would enjoy if they understood what was happening on the pitch and why. 

There is no small irony in the fact that the talent-based nature of the sport was both a recipe for FC Barcelona’s success and the trigger for its gradual decay. Messi is a truly one-of-a-kind footballer and Kuper has the data to prove it in terms of goals and assists per game, dribbles, and other statistics. But FC Barcelona’s reliance on Messi and building the club around him alone was not a long-term strategy. A short-term route to victory, absolutely, but something that was unsustainable as he aged and which flew in the face of the club’s own model for success. 

“Barça”, like many European football clubs, operates its own youth academy called “La Masia de Can Planes” or just La Masia—a hypercompetitive program for future football stars. Masia differs in that it places a greater emphasis, according to Kuper, on investing in the footballers both on and off the field, offering them real educations and supporting their personal growth. Young players gradually progress through a Darwinian process, with the top rising to the highest ranks of European football, but representing only a small portion of those who start. American sports have nothing similar. There are, of course, youth sporting leagues such as Pop Warner football and Little League Baseball, but these are addendums to the educational process, not replacements. 

FC Barcelona’s Masia generated some of the sport’s leading talents, talents that saw the club win championships, overcome its arch-rivals in Madrid, and establish a global brand for which there really is no American comparison: at one point, FC Barcelona had more followers on social media than the entirety of the NFL, combined. Messi anchored the team and the team, keen to keep him, catered to his every whim and perceived desire, making changes to coaches, players, and line-ups alike. Buoyed by success, the club sought to make big ticket transfers, embarking on an unsustainable spending spree with increasingly limited funds (due in no small part to Messi’s skyrocketing salary) in hopes of replicating that one-man model, at a time when the rest of the sport caught up to Barça’s level of talent and strategy for the game. 

Not surprisingly, when making a multi-million pound or euro investment in a player, the club wants to ensure that they get the most value for money. Barça, like other clubs, sought to provide the best support staff for their players, while working to unlock the secrets of their high-level talent. Interestingly, there just isn’t enough data on these top-tier players to understand what makes them tick, or what makes them successful. There is a risk, too, in that the pursuit of data-driven success, unique talents may get overlooked—the Billy Beane “Moneyball” challenge. Of course, it’s hard to force your world-class player to avoid the temptations of fame or to avoid the pitfalls of family and hangers-on. While Barça may have had more success than some of their English club counterparts, youth, fame, and money are always a dangerous prospect. 

Ultimately, Barça found itself in a losing position. Messi was aging. Plans to build on the global brand and turn Camp Nou into a Disney-style resort landed flat as the world went into Covid-related lockdowns. It bucked the trend of selling out to Russian oligarchs or Middle Eastern governments, or even selling brand space on its uniforms until very recently. Barça’s uniforms only had UNICEF on its shirts for some time, but now also host the logo of Rakuten, the Japanese Amazon. 

Perhaps most alarmingly for the long-term health of the club, it consistently failed to replicate the level of success it once had, imperiling the attractiveness of its brand. Everyone likes a winner, but once a club starts losing, that’s when only the real fans remain. The club also seems to be struggling to adapt to the new information economy. It’s one thing to have the aforementioned followers on Instagram or Facebook, and another entirely to have that data directly. Here, FC Barcelona is not alone in struggling to find a way to cut out the information-broker middleman of Silicon Valley.

It’s a testament to Kuper’s writing and reporting that you really do not need to be a fan, diehard or otherwise, of Barça or football writ large to enjoy “The Barcelona Complex”. To be sure, fans will get a lot more out of the book, but this is one of those books that goes beyond the “sports” genre into something more—it’s as much about business, culture, strategy, and personality as it is about football itself. 

There is a temptation to draw conclusions or comparisons to geopolitics, business, or economics, but I think it’s best to let Kuper’s book stand on its own merits. It’s a fun, enjoyable, and fascinating look at the world of football, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.