While I would say that the great experience of the weekend didn't necessarily end with yesterday's loss by Arsenal on aggregate goals in the Champions League, I would be lying if I said the Gunner's spirited 3-0 win made up for another year without trophies. The sole motivating factor over the next two-and-half months shall be the campaign to secure the third or fourth table position to qualify for next year's Champions League competition. Just like in year's past, this all feels like an exercise in futility - qualifying for a tournament we have little hopes of winning just so we can keep desperately needed revenue coming into the club to keep making profits. Such an outlook can be a bit depressing when that becomes one's focus as a supporter.
Thus, I could relate to Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note in the latest issue of the Blizzard. Recounting the sordid affairs of the current European professional game, Wilson recounts how the recently completed Africa Cup of Nations and the current issue's focus on Barcelona reminds us why we fall in love with the game in the first place: the practice and perfection of the beautiful game on the pitch.
The first article in this fourth issue is by Graham Hunter, and it is an excerpt from his recently released book entitled Barca - Making the Greatest Team in the World. I suspect from what I have read that the emphasis of the book is on the word "making", which stands opposed to the idea of "buying" that many other teams take to team building. There is no doubt that Barcelona's operation requires a large amount of money to run and greatly benefits from the financial rewards granted by their La Liga duopoly with Real Madrid. However, the role player development plays in their current string of successes cannot be discounted.
The excerpt of the book found in the Blizzard focuses on Barcelona's prized midfielder, Xavi Hernandez. It's an excellent recounting of how Xavi's early challenges at Barcelona were critical to developing him into the player he is today. Always a Gooner in the back of my mind, I read the following passage on Xavi's development under Luis van Gaal and commiserate with the empty feeling that must have been present in the man, the club, and the supporters.
"Which is not to ignore [Xavi's] misfortune. Louis van Gaal was his first important senior coach. The Dutchman had the courage to promote the saturnine, intense youngster. The dog days of van Gaal's reign, though, were so flawed that Barcelona would enter a fallow period of five years without a trophy and with a badly structured salary system and debilitating debts."
I would never argue that the debt taken on to build Arsenal's home at the Emirates is debilitating, but it is undoubtedly consuming money that could be otherwise used in player salaries, transfer fees, and development. As for the other two elements of Graham Hunter's recounting, I suspect most Gooners can relate.
We look at Barcelona today, and we see what appears to be the results of obvious investments in players and player development that guarranteed success. In reality, Barcelona is probably just the biggest success story of many clubs who have tried and failed similar strategies to build up their club into a relentless chapionship-winning team. They're an anamoly that can't be easily replicated elsewhere. Hunter's piece is a useful reminder of the potential pitfalls along the way - how getting the right managers at the club was critical, how Xavi almost left the club - and how this outcome wasn't always so obvious. Making a club like Barcelona takes a lot of effort, a lot of money, and a lot of luck. Their one-time Champions League competitors in London have been trying to do the same thing. Arsene Wenger may be delivering great value for the money he's chosen, or been allowed, to spend. Nonetheless, his success in the "youth project" has been nowhere near as great as Barcelona's golden generation of La Masia products. In fact, it sounds much more reminiscent of the "dog days of van Gaal."
We should always try and view things as they happened, not as how we view them in retrospect. Historical writing is always tainted with hindsight, but good authors can often minimize such bias. If the excerpt of Graham Hunter's book is any indication, he may just have achieved such an outlook when writing this book. I've already added it to my Amazon wishlist. You should make a point to put it on your "to-read" list as well. In the meantime, be sure to support great soccer writing by ordering a copy of the Blizzard.