‘Lionel Messi and the Art of Living’ by Andy West (2018)

Every book has a target audience.  For sports books, it’s always a question as to what ‘fandoms’ the book will appeal to, what’s the Venn diagram of people who would like this.  Do you have to follow the sport? Do you have to be a fan of that team? Would a non-sports fan enjoy it?

About half-way through reading Lionel Messi and the Art of Living, I realised that, for this book, the target audience is me.  I love Messi, I’ve read plenty of philosophy, and plenty of pop social-science books.  I read the book during my commutes to and from the office during the toughest week in work I’ve ever had.  I read it while also in a very reflective mood having spent the weekend buying baby clothes for the first time (my wife is heavily pregnant with our first child).  I’ll never be in a more receptive place for some insights into how to live and never more willing to learn than from the greatest footballer of all time.

Did I mention that I love Messi?  I’ve loved him from the first time I saw him play. I sound like one of the 5 million Liverpool fans who claim to have been in Istanbul but I was boring enough to have watched almost all of the U20 World Cup in 2005 when he first emerged.  My brother’s childhood sweetheart had just broken his heart the day we both finished undergrad and, being freshly graduated and jobless, I spent 6 weeks trying to cheer him up with a diet of rented movies and sport on TV.  I probably don’t love Messi as much as my friend who has ‘Messi 10’ tattooed on his arse, but for me, he is the footballer that defines the last 10 plus years of my enjoyment of the game.

Returning to the book, it is very hard to categorise.  It’s part biography, part philosophy, part self-help book, part Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In some ways it could be read as the foundational book for the Church of Messi – a New Testament built around our one true saviour (from the evils of CR7).  But that may just be by me.

A more balanced, less emotional, review it’s that the book is an interesting approach to examining the factors that breed success in life – by whatever metric you judge that.  West seeks to examine Messi’s football career as a potential guide for how to live – he explores the characteristics which Messi displays and are essential to his success and, by analogy, to success in life in general.

West took the approach of interviewing just 7 people – some in football, some who knew Messi and others with interesting things to say.  Each chapter interweaves these interviews with a study of how Messi demonstrated one of the key characteristics needed to be successful.   The format works really well, the writing is very readable and it’s a book you could easily dip in and out of.

If you want a flavour of what the book is about, West has a great twitter thread (@andywest01) that gives a summary of each chapter.  If you like the sound it from that summary, you’ll love the book.  While I think the overall approach of the book might alienate some readers looking for something more traditional, West has gone for something different and he executes his vision brilliantly.

In summary, I loved it.  You might not like it quite as much but you should definitely give it a shot.

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‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018)

In my early twenties I spent a two week holiday in Thailand with friends.  Typically such holidays involve full moon parties, buckets with mystery booze, and magic mushrooms on ‘Mushie Mountain’. While I was there I spent more time reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s seminal book on the history of football tactics than I did doing basically anything else.  I say this to provide the context that I’m not an objective reviewer of Wilson’s work as I probably enjoy his broad stroke analysis of football’s evolution more than your average reader.

More than the Barcelona Legacy, Wilson tells the story of Johan Cruyff’s legacy and how the modern game has been shaped by coaches who were at Barcelona in some capacity in the early 90’s.   The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho  Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution.  It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.

The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football.   Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe.  This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to present on any of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose).   Given their current fortunes, it would have been very easy to fall into the trap of declaring Pep the victor in a battle of good vs evil.

Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout.  However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English.  It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.

I enjoyed particuarly the bits of the book that I hadn’t read about elsewhere – Mourinho’s origin story (well he is basically a super-villian), Van Gaal’s post Barca evolution and the turmoil at Ajax were all areas I was less familiar with that are covered well.

Like all of Wilson’s books he can’t resist showing off his literary knowledge with the occasional digression showing how well read he is.  I quite like this about Wilson’s writing – and The Outsider shows this side of his work off the best – but I can imagine it will alienate some readers.  Those interludes are brief and the book quickly gets back to more familiar territory.

What this book excels at is providing a clear joining of the dots by setting Pep, Jose and the others in the context of Cruyff.  Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.

Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read.  It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments.  I think you can tell if you’ll like this book by your response to someone using the phrase post-Cruyffian.  If it makes you think of Guardiola’s possession based football this is the book for you.  If it makes you think ‘tosser’ then it might not be the book for you!

One thing the book left me wondering about is Athletico Madrid’s rise which is noted but not quite explained.  I’ve since ordered Hijacking Laliga by Evan McTear which promises to answer that very question!

The book is accompanied by a 6 part podcast which narrows in on 6 key games covered in the book.  An interesting, and to my mind successful, way of promoting the book while also enhancing the experience for readers.  Hopefully something that catches on.

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‘The Man Who Saved F.C. Barcelona: The Remarkable Life of Patrick O’Connell’ by Sue O’Connell (2016)

The Man Who Saved F.C. Barcelona is a very different book from what I was expecting.  It’s the story of a family far more than it is a football story.

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Patrick O’Connell was a forgotten figure of Irish football history until the sterling efforts of his family to ensure his legacy was remembered.   A former captain of Manchester United and Irish international, his achievements as a manager in Spain far surpass anything achieved by an Irish manager since then – he won La Liga with Real Betis, led Barcelona through the Spanish Civil War and the respect he was held in is speculated to be the reason why Spanish managers are today called “mister”.

His grandson’s wife, Sue O’Connell, has laboured to find the historical record of Patrick and his immediate family’s life.  The story is told largely through letters sent by Patrick, his second wife and his kids and diary entries of one of his daughters.  The rest of the story is filled in dialogue heavy prose which I found a bit mawkish and unnecessary – a more factual style of joining the dots would have worked better for me.

As O’Connell notes in the final paragraph of the book, “Patrick O’Connell was an outstanding sportsman, but as a husband and father he was a non-starter”.  The bulk of the book focuses on this later part – the wife and four kids he abandoned in Manchester.  No attempt is made to sugar-coat his behaviour.  In many ways is more a story of abandonment and emigration than a football book.  It also captures well the sense of time and place – in particular an outsider’s view of Spain and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.

His footballing legacy is not covered in the kind of detail I was expecting.  The saving of F.C. Barcelona involved the wise decision to bring the team to the America’s on tour and raise enough money to keep the team going.  However, after reading the book, I don’t know much more about just how he achieved success or how he contributed to the evolution of the game.

The book is a clear labour of love and I admire the efforts to promote O’Connell’s legacy while being honest about his failings as a man.  However, the book really wasn’t for me and isn’t one I would recommend for someone coming at as a sports book rather than a chronicle of the emigrant experience of an Irish family.

A documentary film about O’Connell’s life, Don Patricio, premiered in Dublin this week and I’m looking forward to checking it out.

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‘Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’ by Graham Hunter (2012)

Graham Hunter will be well-known to most English-speaking football fans as one of an ever-growing number of English speaking journalists covering La Liga.   I’ve long been a fan and his more recent venture into long-form interview podcasts (The Big Interview) has been a great success.barca gh

I first read Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World not long after it was published in 2012 and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Rereading it now, in light of how both the team and Guardiola have continued to progress provides an interesting new context. Both have remained very successful, but that extra spark that leads to Champions League success has been repeated only once by Barca but not yet by Guardiola.  Despite Barca’s continued La Liga success, Real Madrid’s 3 Champions League successes in 4 years puts the Catalan team firmly in second place.

Hunter begins the book by focusing on the end of the 2010-2011 season when Clásico fever gripped us all as Barca squared off against Mourinho’s Real 4 times in a little over 2 weeks. At times those games felt like the battle for the soul of football – Guardiola’s possession game against Mourinho’s cynical counter attacking – as well as the latest battle in the war for ‘greatest player in the game’ between Messi & Ronaldo. Despite losing the Copa Del Rey final, Barca ultimately had the last laugh winning the La Liga and Champions League double.  Hunter paints a picture of the ultimate team at its peak and gives a great insight into Guardiola’s approach and the team’s mentality.

The following chapters weave entertainingly between mini-biographies of the key figures in this great Barca side (Messi, Xavi, Puyol etc), detailed retelling of Guardiola’s first 3 seasons, the political machinations behind the scenes, the Cruyffian origins of this team and Frank Rijkaard’s role in laying the groundwork.  Hunter includes his own experiences and interactions with the team and the players which adds an additional layer of insight.barca 2-11

Books about still active players and coaches always run the risk of being too sycophantic or shying away from controversy.  Hunter’s admiration for Pep and the players is obvious.   He is an unashamed supporter of Cruyff, Pep and Laporte (former Chairman).  While the book could have been more objective, this subjectivity does not feel like a major weakness – particularly as Hunter’s passion and knowledge gives credibility to his views.  Hunter does criticise the club hierarchy (both before and after Laporte) – the near failure to sign Messi, the war with Cruyff and more – but his discussion of the players is near universally positive. While I share Hunter’s admiration, I’m sure some Madrid fans would fine the praise over the top.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes and Hunter’s passion for his subject shines through.  It is a detailed, well-written and entertaining account of the greatest team modern football has seen.  Highly recommend for anyone who fondly remembers those 4 years when every Barca game was must see TV and you knew as it happened you were watching something very special.

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