Burns explains in the beginning of the book why he supports Barcelona. Born in Madrid in 1953, it was not the footballing significance of Barca which drew him, rather the political outlook of the club – an oasis of democracy in a desert of Francoist repression. This initial theme, hinted at throughout the introduction (only present in the updated, 2009 version) comes to define the beauty of Burns’ book – not only does he expertly explain the football, he successfully conveys the political underpinnings which, in many ways, came to overshadow Barcelona as a football club.
Unlike books such as Calcio or Forza Italia, Jimmy Burns’ work is neither an encyclopedia nor a memoir, merely a carefully put together history of a club, from its beginnings in the early 1900s, to its globalized late twentieth century self.
The political aspect of Barca is an ever present, dogging the narrative much in the way that it dogged Barcelona throughout their existence, especially during the Franco years.
Started by a Swiss immigrant, Joan Gamper, as well as a family of Englishman living in the city, Barcelona’s humble beginnings soon were to be eclipsed as the club fast became a symbol of Catalan identity, a provider of accommodation for misfit foreigners, and hope to rebellious, anti Franco Catalans.
Important in Barca’s story, is the club’s relationship with Real Madrid – the paranoia which haunted fans and officals’ relationship with Real throughout the Franco years is an important theme of their history. Matches with Real Madrid are always far from ordinary, a truth no better embodied than by a quote used in the book’s opening chapter, taken from a cule (Barcelona’s band of ultra like fans) ahead of a match against the Merengues. “These aren’t two clubs. They’re two nations, two people, two religions.”
The precise, poignancy of the line is typical of the book as a whole, all of Burns’ most complex and interesting theses are eloquently summed up, either in the words of the writer or, as demonstrated by the above sentence, the speech of someone else.
The politics of Catalonia are forever intertwined with the politics of FC Barcelona, a relationship which Burns manages to explain in an efficient and effective style. He tells of Jordi Pujol, the leader of an extreme group of Catalan nationalists, and the way that his movement revitalized the notion of separatism inside the club, as well as the symbolic, political gestures of Johan Cruyff, headlined by his decision to name his son after the extremist politician. To any interested political observer, all this is fascinating content, delivered in an exciting, page turning style rather than the torrid, unreadable one so prevalent in modern political coverage.
Oh, and the football isn’t bad either. Derived mostly from first person accounts of games, often by the writer himself, the breadth of Burns’ footballing knowledge is equal to that of his politics. Vivid descriptions of games, goals and celebrations help to bring legends of the past alive – for all the mention of Franco, Pujol and Nunez (a controversial Barca president, touched upon throughout) it is characters like Kubala, Maradona and Ronaldo that make the book so wonderful.
Quite possibly, Barca is the best book of its kind, the finest ever history of a solitary football club. The depth of the research is incredible, the poignancy of the interviews terrific, two aspects bound together by writing of the highest quality. It is unmissable; a breathtaking read.