Simon & Schuster
Rs 699 pp 394
Five days after FC Barçelona trashed Athletico Bilbao 0-3 on May 26 to lift this years Copa del Ray, the annual cup tournament for Spanish football teams, I made a pilgrimage to Camp Nou, home to FC Barça. The stadium is a cathedral with the faithful filing into the club museum, stopping to gaze at holy relics that include trophies and jerseys worn by legends such as Ladislav Kubala and Johan Cruyff, weaving their way to the altar of the football pitch that is framed by 96,336 seats all around and falling just short of crossing themselves and kneeling before the sacred ground.
It was here in the fag end of the last century that Josep Guardiola, future manager but then still a Barça player, told the youngster Xavi pointing at a pasty teenager who had turned up for training, Youve seen that? Youll push me towards the exit, but that guy will send us both into retirement. Guardiola was wrong. The impressive kid at Camp Nou that day was Andrés Iniesta and he would not drive the older footballers away. Instead, he would form the magnificent bridge that would enable Guardiola, Xavi and other key characters to move Spain from being an underachieving national side to a team that played beautiful and winning football.
The timing of this book is almost as perfect as the lethal pass from Xavi to Jordi Alba that led to the astounding second Spanish goal in the Euro 2012 final against Italy last Sunday. But La Roja is no quickie (the book was signed off by its author in February this year). Jimmy Burns kicks off when British engineers brought football in the late 19th century to the mining towns in Spain. Not unlike the import of football (and cricket) to India, the Brits brought the game to Spain not as part of any civilisational mission, but for their own pleasure. These early expatriate pioneers played football much as they might have played polo, rugby, tennis, or croquet, as a way of asserting their differentiation from the natives, writes Burns, who unsuccessfully tries to locate the pitch where the first football match was played in Spain in 1887 that now lies under a heap of slag somewhere in the ghosttown of Rio Tinto.
The first half of the book, detailing the social and political background of Spain, comes across in many places as clunky. The narrative is brimming with information, but is short on free-flow. In this, Burns perhaps unconsciously mirrors Spanish footballs evolution from La Furia a style institutionalised by the Franco regime as one in which the virility of the Spanish race can find full expression and where what mattered was courage, sacrifice and above all the physical annihilation of the opponent to the beauty and logical grace of La Roja (The Reds).
Which leads to the key purpose of this book: to try and answer how the bulldozing, all shoulders-and-thighs style of Spanish football changed into the bullfighting, rapier style of tiki-taka, where 11 men on the field essentially play basketball with their feet. Burns provides all the clues, right from the entry of total football where players in a seemingly effortless flow possess the technical, physical and mental ability to interchange roles and positions at will on the pitch with Cryuff joining FC Barçelona in 1973; the advent of Quinta del Buitre (The Vulture Squad) of the 80s led by the Zen-infused Emilio Butragueño; the induction of Wise Man Luis Aragonés as the coach before the 2006 World Cup (who coined the term La Roja for the national squad); and the maturation of players of the genius of Iniesta and the class of Xavi, David Villa, Cesc Fàbregas and Fernando Torres.
Reading Burns can be as plodding as this Euros Dutch squad. (His biography of Maradona, Hand of God, was livelier in that aspect.) But La Roja, like the national team that was anointed Europes best last Sunday and goes into the 2014 World Cup as a favourite, comes up with spaces out of nowhere, spaces that along with this book can be lovingly filled when this seasons La Liga, the Spanish League, is aired for the first time on Indian television from August 18 making the English Premier League and other assortments look like a muckaround in the park.