For Josep (Pep) Guardiola, the winningest soccer coach of the past decade, the most successful soccer tactics are simple: “Take the ball, pass the ball, take the ball, pass the ball.” His team, Manchester City, won last season’s English Premier League—where the dominant style of play is to kick and rush—with a record twenty-eight thousand passes, a hundred points, and five games to spare. This follows the passing records he broke during stints in Germany and Spain. He who controls the passing game, it would seem, controls the outcome.
In “The Barcelona Legacy,” the soccer historian Jonathan Wilson goes as far back as the first international soccer game, between Scotland and England, in 1872, to trace the evolution of this playing style. It pops up as the Netherlands’ mesmerizing “Total Football” of the 1974 World Cup, which was said to reflect the Dutch values of manipulating and conserving space; and a more recent variant is the “tiki-taka” of the F.C. Barcelona team, led by Guardiola, which won fourteen out of a possible nineteen trophies in four seasons.
The center of Wilson’s narrative is set in the Catalonia of the nineteen-nineties, where a number of coaches and players (including the adolescent Guardiola) began to refine the Dutch style. In that Eden, the golden rule was that success flowed from the beauty of the game rather than from its results. Or as the Spanish coach Juan Manuel (Juanma) Lillo puts it, “The birth rate goes up. Is that enriching? No. But the process that led to that? Now that’s enriching. Fulfillment comes from the process.” Barcelona’s success became an argument for the rule. But, just as Satan is the most engaging character in “Paradise Lost,” the mischievous Portuguese coach José Mourinho, who was an assistant coach and friend to Guardiola in Catalonia, is the book’s charming foil. Mourinho, who’s achieved huge success coaching Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid, has no regard for the golden rule: results are the only beauty he cares to behold. The dramatization of the rivalry between him and Guardiola—first in Spain and then in England—supplies a study of beauty and competition that complements Wilson’s historical retelling and gives fans a keen, thrilling insight into the philosophy of the game.