Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Ed Smith

Reading the Game

Born to run and run: what Barcelona’s pass masters have in common with Kenya’s marathon stars

Ed Smith | September/October 2015

In the late 1990s, a tiny, pale-faced footballer, too shy to speak, showed up at a Barcelona training session. He began knocking the ball around as if it was the easiest thing in the world. The captain of the club took one look at the boy and called him to one side. His message was simple: “You’re going to push me out the door!”

The prediction proved to be partly accurate. The club captain was Pep Guardiola; the painfully shy junior was Xavi. Guardiola did move on, but promptly came back as manager, with Xavi as his heir, the team’s pivot. As a passer of the ball and reader of the game, Xavi was like Guardiola. As an athlete, he was faster, more robust. The conveyor belt of Barca number fours, which had begun with Johan Cruyff in the 1970s, gathered pace. The passing of the baton was witnessed by Boudewijn Zenden. “We said, ‘It’s the same kind of player!’” he told the writer Simon Kuper. “They had this education where you just open up a can of number fours.”

That tradition continues today with Andrés Iniesta, and has become a diaspora, spreading to Arsenal (Cesc Fàbregas, then Mikel Arteta) and Chelsea (Fàbregas again). Along with the ball, the players pass each other information. Playing, watching, learning, competing, it’s all jumbled together. And it doesn’t just happen in sport. At the Cambridge University Footlights in the late 1950s, Peter Cook and his friends may have thought they were just waiting for the next joke to pop into their heads, but they were learning from each other as they did so.

La Masia, Barca’s academy, eases the process: an impromptu coffee with an ex-player is just as important as training. Real education, any great teacher will tell you, often happens either side of the lesson. A borrowed book, a rambling chat, a deepening curiosity, an exchange of ideas – the best teaching is mutual learning.

Barca’s style felt radical, but its radicalism was founded on respect for the past. Xavi both embodied the role of the number four and subtly expanded it. He belonged to a tradition but was not bound by it. To paraphrase a line from “Die Meistersinger”, Richard Wagner’s study of tradition, “Honour your Barca Masters!”

It is also cheaper to nurture players than to buy them. Gareth Bale of Real Madrid, Theo Walcott of Arsenal, Luke Shaw of Manchester United and Adam Lallana of Liverpool all came out of Southampton’s Staplewood academy. With shallow pockets and a small catchment area – “the sea is on one side and the New Forest is on the other,” as the head of football development enjoys pointing out – Southampton have to generate talent to survive.

In any sport, at any time, there tends to be a definitive nexus or network where the best new ideas are expressed and refined. In football, it is the Champions League, where the best coaches and players swap teams and share ideas. In cricket, more problematically, it is the Indian Premier League. Given the league’s recurrent corruption scandals, becoming entangled with the IPL comes with reputational risks. But can a player afford to close his ears to the conversation about tactics and technique? At this year’s World Cup, England’s players – always thinly represented at the IPL – looked off the pace, playing yesterday’s game.

The mark of a dominant conveyor belt of talent is when internal competition is stronger than external competition. Getting into the invincible West Indies cricket team of the 1980s was harder than succeeding when you got there. In 1984, two West Indies XIs appeared simultaneously. Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel and Milton Small turned out for the official Test team, terrifying the world’s best batsmen. Meanwhile, Sylvester Clarke, Franklyn Stephenson, Hartley Alleyne and Ezra Moseley made up an equally fearsome foursome on the rebel tour of South Africa. All eight were drawn from a single island, Barbados, with a population of 280,000. It was as if all the best quarterbacks had come from Greensboro, North Carolina.

If getting into that final four was hard enough, taking the new ball was the ultimate accolade. On the eve of his Test debut, the world’s then fastest bowler visited the West Indian captain, Viv Richards, in his hotel room, to let him know which end he preferred to open from. Viv told him not to worry about it as he wouldn’t be taking the new ball – not while Marshall was around.

Exclusion breeds hunger. The production line forced Courtney Walsh, of Jamaica, to spend years in the wings. He ended up being even more prolific than his champion predecessors. The history of West Indies cricket is often framed as a sad decline, but what about the improbable triumph? A disparate set of tiny islands forged a team so strong that it led the world for two decades. Its fast bowling was the ultimate example of an organic sporting culture outperforming far wealthier top-down coaching systems.

The ultimate sporting conveyor belt resides high in the African Rift Valley. The Kenyan marathon superstar Geoffrey Mutai (pictured) and nearly all his main rivals come from the Kalenjin tribe. Genes are part of the story. Kalenjin runners’ legs, a study showed, are 5% longer and 12% lighter than Swedish runners’. The Kalenjin live at altitude, but have sea-level ancestry, having moved from the Nile valley a few hundred years ago. There are also many environmental factors, as Ed Caesar shows in his book “Two Hours”. One caught my eye: the training sessions, though monitored by coaches, are mostly led by the elite athletes themselves. Rules are few, but they have an implicit hierarchy of authority, needs and obligations. Champions are schooled in the footsteps of champions.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.