Graham Hunter, Scottish reporter and winner of the British Sports Book Awards 2013, talks about the influence of Johan Cruyff and Spanish football in his work
Graham Hunter has been passionate about football ever since he can remember and a fervent admirer of Johan Cruyff since his days as an Ajax player. “Watching that man play, I fell in love with football forever,” says Graham. He remembers him with idolatry, also with nostalgia. Johan was the main reason why this great Scottish communicator and football reporter, decided to move to Barcelona, in the early 2000s, and leave behind his native Scotland and his place of work in London. And he came to stay.
Living in an apartment in La Barceloneta, he has soaked up the Barcelona way of life and continues to enjoy what is for him the best football in Europe. He is the author of the book Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, an exciting story about the great success of the Guardiola era, told by the protagonists themselves. It won the British Sports Book Awards 2013 and it is expected that it will soon be taken to the big screen in documentary format.
The students of the Johan Cruyff Institute’s Master in Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona have already had an exclusive session with him. And we took the opportunity to talk to him about his work, his vision of football and how the way it is lived in Spain left him completely hooked. And we also talked, of course, about Johan and his great contribution to this sport and everything that surrounds him.
Who is Graham Hunter and why did he come to live in Barcelona?
A Scottish guy, passionate and in love with football, who instantly saw the genius of Johan Cruyff, first when he was playing for Ajax winning the European cups, and then in 1974 in the World Cup. With that man I fell in love with football forever, and with his intelligence and elegance. After a career working in Scotland and then in London, I chose Spain partly because I came here for the World Cup in 1982, and partly because Steve Archibald played for my team, Aberdeen, in Barcelona, but mainly because Johan Cruyff has been my guide, my idol and also my inspiration throughout all my career communicating about football. I try to explain that football should be that way: intelligent, winning, but elegant, technical, beautiful, thrilling.
“FC Barcelona not only employed Johan Cruyff as a player, as a coach, but also took his brain, his DNA, and they applied it to develop new talent”
What made you fall in love with Spanish football?
I believe that Spanish football is lived differently. It was my perception in 1982, when I first came to Spain to watch football, that the type of football that was played in La Liga was very different from now, quite similar to Britain. So, what I fell in love with first was the noise. Where else in the world does the crowd go ‘uyyyyyy’ when the ball is near the goal? Which other country had that smell of cigars, smoke and coffee? Which other country had four or five daily football newspapers? All over the country, in Andalusia, Galicia, the Basque country, many women —even more now— opened the newspaper and read about football, from front to back, and argued in the bar about this and that; and the stadiums were big, and it didn’t rain… I fell in love with everything about Spain. And then, the bonus was that this was a country that began to be driven by Cruyff’s ideas. FC Barcelona not only employed him as a player, as a coach, but also took his brain, his DNA, and they applied it to develop new talent. And then what happened? The national team did the same. And therefore, coming here was an easy decision. I didn’t come as a tourist, I came because I thought that people talked about football better in Spain, people analyzed football better. In my country you are not allowed to go to the training ground as a journalist to watch and to learn. Here you can. So I believed that Spanish football would teach me to be a better reporter, a better journalist, a better storyteller and a happier fan.
When your book about Barça came out, a journalist from The Guardian said: “There is nobody who knows Barça better than Graham Hunter.” How can that be?
I suppose I didn’t come to live in Barcelona because of the sunshine, I didn’t come to learn Catalan, I came because I believed that this was a club and a city that I could explain, a place that inspired me. And I’m sorry to repeat the same message, but it’s true: a fundamental part of why I love football is Cruyff and he’ll keep pushing my buttons. He was like a belly dancer, and a professor and an Olympic athlete and like George Best or The Beatles all wrapped into one. Even though when I moved here was before Johan Cruyff’s influence was brought back to the club by Joan Laporta, Barcelona still lived and breathed technique, intelligence, inspiration, as far as I was concerned. I was lucky because I came at a time of revolution, of rebirth. The forest was planted here by Johan Cruyff, by his ideology, by people in the youth teams who stayed where he went and kept doing the right things. And the harvest was beautiful. The plants all grew and I was here. So, if I know FC Barcelona well, it is because they treat you well, they allow you to report well, the players trust you if you are good and because I was reporting on an era that, in my opinion, was the greatest in the history of the club and I wanted to explain the reasons, because it didn’t happen by luck.
“The playing style of Cruyff’s Barça isn’t necessarily right for every club or every country, but it’s proven that is the best”
In your opinion, is Barça a good model to learn from?
As an honest journalist, I can’t sit here today and say the Barcelona model is a good one to learn from without saying that the Cruyff version of the Barcelona model is a good one to learn from. I must be honest and say that there is a great deal about the current board, about the current buying policy and about the system used that I don’t agree with. But it is a model to follow in many aspects: the business model, the marketing, the identity, the world reach…all of that has been handled very cleverly. In terms of marketing the brand, expanding consciousness around the world, creating adoration from every country in the world, this club does that very well, indeed. But if you want to contrast it with the style of play, I only have to qualify my answer by saying that the playing style of Cruyff’s Barça isn’t necessarily right for every club or every country, but it’s the best. It’s proven that is the best. And I wish people would copy it.
You came to Barcelona in the 1990s and interviewed a lot of great (ex-)players, and Johan Cruyff was one of them. What made him so special on and off the pitch?
He was special for many reasons. He was the single most important man in the history of organized football. Nobody else unites his three qualities. As a player, he was among the top three or four best players ever. As a coach, had his career been longer, he would easily be contesting to be one of the best coaches ever. He set records with Ajax, Barcelona, gave us beauty, gave us technique, gave us intelligence, he was a leader as a coach. And thirdly, he was a brilliant teacher. He didn’t simply say ‘go and look at what I did’, he would explain, he had an influence in what came afterwards, in the decisions that were taken, in the ideology, the philosophy, the romanticism of the Pep Guardiola era, the Laporta era, the Rijkaard era. He inspired. Without Cruyff, there would be no Iniesta at Barcelona (too young and too small); without Cruyff, there would have been no Xavi (also too small), no Messi (they would have let him go). Charly Reixach was the only one who fought to keep Messi. Now, everybody laughs, he’s the greatest player ever, how could you miss it? But they did, they did miss it. Why was he retained? Because of the Cruyff way of thinking. He had such magnetism, he was a genius, a brilliant person, but a good person. You went near him and it felt like something special in your life. Johan devoted the last quarter of his life to helping sports people get better educated to have a great career, and to helping young people who are handicapped physically or mentally, not only to have a better life, but also to surpass themselves, to find new goals and ambitions via sport. He made all this possible, he made thousands of people’s lives better because that’s the type of man he was.
Were you surprised by his interest and initiative in training athletes through the Johan Cruyff Institute?
The first time I heard about it, I had to sit and listen because nearly every footballer in the modern era says ‘I have a foundation’ or ‘I have a football school’, and often it is for personal gain, it only lasts for a year or two, and the footballer is trying to do something that is beyond them. But in this case, it has lasted for many years now and you can see its benefits, not just in the sports professionals who are now better qualified to develop their careers, but also in the way it is nourishing sport itself. Just like what happened with Cruyff, when he stopped coaching FC Barcelona, he helped to nourish football. Bayern Munich is an example, and I know Johan felt that way with Franz Beckenbauer. So, was I surprised that Johan was trying to bring better qualified sports people back into the sport? No, that didn’t surprise me. But to watch him dedicating so much time, so much love and so much money to making young people who are handicapped in one way or another happier, more confident and eager to surpass themselves, that didn’t surprise me about him but I was surprised by the fact that it is going against the tide. There aren’t enough people in the world who are willing to give everything and to raise money and dedicate their lives to making another people’s lives better. It’s out of fashion, but that for me will never be out of fashion. So, surprised, I’d like to say no, but I am happy to witness it and happy to make a small contribution to it as a lecturer on the Master.
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