The Barcelona Complex. By Simon Kuper. Penguin; 416 pages; $27. Published in Britain as “Barça”; Short Books; £20
The Master. By Christopher Clarey. Twelve; 432 pages; $30. John Murray; £20
AS TWO OF the most stylish and successful athletes of all time, Roger Federer and Lionel Messi naturally invite comparison. Mr Federer has won 20 men’s singles titles, a record he shares with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and reached more Grand Slam finals than any other male player. Mr Messi has won 34 trophies with Barcelona and been awarded the Ballon d’Or, a prize for the world’s best football player, six times. Mr Federer praises the Argentine forward’s abilities in the same language that many pundits use to describe his tennis: “There’s always three options for him. He’s one of the few who’s got that.”
In recent years the similarities between the two sporting stars have deepened. Mr Federer won three of his major titles after turning 35; aged 34, Mr Messi has just won an international tournament—hitherto the one prize to elude him. Sport was once considered the sole career in which, after 30, you were fated to know only professional decline. Mr Federer and Mr Messi are both showing that no longer needs to be the case.
It is fitting, then, that two books about the athletes have been released at the same time. In “The Barcelona Complex” Simon Kuper, a journalist at the Financial Times, analyses how the Spanish football club became a behemoth, with Mr Messi its “engine and standard-bearer”. “The Master” by Christopher Clarey, a journalist at the New York Times, is a more conventional biography, based on interviews with the tennis player and his inner circle. Both books offer valuable insight into how sporting greatness is achieved.
Modern athletes are more disciplined than their forebears, who often lived like rock stars and expected their bodies to give out before they reached middle age. In the early 1970s Johan Cruyff, another Barcelona footballing legend, was a chain-smoker. He was so unfit that, during his time at Ajax, Cruyff would hide in the woods while his teammates did running training, only rejoining them for the last lap. Mr Messi, by contrast, credits a mostly vegetarian diet with prolonging his career and has benefited from his club’s focus on the science of nutrition, sleep and psychology.
By far the longest-serving member of Mr Federer’s team is Pierre Paganini, a former decathlete who has been his fitness coach since 2000. “A big part of the reason that I’m here where I am today is definitely because of Pierre,” Mr Federer has said. Modern tennis players need “explosive endurance”: ie, the acceleration of a sprinter and the stamina of a marathon runner. A favourite drill of Mr Paganini’s is to make Mr Federer sprint between four numbered posts while holding a heavy medicine ball above his head.
The story of Barcelona in recent years is, in many ways, the tale of Mr Messi. In everything from player signings to the team’s tactics, Barcelona “handed Messi the keys to the club”, Mr Kuper writes. Sandro Rosell, the club’s former president, says: “If you have the possibility to be the best player in every match, you have to be a bit of a dictator, as Messi is.”
For many years, it worked. Between 2006 and 2015, Barcelona played dazzling football and won four Champions League titles (they had won only one before in their history). Yet the years since have been of slight on-field decline and huge gross debt, which reached more than €1bn ($1.2bn) this year. While he has remained an extraordinary player, Mr Messi may partly be to blame. His astronomical fee—$674m over four seasons from 2017 to 2021, according to reports—exhausts club funds and leads teammates to demand higher salaries, leaving less cash to sign new players. (Announcing Mr Messi’s departure from the club on August 5th, Barcelona cited “financial and structural obstacles”.) Rivals have also mimicked Barcelona’s tactics, refining the sophisticated passing style developed by Cruyff.
Both “The Barcelona Complex” and “The Master” emphasise the decision-making that helps set superlative athletes apart. Mr Messi is renowned, rightly, for his balletic dribbling, pinpoint passing and clinical finishing in front of goal. But underpinning all these qualities, Mr Kuper shows, is what sports scientists call “scanning”: looking around to take visual snapshots of play. An illuminating passage deconstructing Mr Messi’s art documents how he spends much of each match walking about—during the World Cup in 2014, only one outfield player covered less ground. Yet though his movement is economical, Mr Messi “is moving his head, right, left, right, left,” as his former coach, Pep Guardiola, observed. The best footballers in the world scan the pitch about 50 times per minute.
The finest tennis players also use visual cues, such as the positions of their opponents’ torso and hips, and the way they go to strike the ball, to deduce where the ball is likely to land even before it is touched. “It happens so fast that you have to hit the shot almost without thinking,” Mr Federer explains. With the best contenders, says Marc Rosset, a former Swiss tennis player who mentored Mr Federer, it is “as if they have more time for their brains to process it all”. The impression of effortlessness that this creates is a brilliant illusion.
Both authors reject the notion that Mr Messi or Mr Federer was fated to prevail. Mr Clarey highlights the fortune—particularly the decision of Peter Carter, an Australian tennis coach, to accept a job in Basel—and hard work that made Mr Federer’s story possible. Mr Messi could also conceivably have been lost to football: the sport long had a dogma about height, and he needed a growth hormone, funded by Barcelona when he moved from Argentina, even to reach a modest 1.7 metres. If Mr Federer’s success “has been a long-running act of will, not destiny”, as Mr Clarey argues, the same is true of Mr Messi’s. ■
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include the news of Lionel Messi’s decision to leave Barcelona.
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “The pursuit of greatness”