WE SPOKE TO GRAHAM HUNTER ABOUT HIS NEW FILM 'TAKE THE BALL, PASS THE BALL'
Words: Josh Millar
Take the Ball, Pass the Ball is a film that takes us way behind the scenes of the greatest footballing team in recent history, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
We got up super early to Skype Graham Hunter, whose book the film is based on. While he sat in beautiful Barcelona sunshine, we spoke about how you get hold of the world’s best players, telling the story objectively, and how nice Dani Alves is.
MUNDIAL: Might sound like an obvious place to start, but where did the title come from?
Graham Hunter: [Director] Duncan McMath is a fucking genius. The book I wrote was called Barça: The Making of the Greatest Club in the World and negotiating with Barcelona about whether we could use their club title was difficult. We knew that there would be licensing discussions, and there would be a category of control handed over to the club because they have the right to their name. And we wanted to be independent. We wanted to be able to say what we felt was the right thing because there’s no particularly critical voice in the film apart from criticism of [former club President] Sandro Rosell. When you edit 36 interviews and 50 something years of footage, that’s a gigantic number of hours, and we came upon Pep. What really stood out to us was Pep using the phrase to explain his philosophy, Take the Ball, Pass the Ball. We felt that if we’re talking about Cruyff and Guardiola, the architects, and the truly great players of the era—Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi.—then that phrase did it. That phrase seemed to make sense. It’s something that we believe in and could explain.
How easy was it to get access to the biggest club in world football?
That wasn’t the central part of what we did, and while certain people at Barcelona literally could not have been more helpful, if you look very hard at it, there wasn’t a need to speak to any current Barcelona players. The fact is that is that we didn’t once ask the club for help and contacted all the participants ourselves, including to arrange the Messi, Piqué, and Busquets interviews on their premises. Although we did inform the club about our plans, the fact is that players now have such an impact that if they decide to do something, then it’s immediately accepted.
Apart from the odd short-form interview, that’s the longest I’ve ever heard Messi speak. That says a lot, doesn’t it?
He’s somebody that I’ve been interviewing since 2006. But you’re spot on that he doesn’t particularly get a huge degree of enjoyment talking about football. He’s perfectly able to—when he makes short, succinct points to his teammates either on the training ground, in a team meeting, or wherever else, everyone listens. Because his genius isn’t just instinctive, it’s intellectual too. He understands football. He doesn’t just go:“look what I can do with my magical feet.” Over the years, he’s chosen to live a more balanced life than some of the people before him such as Maradona, Stoichkov, or Ronaldinho. And his idea of sheer happiness is being at home with his wife and his dog. And therefore you don’t hear him speaking very often. And also, as a superstar, when he does speak you hear people asking him all sorts of crap. We were really pleased that he joined us. It took a little bit to persuade him; it took him a bit of time to agree. There’s an officially sanctioned Lionel Messi movie, and he didn’t even appear in that. His decision is based on trust. Barcelona were not a major participant in making the film. That was, again, because we wanted independence. Not because we had particularly critical things to say but simply because we wanted to make our project without any breaks being put on it, or any tutor of debate or interference. We knew we had a story tell to tell and we knew we could tell it with the club in its current form. We built this project based upon the people you see on the screen and our relationships with them.
It was very interesting see that Eto’o was quite happy to sometimes criticise Pep in the film. I found that quite interesting to see that you were still happy to put that in. Why did you make that decision?
I think it’s obvious that we would. This is not a hagiography, and I hope it doesn’t seem that way. That was our intention—that it was evidently true that whether you or any of your readers consider this the best football ever played, it’s how you resolve that. You and I didn’t live through Di Stéfano. But what we saw was football of an extraordinary level—seductive, beautiful, uplifting, successful. Again, what you and I and your readers all experienced was an outpouring of adoration from the football industry itself, from people of huge worth in football and professional football of all ages. In the book, I quote Ferguson, Capello, Sacchi, Gary Neville, Gordon Strachan. Just endlessly. Post Wembley 2011, I’ve never heard such unity or such eulogy from the football world about a team, or individual players or a performance.
There was a clear story to tell.
One: this is a high point. Two: it didn’t happen by accident. That was the whole purpose of writing the book, to explain it. My objective—and therefore ours in the film too—was to try and show some of the ways how it was achieved, to allow people to enjoy that and to enable certain people to copy it. We really like to signpost and preach the message that not every club, but every individual, can learn to train this way, to think this way, to control the ball this way. And we’d like to diffuse that message.
We’re genuinely not a Barça gospel, [but] we think we’re preaching the gospel which is the one that Guardiola believes in, that Cruyff believes in, Xavi believes in, Iniesta believes in, Dani Alves believes in. At no point were we trying to stick out noses up their arses and tell them that it smells of roses. The purpose of telling this story wasn’t to say that everything is beautiful, and it’s a happy wonderland, 1968 Woodstock. None of that shit. I completely lived through it, occasionally being on a plane with the squad during that era. In those days, the Rijkaard days, the players spoke more. You knew the tensions. There’s a point in this film where we saw a clip of Pep as Barça B team coach, and it’s the only clip of him in that role. You can see him walking around the players and he takes Jeffren, who scored the fifth in the 5–0 win over Mourinho’s Madrid and he turns his shoulders. And you see Jeffren’s face going, “What the fuck? Don’t fucking touch me!” You’ve got this little fucking prick whose making his way—and he’s going “Who’s this fucker Guardiola, who I’ve never heard or seen play, and he’s turning my shoulders round?”
That happened in St. Andrews, in Scotland in 2008 when Pep moves up to the first team. And I know that although Piqué didn’t go and complain to the President, Piqué had to be told, “stand here. No, stand here! Exactly on that blade of grass. Turn your body fucking round.” Pep was an interventionist. And Abidal says in the film, “Either you respect me or I don’t respect you. I’m not a 16-year-old. You speak to me like that again I’m fucking off.” You hear reporters saying in that first week of training that Eto’o was pissed off with how Guardiola had spoken to him and about him. He didn’t speak to his face. Touré was unhappy with all the intervention and all the aggressive words. There were others that I’m not going to name. So when we also included Abidal saying that and Eto’o is saying “I’ll be a better coach than Pep and I’ll be better than him because I’ll tell people things to people’s faces,” we did it because it’s factually true. We didn’t want to paint a picture of any of the participants being perfect.
I enjoyed the early part of the film where Alves said, “I would have jumped off the top of the roof of the Nou Camp if Pep told me to.”
He’s a boy, isn’t he? He’s a boy. And can you believe that Dani, out of nothing but goodness and his belief in the story, turned up at a Universal press event in Paris the other week? He spent three and a half, four hours with media who had been invited from all around the world. And sat and talked about this and that and the next thing, just to support the film. He didn’t ask for any payment for his time. He simply did it out of his friendship with us, and his appreciation for the story and his belief that is was worth telling. I think that’s unbelievable. I genuinely felt for this football project; the football matches, the experience that era gave people. I’m not a Barça fan, and I really want that made clear. I’m an Aberdeen fan. I couldn’t give two fucks about any other team in the world apart from mine. But I love football. And I’m probably obsessively sick about how much I love football. To be given this dose of joy, maybe for that, it was worth sharing. In the reporting of this story, writing the book, and making the film, what we’ve all found is the extraordinary nature of the people that we’re dealing with. Just as human beings they may be vexing, stubborn, tough. But they’re also bright, deep, inspirational. A full mix of all of the intense emotions.
I think Carrick is a guy. A man of real substance and worth, irrespective of what he achieved on the pitch. From talking to him, you could tell—“This is really painful for you because you played in both finals. I know how you feel about the Rome one”. We felt we needed somebody to share with us the experience of playing that Barcelona. And he accepted. We sat down, and you could see that long, lost, thousand mile stare in his eyes as he says, “that was the one that took me the longest to get over.”
It was so surprising to see someone talk about how that team broke him.
There are instances where you can say in your sporting life, “that team just fucking did us.” You can end up respecting the ones where you say “they’re better than us.” I think that’s what you heard with Carrick.
Did you try to speak with José Mourinho at all?
No, we had no interest. That was a deliberate idea. José Mourinho made himself a protagonist in this film. Because when he came to Real Madrid, it was with a very aggressive bent, a quite malevolent idea of what to do. He served up the drama of those couple of years very well. His presence served this film very well. But it wasn’t a film about him. Journalistically, if we had been on the attack about Mourinho—about skills, personality, or his decision-making—then not only would we have felt the responsibility to speak to him, we would also have been very interested in seeing how he would have responded. I understand why in 2008, he was a candidate [for the Barça job] for some members on the board. They go to meet Mourinho and take a presentation from him. I have spoken directly to Txiki Begiristain about this. And Txiki has been explicit about the meeting and how good the meeting was. Txiki went back and said to the board that if we hire Mourinho, we will win trophies. If we hire Mourinho, you will recognise the brand of football. But he would not hire Mourinho because, one, we would be putting out fires in the media all the time, and two, Guardiola is—in Begiristain’s words—“my preferred candidate”. Begiristain directed the board towards the verdict; he didn’t order a verdict. He left it open for them to choose Mourinho. Now, I think that you can hear Piqué say in the film that Mourinho arrived at Madrid at a very difficult time. Anybody would have found it hard to contain that football club persona. Fundamentally, I didn’t really see a particular reason to have Mourinho talking in the film. It just wasn’t a project that required his current voice more than it required the things he said and did at the time.