Simon Kuper was born in Uganda to South African parents but spent his formative years in the Netherlands idolizing Johan Cruyff. He began writing for World Soccer magazine at age 16 and by the time he graduated from college he had a book deal to explore the intersection of soccer and politics around the world. That book turned into Soccer Against the Enemy, which for many belongs in the canon of soccer literature. Kuper is well-known in American soccer circles for his book Soccernomics. Kuper and co-author Stefan Szymanski are rewriting Soccernomics for an edition to be released before Qatar 2022. Kuper is also a columnist for the Financial Times.
SOCCER AMERICA: Hi Simon! You have a new book out. (The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the Making--and Unmaking--of the World's Greatest Soccer Club). Tell us about it.
SIMON KUPER: So, I grew up in Holland hero-worshipping Johan Cruyff. I've come to think he's the most influential and interesting man in modern soccer. He sort of invented the dominant style of today — the high pressing, playing in the other team's half, fast passing, positional changes, playing the game with your center backs on the halfway line.
At Barcelona, he made it the club's style and then it went global. He's kind of the Freud or the Moses of football — one the most interesting men in modern soccer. That's where it began.
I've been visiting Barcelona as a journalist for nearly 30 years, and when I was there in 2019, I realized they were opening doors for me for the articles I was writing for my newspaper, the Financial Times.
Every interview I asked for they gave me — head coach, president, a lot of hanging around and chatting to people up and down the club: nutritionists, psychologists, youth coaches. And so I thought, 'Wow, access in modern soccer is so difficult, so rare. So I said to my contact at Barcelona, 'If I did a book, would you keep opening doors for me?' And they said, 'sure.'
And so I made various trips back and interviewed people up and down the club and I supplemented that with my 30 years of interviews from my notebooks with people like Cruyff, Neymar, Pique, Rivaldo — a lot of Barcelona people of different eras.
The book is really from Cruyff to Messi, and as I was writing it, I realized that the club was collapsing. That kind of became the narrative arc. I thought I was going to describe the greatness, and I did, but I also described the fall.
SA: Tell us more about Cruyff’s invention of counter pressing. I think many may not appreciate that aspect of his coaching philosophy — maybe focusing more on his teams in possession.
SIMON KUPER: There's a famous image on Youtube where Holland is playing Uruguay at the World Cup 1974. This Uruguayan defender is kind of wandering around with the ball. Five Dutchmen press him and rob him and the guy has never seen anything like it before.
World Cup '74 is where the whole world sees a team pressing — Ajax had been doing this in the early 1970s when they were the best team in the world. It was much less orchestrated and disciplined than what Pep Guardiola did. Guardiola kind of refines Cruyff's thinking — he gives it rigor and organization. Cruyff is the original, but Guardiola is the better coach and the disciple.
SA: Anything you learned about Cruyff when you were writing this book that you didn’t know before?
SIMON KUPER: I would say not much, because I’ve been following the guy for 30 years. Having grown up in Dutch football where he is the central figure — he is the ancestor where everything comes from him and all generations are touched by him.
Twenty years ago, I thought about writing a biography on him — [this book] was a lot more about how to marshal everything I knew and the millions of words I wrote about him, my interview with him in 2002, into something for an English-language audience.
What I realized is that the Dutch know him, the Catalans know him, but the rest of the world really didn't. So little of his career was televised and he only gave interviews in Holland and Catalonia — the rest of the world didn't get to know much about him. He's sort of strangely unknown, so I was trying to present him to an audience that doesn't know him or knew him only as a name.
SA: How about what you learned about FC Barcelona?
SIMON KUPER: I started writing the book thinking, ‘There isn't a lot to say about Messi.’ He's a great player but he doesn't really have an interesting personality — it's very hard to write about him. When I began to speak to people inside the club I realized, this guy — they're all terrified of him.
He's the most powerful figure in the club. He has very strong opinions on football: who he wants to play with, what the coach should and shouldn't do — mostly he thinks the coach should shut up and not try to interfere too much — on how Barcelona should play. For 15 years, really, every decision they made, they thought, 'what will Leo think?'
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a great example — they signed him for a bunch of money in 2009. He does really well — he scores in his five first games. Then Guardiola realizes Messi is not happy, and Guardiola is always extremely sensitive to Messi's moods. In those days, Messi didn't really speak, so Guardiola had to pull it out of him — 'What's going on, Leo?'
Eventually Messi says, 'Look. I cut in from the right. I go to the center. When I get to the center, I don't want this massive great Swede standing in my way yelling for the ball' — which is what Zlatan does, obviously.
So Guardiola realizes in this instant, 'Right. we've got to get rid of Ibrahimovic because everything has to work for Leo.' Ibrahimovic was doing really well, was benched, and then dispatched on loan to Italy and never came back. [Zlatan] was sort of unbelieving and doesn't know what's going on and no one explains it to him. But that's the power of Messi.
They hire coaches for a decade — Xavi really is the first dominant coach since Guardiola — who are willing to just shut up and listen to Leo or understand that they're working for Leo.
In the changing room, the coach will give a pre-match talk and then Leo will say a few words. He's also the guy who, when he speaks, everyone shuts up and listens. When he goes to a teammate on the field and says, 'I want you 20 yards further back, I want you to pass more to the right,' or whatever, it's done. It's a little bit like Michael Jordan in that documentary. He really is the main man and he doesn't really have a big personality but he does it in his own way.
SA: What else did you learn about the club?
SIMON KUPER: [Barcelona] is a neighborhood club run by people who grew up there as children and expect to spend their whole lives there. They think long term, they care about their youth academy because they think, ‘Well, I'll still be here in 10-20 years when these kids are coming up.’
There's a kind of localism to it that I don't believe exists in top level soccer or in North American sport.
SA: How do you cover Barcelona’s downfall? There’s a way that the Messi-first mentality may have ended up being detrimental to the club.
SIMON KUPER: Yeah, it did end up going wrong, but for 15 years it went right. This is the best player-club relationship in the history of football.
At various times, Barcelona had the best player in the world — they had Diego Maradona, Cruyff, Ronaldinho, Bernd Schuster, and it never worked out. It went well for a season or two and then the player would implode or stop performing like Cruyff did in the 70s.
When they realized in 2005 or 2006 that [Messi] could be the best, they were very anxious that he'd go off the rails, or leave, or get injured and lose motivation — like what happened to the rest of their best players. By 2008, when he really was the best, they developed this Messi strategy — doing everything to please Leo was the basic principle of the club. And it worked.
They pay him way too much money by the end — towards the end, he's earning about $200 million in salary for his final season, which is probably three times what any other player in soccer is earning. It's way too much and it’s leeching the club.
It's mostly his dad — Leo probably doesn't know exactly what he's earning. One Barcelona official said to me, 'The guy doesn't know what a bank account is.' If you're a player in that sort of family, they say, 'Look. We'll handle the money, you just play soccer.'
It's his dad who fancies himself as the big businessman who's going to the club all the time saying, ‘We have to raise his salary or we'll leave.’ Messi's salary tripled between 2014 and 2019 amidst all of this, which is insane. That's the club letting things get out of hand. So you're right, it did go wrong in the end, but it went incredibly right before it went wrong. With hindsight, they very much did everything right.
SA: How about players who were unhappy with the setup at Barcelona during the Messi era?
SIMON KUPER: The kind of player Barcelona buys is the one who is the best at their club. They were the best in every team they played in and they were kind of the 'Leo Messi' of their team. If you're Ibrahimovic, in most teams, the team is built around you. The same could be said for [Antoine] Griezmann or Philippe Coutinho, and it's guys like that who will have a real problem because at Barca, the last few years, Messi didn't defend. So everyone else defends and runs back 30-40 meters to recover.
The attack doesn't go through [Griezman], it goes through Leo, and Leo might decide to involve you or not. These guys find themselves at a loss. Suddenly they don't have a function in the team anymore — they were Messi, but now Messi is Messi. And they get unhappy at Barca because they can't integrate themselves.
It's the most gifted players who suffer the most — if you're someone like Arturo Vidal who does the running, well, Barcelona need someone like him.
SA: It looked like quite the financial collapse during the pandemic.
SIMON KUPER: They had just spent too much money in the good years. Whenever you're not playing very well or the players aren't functioning, Messi will beat three men and put it in the top corner so you'll always win in the end.
Their style had gone backward and they spent money too easily. They wanted to spend about $90 million for Ousmane Dembele, and Dortmund said 'no, you've got to play double.' And so they just paid double. They paid something like $150 million for Griezmann, who was 28 at the time — an insane amount of money. Other clubs knew they were a soft touch.
They stopped modernizing their game plan, which is what you must always do in football — football is always moving on. Their youth academy — everybody else copied them, but Barca didn't update their own youth method. They got kind of very lazy. And then the pandemic hits.
About 30% of the match-day crowd pre-pandemic would be tourists who would pay a premium for the tickets and would then shop in the club megastore, and so on, because it's a tourist city.
The pandemic hit them really really hard, but they already had a huge problem before. When the pandemic starts and the Camp Nou closes, that's when they realize, 'Oh my god, we've got a crisis.'
I realized it, as I'm sure many others did, a few months earlier. When I began the book in 2019 I thought, ‘Wow, it’s the best team in the world.’ Then they beat Liverpool 3-0 at home, they had won the Spanish league.
Then they lose at Anfield 4-0 and you see this very old, slow team. The year before against Roma [when Barcelona lost 3-0 and was surprisingly knocked out of the UCL] seemed like a one-off. When Liverpool hammered them, everyone began to think, 'Hang on, there's something wrong here.' And that's when the implosion starts.
So Barcelona find themselves with no more money and then Messi goes back to Barcelona on August 4th of 2021 thinking, 'OK, I'm going to sign for half of my old salary, everything is fine.' And the club tells him, 'Look. We just don't have a penny. We can't even legally register you or any new player. It's over.'
He's shocked and saddened, not because he loves Barca but mostly because his family is very happy there.
SA: How did you start your writing career?
SIMON KUPER: When I was 16, I moved back from Holland to England and I began sending articles to World Soccer about Dutch football because I could read the Dutch media and write about it. They published them and then let me write a monthly letter from Holland. I did that for a few years. And then in 1993, I had just graduated from college and I had a book contract to write about soccer and politics — what soccer means in different countries around the world.
[Editor’s Note: That book contract became Soccer Against the Enemy, which in 1994 won the William Hill sports book of the year, Britain’s annual literary sports award]
SA: Any characters or places from Soccer Against the Enemy you’ve revisited?
SIMON KUPER: The one I have kept in reasonable touch with is Helmut Klopfleisch who was expelled from East Germany for supporting Western football teams. When Euro 2016 happened in France where I was living at the time, I invited him over, he stayed at my flat and he was following Germany, as he always does.
SA: Did you always know you wanted to be a soccer journalist?
SIMON KUPER: My friends told me that that’s what I was going to do but I thought, 'No, I'm going to do something more significant. I'm just writing journalism now in school and university. I'm going to go on to do something more important, like save the world in some way.’
And then I realized that I'd only really wanted to write about it so my friends turned out to be right.
Simon Kuper's bibliography includes Soccernomics; Ajax, the Dutch, the War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe's Darkest Hour; Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World's Most Popular. He also authored Spies, Lies, and Exile: The Extraordinary Story of Russian Double Agent George Blake.
SA: You're rewriting another version of Soccernomics with Stefan Szymanski. Tell us about that.
SIMON KUPER: We've done three or four additions, we constantly update it and we're going to update it again for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
We're talking about how men's soccer should pay reparations to women's soccer because if women's soccer hadn't been banned in some soccer countries for 50 years, it would now be an enormous, if not multi-billion dollar game. Men's soccer deliberately held it back. It owes women's soccer reparations.
We talk about the Super League and why it was such a fiasco.
In the first edition in 2009, we predicted that Iraq, Turkey, the USA, and Japan are all future kings of soccer. And that was just wrong. So we've gone back to say, why is it that against our expectations Western Europe has continued to dominate? A Western European country has won the World Cup four times in a row. Why is it that the rest of the world can't catch up? What is holding them back?
SA: And what are you finding?
SIMON KUPER: Well, it turns out that in Western Europe, you've got an incredible exchange of knowledge all the time. Teams play each other every week. When Chelsea beat Real Madrid, Madrid go home and think, 'Well, what are they doing better? What can we steal?' When Barcelona's La Masia is producing the world's best players, all the other coaches come to La Masia and try to work out how to copy it. The English did that quite well, the Germans did it.
SIMON KUPER'S FAVORITE SOCCER BOOKS:
SA: The first edition of Soccernomics talked about expected goals and statistics in soccer in a way that was new for the sport. Talk about the way data and numbers have become more enmeshed with the game.
SIMON KUPER: Yeah, we're trying to rewrite that chapter now. What I'm getting is that it's not that sophisticated. We do have an awareness of, say, completed passes in the final third, or players' maximum sprinting speed, which is good to know. But clubs are not doing much with that.
The best is Liverpool, by a very large margin. They have very serious people — physicists with PhDs who have sort of gone beyond what other teams are doing. What's really important in soccer isn't just, 'Is this a good player?' but, 'how will he play with the other players?'
Firmino and Mo Salah play very well together. Liverpool do these co-variant analyses to see which player will play well with which player. So Manchester United players may be just as good but there isn't any co-variance — they don't combine particularly well together.
It's about space and how player X will play with player Y in the Premier League when player X has never played in the Premier League. [Liverpool] are way ahead of everyone else — which is why a club with a fairly modest budget compared to say, the biggest five or six in Europe, has been at the top for all that time.
If there is a secret, Liverpool are closest to discovering it. Most clubs are using data in a fairly simple way but it definitely was better than a decade ago.
SA: If you could change one rule in soccer what would it be?
SIMON KUPER: When a free kick is awarded against a team, what you always see now is that the team that conceded the free kick stands in front of the ball or grabs the ball and pretends to argue with the referee. What he's really doing is allowing the rest of his team to get back on defense.
When there's a free kick you should have to immediately retreat 10 [yards] from the ball — if you don't, it's a yellow card. Part of the advantage of a free kick should be, 'OK, we have the ball, we want to play it right away.'
It doesn't strike me as a particularly difficult thing to enforce. The first few times there would be huge outrage, fans saying, 'You gave a card just for that!’ But after a while players will just stop doing it. It's not just that you can't touch the ball, it's also that you must be 10 [yards] away or it's a yellow card.
SIMON KUPER'S TOP THREE GAMES HE SAW IN PERSON
3. Barcelona vs. Manchester United, 3-1, 2011 Champions League final. "Just an incredible display."
2. Holland vs. Brazil, 1-1 (Brazil 4-2 on penalties), 1998 World Cup semi-final. "That was a really brilliant game."
1. Holland vs. Soviet Union, 2-0, 1988 European Championship final. "That was very moving to me because that's the only time Holland has ever won anything."
SA: Soccer is getting ready for the 2022 World Cup ... how do you think the media, the teams, and the fans will reconcile or confront the human rights abuses that have made Qatar 2022 possible?
SIMON KUPER: Countries often host thinking that it will whitewash their reputation so that people will think, ‘Oh, Qatar is so nice because they hosted a football World Cup and now I think about football when I think of that.’
But actually what you get — Argentina in 1978 is an equivalent of this — people suddenly start to think about human rights abuses in that country. Most people hadn't thought about the torturing and killing of dissidents in the 70s or the terrible lives of laborers in Qatar or the Kafala laws in Qatar until they got the World Cup.
This mistreatment of migrant labor — that's what all the Gulf countries do. We've rightly focused enormously on Qatar doing it and we're really only focusing on it because of the World Cup.
So in some ways, it can be really damaging for a country's reputation because suddenly it casts a spotlight and, you know, the kind of optimistic view is that there are forces in Qatar who do want to clean things up because they're embarrassed that the whole world is seeing all this.
I reached someone at Amnesty [International] at one point who said, “Look, you've got to understand there are different groups in the Qatari regime. Some want to keep everything as it is and others say, 'Look, the whole world is watching us, we have to make it better.' ”
I certainly don't want to whitewash what happens there, but the World Cup does cast a light on it.
SA: What do you think will be the biggest storylines in the next decade of soccer globally? Or what direction is the sport taking in your opinion?
SIMON KUPER: Bigger and better than ever. We're seeing a shift in funding from TV to streaming. The top of the game will get richer and richer and the bottom of the game will remain very stable.
A lot of people complain about the rich clubs growing away from the poor clubs. The way I see it is that almost no small club ever wins anything — it's very rare. But they don't have to, because their role is to please the local town. You don't really need to win — you're there to fulfill a local function.
If you think of a club like Rochdale or Hartlepool — they've been around for 100+ years. They've never won anything, they don't need to. You have a base of 5,000-10,000 fans, and those people just want you to be there. The incredible stability of almost all Western European clubs -- especially the English, who have been around longer than anyone — shows that small clubs are just fine. The fact that PSG are paying $200 million for Neymar — it doesn't really matter to the small clubs. That's just not the game they're in.