Thursday, 21 August 2014

How El Tel tamed the Orwellian beast of Barcelona and won La Liga

First published on FourFourTwo

Picture the city of Barcelona in the summer of 1984. The place is getting a facelift, with cranes dotting the skyline and new parks and plazas springing up across the city. The streets and boulevards buzz with an optimism brought on by a regeneration that began late in the previous decade.

It’s a sun-drenched scene, tourists gawping enviously as locals amble down tight alleys and broad avenues, lounge in cafés shaded by parasols and generally exalt in the underlying feeling of renaissance. There’s a colourful, glamorous vibe about this city; Barcelona is on the up.

Now insert Terry Venables into that scene.

For 1984 was the year that the man later styled by journalist Mihir Bose as the “False Messiah” walked into the Nou Camp as coach of FC Barcelona for the first time, a club as much in need of revival as the city itself. Venables was an unlikely saviour; the previous 24 years of his professional life had revolved around a quadrangle of locations all within a 30-mile radius of his birthplace in Dagenham. Yet here he was managing one of the world’s biggest and most iconic clubs, a cockney in charge of Catalonia's most powerful symbol.

Venables took over during a period of turbulence at Barça. Diego Maradona was on his way out, his constant feuding with club president Josep Lluís Núñez having made the act of football a mere sideshow to the El Diego soap opera. Núñez himself ran the club as if it were the Airstrip One of George Orwell’s 1984, a grand institution moulded into a personal fiefdom through inane propaganda, ruthless politicking and outright intimidation.

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it,” wrote Orwell, words that were oddly reflective of Núñez’s reign as Barça president, during which time he had ruthlessly seen off all would-be challengers to his domination of the club. If Barça was Airstrip One then Núñez was Big Brother and, fittingly, 1984 was to prove one of the most pivotal years of his regime.

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