Interview: Graham Hunter
“I moved to Spain in 2002. I couldn’t speak the language, I didn’t have a job. Barcelona were rubbish”, explains Graham Hunter in a bustling National Football Museum foyer prior to a promotional event for his second book – “Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble”.
The seeds of Hunter’s journey from Aberdeen to the Nou Camp were first sewn in 1982, as the author embarked on a three day train journey to Marbella for the 1982 World Cup. Having intervened to stop an English supporter attacking a Spaniard on the train, Hunter found himself held at gunpoint by the Guardia Civil -only to be released in the nick of time after protestations by a fellow traveller.
These days however, Hunter is the envy of football fans across the world. Not only has he enjoyed unrivalled access to the development of a golden era at Barcelona, he has also witnessed the Spanish national team achieve a feat experienced by none before them. The book recounts in vivid detail this historical treble – consisting of two European Championships and a World cup. But has he witnessed the two greatest sides to ever play football, I ask?
“That’s feasible – but isn’t something which I will be advancing myself. What I will say, is that the international teams which came closest to what Spain achieved (notably the German team of the early/mid seventies) did so in much easier conditions”.
Indeed, the stats are astonishing. In the past two European championships and last World Cup, Spain contested a total of 19 fixtures. The Germans on the other hand, who were denied the treble on penalties by Czechoslovakia in the 1976 European Championship final, played just 11.
With regards to Barcelona, Hunter claims this golden generation has “taken club football to a level we have not seen before”. But is, I ask, this golden generations reaching its curtain call? In the wake of last season’s all German Champions League final, a whole host of respected columnists and amateur enthusiasts pronounced the death of tiki-taka. We were, they claimed, on the verge of a new era to be dominated by pace and power – which the current German crop happen to possess in abundance. The much heralded ‘Spanish model’ was giving way to the ‘German model’, they said.
“Current German football is a process which began in 2000-01. The German FA conjoined with the clubs, and they started to replicate some of the things which the Spanish have” Hunter said. “German teams like to hold the ball and pass it. The German national team is more Spain than Spain – with the advantage now of being stronger, fitter and younger”.
Hunter’s admirations and respect for the German national team is quite obvious. He recalls a conversation with Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas prior to the World Cup semi-final against Germany in 2010, in which Casillas revealed that the Germans scared him, and that they were “building an era which could dominate for a generation”.
However with regards to club football, Graham is a little less convinced.
Making direct comparison between La Liga and the Bundesliga, he argued the underbelly of the latter (including teams such as Schakle, Leverkusen and Hamburg) cannot yet be classified as a golden era – with each of them “light-years” behind Bayern.
On the other hand, he cited La Liga teams such as Valencia, Sevilla, Real Betis and Villarreal – all of whom have made waves on either the domestic or European stage in recent years. Hunter’s overriding message is an important one – that “we need to be more careful about how we assess changes in eras”.
Switching focus back to home soil, Hunter agrees that the disconnect between the football association and clubs in England is self-defeating. Citing the breakaway of the Premier League and the vast fortunes it brought for those in its upper echelons, Hunter says that ironically, “what has made the Premier League so huge globally, is the same as what has weakened it so much domestically”.
I then ask whether Hunter misses the Premier League. He admits that upon leaving for Spain over ten years ago, he had stopped enjoying Premiership football as much as before. “The Premier League used to be about technical players – Scholes, Poyet, Carbone”.
As the emphasis moved to pace and tricks, Hunter says that too few Premier League clubs put a premium on intelligent, strategic players. “I do miss English football culture though”, he adds.
In his talk later in the evening, Hunter revealed how English and Spanish football differ with regards to the access journalists like himself have to players. He regularly recalls long conversations with some of the most pre-eminent footballers of our generation and also reveals his trick – not to ask people “the same old shit they’ve already answered before” (in hindsight, I hope I wasn’t guilty of this myself!).
With an emphasis on quality and the trust he has developed with players who he has watched throughout almost their whole careers, Hunter is without doubt one of the most respected writers of his generation. The negative upshot of this is that you may well encounter a few bogus transfer tipsters around this time of year using his name to give their nonsense credibility.
Towards the end of our conversation he says he was born with a “natural ability – verbally at least – to tell a story”. Having read both of Hunter’s books, I can testify that he does it far better than most.
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