Take the ball. Pass the ball.
The words drone on in some sort of quasi-religious incantation. A shaven head appears only adding to the esoteria.
Take the ball. Pass the ball.
The head moves backwards and forwards with each repetition, jerking myoclonically from one side to the other in a sort of physical manifestation of the words it is speaking.
Take the ball. Pass the ball.
The screen fades to black.
In the early 1900s, the disaffected son of world-renowned epidemiologist Adrien Proust began writing a novel that he hoped would go some way towards ameliorating an existence that had been, at least as far as the young Marcel saw it, feckless.
Having spent his career contributing to the eventual eradication of cholera in France, Adrien had left his son without the need to earn a living and, by the time he had reached the age of 38 years old, Marcel Proust was despondent, feeling as though he had let down his family and desperate to make the sort of impact in the literary sphere that his father had in the medical.
The novel that emerged from out of this existential crisis, In Search of Lost Time, offered Proust a literary space within which to explore the futility he was experiencing. Broadly biographical, the book traced Proust’s journey through a world in which time seemed to be endlessly escaping him and meaning seemed to be worryingly lacking.
As the novel goes on, though, the author begins to realise that the loss of meaning that he sees in the world around him is simply the result of a dulling of the senses: the product of a gradual familiarisation with a world rich with meaning. To find meaning, then, he has to look backwards not forwards. The play on words in the English title reflects this: Proust is looking to make up for lost time by getting back to a time that has now become lost to him.
Take the Ball, Pass the Ball, which is released in the UK this week, offers a cinematographic rendering of Barcelona’s own search for lost time. Inspired by Graham Hunter’s 2012 book, Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, it traces the four years in which Pep Guardiola began to ‘redefine modern football’—at least that’s what the promotional material that’s handed to me tells me.
I’m sitting in Screening Room 1 of the NBC Universal Pictures offices in central London. Any notions of the glitz and glamour of a film premiere are banished from my mind. ‘This is the cold, hard world of the film critic,’ I tell myself as I settle into the leather seats of the room, trying not to think too hard about the sorts of people who have sat in the same seats before me.
In the half-light of the cinema screen, I wonder what I am about to see. A non-disclosure agreement awaits me but at this point it hardly seems possible that there can be all that many spoilers…
Spoiler alert, people: Barcelona were really good under Pep Guardiola. I know the history. I’ve read the literature: Fear and Loathing in La Liga; Pep Confidential; The Barcelona Legacy; Hunter’s own book, Barça. What more am I going to learn?
Football films are notoriously banal anyway. Except for those lucky enough to have jobs as beat reporters, the experience of watching a football match is mediated to us through film most of the time. This is how we do the beautiful game. Make a documentary about football and you’re just going to be patching together a highlight reel, aren’t you? Is this just going to be a YouTube comp on crack?
The start of the film jerks me out of my irreverent thoughts. Drums. We’re wandering around the Camp Nou. There are clips of Barcelona interspersing the action. I knew it. But before I can get too smug, we’re thrown into it. Wembley 2011. ‘Start strong,’ I think to myself. ‘Can’t go far wrong with a bit of classic Champions League footage.’
Like In Search for Lost Time, Take the Ball, Pass the Ball is divided into volumes. From Wembley 2011, we move backward to even more compelling viewing—Pep vs José. Well, it calls itself ‘The Road to Wembley’ but we all know that’s a euphemism. Next, a section on Johan Cruyff or, as I prefer it, Barcelona: Origins. It continues. Pep: Local Hero. Messi: Not So Local Hero. And then there’s a final section—Life after Pep—which, given the three-peat of monarch-supported rivals Real Madrid that was on the horizon, should really have been titled: The Empire Strikes Back.
Each section is slick and roughly short enough to maintain my interest (although the Pep: Local Hero section does begin to drag a bit). My fears that the film was simply going to be a glorified highlight reel are swiftly allayed. What really gets you about the film—and I’ll admit it, I’m enthralled—is the access. They’ve spoken to everyone. Players, coaches, kitmen, youth coaches, board members. I’m trying to jot down names as I go: Manel Estiarte; Josep Maria Minguella; Albert Benaiges; Laureano Ruiz; Joan Laporte; Marc Ingla, Carles Rexach; Chema Corbella… I run out of space on my notebook. We get journalists too: Graham Hunter in a suit and Sid Lowe in a battered Puma t-shirt.
But it’s the players who really get to me. I don’t think of myself as the sort of person who cares about personality within football—mainly because I consider it to be lacking for the most part. How wrong I was. The interviews with players are extensive enough to give them colour, bestow them with depth, contour them with individuality.
Whilst this sounds noble or something, my hastily-scribbled jottings offer a different picture: something like the everyday or mundane. This may say more about me but looking back I’m surprised at what I pick up on in my notes. ‘How does Eidur Gudjohnsen sound so English?’ (This took me back to his time in the Premier League when I used to spend hours watching Match of the Day trying to work out where his adoptive accent was from.) ‘Mascherano speaks like he is just about to burp.’ ‘Carlos Puyol is looking more like Cyrano de Bergerac by the year.’ ‘Gerard Pique speaks English well.’ ‘Dani Alves is such a nice chap.’
And then there is Messi. Lionel H. Messi. I sit there listening to him talk and I am suddenly struck by a strange thought. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Messi talk before. He is—and let’s not argue here, we’re getting on so well—the GOAT and I can’t ever remember having heard him give an interview. In some sense, this doesn’t surprise me. The Messi/Ronaldo rivalry gets its longevity as much from their differences as their similarity. They are both good at football, yes. But they represent diametric ends of almost every metric beyond that that you could find.
But then, before you know it, we’re into the final section of the film and we’re talking to Xavi and he’s charming and erudite and still clearly one of the best midfielders in the world. That’s when the Proustian quality of the whole enterprise really hits me. We’ve been meandering through the highs and lows of Pep Guardiola’s time at Barcelona and the film’s funerary quality has broken through on a number of occasions. There goes David Villa. Oh look! Andres Iniesta! Xavi’s over there. Victor Valdes wearing… a Middlesbrough training top? And Pep? What of our hero? Gone too, never to return.
This is Barcelona in search of lost time. Dani Alves uses an appropriately-footballer metaphor to express this temporal passing away. ‘It’s a bit like the best cars. Cruyff was the first great model: the Mark I. And Pep is the Mark II.’ These are the nodal points of Barcelona history. And they are both gone. There is a wistfulness to the whole proceedings. Something has been lost. How will we get it back?
The timing of the film can hardly be surprising. Sure, Barcelona are top of La Liga, already seven points ahead of their rivals in Madrid. But this Barcelona is not Barcelona, so the film seems to be saying. Those four years where everything seemed perfect, where all was well with the world, they clearly belong to a lost time.
But the journey doesn’t end here. Hunter’s own Proustian moment does not leave him looking longingly backwards. Dani Alves continues. ‘But I think Xavi will be in the same league when he returns here as coach. When he comes back he’ll be the Mark III.’
If there is a message from the film, then, it is this: much like Marcel Proust before them, to go forward, they must look backward. They must make up for lost time by returning to a time that had become lost.
Take the Ball, Pass the Ball will be available in OurScreen cinemas from 9th November DVD and Digital Download November 12.