In 2012, Grant Wahl wrote a profile piece about FC Barcelona for Sports Illustrated. It was headlined The World’s Team and for it, he was given unparalleled week-long access to the club’s new training facility – which he memorably titles ‘The Hogwarts of Soccer’.
This was FC Barcelona in 2012, basking in the afterglow of their memorable Champions League win at Wembley the previous year. Wahl watches every training session, soaks up the spirit of the club and conducts memorable interviews with Pique, Fabregas and Xavi.
This is an extract from an interview with Wahl, part of a new 10-part podcast series, Between the Lines: The Stories Behind Great Sports Writing produced by BackPage Press
23 January 2018
Q: This was Barcelona in 2012, a year after the Champions League win at Wembley. Was timing important, trying to catch the wave of this extraordinary story?
Grant Wahl: I thought that timing was important. And you have to understand that at Sports Illustrated – which has been the US national sports magazine since the 1950s – the change in the editorial approach to the sport of soccer / football has completely changed since I started 21 years ago.
For many years it was almost impossible to get anything on soccer in the magazine, outside of a World Cup. But then things started to change over time and I went full-time in soccer reporting in 2009 simply because there was finally enough demand from my bosses to cover the sport.
One of the first things I wanted to do was a series of magazine stories called ‘Inside the Superclubs’ where I would go and spend a week at some of the biggest clubs in the world and get a chance to really understand what they were about. Barcelona were perhaps an obvious choice at that time because they were doing things that were very special. Barcelona want to be bigger in the US and I tried to leverage that as a journalist to get the best access. They were into the idea, so I went and spent a week there just getting a full sense of the club, the people, the history and the present.
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Q: The access you got was extraordinary. Talk us through the conversations you had with Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi.
GW: They were all engaged and thoughtful. The Pique and Fabregas interviews were in English and the Xavi interview was in Spanish, which I can speak. I really got a sense of what Barcelona the club means to these guys.
From a guy like Pique who was a member from birth, whose family members have been active in the club and then for him to become such a prominent player is fascinating. He also talked really well about the rivalry with Real Madrid because when this story came out it was the week of a Clasico.
Fabregas was one of the kids who came in a taxi every day to train at La Masia. And when I was there I saw those taxis waiting to take the new generation of kids back to their homes in the region. The Xavi interview was one of my five favourite interviews I’ve ever done, just because he was so passionate about, in his words, fighting for the soul of football.
He really felt that the style that they played was something bigger than sport, it was part of Catalan identity. We talked for 20 or 30 minutes but I could have stayed for four or five hours.
Q: In the piece you talk about a Sports Illustrated Facebook survey asking readers for their top sports moment of 2011 … and Messi’s Champions League final goal in 2011 got more votes than the champions of the NBA, NFL or NHL…
GW: For decades now, I get asked the question: ‘When is soccer going to make it in the US?’ and for a while now I’ve been telling people it’s already made it in many ways. No, it’s not the NFL, but the NFL is the biggest single entertainment in the US ahead of the movies. The growth of soccer in the US has been astonishing to me. This story came out in 2012, but even then soccer – and Barcelona – had made it big here”