Photograph courtesy of soccerlens.com
Pep Guardiola’s signing of a 3-year contract with Bayern Munich ended the unprecedented ‘transfer speculation’ which surrounded his next move after leaving Barcelona. Sir Alex Ferguson, in his foreword in Pep Guardiola’s biography, wrote that his departure “would have been the most difficult decision to make”. It is true. Despite the regular conflation of money and heart in these days where two-week old players kiss newly-acquired badges of ‘allegiance’, the player faithful to his home tribe is becoming a distant memory. One-club managers are even rarer, the security of their tenures increasingly reliant on the last 10 games, sometimes even less.
If home is where the heart is, Barcelona’s legendary number 4 is its poster boy. Picked from his hometown, Santpedor, after successful trials at Barcelona as a 13-year old, he grew to become the director of the Cruyff’s orchestra, the coaches ‘eyes, ears and mouth’ – the general – on the field. In 1992, as a 21 year old, he was a crucial part of Barcelona’s maiden European Cup winning team and central to their continued success until he announced his departure in 2001.
In 2007, having retired the previous year, he returned as coach of Barcelona B. A year later, he was appointed him to take the reins of the Barcelona A-team after Rijkaard’s successful, but ultimately flawed, reign spluttered to an embarrassing end. In the next 4 years, what followed were the most successful years in Barcelona’s history. Pep’s achievements in transforming the team’s on-pitch fortunes, almost single-handedly shaping the destinies of certain players and embellishing a style of play which is copied around the world are almost without comparison. The leaves fell, winter came and in April, 2012, he announced his impending departure to widespread shock. Not that it should have been – the writing had always been on the wall. His signing of one-year rolling contracts was the mark of a man totally at ease with his status as a hired hand. The club is forever (in theory at least), and the manager is simply a custodian (unless you’re Sir Alex) even when you’re one of their own like Pep was and is. Listen to him when he says “I have to recover and the only way I can do that is by distancing myself. Otherwise, we would have ended up damaging each other” and one senses a man totally at ease with his own managerial mortality.
Fast-forward a year, and in the cruellest twist of fate, Barcelona has drawn Bayern Munich in the Champions League Semi-Final. In the aftermath of the draw, while pundits and experts opined as to how the tie might pan out, others wondered whether Bayern will be seeking consultancy services of their ‘new man’. Jupp Heynckes certainly poured frigid water on such notions, fierily rejecting such – “I have never consulted anyone or asked for advice”, he insisted. “I do not need anyone to study an opponent.” However, the power circle at the Allianz Arena is of a wider area than anywhere else and Jurgen Klopp, Borrussia Dortmund’s maverick coach, knows that. “I would bet my life that Sammer and Guardiola will talk very well. But it does not matter because Guardiola cannot play on the pitch,“ he insisted, expecting Bayern’s dictatorial Sporting Director to make the enquiries instead. It would seem almost foolish not to make an attempt to broach the subject with Guardiola, although Bayern’s approach should not disregard the sensitive position their future manager is in. Even then, one must wonder, what would he stand to gain, if anything at all, by revealing the formula to unlocking Barcelona? On closer reflection, ingratiating himself to Bayern is both unnecessary and could potentially harm his own prospects.
If Bayern go on to win the Champions League, he would inherit a team who may, or may not, be sated by the sweet, intoxicating liquor that is success. Motivating winners is no mean feat, a fact which makes his accomplishments at Barcelona all the more astounding. It is cliché but remains ever true – remaining at the top is immeasurably more difficult than actually getting there. Just ask the only successive winners of the Champions League – *crickets*. Ideally, Guardiola would want some failure to work on, something tangible in terms of silverware to improve on. Bayern look poised to achieve a domestic double at least, not a failure by any means but Champions League glory remains the Holy Grail, particularly in light of the scorching glare of 2 champions league failures in 3 years.
Barcelona has struggled in the Champions League this year, and the squad is Pep’s squad. 1 win in their last 5 Champions League games is poor but somehow they are in the semi-final, a testament to their incomparable mental strength, a vestige of Guardiola’s time. They are his men and Barcelona’s failure might be regarded in some quarters as his failure. The current manager was his assistant manager, the tactics are highly similar and the philosophy remains the same (although credit must be given to Tito Vilanova in certain regards for being fairly consistent with his formations, something Guardiola, in the quest to find the key to Pandora’s box, discarded towards the end of his tenure). There isn’t enough new blood to signal dissociation with Bayern’s manager-to-be.
From a sentimental perspective, Lionel Messi, although always destined to be a legend with talent as boundless as his, has Guardiola to thank for tweaking Barcelona’s tactics and approach to bring out his very best. Also, Pep acquiesced to his number 10 playing, and eventually winning gold, at the Olympics. In 2010, with looming influence of Ibrahimovic growing, Messi felt threatened. He, now famously, texted Guardiola saying, “I can see I’m not important anymore…,” a testament to the bond that they shared. Of course, Ibrahimovic was eventually shipped out as Messi started to reassert his influence on the side from the Swede’s central position. When Guardiola announced his departure last year, Messi could not bear to attend the press conference along with his fellow teammates. Elsewhere in the squad, Guardiola’s influence is perhaps not as strongly felt in anybody else as Sergio Busquets. When he started the 2009 Champions League final, this writer laughed him off, very much ignorant of the young man’s talent. His arrival on the scene accelerated the departure of Yaya Toure, initially derided in many quarters as foolhardy. In 5 years since, Busquets has exhibited his impeccable one-touch passing (Xavi described him as the best ‘one-touch player’ on the planet), flawless positioning and most of all, his awareness which allows him to fulfil the ‘pivote’ role at Barcelona like no other. In many respects, Busquets is a reflection of Guardiola in his playing pomp, possessing the same calmness and authority in possession. In fact, Guardiola has gone as far as to state that if he could be a footballer, he would be Busquets. High, high praise indeed, but extremely telling of an appreciation of the qualities of a young footballer he has almost exclusive responsibility for honing. That Pep would react with indifference to a misplaced Busquets backpass, or a failed Messi penalty touches the realm of fantasy – he made these players; their failures would be felt most keenly by their mentor.
Tonight, Bayern’s manager-to-be will be sat wherever he may be hoping that Barcelona wins. Not necessarily that Bayern lose, even though both are mutually the result of one another. At kickoff, he will be Culé, his and Barcelona’s ambitions yet to cross until June at least. To the outside world, he would put on a diplomatic front, and if he uncharacteristically gives an interview, would probably trot out even more uncharacteristic platitudes. For now, he can relax in the knowledge that professional commitments have yet been stayed a while as affairs of the heart take precedence.
Enjoy the Match!