January 18, 2013 4:55 pm

Pep Guardiola: football’s most wanted

The world’s greatest clubs fought to hire the former Barcelona coach. So what’s his secret?
Pep Guardiola©AFP/Getty Images

In the spring of 2008 Barcelona Football Club was a big-name global brand that was losing its lustre. The ideas were running out, the competitive edge had faded, morale was low. New leadership was called for.

The board had a range of options, among them a serial winner whose record offered the closest thing to a guarantee of success in a game where, more often than in most other sports, outcomes turn on fortune’s tricks. To the dismay of the majority of Barcelona’s shareholders or, rather, their 180,000 paid-up members, they chose Pep Guardiola, a novice with one year’s experience as a lower-division coach and none in the game’s upper reaches. Guardiola had been a great player and captain of Barcelona, but in terms of the new responsibility on his shoulders and the uncharted waters he was being asked to navigate, it was like Sony selecting the manager of a medium-sized regional office to take over as company CEO.

A year and a half later, Barcelona had won all six trophies they had competed for, including the European and world club championships. In the four years that Guardiola remained at the club, they won 14 out of 19 possible leagues and cups, a feat unequalled in the history of the game. Unequalled also is the fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or, the world’s best player award, granted this month to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who Guardiola made even better. Barcelona achieved something else too, something more difficult to win than any official prize: the admiration of the football world. Guardiola’s team revolutionised the 150-year-old sport. Coaches from clubs large and small made pilgrimages to Barcelona’s training camp, notebooks in hand, hoping some of the Guardiola gold dust might rub off on them.

Illustration of Pep Guardiola by HelloVon©HelloVon

In May last year Guardiola quit Barcelona and took a sabbatical in New York: exiled, but far from forgotten. Imagine Steve Jobs were alive, announced his departure from Apple and signalled he was open to offers from the competition. Dwell on that and you’ll have a sense of why the biggest clubs and some of the biggest footballing nations have been banging on Guardiola’s door ever since he moved across the Atlantic.

Inquiries came from England, Italy, Germany, Russia, France and China. Silvio Berlusconi, who apart from being a former prime minister of Italy also owns AC Milan, confessed recently that he was among the supplicants. The most eager was Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who owns Chelsea FC and saw Guardiola as the man to fulfil his dream of building a team that not only wins the biggest trophies but – a goal that has eluded him so far – dazzles the world. Finally it was announced this week that the winner is … Germany’s biggest club, Bayern Munich.

. . .

Guardiola, whose father was a bricklayer, was born in 1971 in the small Catalan town of Santpedor, 73km north of Barcelona. When he was 13 he left home to take up residence at La Masía, the elite boarding school where Barcelona – or Barça, as their fans call them – nurture the finest young talent their global network of scouts can find. His mother shed tears, but the young Pep, already Barça-mad, brightened up upon discovering that from the window of his dormitory he would wake up every morning to see the mighty grey monolith of the Camp Nou, the club’s football stadium, Europe’s biggest. Guardiola excelled in the youth leagues of Catalonia and, aged 19, he made his debut in the Barcelona first team. A natural leader, he rose to become team captain, along the way winning the European Cup, the biggest prize in world club football, in 1992.

Pep Guardiola with Johan Cruyff’s 1992 European Cup winning team©Action Images

Guardiola, circled, with Johan Cruyff’s 1992 European Cup winning team

Guardiola quit Barcelona in 2001 and moved to Italy, where he played for the Serie A team Brescia for two years before spinning out the autumn of his playing career in Qatar and Mexico. In 2007 he was hired to coach the Barcelona B team, where he performed with such success and aplomb that in 2008 the club board took the gamble of appointing him to run the first team. The gamble paid off beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, including his own, but last year he decided he had had enough. A severely self-critical perfectionist, he needed a break from the demands he imposed on himself and the weight of expectation placed on him by the club faithful, for whom Barça is not merely a football team, but the flagship of Catalan pride. He chose New York for his sabbatical because the city intrigued him but also because the US, a pagan nation in terms of the relative intensity of its football faith, is one of the few places on earth where he is not well known. (Such is his fame that had he moved to London or Buenos Aires or to a village in Madagascar he would not have had a moment’s peace.)

He thrives on New York’s culture, but his chief joy, curtailed during his four years at Barça, is the leisure to spend time with his three school-aged children and Cristina, his elegant wife. (Cristina is the inspiration behind his keen sense of style – typically, Hamlet-black, pencil-sharp suits.) Intense and driven, his continuing zeal for his work derives from a perception that he has a duty not only to satisfy fans’ lust for victory but to raise football to an art form. That is what he achieved at Barcelona and the belief that he can replicate it elsewhere is what has made him into the most sought-after commodity in the world’s biggest sport.

Pep Guardiola and his family moved to the relative anonymity of New York in 2012©PacificCoastNews.com

Pep Guardiola and his family moved to the relative anonymity of New York in 2012

. . .

What is Guardiola’s secret? How did a man who began his big leagues coaching career aged 37 achieve so much, so soon? A large part of the answer is that he spent 24 years, from the day he arrived at the club, preparing himself for the job. Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who as coach of Barcelona laid the foundations for the temple Guardiola built, plucked him from the club’s youth ranks into the first team. In his hungry eyes and tautly alert bearing Cruyff saw an avid learner. The Dutch master, a magnificent player in his day, never had a more attentive pupil. Cruyff’s core message remains Guardiola’s today. Lessons one, two and three of football: keep possession of the ball. It sounds absurdly simple, but watch any game of the English Premier League, the world’s richest, and you’ll see how difficult it is to put into practice, how wasteful and random the deployment of the round object on which the game turns. To keep the ball, to defend by denying it to your opponents and to create more opportunities than them to score, you need skill, self-possession and intelligence. Cruyff saw enough of the first quality in Guardiola, and an abundance of the second and third.

Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola©Action Images

Johan Cruyff, left, influenced Guardiola’s later managerial style

He played at number four, just in front of the defence, the link man with the attack. Eusebio Sacristán, a former Barcelona player who was on the pitch on the day of Guardiola’s first-team debut, remembers that he was far from being a complete player. “He had no pace, he couldn’t run with the ball, he wasn’t strong in the tackle yet he became the axis around which Cruyff’s team revolved,” said Sacristán, who is today coach of the Barcelona B team. “His brain worked so fast he could make those around him play at the speed of light.”

Cruyff imported the Dutch philosophy of “total football” – everybody is comfortable on the ball, everybody attacks – to Barcelona, and Guardiola became its chief artificer on the pitch. Guardiola processed every game in his mind, every training session, every lesson Cruyff imparted. It was a habit of mind that extended to his life beyond football. Unusually for a player, he read books. He took an interest – ever greater the older he got – in film, music and politics. One of his closest friends is David Trueba, a Spanish novelist and film director whom he met at a poetry reading in 1995, when he was 24. Trueba wrote this about him in El País two years ago: “He is curious about a lot of things beyond football. But you get the sense sometimes that he codifies them in his own special way. That he ‘footballises’ them … ” In other words, that everywhere he finds a lesson applicable to football. Such are the obsessive thought processes of a top football coach, a destiny which Sacristán, who played alongside him for six years, says he never doubted he would fulfil.

Evaristo Murtra, then a club director, and owner of a large textile business, was the man who pushed for Guardiola to be named coach of the Barcelona B team. “It was a horrible assignment,” said Murtra, today a Guardiola intimate. “The team had just gone down to the third division and the task he was set was to promote them immediately back to the second.” David Trueba told me Guardiola’s associates in football warned him not to accept, telling him the third division was “poison: the players violent, that this was no place to launch his first football laboratory”. But he took the job on, transformed a demoralised team and, as required, won them promotion.

Pep Guardiola and David Trueba©Corbis

David Trueba, novelist and friend: ‘Guardiola is curious about a lot of things beyond football. But you get the sense sometimes he codifies them in his own special way’

Meanwhile, the first team was not doing so well. Under Frank Rijkaard, a Dutch disciple of Cruyff and a stellar former player, they had scaled the heights, winning the league twice, in 2005 and 2006, and the European Cup in 2006. But it was now the spring of 2008 and the team had faded, winning nothing in two seasons. Rijkaard, it was felt, had lost control of the dressing room.

A murmur arose among club members for José Mourinho to be appointed in his place. Authoritarian, charismatic, with a spectacular record of success in his native Portugal, in England and Italy, he seemed just the man to cut big egos down to size and restore drive to a rudderless team. Two board members were dispatched to Portugal to sound him out. “Mourinho gave them a detailed PowerPoint presentation of what he would do to turn Barcelona around,” Murtra recalled. “It would never have crossed his mind that he faced serious competition from the upstart Pep.” The upstart got the job. Murtra told me he was convinced that Mourinho’s subsequent “frustrations”, after he became coach of Barcelona’s bitter ancestral enemy, Real Madrid, two years later, had their genesis in this “painful blow to his pride”.

Evaristo Murtra, a former Barça director©Getty

Evaristo Murtra, a former Barça director: ‘It would never have crossed [Mourinho’s] mind that he faced serious competition from the upstart Pep’

Polls showed that public opinion in Barcelona was overwhelmingly sceptical of Guardiola, yet he had the temerity to announce at a preseason gala before a packed Camp Nou stadium, which has a capacity of 98,000, that the good times were about to roll. “Fasten your seat belts,” he cried out, microphone in hand, from the centre of the pitch, “you’re going to have fun!” But fun it wasn’t, at first. Barcelona lost their first league match to a tiny club called Numancia and then drew against scarcely much bigger Racing de Santander. The “I told-you-so’s” rang around practically every home and bar in the Catalan capital. Guardiola did not waver. In public (“as in private”, Murtra said), he declared that he would remain faithful to his “idea”. The playing style would not change and the results would come.

The Guardiola idea is, and will remain, that possession is nine-tenths of the law. That you cherish the ball as if you were a jealous lover. That if you lose it the team fights to get it back like a pack of indignant dogs. By monopolising the ball you will minimise the treacherous random factor inherent in football and you will also enjoy yourself. Just as in the school playground, all the fun is in having the ball at your feet. The misery lies in not having it. Let the other team feel that.

And that was exactly what happened. The rivals chased shadows until, like mesmerised bulls before a matador, their legs gave way and they were put lethally, gracefully to the sword. Guardiola’s poor start proved to be a chimera. From his third game on, he led a victory parade.

Juan Carlos Unzué, the team’s goalkeeping coach for three of the four years Guardiola coached Barcelona, watched the spectacle up close. “In terms of tactics, in terms of motivation, in terms of every single facet required in a coach,” Unzué said, “Guardiola is outstanding, in a class of his own.” Unzué has himself been a full team coach and has played or worked under many, including Guardiola’s predecessor, Rijkaard. Other coaches, said Unzué, tend to work hard on defensive tactics but not attacking ones, arguing that by so doing they might confuse their talented players, thwarting their creativity. Guardiola rehearsed all manner of intricately geometrical attacking patterns in training, his players pinging the ball about with billiard-ball precision at high speed. “Pep had the rare satisfaction,” Unzué said, “of seeing the players apply those same moves against the toughest rivals on the field of play, as if they had been copied and pasted.”

Cruyff saw that 20 years earlier too – but not as often as Guardiola would. Cruyff’s “Dream Team” won the European Cup in 1992, but then they flagged. The Dutchman’s manner was – and is – aristocratic, and his team reflected it. They were brilliant but too often supercilious, and therefore erratic. Guardiola has always acknowledged his debt to Cruyff, but it was he who delivered the finished product, who distilled the gold from the alchemic process his master began. The difference lay in the thoroughness of Guardiola’s preparation and in his greater attention to the proletarian task of defending, which he had studied in his playing days among the Italians, the masters of the art. Taking “total football” to another level, Guardiola’s team were as brilliant as Cruyff’s at their best, but they were harder workers. His players were artists but terriers too.

They would not have been had he not stressed from the beginning the central importance of team spirit. According to Unzué, Guardiola’s notion of esprit de corps extended to ancillary staff, the physios, the doctors, those in charge of the balls, boots and players’ kit. And, not least, Unzué himself. One Saturday morning in November 2008, barely five months after Guardiola’s arrival as coach, Unzué’s father abruptly died. That evening the team played a league match, won and immediately afterwards Guardiola ordered a charter flight to take the entire sporting staff, star players not excluded, to Pamplona for the funeral the next morning. “He’d have made the same gesture for anybody,” said Unzué, who will be forever grateful to Guardiola but is cold-eyed enough to see that behind his generosity lay a deeper purpose. “He sent out a message that day to all of us that we’d be together as a team in bad times and good. On the field that translates into a spirit of fierce solidarity. Eleven players attack and 11 players defend.”

Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi©AFP/Getty Images

The goal tally of Lionel Messi, right, soared under Guardiola

They were no ordinary 11, either – not players easy to win over. Between them they had won the European Cup and the European nations’ cup, among a host of trophies. (Eight of the team’s players would feature in the World Cup final win against Holland in 2010.) Lots of very rich young men there, with very big global reputations. Guardiola subordinated them to his will because they came to see that acting on his instructions was the recipe for victory. And, as Unzué said, there was another thing: “Practically all the players confessed it to me that Pep had made them better.” Not excluding Lionel Messi, who is on record as acknowledging he would not be the player he has become without Guardiola’s help.

Messi played on the right wing during that first season in which the team won everything and he won his first Ballon d’Or. But Guardiola never ceased to believe there was room for improvement. Half way through the next season Messi suffered a rare loss of form. For three games in a row he went missing in action. The third, in February 2010, was a first-leg European Cup – or Champions League – game away to Stuttgart. The game ended in a disappointing 1-1 draw, with Messi more ineffectual than ever. “The standard reaction of a coach would have been to blame the player and give him a wake-up call by dropping him for the next match,” recalled Murtra. “Instead, Pep thought: ‘It’s my fault. It’s me who’s failing to get the best out of him.’ Pep thought hard about where he was going wrong. Then it came to him. He saw he was wasting Messi’s talent playing him out wide, he spoke to him and said, ‘From now on you’re going to play up front, in the middle’.” Guardiola also said, as Messi would later recall, “Now you’re going to score three or four goals a game.”

Unzué witnessed Guardiola’s thought processes from the inside. “Messi had always been regarded, unquestioningly, as a winger, but Pep suddenly saw that he had to be positioned where he would receive more of the ball and have the greatest possible impact.” He was right. Three weeks later, in the return game against Stuttgart, Barcelona won 4-0 and Messi scored two goals, setting up another. He didn’t score three or four goals every game, but he came close. His scoring rate soared, as it continues to do today. In his first season with Guardiola, Messi scored 38 times; in his fourth, he scored 73. Barcelona won the Spanish league for the second season running, lighting up the world, to the disgust of Real Madrid, who responded by signing José Mourinho.

Barcelona’s players throw their departing coach in the air at the Camp Nou in May 2012©AFP/Getty Images

Barcelona’s players throw their departing coach in the air at the Camp Nou in May 2012

Six months later, now in Guardiola’s third season, Barcelona humiliated Mourinho’s Madrid 5-0 in an exhibition of “choral” football, as they call it in Spain, never before seen. From that day on, for all future encounters with Barcelona, Mourinho battened down the hatches, paid his rivals the compliment of doing as small teams do against big ones and “parked the bus”, played a backs-to-the-wall defensive game and deployed every trick he knew on and off the field to put his rivals off their stride, not least by seeking to sully their reputation – claiming over and over, for example, that they won because of the referees’ help – by playing the game of rhetorical mud-slinging at which he excels. It didn’t work in his first season at Madrid, for Barcelona won the Spanish league for the third year in a row, plus the European Cup again, but it did work the season after that, Guardiola’s last. Real Madrid were finally crowned champions of Spain. Towards the end of the season Barcelona began to lose their edge. The team remained, to the end, a mirror of their coach. Guardiola had dedicated every waking moment for four years to devising new tactics, new ways to motivate his players, new responses to new challenges. His batteries were drained. “He always said success wears you down and in his case he was right,” said Evaristo Murtra. “He needed a rest.” For his own good and, as he saw it, that of the team, which he felt he could no longer improve, he quit.

Who missed out?

Roman Abramovich

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was reported to have offered £18m a year

Alex Ferguson

Manchester United. Alex Ferguson is known to have had dinner with Guardiola in New York

Arsène Wenger

Arsenal. Under Arsène Wenger, the team’s style is the closest thing in England to Guardiola’s big ‘idea’

But it was not in a spirit of mourning or defeat, no matter Real Madrid’s triumph, that the Barcelona faithful crowded into the Camp Nou one balmy evening in May to bid him farewell. The message that night was a joyous “Gracias, Pep!”, “Thank you, Pep!” All present knew, as all did watching the scenes on television around the world, that the higher achievement of conquering the admiration of the world had been met. As Sir Bobby Charlton, the most legendary figure in English football, had said a few months earlier, it didn’t matter if Real were ahead on points: “Barcelona have it all. They have the values. They have an idea: an idea that having possession of the ball gives you an advantage. They are unique and the world should learn from them.”

Few luminaries of the world game would disagree. Guardiola’s Barcelona might have lost a battle, but they had won the war. Even today, with Guardiola’s former number two, Tito Vilanova, in charge they continue to shine, breaking new records, rushing to another Spanish league title, leading Real by 18 points at the season’s half way mark. Guardiola, breaking a long public silence this month, drew attention as he habitually has done to the tradition on which his team was built: “I took over a legacy,” he said, “and the greatest pride I can feel comes from seeing that everything continues the same as when I was there, or better.”

. . .

Apart from recharging his batteries and spending more time with his family and fending off foreign suitors, what has he been doing in New York? Absorbing and processing information in preparation for the next challenge, as he has always done, according to David Trueba. Most obviously, by watching hours and hours of live European football at home. Less obviously, as Trueba says, by devouring all New York has to offer. “I went over to see him and we went to shows and museums – we even had dinner with a famous economist,” Trueba said. “For the American elections he stayed up until the final result was in, peppering me with information all night on the phone, following Obama.”

He has no doubt been “footballising” Obama too, drawing lessons in leadership that he will apply when he gets back to coaching next season. Putting an end to months of speculation in the world’s sports pages, it was announced this week that he has signed a three-year contract with the most successful German football club, Bayern Munich. In the end, he spurned the vast salaries reported to be on offer at England’s most cash-rich clubs, Chelsea and Manchester City, and opted for a club that offers a project and an idea of football that closely matches his own. Bayern Munich, run in the main by former players with long histories of attachment to the club, has a clearly defined identity on and off the field. In recent years the football they and the German national team have played has converged with the philosophy of attractive, possession-based attacking football that Guardiola refined and perfected at Barcelona. Bayern will be expecting him to evolve the model, take it to a higher plain.

A question lingers, however. Quite possibly among German fans too. Will Guardiola be able to repeat his success at his new club? The doubters’ argument rests on the notion that he was lucky at Barcelona to have stumbled upon a spectacularly talented set of players. “With that lot, who couldn’t succeed?” goes a familiar jibe in football circles. Yes, but the core of the team he inherited had done nothing for two years and there are other clubs with excellent individuals, notably Manchester City and Real Madrid, who have not come close to Barcelona’s achievement in terms of beauty of spectacle or sheer efficacy. In the four years during which Guardiola won 14 trophies, Real Madrid won two.

The truth is Guardiola did pull off an astonishing feat at Barcelona. He achieved what every coach at every level knows to be the true measure of success: he extracted the very best from what he had and, almost beyond imagination, he made his players even better. Lucky Bayern. He’ll do it again.

John Carlin writes for El País. He is working on a feature film documentary about FC Barcelona

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