Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If Pep Guardiola didn't exist, we'd have to invent him

In a way, that's exactly what Barca have done. As ball boy, trainee, player, captain and now coach, they've shaped the skinny kid from a small town into the charming, well-spoken man in a sharp suit he is today.

In recent years, everyone from players, club management, Catalan politicians, entertainers of all stripes and Jose Mourinho have called him the perfect manager for Barca. And he is. 99 percent of the time, he reflects the way Barca and Barcelonistas would like to be perceived. (And the remaining 1 percent - well, the post of Barca manager is enough to drive anyone a little dotty.)

As Simon Kuper pointed out in one of his ever-perceptive FT.com columns:

The key point about Guardiola is that he has been identified with Barcelona almost from birth. He comes from a Catalan village and has spent most of his life in the square kilometre of the Nou Camp. As Jimmy Burns writes in Barça: A People's Passion , locals still remember Guardiola as a skinny 15-year-old ballboy illegally running on to the pitch and hugging a player during a European semi-final in 1986. They remember him as a skinny playmaker, standing on the balcony of the Generalitat building in 1992, holding aloft the European Cup, and saying in Catalan, " Ja la teniu aquí " ("Here you have it"). The phrase gave many in the crowd goosebumps, because it deliberately echoed the legendary " Ja soc aquí " ("Here I am") of Josep Tarradellas, the Catalan president, when he returned from French exile after General Franco died.

In other words, Guardiola, a reader of Catalan poetry, is such a perfect Catalan hero that he is practically a character from a 19th-century poem himself.

The story goes that when Guardiola was scouted for La Masia one of the coaches, having witnessed his less-than-impressive speed, tackling and dribbling ability commented that the only outwardly remarkable thing about the boy was that he had a very large head for such a skinny, frail-looking body. And that's precisely the point - it was what went on inside that big head that was so valuable, even as a young player.

Johan Cruyff is said to have once compared Guardiola's speed on the pitch to his grandmother (unfavourably, if you're wondering). Nevertheless, he too saw something in the young Guardiola that pointed to the capacity for tactical intelligence and evolution necessary to become the midfield fulcrum of the team he was building. Years later, it was Cruyff's endorsement once again that proved crucial in (now ex-) president Joan Laporta's unexpected - some would say reckless - decision to appoint Guardiola as first team manager at a time when Barca desperately needed direction.

Off the pitch, Guardiola has an equal reputation for intelligence and introspection. As the late, great Sir Bobby Robson once wrote:

"He knew the game and knew how to conduct himself. Some footballers wouldn't stand for anything. They can't see beyond themselves. You'd have no chance of engaging them in any kind of sensible debate, but Pep had class. He had bearing."

This reputation as a sensitive intellectual makes his many touchline antics - up to and including the red card inducing ones - all the more amusing. Guardiola can come across as somewhat long-suffering and infuriatingly non-committal, especially when placed next to his old associate Jose Mourinho, but it would be a grave mistake to regard him as the blandly polite angel to Mourinho's entertainingly incendiary devil.

While it is true that Guardiola's default setting seems to be Diplomatic (and he seems to feel that it would be unseemingly to complain outright about perceived injustices), he is also not one to shrink from a little controversy - witness the incident preceding the away match against Dynamo Kiev last season, when he spoke frankly about his prominent use of Catalan in press conferences in response to a question from an Ukrainian journalist - or from using the aftementioned press conferences as a bully pulpit, against his own club president if need be. He is admired partly because his actions embody the signature Catalan concept of seny (wisdom/sensibleness). In some ways he and Mourinho are more similar than they are different. One is simply more of a showman than the other.

Pete Jenson writes that Jose and Pep went for canapes together after the recent FIFA World Player Gala. I wonder if the over-the-top, almost cartoonish devotion they inspire from their players came up as a subject for discussion. The Mourinho Effect is well known. His players - Drogba being the chief example, but there are many - tend to look upon him as an almost omnipotent figure. Tributes to Guardiola from his players run along curiously similar lines. My favourites, though, don't speak to omnipotence so much as persuasiveness:

"He's a passionate perfectionist. So if he believes something is white and you think it is black, you will end up believing that it is white." - Xavi

If Pep told me to throw myself off the 3rd tier of Camp Nou, I’d think ‘there must be something good down there'. - Dani Alves

This bond with his players suggests that behind the demanding disciplinarian lies a brother/father figure to whom the players can relate, in some cases very closely. Again, is this starting to sound familiar? All of the above was dramatically illustrated in that comical episode during the latest Clasico, when Cristiano Ronaldo sparked a 23-man brawl by pushing Guardiola in the chest under extreme provocation. Well, a little provocation, but with the backdrop of everything else that was happening Ronaldo's annoyance was understandable. And you can't deny that seeing mild little Andres Iniesta lose his rag is hilarious.

Reading about or watching Mourinho's antics, one often gets the feeling that we're watching mythology being created - there's a certain unreality about the media character of Jose Mourinho, genius manager. Equally, I'd argue the same applies to Guardiola, the man they called 'the myth' (as in too good to be true). If he's a myth, he's an engrossing one, dreamed up and produced by Barcelona. Long may his reign continue.

[Written on the occasion of Pep Guardiola's 40th birthday.]


kamikaze kontiki said...

Reminded me of this post from the Runofplay :http://www.runofplay.com/2010/04/22/mourinho-guardiola/
`If Mourinho offers completely original responses in a way that suggests elaborate improvisation and contrivance, Guardiola offers canned responses in a way that serenely suggests something like lasting truth.´

Linda said...

Exactly. They're not actually that different, though, and I think Guardiola doesn't deal in cliche and bland platitudes as much as he's made out to.

kamikaze kontiki said...

I think they both exist on different ends of the egoistical spectrum, if such a thing can be defined. Pep would be lost without an idealogical basis for expression while Mourinho would never be able find himself in one.

Scrimmage said...

Great post. Do you think he's going to stay?

Linda said...

I hope so. But it all depends on the board continuing to support his work, which if Rosell is smart he will commit to doing, both verbally and in terms of real action. Guardiola's way demands a level of autonomy Spanish presidents don't usually afford their managers, but then he's not an ordinary manager.