Wednesday, March 02, 2011

how to die with your boots on: Pep Guardiola's very bad year

"I remember when I received [Guardiola's] call and...I pick up and tease him a bit, but notice in his voice a serious tone. And then he says: 'I need a lawyer.'" - Manel Estiarte, translated by Total Barca


In the glittering, storybook career of Pep Guardiola, one bleak episode stands out from amongst the triumphs. I am referring to the competitive ban and suspended prison sentence he received due to two positive tests for the banned substance nandrolone. Years later, even this unhappy event became part of the Guardiola mythology, an illustration of his legendary obstinacy. But it wasn't always like that.

"I've been in front of the press many times but this is the first time that I've convened a press conference. After a meeting with President Gaspart, who can't be here today due to travel, I decided I have to announce something."

"I came to Barcelona without a penny and I'm leaving as a father, I'm proud of having grown up here but on balance I want to leave to get to know a new league, another culture, new friends and new rivals."



Pep Guardiola announced his departure from FC Barcelona at an explosive press conference on 11 April 2001. He had chosen not to renew his contract, thus ending a 17-year association with Barca. The club captain and figurehead, loved, respected - some would say feared by members of the club hierarchy who did not like the extent of his power - appeared alone. He had been diminished by a series of devastating injuries and equally devastating departures of key allies from what had been a great team.

In an emotional announcement, he informed the more than 100 journalists present of his intention to walk away, insisting that he had no particular destination in mind. Some were convinced that he was jumping before he could be pushed, a casualty of the the vicious power struggle at a dysfunctional Barca.



Five months later, to the surprise of many, Guardiola turned up at Brescia, in northern Italy. He spoke decent Italian at his first press conference and appeared excited by this new adventure, keen to leave his unseemingly departure from Barca behind.

Guardiola's new team mates included the great Roberto Baggio, with whom he formed a warm friendship, as well as a young Luca Toni, who still has great things to say about him. His manager was one of the great old figures of Italian football, Carlo Mazzone, who Guardiola eventually came to call his Italian father.


[Eight years later, at his most glorious hour yet, Guardiola remembered Mazzone. Facing the Italian press after the final whistle in Rome, he dedicated the victory to Mazzone, as well as the recently retired Paolo Maldini.]

The future looked bright. Then came the failed drug test.


"Thank you for being here. My name is Pep Guardiola Sala. I'm a football player. A machine says that I have taken nandrolone. Next to this machine there is a man who says it's not true."


Manel Estiarte, the man Guardiola refers to as his 'guardian angel', current Barca team liaison and retired waterpolo great, had been based in Italy for most of his professional playing career and knew the country far better than his old friend, who called him for advice in his time of need.

And Guardiola was definitely in need. He had tested postive for the banned substance nandrolone after a league match against Piacenza on October 21, becoming yet another entry in the rash of nandrolone positives returned by prominent players in Italy during and after the turn of the century.

In Spain, the news was greeted with incredulity. Old friends and rivals rushed to his defence, Real Madrid captain Fernando Hierro stating: "I believe in his innocence and his honesty as a sportsman." Former team mate Miguel Angel Nadal said that he would hold his hand in the fire to vouch for Pep's innocence.

Similar statements came from Mazzone and his new team mates. Nevertheless, the positive test led to Guardiola's suspension by the disciplinary commission of the Italian league.

A second positive test in November confirmed his sentence - a four month suspension from football and a fine of 50,000 Euros. Guardiola despaired and even thought of leaving football, but his path was always clear. It wasn't for him to protest his innocence, serve the ban and then get on with his life. As he told Estiarte, he was willing to spend every last Euro proving his innocence.

"If I am guilty, the punishment should have been four years. If I am innocent, as I will prove someday, then I didn't deserve a single day."


In May 2005, a Brescia court examined Guardiola's appeal. Far from exonerating him, the court affirmed his sporting sentence, added a seven month suspended jail term and fined him an additional 2,000 Euros under new anti-doping legislation.

But this outcome did not deter Guardiola. Over the next six years, as his career took him to Rome, the Middle East, Mexico, and back to Spain, he never stopped putting time and resources into the legal battle, vowing to take the case up to the highest levels of European justice if necessary. The ban may have been ancient history by then, but Guardiola would not rest until he had cleared the blot on his name.

In the meantime, his old friend Manel Estiarte had informed him of changes made by the World Anti-Doping Agency to their regulatory guidelines. New scientific findings had proven that some athletes' bodies naturally generated a certain amount of nandrolone, as Guardiola's legal team had maintained all along.

23 October 2007. The Brescia Court of Appeal clears Guardiola of all charges.* Pep tells the press that he feels liberated, as if a weight had been taken off him. He talks about his happiness in an interview with El Pais, while recognising that his relative wealth had enabled him to carry on an expensive legal process where other wrongly convicted people might have had to give in because of lack of funds.

Even out of the ranks of professional sportspeople with ample resources, Guardiola's persistence is remarkable. The announcement of his innocence came as he was embarking on his coaching career with Barcelona B, six years after the first positive drug test and a year after he retired from the game as a player.

That's the kind of person he is - a man obstinate enough to match his famously intractable mentor Johan Cruyff. This bloody-minded-ness has, I would argue, served him well in his current high pressure post, and will continue to mark his decision-making in the future.



[*The Italian National Olympic Committee attempted to reopen the case in 2009, but their appeal was rejected by the National Anti-Doping Tribunal.]


(On a different note, I now contribute regularly to Barcelona Football Blog, and recently wrote a piece on - topically enough - youth transfers for In Bed With Maradona.)

6 comments:

Doris said...

great article, I knew that story before, but I always good to know more, very well written piece,thanks for sharing this, I will recomend this to all barca fans:)

Messa said...

Thank you so much for this! Totally comprehensive article about the drug affair; Pep's persistence and the reasons behind it are the most admirable things in the world. I've only been a football fan since 2006 so most of this was lost on me; it was such a great read and bit well (eerily?) timed too, as I've been putting up with a United fan who insists that Pep's current back trouble is 'the drug use catching up with him' ... !

Linda said...

Doris: thank you very much! Especially as my research would not be nearly as fruitful without the work of translators like yourself, so thank you for that too.

Messa: Thanks! I personally become quite irritated when people lump Guardiola in with other 'drug cheats' who got away with it (as a goal.com 'article' did a while back). He fought so hard to clear his name and it's infuriating to see that ignored.

cob said...

I have to disagree with the other commenter I don't think your article is that comprehensive. You've just assumed that because Guardiola spent a lot of time and money trying to clear his name he must be innocent. But there are lots of cases of people who were guilty of doping and still spent a lot of money to clear their name.
Since you've done some research on this I wonder could you outline what Guardiola's defence was based around. Was it that the Nandrolone was produced purely by his own body? How much Nandrolone was found in the samples that he originally failed the test for?
I don't have an opinion one way or the other about Guardiola's case. I'm just a bit sceptical about lots cases where athletes manage to get cleared of doping charges. There's not a lot of information online about this case so I'd be interested in learning more.

Linda said...

Cob: Hi, thanks for commenting! I have a few things to say by way of reply and a question for you.

1) I'm not assuming anything. He's innocent because the justice system he was charged under has deemed him so. The fact that he tried so hard for so long to clear his name speaks to his personality more than anything else.

2) On your question about his defence, I believe it was based on new research which suggested that the human body in some cases did produce the required amount of nandrolone naturally. But it is very difficult to confirm the exact details, because the original ban was so long ago and the press reports are scarce and usually not in English.

And my question, if you would be so kind: my knowledge on doping is very thin on the ground outside of football. Are there many other cases of people who were convicted of doping having their cases overturned?

cob said...

Hi Linda,

Thanks for the reply. There are many examples of athletes having their doping cases overturned that I know of. Sometimes these are for believable reasons sometimes not. I'll give a couple of examples:

Tyler Hamilton the US cyclist won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics after which he failed a test for blood doping. Unfortunately his B sample had not been properly stored and was unable to be tested to verify the original test. Therefore he was allowed keep his gold medal. This case isn't similar to Guardiola's really, I use it as an example because to use your own words Tyler Hamilton was "innocent because the justice system he was charged under has deemed him so". He did recently admit to the blood doping and offered to return the gold medal, but for years he was considered by the system to have won his olympic gold medal cleanly. That's why I think it is important not just to say somebody was cleared by the system, instead you need to know the context of why they were cleared and what arguments they used.

Doping cases are often very complex, you often have multiple bodies involved in a single case: national sporting bodies, international sporting bodies, doping agencies, civil courts and criminal courts. Sometimes a doper will win a minor battle against one of these agencies and use his PR machine to spread the message that he has been cleared when this is not really the case.

Take another example, Linford Christie. He failed a drugs test at the 1988 Olympics but escaped a ban. He failed another test in 1999 for Nandralone. The international association banned him, but the UK association accepted Linfords excuses. So even though he served a 2 year ban the myth is propogated that he was cleared.

Another athlete who tested positive for Nandralone and had their case overturned is the Canadian/British tennis player Greg Rusedski in 2004. There were a lot of failed drug tests for Nandralone in this period. Lots of reasons for this were put forward, such as tainted supplements, natural production of Nandralone by the body, the production of Nandralone while urine samples were in storage. I'm not sure a definitive explanation for this raft of positive Nandralone tests ever came out.

I don't have an opinion on the Guardiola case, as you say there is very little information in English online about his. I'm just interested to find out the background to the case, what level of Nandralone was found and what his defence was.