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.]

Monday, January 10, 2011

on Barca and shirt sponsorship

On the day the news broke, I was filled with unreasoning anger. If you asked me to articulate why I was so mad, I would have had trouble, which is really not very good going for someone trained to make well reasoned arguments.

There's been a lot of link spilled on the topic already, whether in support of the Qatar Foundation deal or in opposition to it. I read with interest the results of polls in both El Mundo Deportivo and Sport which were evenly split between those who agreed with the decision of the board and those who didn't. It's clear that this issue is just as divisive amongst Cules as Rosell's membership policies, and for good reason.

I wanted to set out the reasoning behind my opposition in part to set this issue to rest in my own mind and in part because for all the excellent articles I've read voicing opposition - including that of Our Spiritual Godfather (TM) Johan Cruyff - I venture that I can still contribute something to the debate.

Let me begin with the Cruyff column which has been so widely excerpted:

This club is unique in the world. Nobody has kept its shirt intact over its history and at the same time still be competitive as anyone else. Will you sell this uniqueness for 6 or 7 % of your budget? It is what Barca stands for and what differentiates it in this world; are there no other avenues that can be used to increase the club’s income? Have the new executive board thought this thing through? Do they think the previous board is so empty-headed [not to have thought about this]?

[With thanks to Total Barca for the translation. The whole column is very interesting and worth a read.]

Normally I tend to agree with Cruyff despite myself. This time I disagree with him despite myself. It seems to me that an argument constructed upon the supposed uniqueness of Barca amongst football clubs is a difficult proposition. The moral high ground is a perilous place for any club with an eye on having their name in lights, particularly under the conditions of modern football. The higher you put yourself, the easier it is for others to knock you down. And us Cules know better than anyone else how shaky any claims of moral supremacy are, because we're the ones staring the rotten bits in the face day after day. Furthermore, the whole we're so special routine carries a certain sanctimoniousness that I - and a lot of neutrals, at a guess - find off-putting on general principle.

So, then, if I don't think Barca are too special for shirt sponsorship, why do I oppose it? We might as well recast the question: why do we - generic we, as in football fans - cherish the traditions of our clubs? They don't have to make the club special - as in better than other clubs - but they are part of the DNA of the institution. Maybe some particular trait of your club is a major reason for your support. The reason doesn't even have to make sense. (These things often don't.) It's probably been in place for so long that it's become part of your life as a supporter.

The particular culture and tradition of a club doesn't make it better or worse than any other club. That's not the point. But what is a football club if it can't depend upon its own painstakingly constructed identity, its colours, quirks, the things that make up its personality? It might as well not exist.

The lack of shirt sponsorship was part of Barca's longstanding identity. Personally, I always liked that the front of the shirt was bare. It was another mark of identification, just like the blaugrana and the hideous away kits of [insert highlighter colour here]. The introduction of the UNICEF logo was acceptable because it at least meant some money going towards an organisation that needs it, however small the amount. (Your mileage may vary, depending upon whether you believe incremental good matters when done under the backdrop of other dubious deeds. Which is actually perfectly illustrated by the whole UNICEF logo being right under the Nike logo on the current shirt. But that's a discussion for another day.)

The Qatar Foundation deal, on the other hand, helps the club pay for approximately 6% of its budget. That's it. The current board will point to the economic necessity of such a move, to sustain other aspects of the club's existence. Some of us have serious doubts about their maths. By which I don't just mean their accounting, but the maths which led to them weighing up the money to be gained via the deal against the intangible, long-term loss represented by the introduction of shirt sponsorship and deciding that it would be worth it.

Or, putting it into terms that businessmen like Rosell and co. understand: the blow to brand identity caused by this deal over the long term seems like a triumph of damaging short-termism to me. (And now I have to wash my mouth out for talking about brand identity and football in the same sentence. Excuse me.)

On a final note, I'd like to ask for your pardon in two respects: 1) it was perhaps a mistake to attempt to rationalize an intensely emotional reaction, but I felt that the attempt might be worthwhile given the intensity of the debate, and 2) this is too much sentimental mush for these cynical times, I know. It's not cool to be this eye-bleedingly sincere about football these days.

It won't happen again for at least another two weeks, I promise you that.