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.)