Guardiola: football’s Che Guevara

Guardiola: football’s Che Guevara

LONDON

Pep Guardiola is the son of a bricklayer who has been described as the Che Guevara of football – but who exactly is the Manchester City manager? As he comes towards the end of his second season in England the 47-year-old remains something of an enigma in the country in which he now lives. I have been following his life and career for more than 20 years, talking during that period to him and the key people who have helped shape the person he has become.

Working on an update of my Guardiola biography Another Way Of Winning, I caught up with them to discover whether he remains the same – or whether England has changed him. Guardiola was born 70km from Barcelona in the sleepy town of Santpedor, which lies in the shadow of the rocky outline of Monserrat, a giant, iconic, serrated mountain so precious to Catalans. He was the third of four children born to Valenti Guardiola, a bricklayer, and Dolors Sala and raised in a working-class home with solid family principles and a clear sense of dignity.

The writer and film director David Trueba, who knows him better than many, says of his friend: “Nobody has paid any attention to the fundamental fact that Guardiola is a bricklayer’s son. “For Pep, his father is an example of integrity and hard work. The family he has grown up with in Santpedor has instilled old values in him, values from a time in which parents didn’t have money or property to hand down to their children. “When it comes to analysing or judging Guardiola, you must bear in mind that underneath the elegant suit, the cashmere jumper and the tie, is the son of a bricklayer.

Inside those expensive Italian shoes there is a heart in espadrilles.” And no understanding of Guardiola is complete without a grasp of La Masia, until 2011 the home and production line of the Barcelona Academy set up by Johan Cruyff. For about six years from 1984 it was the home of Guardiola. “I had the best years of my life at La Masia – a time focused on the single, most non-negotiable dream that I have ever had: to play for Barca’s first team.”

Barcelona and Netherlands legend Cruyff became Guardiola’s great mentor, a man he would meet regularly before and after becoming a manager. Once a year, generally when the season was over, they would enjoy a long lunch at the famous El Bulli restaurant on the Costa Brava. It was an excuse to chat, drink wine, eat well and have afternoon sea baths. Can you imagine? Cruyff and Guardiola, two of world football’s great innovators, enjoying the creative genius of El Bulli owner Ferran Adria, a great culinary inventor and gastronomic inspiration to so many of the world’s great chefs.

The principles are the same. It is not just about being the best at playing the game or cooking the best meal, but more about changing the way the game is played and how the food is served and perceived – while having fun in the process. Innovation, genius and talent combined with total dedication and unstinting toil and effort comes in many forms, be they sporting or culinary. In a way, where else would the likes of Cruyff and Guardiola celebrate the end of a campaign?

However, Cruyff is by no means the only influence. Another is Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, the man known affectionately as ‘El Loco’ – the madman. The former Chile and Argentina boss – most recently the head coach of Lille at club level – is a man of huge influence but relatively few trophies. “It is important for me to say this about Marcelo because it doesn’t matter how many titles he had in his career,” Guardiola has said. “We are judged by that – how much success we have, how many titles we have won. But his titles are much less important than how he has influenced football and his football players. That is why, for me, he is the best coach in the world.”

Bielsa told Guardiola during an 11-hour chat at the Argentine’s villa that football is all about an idea, fighting for it, improving players, and never losing the passion. “Occasionally when I’m asked to do a talk in La Masia, I use the following example,” Guardiola once said. “Each night when you are going to sleep, ask yourselves if, right then, you’d get up, grab the ball and play for a bit. If ever the answer is ‘no’ then that is the day to start looking for something else to do.” His body is there, but the mind is miles away.

If life teaches us anything it is that those who are the very best at what they do are invariably the ones that work the hardest. Pep is no exception. Eidur Gudjohnsen once told me the story of going to see Guardiola to ask what he wanted from him if he was to stand a chance of getting more playing time at Barcelona. “Your life,” said Pep. Guardiola’s assistant at City – and long-time friend – Manuel Estiarte laughed as he told me on many occasions he will be talking to Pep in the knowledge he is simply not listening, immersed instead in analysis of one thing or another.

“His body is there but his mind is miles away,” his friend admits. They spend lots of time together, along with City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain, and when they relax with a bit of wine, Guardiola is a great storyteller. He laughs at himself and the world of football, but it is not always possible to take him away from it. Guardiola is a sponge, keen to learn from anyone from England rugby union coach Eddie Jones to chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Perhaps on some level he is making up for his lack of structured education. The principles he learned, ones he has evolved and improved over time, remain strictly non-negotiable. He might add to them by listening to others, but they are strict. It goes like this.

What makes a team a unit, what makes this sport fun, is the ball. Players became players to play with a ball, so let them have it as much as possible. And let’s build around the idea of having it all the time. But the ball burns you. Give it to a colleague as soon as you can. Play quick, play simple. And when you lose it – get it back as soon as you can, because it should hurt not to have it. If you mix into this belief his obsessive desire to find solutions to problems (not exclusive to him as Cruyff, Bielsa, Mauricio Pochettino and Sir Alex Ferguson are made from the same mould), you find a coach that has developed a new way of winning; not the best way, just a different one.

Former Argentina manager and World Cup winner Cesar Luis Menotti, who earlier this year shared conversation and wine chosen by connoisseur Pep, admits Guardiola has changed football. “Pep is the Che Guevara of football. I always said a revolutionary wins or dies in the fight and Pep’s idea remains unwavering,” said Menotti. “He’s never going to change it: he wants to play well, he wants to own the space and he wants command of the ball. And he wants to handle the time, to stay ahead of the curve.” His obsession with football can lead to feelings of guilt and remorse with those people closest to him, mostly his family.

I remember his dread when he missed out on a concert his daughter was playing in at school because he had forgotten about it and was watching DVDs of matches involving Barcelona’s next opponents, Getafe. Having a sabbatical after Barcelona was a way to compensate for the time he had been away from them. But three months after saying goodbye to the Camp Nou he started conversations with Bayern. In the early years of his coaching career he would prepare for any game in the same way, no matter the opponent. Three days before it, he spent hours watching videos of the rival, identifying weaknesses.

Then he would show clips to the players followed by a training session solely about the match. It is here you will find Guardiola’s real magic. Once he has spotted a weakness in an opponent’s armour he can explain to his players how to exploit it. Speaking about the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley – when Barca beat Manchester United 3-1 – Javier Mascherano told me: “While he was talking it wasn’t as if he was referring to a game that we were about to take part in, it was as if we were actually playing it right there.

“He was up and down, side to side in front of the board, gesticulating – and if you shut your eyes you were out there in the middle of the action.

“Everything that he said would happen, happened as he said it would. During the match I was thinking, ‘I’ve seen this already, I’ve already heard all about it – because Pep has already told me about it’.” A man who needs to be liked?

Like most people, Guardiola is a man who would like to be popular. The difference is that unlike many he will not compromise his principles for popularity.

He cannot afford to do so if he wants to get to where he wants to get to – but perhaps it was not always like that. In the past he could not handle a bad look from a player, from say Samuel Eto’o or Thierry Henry, but now he understands it is part and parcel of the job.

He will tell you one of his biggest challenges is to ensure his players love him and believe in him. He would like to be able to explain to a player why they have been left out – but knows they will never understand.

BBC

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