[This is a guest post by reader NZM. Do make her feel welcome. -ed]
As well as the strain of being the manager of one of the best football teams in the world, something that isn’t often spoken about is the amount of extra pressure that Pep is under as a representative and citizen of Catalunya. It has to be experienced first-hand, or at least understood with a solid comprehension of the region’s history.
“Fervent Catalan Pride” is a phrase which is bandied around when people write of FC Barcelona’s exploits on the field, but do many readers actually know what that means? This pride comes with huge responsibility and enormous pressure.
You can liken it to a “going to war for your country” scenario. Each time that Barça steps onto a pitch to play, they have the expectations of their worldwide fan-base demanding nothing short of a win. In addition, there are the extra demands of the Catalan fan-base who expect the club to win for Catalunya.
The heaviness and stigma of the latter cannot be ignored. It’s written into the history of the club. During the Franco era, the club was the bastion of Catalanisme. It was a place where Català could still be spoken after its use had been banned, and it represented a symbolic, often unsubtle, middle-finger towards Franco and Madrid.
As a Catalan, Pep has suffered for the club in more ways than most coaches or players have done in their entire lives. As a player, ball boy and coach, he has lived and breathed the La Masia spirit for a good part of almost 30 years. He feels it – it’s in his blood and in his roots. FC Barcelona is a part of his heritage.
It’s all intertwined – the Catalan nationalism and the Barça traditions. You cannot separate them. Politics and sport: never an easy mix. Luckily, religion doesn’t come into it as well.
In one of his recent comments, Kevin linked to this video:
After receiving his Medal of Honour Award from the Catalunyan Parliament, there was backing for Pep to be the next Catalunyan President. It was a somewhat romantic, sentimental and idealistic notion but, for the Catalan people, Guardiola embodies all that they respect and admire: loyalty; seny; passion; commitment; stubbornness; a desire to do it his way; outspokenness when it counts, and he has won more for the FC Barcelona in the past 4 years than anyone could have dreamed about. The Philosopher and a modern-day Don Quijote. Plus, he’s Catalan – born and bred; one of them. The local boy “done good”.
This is the difference between most top class coaches in the world and Josep Guardiola i Sala. When Scotsman Sir Alex Ferguson goes out to guide Manchester United, he’s not defending England in every match. When Portuguese Jose Mourinho manages whichever team he’s with, he’s not representing a country, a culture, or a way of life. Most managers are playing for a pay cheque, results and club pride.
Whenever Pep has gone out to play for or manage Barça over the past 30+ years, not only has he played physically and mentally demanding matches, but he’s also been representing Catalunya. Every time. It’s a Spanish province so proud of their identity that there is scarcely a week where calls for an independent nation of Catalunya are not in the press. It’s always present – that mandatory requirement for Catalans to stand for all that La Senyera embodies. That’s either a hell of a burden when the going is tough, or a towering sense of pride when it all goes right. There appears to be no stable, middle ground.
Pep is a man who lives and breathes football, and who is also a Catalan coaching in Catalunya. It’s a 24/7 way of life that he can’t switch on and off at whim. This is why Pep is so incredulous when people think of him as presidential and political material simply because of who, and what, he is. He’s just being Pep. Sure, he can play a political game when he has to, but it’s not what he likes to do, and it’s not part of his ethical and moral make-up for him to enjoy doing so.
His first 4 seasons as a Barça coach were wonder years. In 2007/08 and together with his former La Masia compadre, Tito Vilanova, he coached Barcelona B out of the Tercera División into the playoffs for the Segunda División. They won the play-offs and were promoted into Liga Segunda, or Liga Adelante as it is now known.
2008/09 saw Pep (and Tito) promoted to manage the Barça first team; a move that was not without controversy. Surely a team of this calibre needed a proven coach; a big name to lead them? The first part of the season looked as if the doubts were to be confirmed but, as Guardiola gained momentum and the team started to understand his methods and play better, the results started to show.
An unprecedented 6 cup win in his maiden season, followed by 2 more years in which only 3 trophies were lost out of the 10 cups that were played for by the Barça first team.
2011/12 has certainly seen the team swing on a pendulum of results. A fine season’s start with the Spanish SuperCopa and UEFA Super Cup was followed by winning the Club World Cup in December. The Champions League back-to-back-wins opportunity was lost in the semi-finals to Chelsea.
In the next few weeks, there’s more to come as the team looks to wrap up La Liga without the title after 3 years at the top, and a Copa del Rey final to play against a dynamic Bilbao outfit. Individually, yet reliant on their team-mates’ help, Valdés is playing for his 4th consecutive (and 5th in total) Zamora Trophy, and Messi for his 2nd Pichichi, as well as an attempt to break Gerd Müller’s long-standing record of 67 goals in a season from 1972/73.
This season’s injury list has been devastating for a squad which most deem to be small, yet is only 2 players less than that of Real Madrid and 3 less than the player cap under La Liga regulations. Over the past 9 months, only 5 out of the 22 first team players have remained uninjured and fully fit. Two of those are the goalkeepers Valdés and Pinto. Three players have been out long-term (Villa, Afellay and Fontàs) and a few players have had multiple injuries which have kept them out for 2-3 weeks each time. There have been weeks where Pep has struggled to put together a full team of starters and reserves, and has often had to draw from the Barça B team to fill the gaps.
Off the pitch, the squad has had to cope with Eric Abidal’s liver transplant and all that it entails, plus Tito Vilanova’s salivary gland tumour which kept him out for several weeks. It was patently visible that Pep missed Tito during that time as he cut a lonely figure on the sideline, with no one on the bench of Tito’s calibre in whom he could confide, or look to for advice.
Added to all this pressure is what happens behind the scenes – some events of which there is “talk” and “hearsay” but little in the way of hard evidence to categorically base upon fact.
Certainly it’s no secret that Guardiola is a Joan Laporta supporter which caused some friction as Pep openly spoke of backing the former FCB President when the time arrived for the court cases between Laporta
and Sandro Rosell. So much discomfort was caused that contrived photo opportunities were created
and a press release was distributed to explain that there was no “ill-feeling” between Pep and Rosell.
It’s also no secret that Pep opposed the pre-season trip to the US occurring at a time when he needed to re-group the squad to concentrate on their fitness conditioning, and start teaching the tactics for the upcoming season. The trip left very little space for Pep to train anyone, given the large amount of press and promotional work that the squad had to perform while they were away. Guardiola was less than impressed.
Dealing with a board that is focused on business results and the bottom line is not fun. I know; I’ve been there. Everything and everyone becomes either an asset or a liability – a positive or a negative. Percentages and numbers do not reflect, for example, how vitally important certain team members are for dressing room morale, or in their support of other key players. The human element is very quickly lost.
So now we know that in autumn last year, Pep gave notice, to the Barça Board, of his intention to step down at the end of this season. It should now be noted that Pep’s open support of Laporta and Tito’s salivary gland tumour were events that also happened around this time.
By their actions in the following months, the board obviously didn’t take Pep’s announcement very seriously at first, and perhaps thought that there was ample time for Pep to change his mind.
Yes, Abidal was renewed, but his contract renewal dragged on for months. How much stress did that put on
Abidal (and Pep) during that time, and on the other players? A board with the players’ interests and morale as a priority would have renewed without hesitation. There is always a place for a man like Abidal – always. If he can’t play, he can teach and mentor.
The club certainly didn’t do itself any further favours, from Pep’s viewpoint, by announcing a pre-season trip to Indonesia, knowing how important that this time is within Pep’s plans. As time progressed and Pep didn’t make moves to re-new, the Indonesia trip was cancelled and replaced with a pre-season on the European continent. (Perhaps in an attempt to win over Pep?)
In recent days, we’ve heard how the club virtually offered Guardiola an open cheque book and full control if only he would re-sign. (Whether this actually happened or whether this “news” was leaked so that the club could save face, we will probably never know.)
Perhaps it was all too late; perhaps if things had been handled better behind the scenes; perhaps if Pep has felt the support of the board at all times, it needn’t have come to this. Quizás, Quizás, Quizás….
However, it’s patently clear that the pressure of being the manager of Barcelona has had a physical effect on Pep. He looks 10-15 years older than he did when he took on the job 4 years ago. There’s also the mental strain of the endless press conferences, the name-calling and behavior of certain rivals, not being there for his family and friends as he would have wished, the constant travel and the endless planning and preparation required to manage the team. It’s all part of the job, but not something that can be sustained for a lengthy period of time; not at a club like FC Barcelona and certainly not when the bad outweighs the good.
What a match for his last at Camp Nou – the cross-town derby vs. Espanyol on May 6th.
The Copa del Rey final on May 25th is his last official match duty. What a day that’s going to be. Even if Barça lifts the trophy, I’ll wager that there are going to be more tears of sadness than those of joy.
When most football managers leave clubs and quickly move to others, they go with a mix of regrets and fond
memories influenced by their levels of success, and whether their departure was their choice, or not. Most
coaches embrace their new challenges and the chance to start over with a clean slate.
Pep can’t; he won’t. He’s too wiped out. It’s time to recharge. It’s time to get his private life and health back in order. It’s time to grow his hair back. It’s time to breathe. It’s time to go. It’s about time.
The man who has given the club and fans so much to be happy about, and to celebrate in recent years, has left us all with 4 years of wonderful and special moments.
He’s given us an amazing farewell gift, perhaps the most precious that he could give at this time: Francesc “Tito” Vilanova i Bayó.
For this, we can be very grateful. If Pep had left Barça for another team, I strongly suspect that Tito would have gone with him.
The players know Tito and he knows the players. He coached Messi, Fàbregas and Piqué when they were much
younger. He knows the Barça system, the rest of the coaching staff and the workings of the club. There could be no better person for the role as the players and training team transition from a Barça life with Guardiola to a Barça life without him. (It also leaves the doors open in case Pep decides that he wants to return – an exceedingly remote chance, and probably not under this current board.)
My seatbelt has been re-fastened for the next ride.
Tots units fem força.
Pep – moltes gràcies per tot, i bona sort.
Tito – ser fort.
Footnote: I wish to recognise Manuel Estiarte who is also leaving the club when Pep departs. A former Spanish champion water polo player and Olympic Gold medallist, Manuel is a stalwart friend of Pep’s, and has served as Director of External Relations for the first team. He has also had some input into the coaching and conditioning of the team, as well as transitioning some water polo tactics over to the football pitch during Pep’s tenure. People who watch Barça play can see the similarities in how the ball is handled around the penalty box, drawing from the water polo, basketball and handball disciplines.)