Remember this guy?
Now he's THIS guy. In four years.
BREAKING: New coach is Tito Vilanova!
Pep Guardiola’s coaching career with FC Barcelona began in 2007, when he was announced as coach of the B team. He grabbed that team by the scruff of the neck, led it to a championship and promotion. When Joan Laporta subsequently announced, a year later, that he was to be coach of the first team, there was a lot of reaction, most of it bewildered.
He was to helm a club that had gone silverless for two seasons under its beloved coach Frank Rijkaard, and what the hell could some guy who was just running the B team do?
Only win every trophy that the club contested that season, 6 of them, the vaunted Treble (Copa del Reig, La Liga and Champions League) and an award from doctors, as jaws had to be re-set from hitting the floor.
That man, that great coach who is Blaugrana and cule to his core, announced today that he is leaving the club at which he started as a ballboy, for very simple reasons of fatigue and loss of the enthusiasm necessary to give as much as he does for the team that he loves.
We all knew that this day would come, because Guardiola himself warned us that it would. In thinking of Guardiola’s tenure, I recall the first time I had gelato at this little place just off La Rambla, called Patagonia. It was a double-dip of chocolate and vanilla. It was so good, I began taking smaller bites, to delay the onset of the bottom of that cup coming up. So it was with Guardiola, who told us all, time and again that he wasn’t a coach for the long-term.
From the onset, his contracts were structured as one-year deals, so that he could follow his famous “feeling.” He always said that only he would know when it was time to leave, but that when he chose to leave, it would be for the good of the club.
Now is that time.
We can leave whether he is correct about his decision for another post, another time. For now, this is the time, and the place, to say “Thank you” to the coach who has made our beloved club the stuff of legend, who fashioned the team that we so adore into something that generations will speak about with reverence. Because unlike great clubs that did everything except win silver, Guardiola’s Barca won silver, but it did more than that.
He came in and jettisoned Deco and the great Ronaldinho, and people questioned the moves, but he knew. He also wanted to sell Samuel Eto’o, who convinced him that he could be part of the program, so Eto’o stayed. Then he took players who were jaded, a damaged locker room, and in the span of a pre-season, fashioned that mess into a Blaugrana fist, one that pressed, passed, ran, defended by attacking and brought concepts of total football into bright, shining life. In 2009, facing a Manchester United side with suspensions and injured players, a United side that boasted the great Wrongaldo, Guardiola’s Barca grabbed an early smash-and-grab goal against the run of play, then proceeded to play the style that the world now knows as tika-taka, until the littlest giant, Lionel Messi, headed home for an insurmountable lead.
“Sure, that was this year, but let’s see next year.” The next year, he did it again, winning the Liga, and being stopped in Champions League only by a freakin’ volcano, in a hotly contested Champions League semi-final tie against Inter Milan and Jose Mourinho, one that cules will say was unjustly ajudicated in both legs, but still, there is only the result.
He began to integrate B team talents into the first team, with the likes of Pedro Rodriguez and Sergi Busquets, who many now consider one of the best DMs in the world. He brought up Thiago Alcantara, Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, and has more talent waiting in the wings, talent all reared in a system that values more than physical ability — intelligence, calmness with the ball, vision and further, foresight. In a favorite quote, Guardiola said that “The key is that these are the best players in the world. Without this, there are no coaches who can perform miracles, less so, me.”
But in the argument that many have offered, that anybody could with with Lionel Messi, that isn’t entirely true. Rijkaard had a ton of world-class talent, but lost that buy-in that you need from players to make them believe. But more than money, players want victories. And after two trophyless seasons, Guardiola took over a team that wanted to win. His timing was, then as now, perfect.
Later, when Jose Mourinho vaulted from Inter Milan to the Evil Empire, and people said “Heh, now there’s a REAL coach in La Liga. It’s go time.” And Guardiola did it again, laying a legendary, now-iconic manita on Barca’s most hated rival, and winning the La Liga and Champions League titles, losing the Copa del Reig in a memorable, and memorably violent final match.
And then came this season, his fourth, a season studded with injuries both minor and catastrophic, medical issues that threatened Eric Abidal and his faithful assistant Tito Vilanova, conspiracy theories and pretty much everything that you could shake a stick at. This season was, for me, his best coaching job because he took a tired, damaged side and fashioned it into something remarkable: a club that, in spite of everything that was going on, was only a few goals away from doing it all again. Ultimately, the fatigue, the injuries were too much to overcome, but it was the spirit and fire instilled in this club by this man, that enabled the group of players we enjoy watching so much, to come so close to beating the odds.
Now, the day that Guardiola warned us would come, is here. His “feeling” tells him that it is time to step down as head coach of FC Barcelona, for a much-needed sabbatical from the game. The real reasons that he stepped down are his own, so I will not speculate on them. But what I will say as a cule and a proud, proud socio, is thank you, Pep Guardiola. Thank you for the wins, the joy, the tears of joy and sadness, the amazing way that you took a group of coddled millionaires and made them into a family. It was only a family that would go to war for each other like that, in the way that they picked each other up, a new person working magic when someone else couldn’t. Thank you for reminding us again how beautiful football can be, played by players whose genius was fully unleashed by a system that wasn’t created by you, but that you utilized, tinkered with and adapted to their individual skill sets.
Thank you for the way that you brought beauty to the game, as an aesthete but also a radical who messed with established notions, who ran press conferences like a boss, who put up with so much until finally it was enough and you lashed out at the coach who became your nemesis, putting the verbal smack down in a glorious (and almost certainly calculated) way that energized your charges — they responded by putting the smack down on the pitch.
As with the way that this season ended, cules can’t be sad about your decision, because you always have to respect the decisions of people who are in full control of their personal lives. And from each and every ending is a new beginning. But also, it’s the joy that you brought to us all with your band of swashbuckling midgets. So for all that, for every last bit of that ….
Moltes gracies, Pep Guardiola!.