Gracies Pep!

Well yesterday kicked my ass, how about you? When I heard the news I was simultaneously gutted, grateful & relieved. Pep has been the best coach (and man) we could possibly have asked for. I have no words to express my gratitude for what he has done for this club. Silverware is the least of it. Pep has crafted a team that has combined fantastic football with human values and a clear philosophy (there’s that word!) and identity. There will never be another one like him. Fortunately, we have an excellent successor in Tito Vilanova, who has been with Pep every step of the way and shares his vision and football principles. I look forward to continuing this journey with Tito at the helm.

If you, like me, spent yesterday evening drinking, eating comfort food and feeling weepy, you might want to check out a few of these videos about Pep. If you can stay dry-eyed I will make you a manita on the house.

This one is an oldie but a goodie:

Pep Guardiola — The Director:

Adeu Pep. Stills. If this doesn’t make you cry, I don’t want to know you.

One of the best Pep interviews I have ever seen. Translation can be found here courtesy of the ladies of @FCB_LJlive

And lest we forget, Pep has other interests besides football:

TV3 also has a lovely musical tribute that you can find here.

Thanks for everything, Pep.

Adeu, Pep Guardiola! Moltes gracies per tot! UPDATE

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!.

Will he or won’t he, aka “Say it ain’t so, G!”

Uh, oh …. what a week this has been. First, we lose not once, but twice in our house, and now this, the thing that we don’t know.

Pep Guardiola, even when he signed on as our coach what seems like an eternity ago but in fact has only been four seasons, said that he wouldn’t sign long-term deals, so that he could follow his heart, his “feeling” in deciding when it would be time to step down as coach of FC Barcelona.

I thought, as we all did, that he would be around for a very long time, through a series of one-year deals. As time passed, that feeling for me began to change, to my most recent view, which is that this coming season would be his last.

Armageddon began brewing with a casually tossed off Tweet by writer Jimmy Burns, who said that if we don’t qualify for the Champions League final, Guardiola would most likely go. We didn’t qualify. A teary Guardiola hugged his players, one by one, after the Chelsea match.

Then today, came word of a series of meetings, dependent upon how trustworthy Barca-centric media sources are:

–Guardiola met with Tito Vilanova to discuss his future
–Guardiola met with RoSELL to discuss his future, or the meeting will come on Thursday, whichever
–RoSELL met with sporting director ZubiZa after his meeting with Guardiola, or before his meeting with Guardiola

And then, finally, word from the club that there will be no official announcement until Guardiola has an opportunity on Friday to speak with the players.

Recall the last time that he renewed. The club made an announcement, a smiling Guardiola received a standing ovation from his charges at practice, and that was that. This, however, all feels very, very different. My initial reaction was “Oh, crap, our coach is leaving us!”

Unfortunately, that is still the reaction of the journalist in me, even as that side battles with the cule, who doesn’t want the journalist to be right, who wants all this stuff to lead to an announcement that this will be his last season, and he wanted to let the players know. This move would also allow him to partially finish out his program, see through a bit of his commitment to the Masia grads and go out on top, with either/both a Liga or Big Ears cup.

At present, we still don’t know what is going to happen, but signs are ominous. But it’s all still speculation, but we’d be crazy if we didn’t acknowledge the possibility none of us want to believe would happen: Pep Guardiola might be coaching his last season as Mister at FC Barcelona.

Already, we have begun to hear names, such as Ernesto Valverde, Laurent Blanc, Andre Villas-Boas and Marco Bielsa being bandied about as possible successors. Don’t forget that Roberto DiMatteo doesn’t have a job, either. And it’s safe to say that this club, right now, would be a coach’s dream job, and nightmare. I mean, what a club, but what a record of success, right? Guardiola, whenever he leaves, will whomp down a set of big, giant shoes to fill. You also wonder if now isn’t the time, precisely because the big magic hasn’t happened, leaving the door open for a new coach to have his own successes.

Yikes!

For now, we sit and wait, but not for long. You can imagine that every journalist covering the club is beating the bushes and flogging sources in an attempt to get something, anything that might clarify the picture. And the question isn’t only who, but what, as in “will Guardiola do after he leaves?”

I don’t know that I have ever seen our coach looking so harried and helpless, sounding almost valedictory in his recent press conferences, sometimes almost wistful. I believe that a season off will come after he leaves us, whenever he leaves us. And now, we wait.

Barca 2, Chelsea 2 (2-3 agg), aka “What now?”

In thinking of images that would lead off this post, which will be short, this one strikes as perfect. Because here it is:

Support your club. I know. You already do. Go deeper. Dig like the players did to bring us so much happiness.

When you signed up to be a cule, irrespective of when you signed up, you signed up for this, the same thing that every football fan in the world signs up for: That time when your beloved club just can’t get it done.

And you know what? It’s that time, more than any other time, that your club needs you the most.

You bet the bandwagon is going to get a bit lighter. Next season, there aren’t going to be celebrities sitting in the posh seats, rock stars visiting rock stars. There is going to be a club that didn’t, for the first time in three seasons, win major silverware. And no disrespect meant to the Copa del Reig, but it isn’t major. Not like Liga or Champions League major.

So sit for a moment and think about when you were down, when you were thinking “Man, life sucks,” and the value of a support network. Yes, the players have home lives, friends, spouses, etc that they will go home and mope around. But they also have us. You wonder what this mes que un club business is about. It isn’t about piousness, as some allege, or about this notion held by outsiders that we are somehow more special. It references history, struggle, the club’s place in Catalanisme, the cules who love and support it and the socis who, in effect, own it. It’s a proud, beating heart like that of every club, but with something more. And that’s not just if you ask me. History says that.

And it’s that pride that makes it easy to say that Chelsea played brilliantly over the two legs, just like EE played brilliantly on the weekend. And in both cases, even not at our best, we almost got it done. But it just didn’t happen. And that’s that. So NOW what? It seems weird not contemplating next steps this season, doesn’t it? To be playing out the string, giving young players a run out and exhausted veterans rest, but there it is. Second place is secure, assuming nothing catastrophic happens to EE and we don’t vault our way to the top.

And wouldn’t that be crazy.

So it’s time for rest, time to consider an off season in which moves are going to be made, players are going to come and players are going to go, and we will spend hours and hours debating the value of moves, rumors and other business, how much someone costs and whether that player is worth it. And yes, it’s time, for those that choose, to battle trolls and haters, to remind people that you know what — we didn’t get it done this year. But for three years, we did. And how. That nothing, no matter how much hate someone spouts or bile they can muster, will change that.

For me, I just have a little something for now, about a turning point. I don’t know about anyone else, but somehow, weirdly, it seems right that this club didn’t win major silver without Eric Abidal there to hoist the trophy. Last season, on the Champions League podium, the moment was so indescribably beautiful and poetic, that anybody who got through it dry-eyed is far, far stronger than I am.

Last season was about redemption and unprecedented success. Abidal beat the big beast, or so we thought. Little did we know at the time that he was just delaying payment of the piper, that the club would renew him even as it knew that he would never again prowl that side of the pitch like an ebony gazelle, owning, shutting down and being Le Roi Eric.

When I heard about the transplant surgery, I didn’t think “Shit, now what about the left back slot?” I thought “I hope he doesn’t die. I hope that he beats this, goes home to his family to watch Barca matches on TV, able to actually fulfill his wish to retire with the club that he loves.”

So in a weird way, this season that has taught us so much about humanity, with Abidal, Fabrice Muamba, Piermario Morosini, the incidents that reminded us that life is life, that a game is a game, it’s somehow correct that the most enduring recent memory of this club should be of a player whose struggle and comeback became the story of last season, hoisting the trophy on the biggest club stage in the game and roaring in exultation.

It’s also an elegant bookend to a sequence of amazing, unprecedented successes. So when I think about last season, and this season’s ending, I can’t be anything except proud and joyful to have witnessed this all. We forced the absolute best out of each opponent who laid us low this year. Chelsea defended like lions, took their chances when they had them and had to turn themselves inside out to beat us. And the strength, the power of this club is that we weren’t at our best, its best players weren’t at their best, a key link in the game plan carted off to the hospital after an ugly-looking collision in our box.

We danced, we played our game, we threatened, spurned chances as usual, yes. And what we are left with are memories of glory, and a current feeling of love and pride.

But when I think about the turning point of this season, for me it was when we knew that Eric Abidal wasn’t going to playing left back for us. Emotionally, it was brutal. I cried. Couldn’t help it. The human side of it was awful, even as we are now buoyed by the knowledge that the operation was a success. He loved this club so much that he practiced with the first team, right up until the day of his surgery.

And tactically, returning to the field of battle, a player who wasn’t at all liked when he arrived, reminded with his absence that he is one of the most important players on the club. When he was gone, Puyol had to run more, Mascherano had to run more, spaces were open, danger was more present and holes were found where previously, they were rare. Was Abidal underrated by a lot of cules? I’d say yes, even as I say that he is the best left back on the planet, and not just the best left back for our system.

So physically and from a human aspect, that was the turning point for me. I Tweeted that the season didn’t mean as much for me at that time, that I was reminded of humanity, and life and wanting nothing more than for him to be home with his family. So I can’t be sad about this outcome of the season.

From a broader sense, I can’t be sad because of the absolute, immense joy that this club has brought me, has brought us all. So when you sit, maybe or maybe not daring to watch this match again via digital means, as if there will somehow be a different, happier outcome, think of Abidal, and the teammates who worked like dogs, fought like lions to bring glory to the colors that so many of us wear with pride. Think of a coach who wrung the best from them, until finally, the vast reservoir of genius, magic and tika-taka, was empty.

Think of all that, and don’t be sad. Support your club, and be proud.

Truth and Perspective: On UNICEF, UEFA, and Barca

This piece is not intended as a personal attack. I respect the work done by sports journalists a great deal, and I think it is wrong for them to face abuse on a daily basis for doing their job. This post was written as a response to the specific allegations made by Mr Duncan Castles because he is the most prominent broadsheet journalist to have advanced them. I do not want to pick on anyone. This is about the truth.

When Jose Mourinho first muttered his now infamous comments about the insidious, mututally beneficial relationship between FC Barcelona and UNICEF (and he didn’t mean positive publicity and money), I laughed them off. A lot of people did. Who would believe such obvious idiocy? The man was angry and he’d spoken in the heat of the moment, or he would surely have come up with something a bit more credible.

I will now pause to admit that Mr Castles has made me re-examine some of my central assumptions about football fandom with his recent comments on Twitter. Maybe we are out of touch with reality. Maybe people are actually willing to take seriously the concept that UNICEF was involved in a global conspiracy for Barcelona to win the Champions League.

Read that last sentence again. Does it still sound ridiculous? Congratulations, you have retained a sense of perspective. Unfortunately, I have not. I’m going to take these allegations seriously and examine them. When a journalist who works for a major broadsheet repeats a ridiculous allegation as if it has been backed up by proof, I feel a need to refute it for my own peace of mind. I know this is likely futile, and giving attention to a subject that shouldn’t even be under discussion. But now that it has become, somehow, a legitimate topic for debate, there must be push back.

Truth is important.

Let us assume we still live in a fact-based world where serious allegations about important institutions who depend on their reputation need to be backed up by proof before they become true in the eyes of the public. It’s a dangerous assumption to make in this day and age, but bear with me.

I will now examine the chain of logic inherent in Mr Castles’ allegations, taken from his Twitter timeline.

Step 1: Tuesday’s referee, Cuneyt Cakir, is Turkish. The deputy chairman of UEFA’s Referees Committee, Senes Erzik, is also Turkish.

As Mr Castles has subsequently pointed out, everything he posted above is factual. Mr Cakir is indeed Turkish. So is Mr Erzik. I take no issue with the facts. What I do take issue with is what he implies with these facts. Here’s the nice thing about innuendo: you don’t ever have to state it out right, everyone knows what you mean, and you have deniability. That’s why it’s so powerful.

So let me state out right what is being implied. Namely, that Mr Erzik had something to do with the appointment of his countryman for Tuesday, for a nefarious purpose. What purpose, you ask? Well, innocent reader, you’ll have to read on.

I can’t believe I need to say this, but here it is: it is not inherently suspicious that the referee is Turkish, just because the deputy chairman of the Referees Committee is also Turkish. If you think there is, substitute ‘English’ or ‘German’ for Turkish and take a moment to examine the source of your prejudice.

Mr Castles has thoughtfully provided further allegations in order to expand upon this point. See his timeline for the full details, mainly involving the Turkish match-fixing scandal of 2011. I won’t get into the details, because they are not actually relevant, except to say that the facts don’t add up to anything incriminating. It all sounds vaguely conspiratorial until right up until you try to make the chain of logic connect.

Just like the facts provided here don’t add up. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Step 2: Mr Erzik used to work for UNICEF

Good for him. All this establishes is that M Ezrik was once employed by an inter-governmental organisation dedicated to humanitarian work.

I assume the unspoken implication here is that Mr Erzik is still working for UNICEF as part of the aforementioned nefarious purpose: namely, for FC Barcelona to win the Champions League. There is no proof whatsoever backing up this crucial aspect of the conspiracy narrative.

Step 3: FC Barcelona have a partnership agreement with UNICEF

Everyone knows about Barca’s partnership with UNICEF (which in itself speaks to the partnership’s success in terms of publicity), but I’m willing to bet most people don’t know what it actually involves, aside from the logo on Barca’s shirts.

Here’s UNICEF’s web page on the subject:

The UNICEF-FC Barcelona alliance strategically harnesses the power and potential of sport to raise funds and awareness around HIV/AIDS at the international, national and local level towards achieving the Millenniums Development Goals.

Notice the absence of the words ‘Champions League’. As part of the partnership, Barca donates 1.5 million euros a year to UNICEF via the FC Barcelona Foundation towards firstly the prevention of HIV/AIDS and (since 2011) the promotion of education through sport.

(Incidentally, UNICEF’s other corporate partners include Gucci, H&M, Ikea, and ING. The FC Barcelona Foundation’s other partners include UNESCO, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Inter-American Development Bank. I would have liked to see Mourinho ranting about a global Microsoft-Barca conspiracy.)

Since it’s being alleged that UNICEF is using former employees to help fix football matches for one of their corporate partners, let’s look at what they actually do.

UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) was created by the United Nations General Assembly by Resolution UN/GA/57 (I) of 11 December 1946. It is a permanent part of the United Nations system. In its own words, its mission is:

We believe that nurturing and caring for children are the cornerstones of human progress. UNICEF was created with this purpose in mind – to work with others to overcome the obstacles that poverty, violence, disease and discrimination place in a child’s path. We believe that we can, together, advance the cause of humanity.

You don’t even have to take their word for it. Here’s the Charity Navigator page dedicated to their US branch. Once again, notice the lack of reference to football matches, and any concern about who wins them. As an inter-governmental organisation, UNICEF is accountable to its member states. Its work is funded by voluntary contributions from corporations and civil society. Once again: this is a massive organisation governed by international law and concerned with the welfare of children all over the world. They are being accused of using their shadowy connections to fix football matches.

I know it’s difficult, and I know we’ve all been consumed by the world-ending importance of football at one point or another, but try to acquire some perspective. Think about what you’re saying in real world terms when you link UNICEF to a conspiracy to win a football tournament.

Profit?

To sum up: I have established above that there are holes in each limb of the UNICEF conspiracy narrative. (By the way, ask me how silly I feel typing out ‘UNICEF conspiracy’.) The facts we’ve been provided do not link up into a coherent narrative. In fact, there are gaping holes big enough to fit the Camp Nou in them. My training as an advocate taught me to try and understand the other side’s argument. In this case, I have tried, and I have failed. There is simply not enough to back it up. To make damaging insinuations without a shred of evidence is simply irresponsible and unworthy of broadsheet journalism.

Now, I could use this space to make any number of allegations myself about Mr Castles’ motivations in making the comments discussed above, and many have already done so on various forms of social media. But I’m not going to, because I don’t believe in making accusations without proof, and this isn’t personal.

It’s about truth. Simple as that.

[Note: I know you guys don’t need the reminder, but since it is such a sensitive issue: please refrain from personal attacks in the comments.]