The Burden of La Senyera

[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.)

Sportsmanship and Dancing

In October 2008, Naples High School in Florida defeated a rival 91-0 in an American football game. In case you’re unsure, that’s a lot of points to score in a game and it’s indicative of an extremely lopsided competition. Two years earlier, in a high school girl’s basketball game, Epiphanny Prince scored 113 points by herself (in a 137-32 victory). A 2009 high school girl’s basketball game ended 100-0.

These and similar incidents sparked a lot of debate in the US (fueled mainly by ESPN’s need to have sports “news” 24/7) around “running up the score.” There was outrage that Naples High didn’t do more to curb the drubbing, despite having removed most or all of their starters early in the first quarter. The 100-0 game led to a coach getting fired. The winning coach, that is. He was dismissed for refusing to apologize for such an on-court beatdown despite having been ordered to apologize by his employer.

Cut to April 29, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. Jose Ramon Sandoval, manager of Rayo Vallecano, is speaking at a press conference after his side’s 0-7 home loss to FC Barcelona. He is speaking about Thiago Alcantara and Dani Alves, two Barça players who danced together in celebration after Thiago scored off a Dani Alves cross to make the score 0-5, “In your own house, they whip it out and piss on your face.”

Really? Epiphanny Prince was made to feel bad for accomplishing something no one had ever accomplished before. She was told she was unsportsmanlike for breaking a record. She was so much better than everyone else that she should have felt ashamed of herself for showing it. I’m going to assume, from her performances since then, that she did not take that feeling to heart, but was able to brush it aside. Good. She should have.

“Why didn’t they dance when Torres scored in the Camp Nou?” Sandoval intoned, patheticness dripping from his every pore. Maybe, Jose Ramon, for the same reason that Torres didn’t celebrate his—oh, wait, he did celebrate it. And no one said a damned thing because, well, no one should have said anything. It was something to celebrate, as was Thiago’s goal: two friends, two (mostly) countrymen, putting together a nice move, finishing it off, and going to celebrate. Did I mention that they’re professional athletes who are paid to score as many goals as possible? Did I mention that they danced amongst themselves, didn’t flash obscene gestures at anyone, and were happily celebrating? Not even one of those inflammatory celebrations like Ibra or Mario Balotelli do, but rather a grin-faced romp for a few seconds with some teammates.

But the point is that they did it with a 5 goal margin, isn’t it? That they were rubbing Rayo’s face in it. Except, what’s the difference between dancing when you’re up 1 and dancing when you’re up 5? Are you really rubbing someone’s face in it when you’re simply superior? Should Thiago and Alves have apologized instead of celebrated? Should they have said “Oh, we’re sorry, we won’t do it again”? No, of course not. At 0-1 it’s okay to celebrate, to dance, to make merry by the corner flag. But at 0-5 it’s not? Should FCB have passed the ball around the back for an hour after it was 0-3? Would that have been more sportsmanlike?

Rob McGill, a coach whose Christian Heritage team defeated West Ridge Academy 108-3 in 2011, has it right: “It was very insulting when teams slowed the ball down and just passed it around. That’s why I’d rather have a team play me straight up, and that’s why I played them straight up. Because I didn’t want to taunt them, I didn’t want to embarrass them, I didn’t want them to think we could do whatever we want.” The piece I pulled that from opines immediately after the quote: “McGill clearly believes this ideology given that some of Christian Heritage’s other recent victories have been by margins of 61, 56, and 54.” Playing better basketball than other teams is, of course, the whole point of, you know, playing basketball. That goes for all sports. If a team wins 108-3, it should probably never play that opponent again and one of the two should also attempt to find a league that is more appropriate for them to play in. But that is not because it was wrong to score 108 points on a team that could only muster 3. It is because continuing to play against such weak (or difficult) opposition is good for no one.

People are embarrassed by scorelines that aren’t in their favor because they have pride. That’s understandable. It was embarrassing for cules to lose 4-0 in the Champions League final to AC Milan, but Milan celebrated their 3rd and 4th goals with as much vigor as their 1st and 2nd. It was embarrassing for me to lose in a recent co-ed indoor league 18-5. Should the other team have refused to score? Refused to congratulate each other on their achievements? Absolutely not.

There is a difference, certainly, between purposefully showboating, purposefully embarrassing your opponent when they’re already down, and scoring because you can. There’s a difference between a layup and passing the ball off the backboard for a monster dunk by the trailing player. There’s a difference between finishing a move and nutmegging as many opponents as possible on your way to goal. Doing those things to a beaten opponent makes you a dick. But even so, it’s not wrong, it’s just, if you don’t want to be a dick, don’t do it. Going back to my co-ed league, it was 17-5 with 30 seconds left to play. The ball ricocheted off a player and bounced to one of their forwards, who was hanging out up front with our last defender. He controlled the ball, rainbowed our defender, and scored.

That makes him a dick. Next time we play them, that guy will get “accidentally” kicked in the knee a couple of times. So it goes. 18-5 is fine. If they could have scored 30, they should have scored 30. If they could have scored 30 goals doing rainbows and other fancy tricks to make us look dumb, they should have felt free. Yes, they would have been clobbered a couple of times in the attempt, but that’s our pride talking. I’d gladly rainbow that guy and make him look like an ass, if I could.

I refuse to accept the idea of “running up the score” in professional sports. I refuse to accept the idea that goals shouldn’t celebrated in happy manners. End zone celebrations in the NFL are awesome. Running to a corner flag and dancing with your teammates is fun. Not that I know firsthand, of course, because I’m never allowed in the dancing circles, but it looks fun. I also refuse to accept that there is an obligation to make your opponents feel anything at all. There are leagues where running up the score is not allowed (my hometown’s adult league allowed you to score 2 goals and then you couldn’t cross midfield) and there are leagues that are purely for kickarounds. But those rules are understood and if you sign up to play in a competitive league whose goal is for each team to try and win, how can you complain if someone is excited that they just accomplished that?

If feeling good about yourself is what drives a lot of players to do better–and that seems like the case a lot of the time–it only makes sense to also realize that not scoring, not doing your job, is going to make you worse the next time out. If Thiago doesn’t celebrate that goal, if he just shrugs and jogs back to his own half, and then Rayo scores 5 and ties it up, who gets the sharpened end of a hot poker for a pacifier from the fans? Thiago, that’s who. As unlikely as that is, weirder things have happened and you wouldn’t like it if it did.

Sportsmanship is not failing to celebrate. It’s treating your opponents like human beings you are competing with. Like Coach McGill said, when you start to pity people is when you start to be unsportsmanlike. Naples High wasn’t wrong. Christian Heritage wasn’t wrong. Epiphanny Prince wasn’t wrong. American Somoa probably still feels like crap from that 31-0 loss to Australia, but I kind of hope that Archie Thompson celebrated his 13th goal as heartily as he did his 1st. And I hope Thiago does a fancy shimmy next time he finds the net.

blitzen awards, the “It ain’t over till it’s over” edition.

I wasn’t going to do any blitzen awards as I am feeling a bit disgruntled today, but if the team can pick themselves up after the week they had and put in a performance like they did yesterday-I suppose I had better just gruntle myself and get the job done. So without any further ado:

Room With A View Award: To the fans watching the game from the rooftops and balconies of nearby buildings. Want to watch a world-class football game but can’t afford the ticket price? No problem! Just make friends with one of these lucky people! They might charge a nominal admission fee to come into their apartments, but I suspect a six-pack of beer would do the trick.

MOTMOTM Award: Very difficult to pick just one. This was a full-on 100% team performance. I haven’t seen Barça play this well in ages. See what taking the pressure off will do? This was a team who were having fun out there. If I must pick one, I will choose Thiago. He was very impressive all game. Tim Stannard of La Liga Loca singled him out for praise as well, so I’m in good company.

All Dressed Up And Nowhere To Go Award: Madrid’s statue of Cibeles was adorned with RM flags yesterday and outfitted with a special fence to keep the hoi polloi at bay, in the expectation that Barcelona might drop points to Rayo and seal Madrid’s first Liga title in four years. Sadly for the beautiful goddess, her hopes of a night out dancing were dashed and she will now have to wait until Wednesday for her beau to appear, trophy in hand. Let’s just hope he doesn’t drop it!

The King Is Dead, Long Live The King! Award: Despite Pep insisting that he is only leaving, not dying, there has been a pretty funereal attitude amongst cules. We have lost something irreplaceable and we will miss him for a very long time. However, I believe that Tito is more than capable of continuing what Pep began, and I look forward to the official beginning of his tenure. He might want to spruce up his wardrobe a bit, though.

Plait of Power Award: Pinto!!!! Aside from a few shaky minutes at the start of the game, Pinto had a screamer. Reminding us why he won the Zamora Trophy in the 2005-2006 season, Pinto came up with several big saves to keep a clean sheet. News today is that he will be starting the last three Liga games as well in preparation for the Copa del Rey final. Which means that Victor Valdes will get his fourth consecutive (5th overall) Zamora trophy. Awards all round!

Dance Dance Revolution Award: PUYOL HAS NO TIME FOR YOUR FOOLISH DANCING!!!

Trollhattan Memorial TOTM Award: This one is for Pep, of course. From his post-match presser: “Karanka saying Liga existed before me & will exist after me? Well, he’s right. Congrats for the observation.” Oh, how I will miss his bon mots. Let’s hope Tito has hidden talents in that direction.

What I Did On My Winter Vacation Award: Ibrahim Afellay, who spent his down time after being injured in September learning Spanish and has reached the point where he can now converse and even do pressers! Well done. I guess we won’t get any more of these videos then. Too bad. :D (And wasn’t it great to see him back?)

Lord Of The Wings Award: Pedro’s back! And he is doing what he does best, creating chaos on the wings and appearing at just the right moment in front of the goal to bang in a rebound. I haven’t seen him play so well since last season. Making his case to Del Bosque to take him to the Euros?

He’s Just Not That Into You Award: If a team gets relegated and their owner doesn’t notice, do they still go down? Racing Santander has never been one of my favourite clubs, but as you recuperate from our own bad news spare a thought for Racing who are the first club to be relegated this season. Their absentee owner Ali Syed probably doesn’t even know or care.

Check Your Local Listings

So, yeah. Well. *sigh*. It’s just. You know. I don’t know.

Not that it’s all been … of course. That was sorta funny. And that turned out o.k. Yesterday was all right. I guess.

Still, it just feels so. Until. Suddenly. For the first time in. Weeks, maybe. It’s …

Sunday, 4 p.m. EST. “Football for Kids with José Mourinho!” on GolTV.

I know, I know. Typical, right? So culé. Oughta be above, and beyond, and way over, and all that.  Like Dani and Thiago. Coming, Cap’n!

But I can’t help it. The man is Midas to a hack like me. Everything he touches is comedy Goldie Freakin’ Hawn.

C’mon. They’re all up over Cibeles by now anyway. Grab a bag of stale Schadenfreuders and tune in with me.

 

[Announcer]: Hello, children! Are you all ready for some football or, as it’s normally called, soccer, today?

[Children]: Yea!

[Announcer]: Great! Let’s give a big round of high-fives for today’s coach … José Mourinho!

[Enter Mourinho.]

[Child #1]: He looks mad.

[Child #2]: Uncle Mourinho, are you mad?

[Mourinho]: Who are you? [Squints at child’s t-shirt] Tito? Pito? Pinto? I don’t even know who you are.

[Announcer]: All right, everyone, let’s get ready to play some soccer! Or as Uncle Joe calls it for some reason … football!

[Mourinho (whistles)]: Venga, let’s go, vamos lá

[Enter Cristiano Ronaldo, Fabio Coentrao and Pepe. They stand in a semi-circle in midfield.]

[Child #3]: Who are these clowns? This is a three-on-three league.

[Announcer]: Coach Mourinho, this is the kindergarten bracket. I’m afraid that your players …

[Mourinho]: Eh? Qual é o problema? What you want? You want I go sit on your minivan for the end of the game, huh? You want we talk then? [Pokes Announcer in the eye.]

[Announcer]: Ow. [Retires from field, holding hands over face.]

[Mourinho (turns to Child #3, pokes him in the chest)]: I’ma gonna teach you football. Real futebol, like a mans, not like a little girls. Capice, little girl? [Child #4 nods.]

[Mourinho whistles. Ronaldo scores. Ronaldo runs to sidelines, celebrates.]

[Child #1]: What’s he doing?

[Child #3]: My older brother says it has to do with boo-

[Mourinho]: All right, venchega aí. [To Child #2] I want you go score a gol. Kick hard, yes? Else I bench you for one of my Portuguese nephews.

[Mourinho whistles. Child #2 runs at ball. Pepe tackles Child #2. Pepe kicks dirt at Child #2’s head.]

[Child #1]: Uncle Mourinho, I think Lenny is hurt. His hair is swelling.

[Child #3]: He wants his mommy.

[Mourinho]: Ay, why me, why these players, this Ref, this production crew, all against me. Por qué? Porquê? Perché?

[Announcer (returning with face bandaged)]: Mr. Mourinho, this will be quite enough. I’m showing you a red card, sir!

[Mourinho (steps forward)]: Do you show us a red card, sir?

[Announcer]: Um, I do not show a red card to you, sir, but I do, um, show a red card …

[Mourinho]: Bah! [Waves hand; Christiano, Pepe and Fabio follow.]

[Announcer (turns to camera, weakly)]: Well, that was fun! Wasn’t it, kids?

[Children moan softly, scuff toes in dirt, sniffle.]

[Announcer]: Please, families, join us again for “Football for Kids” next week with … Captain John Terry!

[Producer (furiously double-checks clipboard, on “hot mike”)]: Terry? You sure?

[Director (hisses)]: At least he speaks the g%$#@m language. Just put double-shin guards on the kids.

Commercial! Who’s up for burritos as big as your head?

Rayo – Barça Match Comments Post

Today we face Rayo Vallecano. The last time we played was a 4-0 drubbing with Alexis, Messi, and a certain David Villa all finding the net. That was the last match in which Villa scored before he broke his leg. He is not in the starting lineup to find the net again on his return, unfortunately, but Ibrahim Afellay is on the bench! Yay!

Lineups:

Barça: Pinto, Montoya, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Keita, Thiago, Messi, Alexis Sánchez, Pedro

Rayo: Cobeño, Tito, Arribas, Pulido, Rober, Movilla, Trashorras, Michu, Lass, Tamudo, Diego Costa

And with that, Pep ruins my plans for Fantasy league domination. Valdes and Cuenca will take no part and Cesc and Tello start on the bench. At least Messi will play…