The Revolution Was Partially Televised: A Tribute to Pep Guardiola

‘[Guardiola] faces the task of changing Barca’s destiny with scientific rigor, the passion of a lover, and with the severity and empathy of a professor. And with the sentido tragico of the prophet aware that he will one day be burnt on the altar of sacrifice.’ – Ramon Besa, quoting the journalist Antoni Puigverd, El Pais, May 2010

A wise person once observed that every football fan held two different views of their club in their head: one of a team which plays beautiful football and glides their way to victory, and one of the reality of struggle and fear and the daily grind of getting results. Most of the time the reality is closer to the latter, and us fans live on the rare moments in which we catch a glimpse of the fantasy being made real.

For almost four glorious years, Pep Guardiola made the fantasy team of Cules a reality.

Growing Pains

“There are many people who become coaches because they played football. He became a coach because he was prepared like no other.” – Cesar Luis Menotti

Cast your mind back to 8 May 2008.

Pep Guardiola’s third child Valentina had just been born, and then-Barca president Joan Laporta was on hand to offer congratulations – and a job.

Raise your hand if you thought Barca were going to win trophies the following season after you heard the news of his appointment.

I didn’t.

Everybody who’s anybody in Spanish football now claims that they always knew Guardiola would work out, as if football fans have no long-term memory, as if nobody remembers the atmosphere of fear and doubt that surrounded his debut. Since I’m not paid to sprout opinions I can happily admit that 1) like many other fans and pundits in April 2008 I favoured Mourinho (!) to take over as manager of Barca ahead of the inexperienced Guardiola; and 2) I viewed the coming season with great trepidation despite being very fond of Pep as a player and a person. Whatever hopes I did have were based on faith, not reason.

Recall the situation, if you will: Barca had finished the previous season 18 points behind Real Madrid, having endured the humiliation of giving Real a guard of honour at the Bernabeu and then being beaten 1-4 in one of the worst Clasicos in recent memory. The Camp Nou booed its team into the Champions League semi-finals, where they were narrowly beaten by Manchester United. The team’s superstar, the guiding light who had taken Barca out of the desert and to the heights, had made a habit out of skipping training, and the club had made a habit out of covering for him. There was a lack of hunger, a lack of effort, which in turn led to the fans revolting against their own team. Institutionally, the level of uncertainty and chaos recalled the dark days of Joan Gaspart’s presidency. Laporta was besieged from all sides and facing a vote of no confidence he only narrowly survived. The board had gone through mass resignations in the aftermath of said vote.

Barca was a rudderless ship, one lurch from total crisis. Pep Guardiola looked at this mess and thought he was the man to make it right. Not many had his faith.

When Barca lost their first league game of the season against newly promoted Numancia and drew their second against Racing Santander at home, did the Spanish press hold their fire and exercise restraint in their coverage of the team? Did the fans turn out in numbers and support them?

Ha. Did they ever. The sports press ripped into Guardiola from the first. Barca’s game against Racing was watched by a mere 55,000, a minority of whom even chose to wave the dreaded white hankies. Even those who were supportive had little to no idea what he was up to. The fawning admiration happened later, when he earned it.

To understand Guardiola’s eventual success, we have to examine everything that went into forging his relationship with FC Barcelona.

A Life in Blaugrana

“I’m going with the understanding that I’ve done my duty.” – Pep Guardiola, 27 April 2012

The story of Pep Guardiola is the story of modern FC Barcelona. It’s difficult to put into a few words just what he is to Barca and vice versa, so I’m going to use a lot of them. Ballboy, trainee, midfield general, captain, manager. True believer. Missionary. Symbol.

In 1983, a skinny young man from a small Catalan town arrived at La Masia. They gave him a room at the old farmhouse with a view of the Camp Nou. It was the beginning of a relationship almost too perfectly scripted to be real.

April, 1986. Barca had just stumbled into the European Cup final by the skin of its teeth. The skinny young man, now a 15-year-old ballboy, ran up to Victor Munoz and asked him for his shirt. The events of that season were to be an object lesson in the endless drama, ecstasies and tragedies of barcelonismo. They’d won through to the final by winning a penalty shoot-out, goalkeeper Urruti’s heroics earning him a place in Barca folklore. In the final itself, widely regarded as one of the worst of all time, the game went to penalties and Barca’s four takers, including Pichi Alonso, the goalscoring hero of the semi-final, all missed. The experience only deepened Barca’s European complex.

A few years later, Guardiola would become part of the team that began the process of banishing that ghost once and for all. The boy who’d witnessed Barca’s second disastrous attempt to win their first European Cup in 1986 was there to lift it himself in 1992.

As a trainee, he stood out for his intelligence, fearlessness and bull-headed stubborness. These traits more than made up for his physical deficiencies in the mind of Johan Cruyff, who saw in the skinny boy the perfect envoy for his ideas on the pitch. When Fernando Hierro spoke of his impression of the young Pep, just eighteen years old and already ordering grown men around during the noise and thunder of a Clasico, he was only half joking.

‘He was a great player. He knew the game and knew how to conduct himself. Some footballers wouldn’t stand up for anything. They can’t see beyond themselves. You’d have no chance of engaging them in any kind of sensible debater, but Pep had class. He had bearing.’ – Sir Bobby Robson

On the pitch, he became the metronome regulating Barca’s passing game. Off it, the same traits Cruyff had recognised in Pep the player meant that Pep the man became increasingly important to Barca as a club. In the midst of an environment complicated by dysfunctional relationships between the media, the president, the manager and the first team, Guardiola’s conscientious interpretation of the duties of a Barca player made him stand out.

It also made him enemies. In early 2001, El Pais commented that ‘[Barca] cannot continue to use Guardiola as a symbol in the morning and a scapegoat in the afternoon.’ In truth, they had done worse than that. He’d lost more than a year to a mysterious injury that just wouldn’t heal, during which all sorts of rumours about his personal life had been spread – some say by people associated with the club. The rift between him and the people running Barca was more like a chasm, something which was made crystal clear by the press conference of 11 April 2001, at which Pep announced his departure, speaking alone. Apparently then-President Joan Gaspart had other commitments more pressing than the club captain deciding not to renew his contract.

The chain of events leading up to his exit would have a huge influence on the way Guardiola conducted himself in his relations with football clubs. He would never be anything other than honest and outspoken, but with it now came a measure of caution, a sense of his own value and of how to protect himself.

His understanding of the entorno, that seething, politicised mass of media, club officials, and Catalan society who feed on events at Barca and make it one of the most difficult environments in Europe to manage in, would serve him well when he returned as manager, and make sure that he walked out the front door in the end.

“I come from a small country…”

[Lyrics from Lluis Llach’s Pais petit, quoted by Guardiola in his infamous April 2011 press conference before the first leg of Barca’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid.]

‘What’s more, Guardiola’s philosophy and attitude meshed perfectly with the club—or, more accurately, the image the club wanted to convey. And as a guy who spent 22 of his 41 years in the shadow of Camp Nou, Guardiola was the perfect salesman for the Barcelona ethos.’ – Gabriele Marcotti

I once heard a die-hard, lifelong cule describe in one sentence what happens to every single star player who turns up at Barca, and I’ve never been able to get it out of my head since. It never ends well, he said. Either the grind and the entorno crushes them, or it pisses them off enough to drive them away.

It can be even worse for managers. Sir Bobby Robson once said that being manager of Barca was less like being a football coach and more like being president of Catalunya. Johan Cruyff claimed that 60% of the things a Barca manager had to worry about have nothing to do with football.

Pep Guardiola stumbled into this ultra-pressurised environment when he was just a kid from a small town. He’s experienced the best and worst that Barca had to offer and survived and thrived by learning to play the political game, with a constant awareness of the impact of his words and actions and the responsibilities inherent in his role. This is the guy who, aged 21, knew precisely what note to strike at the hour of Barca’s great triumph.

‘It was left to Guardiola, however, to touch the real emotional nerve of the gathering. He paraphrased the historic words of the Catalan President Josep Tarradellas on his return from exile after Franco’s death – ‘Citizens of Catalunya, I am here!’ declaring, ‘Ciutadans de Catalunya, ya la tenim aqui!’ – ‘Citizens of Catalunya, you have it here!” – Jimmy Burns, Barca: A People’s Passion

[With his impeccable sense of the dramatic, Guardiola recalled that moment in his speech to the Camp Nou after Barca won the Champions League in 2009, with ‘citizens of Catalunya, here it is again!’]

Whether as a player or a manager, he knew exactly when to speak and when to stay silent. Many times what he said wasn’t what the entorno wanted to hear, but often it was what the team or the club needed. When others misspoke or stayed silent when they should have spoken, he stepped up. Experience has taught him exactly how to leveraging his bully pulprit and political clout against the board when necessary, and how to use the media, and he used that knowledge in the service of his ideal of barcelonismo.

The Barca of today is far more rationally run than the club Guardiola left in 2001, but it still has its moments of dysfunction. He excelled in dealing with these moments. How many other managers could rebuke their president for making an unwise statement, as Pep did after Rosell’s ill-advised boasting about the Clasico, and make it seem totally normal? For a slightly different example, I’m sure Cules all recall the Osasuna travel fiasco of last season, after which Pep gave an explosive press conference (kind of a preview for that ‘puto amo’ moment, if you think about it) defending Barca’s conduct and calling for greater institutional support for the team.

At the same time, he never lost a sense of perspective, which let him be gracious in victory and defeat, and unaffected by the unrelenting hyperbole all around him. When he was asked about the world-ending significance of the Clasico this past season, he side-stepped with a comment about Merkel and Sarkozy saving the Euro being a tad more important. Confronted with a comment from one of his players about fighting to the death to win a final, he said he hoped it wouldn’t be quite that serious; after all, they all had families to go back to.

‘Pep Guardiola famously travelled through the night to [Marcelo Bielsa’s] remote residence outside Rosario to ask advice when he was considering becoming a coach, to be told of the cheats and charlatans in the game and to be presented with a question: “Do you really like blood that much?” Guardiola said ‘yes’.’ – Sid Lowe

Pep has been the perfect spokesman for Barca. If he has appeared at times to be doing too much, it’s because others have neglected their roles and left him exposed. When a leadership vacuum opened up, he stepped up and took responsibility. You only have to look at the cracks that have appeared in the entorno since the announcement of his departure to see the powerful unifying effect he had as the face of barcelonismo.

He was the antidote to some of our worst, most self-destructive tendencies as a club. Or, to put it in another way: the image of Barca that Pep represents is exactly how we’d like to see ourselves.

“Run, bastards, run!”

[After winning the treble in his first season, Guardiola was asked what he was going to say to his players next season. The above quote was his response.]

“If Pep told me to throw myself off the second tier at the Camp Nou,” said Dani Alves once, “I’d think: ‘There must be something good down there.’”

Pep has consistently given the players all the credit for Barca’s many successes, stating that all he could do was convince them to believe in themselves. One only has to look at the state of the team before he took over to see just how difficult that can be.

In football today we hear a lot about ‘star’ players nowhere near the calibre of talent at the Camp Nou being bored by intense training drills and staging rebellions against their poor, well-meaning manager. Guardiola arrived at Barca as a young, rookie manager and gave the ill-disciplined rabble a choice: listen to him, work as they’ve neve worked before, and see their names in lights, or be left behind. Not everyone can pull that off. It worked for Pep because of his status at Camp Nou, and because he is very, very good at managing people.

‘His assistant, Tito Vilanova, a childhood friend, says Guardiola’s X-factor is his ‘contagious self-confidence. His will to win is matched by a complete belief that he’ll win and an ability to explain how to do it.’’ – Graham Hunter

His merit is in convincing a team of star players that they had to depend on each other, that they were greater than the sum of their parts, that no amount of talent could erase the need for hard work. He convinced them that their dedication would be rewarded with success, and that he would always stand on their side against the slings and arrows of the outside world, so long as they followed his lead. In four years, he has unfailingly given them all the credit for Barca’s success and sought to blame himself when the team have fallen short. Their lowest moments have always been accompanied by declarations of his absolute faith in his players.

“I am not dealing with footballers, I am dealing with people. They have fears and worry about failing and making fools of themselves in front of 80,000 people. I have to make them see that without each other they are nothing.” – Pep Guardiola

In the past 4 seasons, not once have I been angry with the players. Not once have I judged them for not trying hard enough. For those of us who remember with agonising clarity the end of Rijkaard’s time at Barca, that means a great deal.

Die With Your Boots On

‘On the eve of the 2008-09 season, El Mundo Deportivo broke a huge story on their front cover, brilliantly uncovered by their crack investigative team, rendered pleasing to the eye by the creative whiz kids and so big it took up a double page spread. There, splashed across pages two and three was the Barcelona team with Michael Essien and Frank Lampard alongside Andrés Iniesta in midfield and Franck Ribery up front. There was just one catch: it wasn’t the actual Barcelona team; it was what Barcelona would have been had they employed Jose Mourinho, only they didn’t. As pointless as it was painful, it was the speedboat on Bullseye. Look what you could have won!’ – Sid Lowe

Speaking of low moments, it’s always instructive to see what we think of ourselves when the chips are down. The fact that so many of us (and I include myself here) were ready to step away from the philosophy laid down by Cruyff that has bought us so much glory because we no longer believed it could be successful demonstrates 1) just how awful those days were, and 2) how fragile belief can be.

I called Guardiola a true believer before. He is. But he’s also too critical and reflective to accept any ideology as it is. The key for this team has been careful innovation, building upon basic Cruyffista ideas with new concepts, and then sticking to their guns.

From the first, Guardiola insisted on a particular style and a positive mindset, one that could not be shaken no matter what happened. So it was that Pep experimented with the use of a false 9 in his very first pre-season and made the tactical change that allowed Messi to become great in one of the biggest games of that season. So it was that we saw patient, probing football even when Barca were chasing a game, and Victor Valdes persisting with passing the ball out from the back even after a catastrophic early error in the first Clasico of this season.

“I have learned that when you’re in the right you should fight the world.” – Pep Guardiola

Then there’s his faith in Barca’s academy graduates. Recall Barca’s second league game of the season. They’d lost the first one to a promoted side and the entorno were one bad game from open revolt. Guardiola started without Messi, Iniesta or Henry and with two totally unknown kids named Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez.

We all want more La Masia products in the team, but probably not at the price of success. Guardiola showed us that we didn’t have to choose. The fact that we’ve played and won Champions League finals with 7 of the 11 starters being La Masia-trained is one of his greatest gifts to the club.

‘From Wembley to Wembley Barcelona has undergone an extraordinary process of maturing … There is no better defence of an idea than victories, but there is no better victory than the fact that the stability of a club does not depend exclusively on a final result, but on a route map. That is the greatness of this Barça, which, make no mistake, will also be the principles that will enable them to vaccinate themselves in defeat.’ – El Pais

It’s easy to believe when things are going well. In times of uncertainty, like the one we face now, it takes a little more courage.

Against the Barca That Cries A Lot and Wins Nothing

‘Something strange happened in the dying moments of the semi-final. Fernando Torres had just scored the goal that ended Barcelona’s hopes of reaching the European Cup final, his eighth in 11 matches against the Catalans. Defeated by Real Madrid in the league, relinquishing the title, Chelsea had now knocked them out of the Champions League. In four days, Barça had lost virtually everything. But no one left and no one whistled; no one stayed silent. Instead, the chant went up. Soon it was going round right the stadium: Ser del Barça és el millor que hi ha! Being Barça fans is the best thing there is!

Not so very long ago, that would have been unthinkable. There was sadness here, but no depression: the pessimism and self-destructive streak that has damaged Barcelona over their history was absent…’ – Sid Lowe

This, to me, is Pep’s greatest legacy. Because of the constancy of its mindset, Barca often plays itself almost as much as it is playing the opposition. In order to perform ideally, they have to overcome their own doubt and come to believe, not in themselves, but in the infinite possibilities of the collective. In order to convince others, they have to first convince themselves. And they cannot do that while looking around corners for monsters lurking in the shadows. When Barca ceases to focus on its own excellence in favour of obsessing about the slights of others, that’s when we get in trouble.

By his words and actions, Guardiola has done a lot to lead Barca beyond an obsession with moral victories, to let go of our habital fatalism. Some would say at this point that he’s actually all for moral victories, because he tends to wax lyrical about how teams win. I would suggest that these critics are missing the bigger picture. A point well made repeatedly by Graham Hunter and Sid Lowe, amongst others, is that Guardiola’s team plays a certain way because he believes it’s the most effective way for Barca to win. He believes that victory is the best way to vindicate Barca’s belief in its style.

His drive to win was contagious. It gave his team tremendous self-belief, and that in turn changed the mindset of the fanbase, slowly but surely.

Take Stamford Bridge.

To this day, the clip of Iniesta scoring never fails to move me no matter how many times I’ve seen it. If you made a poll of moments that bonded Cules to Pep’s team emotionally, it would probably come somewhere close to the top.

Part of its value is that it allowed Barca fans to experience a strange new feeling: the fulfillment of succeeding against the odds. In the years before Pep Guardiola’s revolution, Cules had gotten used to the idea that our team was not one for the difficult occasions. We did not score late equalisers. We were the ones scrappy teams scored late equalisers against. We were fatalistic. We suffered. Our team were the frequent victims of mental fragility, or failing that, of unfavourable circumstances.

Stamford Bridge was far from the first hint that Pep’s team was different. But for us skeptics who had developed a healthy pessimism as a defense mechanism against various disappointments and humiliations during the slow decline of Ronaldinho’s team, it took Andres Iniesta’s goal to cement a renewed belief in the possibilities of our team.

They clearly believed they could do anything. After that day, I started to believe it too.

Goodbye but not Farewell

“I strive to live with passion and not to be desensitised to life. Things matter to me. You’ve got to live like that. Otherwise what’s the point? It’s not possible to please everyone and there is no point in trying to be what other people think you should be. For me, it’s important to be who I am, not just to be different but to be as authentic as I can be.” – Pep Guardiola, quoted in Graham Hunter’s Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team In the World

The task facing Guardiola when he was appointed Barca manager was enormous, and the opposition standing in the way of his team’s success was always formidable. He succeeded in the face of it all because he had the perfect combination of political clout, personal charisma, man-management skills and tactical ability. He arrived at a time when Barca was defined by its dysfunction and leaves a club that is healthy, confident, and increasingly optimistic about its future. He has changed this club for the better.

The past few weeks I’ve felt like I was gradually waking up from a great dream, so good I didn’t want to leave it. It’s been an immense privilege to have experienced his time as manager as a Cule, to have so many beautiful memories to treasure. Think back to the beginning: every promise in that first press conference was fulfilled. When he told us the players would make us proud; that attackers would defend, and defenders attack; when he told us to fasten our seatbelts for the ride ahead.

He has written himself the perfect narrative. And now he has chosen to walk away on his own terms.

To quote from an opinion piece by Emilio Perez de Rozas, written after Pep’s team won the first Club World Cup in Barca’s history:

‘Pep Guardiola said that the biggest thing that has happened in these past few months are not the victories, nor the titles, nor the glory. “The biggest thing that has happened is that people thank me more than they congratulate me.”

So thank you Pep for representing to a country that doubts, your fans, a way of life, a playing style and the manner in which to do so at such a high level.

Thanks for winning by playing and not playing just to win.

Thanks for transforming every victory, every title, into a statement more beautiful, more educated and more proper than has ever been heard.

Thanks for transforming yourself into the best example, the best image of Barça, into this “més que un club” that you carry in your heart, in your soul…

Thank you and many congratulations, yes.’

[With thanks to @jazzagold for translating.]

It’s just a gut feeling, but I’m convinced that he’ll be back. In what capacity, I don’t know. I just know that the story of Pep and Barca is far from finished. So thank you, and goodbye, but I won’t say farewell.

Athletic Bilbao 0, Barca 3, aka “Going out in grand style”

Ultimately, there are no words. For the first time ever, I am sitting down to write with no notes, fresh off watching this amazing team play an amazing match for its amazing coach, for the last time. I work with words for a living — write them, edit them, make them sing in the voice of others, in my own voice.

But this club, this remarkable, beautiful club, leaves me utterly speechless.

I reckon that’s the danger of sitting down without notes, but more than any of the matches that I have on my DVR, or that I have recorded to DVD, I will watch this one over and over again, because it perfectly encapsulates the ethos, the quality, the style of this club, a way of being rooted in bravery and intramural challenge. Never, ever has this club and its players, in the four years under Pep Guardiola, stopped asking each other, “Can you?”

– Guardiola asks Mascherano to man-mark Llorente, solo, freeing up Pique for the attack.
– Iniesta positively spanks a pass to Messi, that he controls and roofs for the second goal.
– The close-quarter passing made it seem more like they had been practicing in a phone booth, rather than on a pitch
– Guardiola, on the sidelines, always demanding more

Poor Bilbao didn’t have a chance. For all of their amazing, amazing fans and remarkable effort that made the first half-hour of this match more track meet than football match, they didn’t have a chance. Because the best football club in the world was rested. All of those niggling injuries were dealt with, there was no fatigue, no next match, no nothing — and its players had something to prove, something to play for. On this night, no opponent would have had a chance.

Because for all of those extra reasons, the meaning with which this match was imbued for FCB, the Copa was a major, as major as they come for a club that wanted it for the man who, in asking them always, “Can you,” made them better than they ever knew that they could be. “Run, you bastards, run,” exhorted Guardiola from the first practices. Now as then, they did. Incessantly.

And this match was as much about the celebration as it was the football. Witness our players doing laps with the Catalan and Basque flags; running over to salute the Bilbao fans, who didn’t leave the stadium; celebrating this trophy for the beautiful thing that it was, their 14th of 19 possible under Pep Guardiola; putting the No. 22 shirt on the trophy, to make it clear that Abidal wasn’t there in person, but he was there in the hearts of every player, every member of the coaching staff. It was a family affair, that expanded to allow the world in. Bilbao fans responded to our players’ salute, in what became a mass love-in. If you got through it dry-eyed, you’re far stronger than I am, even as it should also be noted that for me, the tears weren’t of sadness, but rather the only possible reaction to something so beautiful, so heartfelt. Rather than giving something material to their beloved coach, the players gave something priceless: everything.

And my other favorite:

It has been a couple of weeks since we have seen this club kick a ball in anger, almost enough time to make you forget how remarkable, how good this club is with and without the ball, with no fatigue or pressure, nothing except an opponent that demanded its best. That, like its coach and like their teammates, asked “Can you?” The answer, as usual for all except a few occasions this season, was “Yes. Of course. Watch this.”

There were many, many finales: last trophy under Guardiola, last Guardiola presser for FCB (for now), last match of the Guardiola era, lots and lots of lasts. Guardiola left the pitch to let the players celebrate, rather than becoming a media distraction. He congratulated each one, each member of the coaching staff, each and every one of them, before he left the pitch to the players.

Were they feeling uncertainty? Sadness? Nostalgia? Impossible to know, but we can doubt they were feeling anything other than joy, as they had outdone themselves in a footballing display, like so many over these four wondrous seasons, a display for the ages. Bilbao was fast, physical and aggressive. And we were faster. It didn’t even take 3 minutes for the first goal to come, as our turbomidgets scurried around as if they had little jets in their shoes. And perfectly, it came from one of Guardiola’s projects, Pedro, a player who struggled this season but finally, as it ended, found his form.

Sure enough, for the goal, Pedro was Pedro. He found space, and smacked an unerring shot. No dribbling, no fancy stuff, no trying to beat a defender. Space. Ball. Goal. And his second goal was just as opportunistic, both goals rooted in movement — constant, high-speed, incessant movement. At times in this match, Pedro almost seemed to outrun his own feet, such was the alacrity of his movement.

And Messi, playing as a 10 instead of a false 9, defending and attacking, losing a ball and utilizing the fastest first 20 steps in the game to win it back. No conservation mode for this match, no thinking about tomorrow or mid-week, and he was remarkable.

Guardiola asked Montoya “Can you,” and our RB of the future responded with an excellent match.

Busquets was indomitable in the midfield, but you had to watch him closely to realize the havoc he was wreaking, in the box, in midfield, sliding simple passes along to keep the attack moving, another Guardiola project like the team that reached its flower under the tutelage of a man who is so much more than a coach, a man whose beauty and sensitivity, even as it made his time at the helm almost indescribably beautiful, also limited that time at the helm as sure as if he’d flipped over an egg timer when he first picked up his whistle.

The most beautiful flowers bloom fast, smell exquisite, delight the eyes and then wither, leaving you to smile at the ever so faint, residual whiff of the lustrous fragrance. Though Tito Vilanova will be at the helm next season, he will be coaching Pep Guardiola’s team. Like that wonderful flower, his presence will linger in hearts and minds.

So at the end of this match, a match, celebration and performance that felt like the first season Guardiola took over, all that we are left to do is marvel at the spectacle, celebrate its beauty and mourn the interminable weeks before it reunites, to start next season as it did this one, with a pair of Clasics against the newly crowned La Liga champions.

That time will be then. For now, even as we note that history is the past, cules will remember this match. The outcome, the way it was played, the comportment of the players before, during and after makes a perfect bookend to the conclusion of a glorious era.

The End of Just the Beginning: Barcelona – Athletic Bilbao

The first time these two teams played in the Copa del Rey final was 1920, in Gijon’s El Molinó with Barça winning 2-0. They next played in 1932, match in Real Madrid’s old stadium of Chamartín which  Athletic won 1-0. I don’t know if the Basques and Catalans whistled the La Marcha Real or the king. Nor do I know if that was the “tradition” in 1942 when they repeated the encounter, but with Barça running out 4-3 winners or in 1953 when Barça won 2-1. Both matches were in that same stadium. The two teams didn’t meet again the final until 1984 at the Bernabeu.

That match, being the first final against each other since Franco’s death, was probably more likely to inspire nationalist outcries than others (though I don’t know that it did). It also ended with Athletic lifting what has turned out to be their most recent trophy. They’ve subsequently appeared in just 2 finals (1985 and 2009) and lost both. For such a storied club, that’s a long wait and something their players will be itching to end. Barça, of course, last won this particular trophy in that 2009 match and were literally inches (Pedro’s offside toes) from winning it again in 2011. That 1984 final is perhaps most famous for being La Batalla del Bernabeu, Maradona’s last game for the club.

In 2009 there were some disgruntled Spanish nationalists when both sets of fans, clad in their flags and club colors, relentlessly whistled and booed the national anthem and the king himself. This year, the king is unlikely to make an appearance, having been injured in a fall while doing what all of us doing during our winter vacations: hunting endangered species. Oh, you guys don’t go on winter vacations to Botswana? Huh. I’ll be.

Because it wouldn’t do to not mention these things, King Juan Carlos was once accused of shooting a drunken bear. I’m envisioning a scene in a bar where a bear is boisterously causing Juan Carlos to be unable to hold a conversation with someone and the two get into it, squaring up face-to-stomach (bears are large) before His Majesty decides enough is enough and challenges him to a duel. Landed gentry do that sort of thing, you know.

This year the whistling scandal is being nipped in the bud by conservative Madrid President Esperanza Aguirre (herself a Countess) when she proclaimed that if, in her city, the visiting fans whistled La Marcha Real or the Prince of Asturias who is likely to take his father’s place, she would, had she the power, immediately suspend the game and force it to be played behind closed doors somewhere else. This has naturally caused a lot of whinging and bleating from the peanut gallery that is Sport and El Mundo Deportivo along with a few choice words from Sandro Rosell about free speech and such. You can pretty much hear him trailing off into the unspoken “but go ahead and do it.”

Politics, of course, are the lifeblood of Spain and Spaniards. You cannot have the latter without the former and becausefutbol is but a humble extension of Spanish culture, it stands to reason that politics would play a major part in it. In a private email, nzm mentioned that Esparanza Aguirre is basically creating the situation she claims to abhorrer: that is, the Streisand Effect is in full flight at this moment. The thing is, the King represents a lot that Basques and Catalans have often rallied against in the past. To quote that bastion of impartial fact, Wikipedi: “The Spanish Constitution, Title II: the Crown, Article 56, Subsection 1, affirms the role of the Spanish monarch as the personification and embodiment of the Spanish nation, a symbol of Spain’s enduring unity and permanence…”

You can see, then, why separatists and even those sympathetic to autonomous communities in general would whistle at such a symbol, especially since this is also a monarch appointed by Franco himself as his successor. Juan Carlos may be a much, much more sympathetic figure than the generalissimo, but he still stands for a centralized government and, probably for some anyway, the terrible times under his predecessor.

It is somewhat interesting that these two teams, the autonomous ones, have won the King’s Cup the most times. They have combined to win nearly half of all the titles. Including this year, since one of them will take home the trophy, it’ll be 49 of the 108 available. Athletic took home the first one (though Bizcaya disputes that) and has 22 others to boast of. Barça has 25 titles, which is of course the record. During the 1950s, they basically exchanged the trophy back and forth, winning 9 of the decade’s 10 trophies (Valencia grabbed it in 1954 in a 3-0 pummeling of FCB).

It also turns out that it’s Pep Guardiola’s final match in charge of Barcelona. That’s kind of a big deal, I’m told. For all the whistling, all the politics, what’s most important for cules is giving Pep a good sendoff. That doesn’t necessarily mean another trophy, though that wouldn’t hurt. What matters is playing the “right” way—the way Pep wants the team to play. He will be happy, I imagine, that it is his old friend Marcelo Bielsa in the other dugout—or more likely, also pacing the touchline and gesticulating wildly.

Barcelona’s injury crisis is going to have quite an impact on this match, unfortunately. Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Andreu Fontas, and David Villa are all missing. Those are big injuries that any team on earth would like to get back. Fortunately, Barça is not just any team and there will be plenty of talent available. The squad is: Valdés, Piqué, Cesc, Xavi, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi, Thiago, Pinto, Mascherano, Keita, Busquets, Pedro, Afellay, Adriano, Cuenca, Montoya, Bartra, Dos Santos, and Tello.

Both teams played each other to the bone earlier in the year, including an epic 2-2 draw in San Mames that everyone loved, but no one was happy with. Another encounter like that is unlikely given fatigue and end-of-the-season lack-of-focus, but it could happen again given the rest for both teams between the last Liga match and this final. Perhaps the teams are all the more focused given their recent failures on the European stage (remember, as heartbroken as cules were after the CL semis, Athletic fans were handed a 3-0 smackdown by Atleti in the Europe League final). Athletic are perhaps even more focused than Barça given their failure toward the end of the Liga season to secure a European spot at all. They ended up 10th, 6 points back of Levante in 6th and 9 points back of the final CL spot.

The question for Barça becomes what to do without Alves? Do you risk a 3-man back line of Pique, Mascherano, and Adriano fronted by a host of tiny tykes and Busi? Do you put Montoya into an intense match against a spirited and fast-tracking opponent despite having relatively little experience? Do you put Jonathan dos Santos at right back for some strange reason? Do you trust that the Catalans (and/or Pinto) will out-whistle the Basques and cause havoc amongst them? I would start with Montoya at RB, but I’m not particularly enterprising.

Lineup I predict will happen, thus ensuring it will have no shot of happening: Pinto, Montoya, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Cesc, Messi. Surrounding Montoya with experienced players while also keeping Alexis (just back from another an injury) fresh for the final 20-30 of the match will be big. Athletic are going to press for 90 minutes, so movement will be key. That’s where Cesc comes in: if he wants a trophy in his first year, he’d better have a hell of a game shuttling through midfield and making good runs. It feels weird leaving Keita out of this contest, but I think he’ll make an appearance as a sub, along with Afellay (and the aforementioned Alexis). Too bad we can’t have 4 subs so Tello or Bartra can make an appearance, but the match will be too close for comfort.

Enjoy this last one with Guardiola. He’s the man. El Puto Jefe wherever he decides to sit down and make his presence felt. He’s an articulate, interesting, erudite fellow and he’s also boss at this here game of football. The team will no doubt play their collective heart out in order to get him his final piece of hardware before it’s Tito’s turn to make a little history. Go into this one not with aggression, but with joy and determination. Not with warrior-mode on, but with conviction that style is sometimes greater than substance, but both can be had at once. It is one of the defining lessons of the Guardiola era: hold your head high when you do things to the best of your ability, with all your heart, and with every bit of energy you have. Win or lose, this should be a festival.

It is not an ending, really. It is not a wake. It is the beginning of the Tito era, with all the nervousness and hope that such things bring. Yes, Guardiola will not be standing on the touchline any more, but like Cruyff before him, he will forever be in there.

In the end, it’s all about Pep. So let’s this, one last time:

 

This Is Not A Preview, or, The Copa del Rey Prematch Comments Post

Hey! There’s some kind of match happening tomorrow, I hear! There might be a proper preview coming, but in the meantime you can post your thoughts here.

This being a cup final, Pep will want to play the strongest lineup possible. Unfortunately neither Puyol nor Dani Alves are available, so I suspect we will see this:

Pinto

Montoya – Mascherano – Pique – Adriano

Xavi – Busquets – Iniesta

Fabregas – Messi – Pedro

Subs: I guarantee you Keita will get some game time. You can quote me on that. Alexis as well, and either Thiago or Cuenca depending on how the game goes.