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Guardiola and Barca: a genuine football love story


Head coach Josep Guardiola of Barcelona

Head coach Josep Guardiola of Barcelona

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso

Head coach Josep Guardiola of Barcelona

Citizens of Catalunya now we have it here with us, were Pep Guardiola's words to the celebrating masses on May 24, 1992. Barcelona had been to Wembley and come back with the club's first European Cup.

The skin and bones number 10 with the full head of thick, jet-black hair was 21-years-old. He had marched up to take charge of the extra-time free kick from which Ronald Koeman would score, only to be pushed away by Hristo Stoichkov, five years his senior.

He had been taken off as soon as the goal went in by a manic Johan Cruyff now desperate to eat up the remaining minutes, and he had followed goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta up to the royal box to get his hands on the trophy.

“Zubi” is now his director of football, Stoichkov a regular admiring supporter watching from the Nou Camp directors' box, and Guardiola the man Barcelona fans call “son of Cruyff” — like father like footballing son is guiding the “dream team's” heirs back to Wembley.

Saturday night will be an emotional return for Guardiola — in the 19 years since, he has become one of the club's finest captains, left quietly, come back just as quietly and, in record time, emerged as potentially its greatest ever coach.

“As a lifelong fan of the club and with all the years of never quite achieving it and the pessimism that comes from that it must have been an incredible moment,” says Zubizarreta of what the 1992 final meant for a player installed in the club's Masia youth academy aged 13.

“They wanted to take him aged 11 but he was too young,” says his mother Dolors who tells how when Guardiola finally went, he excitedly reported back to his father, Valenti, that he could practically see the stadium from his bed when he woke up every morning.

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“We have discovered a kid who is not very big but plays like a god. He sees what others don't see,” one club talent spotter, who was a local referee, had told Barcelona's chief scout, Oriol Tort.

It is little wonder he has built a team around the guile of Xavi and Andres Iniesta and never baulked at playing Leo Messi at centre-forward — a physical advantage was never something Guardiola enjoyed or needed as a player.

Former team-mate Guillermo Amor remembers: “There was very little of him and there was always a doubt over whether he would fill out or not but, as a player, he read the game like nobody else so they had patience with him.”

Zubizarreta remembers witnessing Guardiola's first training session with the seniors and thinking: “Either this kid will have to spend a lot of time in the gym or he won't be playing football for very long, there is nothing to him.”

But under Cruyff, Guardiola was soon making his debut and at 21 he was a European Cup and Olympic gold medal winner. “You've been in four Olympic Games and this is my first one and I already have the gold, he told Spanish water-polo star Manuel Estiarte, now the club's director of public relations.

“I was a bit wounded by the comment but I realised that this was just his character, he was extremely driven,” says Estiarte. And that ruthless streak was not the only thing suggesting he would end as a coach.

“He never shut up on the pitch,” says Michel, another international team-mate. “He was always pointing and gesticulating as if he was directing traffic.”

After six league titles and a European Cup as a player injuries and new signings pushed Guardiola to the perimeters and he decided to walk away.

“I want to leave so that I can find out if Barcelona really is more than just a club,” he announced in April of 2001 before

signing for Serie A side Brescia. And what he discovered was that away from home there was more than just football to the life of a footballer.

At Brescia he was close pals with Italy's golden boy Roberto Baggio and after a good season there was signed by Roma where, although hardly used by then coach Fabio Capello, he became friends with Capello's current England No 2 Franco Baldini and frequented Capello's favourite restaurant Pommidoro whose diverse clientele included the capital's bohemian set.

What Guardiola was doing off the pitch became more significant than what he did on it and in 2005 the chance to redress that balance was removed when he was banned for nandrolone use.

“I am innocent and I will prove it. I will take the appeal process as far as possible and in the end I will prove that I am right,” he said ahead of an eventually successful two-year battle to clear his name.

Before quitting Italy for Qatar he was approached by Barcelona presidential candidates about returning to the club in a coaching capacity but declined because he did not want to be fast-tracked to the top. He took his badges and bided his time before returning in 2007 almost unnoticed.

With scrawny midfielder Sergio Busquets orchestrating proceedings and fleet-footed Pedro offering speed and skill up front, he won his first league title in his first season, guiding Barcelona B to the third division championship in 2008.

Before he had even lifted the trophy club president Joan Laporta took the bold step of naming him as Frank Rijkaard's successor, despite Jose Mourinho's application for the post.

“I would like to promise titles but that would be a mistake,” he said at his presentation in June 2008. But, while publicly playing down the expectations he was privately telling Laporta to hold on to his hat — Barca were going to start winning things again and quickly.

And so began a three season period that could see “Pep Team” win its 10th trophy on Saturday.

“He has this ability to convince you of his ideas,” says Iniesta, who admits the coach's words always weigh that bit heavier because they come from a man who has walked the same path as his players.

“If you lose you will still be the best team in the world; if you win you will be eternal,” was the pre-match speech before

Barcelona won their first ever Club World Cup in 2009.

The video montage combining football with images of the film Gladiator that the players were shown ahead of the 2009 European Cup final is also now the stuff of legend. Although many have requested, tongue-in-cheek, that there be no repeat this time after the video seemed to inspire 10 of the worst minutes of Barcelona's season in that first half against Manchester United in Rome.

Along with the emphasis on inspiration comes the obsession with order. Behind the commitment to attack is the necessity that there will always be three players in defensive positions — if one full-back has gone forward then the other must remain, and if both advance then the holding midfield player drops between the two central defenders.

He has the same attention to detail as Mourinho but it seems more focused on his own team than his rival's and the club's own complacency is seen as its greatest enemy.

After the team won six out of six trophies in his first year he warned: “The future is bleak, topping this is impossible.”

And with one hand on the lid covering the euphoria he used the other to keep the revolving doors spinning as he insists on constant and often dramatic squad renewal.

So out went Zlatan Ibrahimovic after just one year and Samuel Eto'o, a season earlier, a decision Guardiola may have made when Eto'o pushed his coach playfully in the technical area to celebrate a goal. Nothing Eto'o could do after that would convince his coach he did not have a loose cannon in the ranks that needed shifting.

During his playing career, those who did not see eye to eye with Guardiola sarcastically nicknamed him “the legend” — a reference to what they saw as his exaggerated sense of what Barcelona meant and the responsibility the players had to uphold the values of the club. His critics still argue that he takes himself too seriously.

Those in Madrid waiting for the smile to be wiped from his face thought their time had come before the Champions League semi-final first leg when he referred to Mourinho as the “boss who had won his Champions League off the pitch”. To their annoyance the outburst did not backfire.

Sensing his players needed him to raise his voice he not only fired up his charges but wound up Mourinho who responded to the accusation that he had won the “Champions League of the press conferences” by saying that he had won two European Cups and Guardiola only one — one that he should be ashamed of because it wasn't won fairly.

Aside from landing him a five-match ban, Mourinho had forgotten the other European Cup won by Guardiola — as a player at Wembley. Where he will be on Saturday night, hoping to repeat his words from 19 years earlier, with just one slight modification: “Citizens of Catalunya now we have it here with us — again.”

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