Guardiola: Barça in his blood
He was always destined to return to the Nou Camp after 17 years as a player, yet, writes Pete Jenson, in one season as coach he has even eclipsed his mentor Johan Cruyff
Friday 29 May 2009
Pep Guardiola has a mantra that sums up not only the 38-year-old's philosophy but also the decision to give him the job of Barcelona coach in the first place. He said it on Wednesday night, after becoming only the sixth man in history to win the European Cup as a player and a coach: "There is nothing more risky than not taking any risks."
When he was put forward as a candidate for the position last summer, Guardiola had a year's experience in football management. He had just got Barça's youth team promoted to Spain's Second Division. The other CV on president Joan Laporta's desk boasted one European Cup and four league titles – Jose Mourinho's .
But after a word in his ear from Johan Cruyff, Laporta rejected Mourinho and opted for the sharp-suited string bean who had gone walkabout in 2001 after 17 years at the club – passing through Italy, Saudi Arabia and Mexico – before finally coming home to the team he first served as a ball-boy.
It did not start well. Barça went to Numancia – the club with the tightest budget and worst ground in this season's La Liga – and lost, but Cruyff always believed the decision to gamble on the prodigal son would pay off.
"We knew that Guardiola was going to play good football and from that starting point you can go a long way," said the Dutchman. It was also not the first time Cruyff had taken a chance on Guardiola and been proved right. As a player his peers agreed that he was not the quickest or the strongest, that he was average in the air and lacked a decent shot. In spite of all that he was among the best in the world as a holding midfielder.
"I would have been an average third division player had it not been for Cruyff," he modestly recalled. As it was he won six league titles, a Champions League and an Olympic gold. When he finally left Barcelona in 2001 Guardiola ended up at Brescia after waiting and never receiving the offer he wanted from Juventus and turning down advances from England, allegedly from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
He later earned a move to Roma but was barely used by coach Fabio Capello. While at Brescia he also endured the nightmare of a positive test for nandrolone in a game against Piacenza. But unlike other high-profile cases at the time – Japp Stam then at Lazio and Edgar Davids then at Juventus – he continued to plead his innocence, arguing that his body naturally produced high levels of nandrolone. He served a four-month ban and finally had his name cleared in 2007.
Spells in Quatar and Mexico took him further and further from the spotlight after his Italian adventure. An intensely private man, he has three children, Marius, eight, Maria, six, and Valentina, one, with his partner Cristina Serra, who he met in her parents' clothing store, aged 18. His quiet return to Barcelona as youth-team coach two years ago was in keeping with his low profile.
Players talk of an unpredictable character who can enliven a training session one day and be withdrawn and introverted the next, but they also speak of a new broom that ruthlessly swept the dressing room clean and completely changed the mentality of the side.
Midfielder Xavi Hernandez said: "Chaos reigned before. It was a case of 'If you're only one kilo overweight, or just one minute late, what does it matter?'" Deco and Ronaldinho were both moved on last summer and Guardiola openly admitted that Samuel Eto'o was also surplus to requirements. When the bids failed to come in for the Cameroon striker, Guardiola had to make use of someone he had already declared he had no use for. Eto'o had been a loose cannon for the previous two campaigns but this season he produced his best figures at Barça, scoring 29 goals in La Liga and that crucial first strike in Rome.
As one by one the players took the microphone to address the supporters at the last home game of the season, it was Eto'o who thanked Guardiola for his second chance. Thierry Henry was another who remembered his coach. "I had offers," he said, "but Pep convinced me to stay and I'm glad I did."
The previously injury-prone Lionel Messi has also been toughened up under Guardiola's training regime and has gone injury-free through the season. That forward line goes into the weekend's final game of the season away to Deportivo la Coruna just one short of a century of goals between them.
Guardiola has also given youth its chance. Holding midfielder Sergi Busquets was playing in his youth team that won the third division this time last season – on Wednesday in Rome he was playing the Guardiola role in midfield still two months short of his 21st birthday.
Then there is Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Both schoolboy fans of their now-coach. Both tipped to succeed him on the pitch, although as it turns out both have far more to offer going forward than their predecessor.
"I would never have been good enough to get in this current side," Guardiola said in the run-up to the Champions League final. One of his team-mates from the 1990's "Dream Team", Ronaldo Koeman, admitted after Wednesday's victory: "The side we played in was wonderful but this team is something else."
Throughout the course of the season Guardiola has underplayed his role in Barça's success. But it is getting harder to damp down the praise. Becoming only the fifth coach to win the treble is one thing, beating two of the other four to achieve it (Sir Alex Ferguson and Guus Hiddink) along the way is another.
Cruyff picked Guardiola as a 21-year-old to anchor his midfield in the 1992 European Cup final at Wembley and he didn't let him down. Seventeen years on in Rome on Wednesday the gamble had paid off again.
Pep talk: Guardiola factfile
Born: 18 January 1971, Barcelona
* Signed for Barcelona in 1984. Won six league titles, the European Cup (1992) the Cup Winners Cup (1997), and eight other domestic trophies during his 472 games for the club.
* He became Barcelona B manager in 2007, achieving promotion.
* Has just completed treble of La Liga, Spanish Cup and European Cup in first season as first-team manager.
Rich vein of form: The story behind Eto'o's celebration
Samuel Eto'o likes to get creative to celebrate scoring, and with 35 goals this term he certainly has had plenty of opportunities to practise.
But now the Cameroon striker has explained the arm-slapping gesture he made after scoring the opening goal at the Stadio Olimpico. He explained that it represented " el sangre de mi padre" – "my father's blood". "I dedicate this cup to my father, I am very happy, I helped my team to win and that's fantastic," he added.
Back in February, Eto'o cut some shapes in a dancing goal celebration during a 4-1 win at Real Zaragoza, claiming the jig was a response to the racist abuse he was receiving. "I danced like a monkey because they treated me like a monkey," he said.
Two weeks later, Eto'o scored a hat-trick, and commemorated his final goal by pinching a photographer's camera and taking pictures of his team-mates.
He does take a great shot – just ask United.
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