Pep celebrating with team following 2011 Champions League Victory (Photo: REUTERS/Paul Hanna)
A Fond Farewell to Señor Blaugrana
When Guardiola, earlier this afternoon, confirmed the suspicions that he was stepping down as manager, my mind immediately took me back to May, 2008. At the time, I was writing a little-read sports and politics blog called Split Tens, and the occasion of this particular entry was a match between Barcelona and Mallorca. (The date, for the amateur historians, was the 11th.) The title of my article that day was Eulogy for Frank Rijkaard, a title I’m borrowing in amended form here. While Nero fiddled along, Barcelona blew a 2-0 lead and lost to an extra-time goal from the islanders. The scene was inevitable. The euphoria of the 2006 Champions League final was long since dissipated. The hero of that final, the inimitable Henrik Larsson, was back in Sweden playing for his beloved Helsingborg. Ronaldinho was losing form so quickly, it seemed that his stint as the greatest in the world was a mirage. The fans at Camp Nou whistled every time Samuel Eto’o, the great Samuel Eto’o, touched the ball and when he scored the second, he blasted the ball into the back of the net twice after the goal in a fit of his trademark rage. The rage was different, though, in that it was directed at the culé faithful which was so quick to turn on the players who had brought them such success so recently. Edmilson, the stalwart defensive midfielder who earlier that season had made much-analyzed remarks about some “black sheep” in the Barcelona dressing room, was sent off shortly before Mallorca’s winner. Thierry Henry was in his forgettable first season with the club (in which he led the team in scoring, but found himself the object of constant ridicule bordering on disdain, a scapegoat for the failures of the Rijkaard regime.) There was outrage in my voice as I recounted the events that led to the breakdown against Mallorca and a distant third-place finish, 10 points behind Villarreal. But I realized, in spite of it, that my outrage was directed in all directions except the direction of Rijkaard. It was not in my power to avoid the observation that his face showed more heartbreak than I felt when Mallorca went ahead, and the whistles and white flags from the faithful didn’t seem appropriate at all. They seemed cruel.
In some respects, that’s the nature of being Barcelona manager. To be sure, it’s not as grueling as being manager of Chelsea or Real Madrid but there is without question a level of demand that no person of normal sanity could handle for any length of time. For this reason, it never surprised or upset me that Pep Guardiola preferred one year contracts. He’d seen with his own eyes the way the ultimate icon of Barcelona soccer, Johan Cruyff, was unceremoniously run out of town for the great sin of two years without a trophy, even after winning eleven in his previous six seasons. It takes a great deal of self-delusion to think Guardiola wouldn’t have been handed the same fate had he stuck around and then failed to win a title for another year, even after he won in his first three years more titles than any other blaugrana manager had managed in a career. What reason would a man who has blaugrana coursing through his veins have to stay on board for the inevitable disgraceful exit? So, sure, there’s no blaming him for his fear of commitment during his tenure, and there’s no blaming him for leaving now. He’s looked burnt out since, if I had to put a finger on it, the 2009 Club World Cup final, which may be the least memorable of the finals he won at Barcelona. To refresh your memory, it’s the one where Barcelona beat Estudiantes of Argentina in extra time, and Guardiola’s emotion was some mixture of exhaustion and relief. Yes, tears of exhaustion look different than tears of joy and that’s what he displayed that day. It was obvious then that his time was short for the club. That he made it two and half more years is a tribute to his toughness, and also to his deep love for the club.
The historical record on the Guardiola Era will surely be sweetened some from the reality. I don’t mean to disparage the man’s accomplishments, of course. On the pitch, Barcelona found that balance between efficiency and beauty that is the pinnacle of the game. Beautiful attacking soccer, with incredible defensive efficiency (truly, look at the goals against record over the past few years – everyone remembers Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta but the defense was extraordinary, anchored by Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes the whole time.) A team that played to win, and did so beautifully, the thing kids forty years from now will read about and slightly disbelieve in the same way I read about and slightly disbelieved the rumors of the beautiful Cruyff-led Ajax and Netherlands teams from the early 70s. The key to this, many say, was Guardiola. I have no doubt that he deserves a great deal of credit for the improvements of some of the key players – Xavi, who recently complained that he was under-appreciated by Rijkaard, became the greatest passing midfielder in the world under Pep’s tutelage. (The best, perhaps, since Pep Guardiola.) Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi of course had the skill and talent to become what they’ve become, but I think it’s clear that Guardiola knew how to get the best out of them, particularly in employing a system that put them both in their most useful roles. And Gerard Piqué, my God. He went from being a bust at Manchester United, washed up by his early twenties, to becoming one of the absolute best defenders in the world, and the perfect Total Football defender at that. He was omnipresent in defense, and also able to bomb forward in attack. His relentless play was, again, appreciated best by Guardiola.