Pep Guardiola led not only a dominant era of football for Barcelona, but also a revolution of the 'total football' that was preached by his mentor, Johan Cruyff.
As he steps away from his post at Barcelona at the ripe age of 41, Rob Hughes of the New York Times writes of how Guardiola had transformed Barca into the gold standard in world football.
The statistics do not lie. In the four years of Pep Guardiola’s short but unrivalled era as its coach, Barcelona accumulated 14 of the 19 trophies open to it at the highest level of soccer.
And now he is taking a sabbatical.
Few seem able to understand why a relatively young man, at 41, should walk away from the team that he has shared so much with. Even as Barça returned home over the weekend with the Copa del Rey, the King’s Cup, for the 30,000 fans at the stadium Camp Nou, there were telephone calls from the Chelsea owner, Roman A. Abramovich.
Just a week before, Chelsea took away Barcelona’s most treasured possession, the Champions League trophy. But the persistent oligarch wants to know if there is a price that could change Guardiola’s mind and persuade him to change his colors to Chelsea blue — and start the process of making the London club play like Barcelona.
In a way, it speaks volumes for Abramovich. He has what he always wanted, the “trophy with the big ears,” but he is willing to tear everything apart to turn pragmatism into perfection.
Abramovich wants not only to win but also to win with style.
With that, the Russian shows a real appreciation of Guardiola. It is the winning, the flow of the team, the entertainment and the expression of joy that Guardiola’s Barcelona stands for.
Beyond that, we saw just how human this story has been during the celebration on the field after Barcelona easily and elegantly beat Athletic Bilbao, 3-0, in the King’s Cup final on Friday.
One by one, and for one last time, the players who had earned the victory tried to persuade their coach, their boss, to lead them up the stairs to receive the trophy. One by one, Guardiola embraced them, but told them to go pick up their medals and bring the Cup down to the field, where he would party with them.
The stars are players, not the coach, players like: Lionel Messi, who Guardiola said was simply the best player he had ever seen or ever expected to see; Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, the masters of passing on this team; and Sergio Busquets, the midfield defensive player who plays the role closest to the one that Guardiola did during his 11 years with Barcelona’s senior club.
The walking wounded — the captain Carles Puyol and Daniel Alves and David Villa — shared the 14th celebration under his reign as coach. There was one missing, though he still was in Guardiola’s heart — Eric Abidal, the French defender who is continuing his recovery after a liver transplant about a month ago.
Whatever else is said, whatever accolades or criticisms are thrown at Barça, this human bond is the clearest definition of what Guardiola’s coaching is all about. He said he was exhausted after four years of it, and outsiders who have seen Alex Ferguson build and rebuild teams at Manchester United over 26 years are baffled by that explanation.
Abramovich, clearly, cannot comprehend the burnout theory.
But others, much closer to Guardiola, can. Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who built a large part of the Barcelona philosophy that Guardiola was inculcated into as a boy, said last week: “With Guardiola, one cycle ends and another begins, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. Exhaustion? Yes, of course. Terrible exhaustion.”
Cruyff, who coached the team on which Guardiola became a leader back in the 1990s, has become estranged from the Barcelona boardroom since Sandro Rosell ousted Joan Laporta as club president two years ago.
Laporta appointed Guardiola as coach; Rosell inherited him. But in the changed presidency, predominantly a change driven by commercialism, Cruyff said Guardiola’s situation became more pressured. “Previously,” Cruyff told El Periódico, a Barcelona newspaper, last Thursday, “he was surrounded by people with weight, who disappeared.
“He was more alone. Those who came in after the election had criticized the previous management. It creates conflict. From then on, the problem was all Pep’s. He had to deal with problems other than football. It exhausts you much more than you can imagine.” Guardiola will not say these things. He has handed over the team to Tito Vilanova, a boyhood friend since their days at the Barça academy, La Masia, and his trusted assistant throughout the success of the last four years.
Moments before the final whistle Friday, Guardiola hugged his friend in the dugout. It was the personal handover before the Champagne flowed and the goodbyes were said on the field. Vilanova, a quiet man, bore the look of an animal caught in the spotlight.
Invited to pick up the baton with arguably the most gifted team ever, how could he refuse? Like Guardiola, he is a Catalan. But even if Vilanova succeeds, anything he wins can only replicate what his friend achieved.
The fans would have the final say. Many have written on a mural at the Camp Nou stadium. One accolade from a couple from Mexico simply reads: “Pep, thank you for returning football to its essence.”