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Apr 30, 2012

The Pep Chronicles

That was the week that was. Unfortunately I was in England for the majority of it, and am still there on a personal matter, writing this from the rainy north - slightly disabled in my ability to gauge the impact of the week's various events, culminating, of course, in the 'adeu' of Pep Guardiola, annoyingly reported by the English press as his 'adios', a Spanish word that belongs to the coach's second language and which misses the point of the man almost entirely.

Then again, I also read some good stuff over here, and it has been interesting to see just how the whole Barcelona image, internationally speaking, has changed since Guardiola took over back in June 2008. Before then, people were very aware of the club and its culture, of course. Now they're hyper-aware, not so much for the politico-cultural reasons but because of the footballing paradigm that Guardiola has helped create. Its impact has been massive, will continue to be, and the news last Friday that the architect of the edifice was not going to continue was akin to the resignation of a head of state. The articles I read over here had the touch of an obituary about them, as if Catalunya had suddenly suffered a collective bereavement.

I'm sorry that this week's article will once again make the big two prominent, but events are events. Sevilla's ultra supporters, infuriated last week that their home game's kick-off was delayed to 22.30 because of television coverage of the clasico (the late game normally kicks off at 22.00) threw tennis balls onto the pitch as the players warmed up and chanted 'Estoy hasta la polla del Barca y Madrid' (I'm up to here with Barcelona and Madrid), the balls themselves symbolizing the Spanish phrase 'hasta las pelotas' (up to the balls with...), whose meaning hardly requires my explanation. The Sevilla fans had a point, but those with overriding commercial interests are unlikely to take heed. Neither am I, but suffice to say that Sevilla were given the chance to reclaim their ninety minutes of fame at the Bernabeu on Saturday, but failed to take advantage of the moment. They were not helped by some dubious refereeing, but Madrid were in no mood to suffer a further calamity, after the trauma of the Bayern match on Wednesday night.

That game I did manage to watch, although I missed the Barcelona v Chelsea affair due to an annoying late flight into Manchester. Trundling along the dark and empty M62 (England's highest motorway, in case you didn't know), I learned, just as I was passing over the bleak Saddleworth Moor, that Chelsea had eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League, courtesy of the hire-car radio. Perhaps I'll always remember it for this reason, as opposed to seeing it played out on the TV. Like the opening to the Odessa File, where the guy pulls his car over to the side of the road because he's just heard that Kennedy has been assassinated, I felt, in the tightness of the enclosed car space - just me, the radio and the night outside - that I'd just heard something very significant. I don't mean that Barcelona's stitching is about to unravel. But failing to beat Chelsea last week looked as though it might bring consequences in its wake, following on so soon from the clasico set-back.

Guardiola's decision to leave at the end of the season was always looking like a 50-50 possibility, but after Tuesday's game it took on the chronicle of a departure foretold. And as much as the players themselves have talked up successor Tito Vilanova's ability to maintain the flavour of the dish, it's hard to escape the conclusion that an important ingredient will be missing.

The players' respect and affection for Guardiola has been apparent since Friday in the various interviews that have been conducted. The scandalous 7-0 win at Rayo Vallecano on Sunday night was a gesture of solidarity, an immediate message that the collective had no intention of allowing the week's events to distract them from what they know best how to do - win football matches. It also delayed Real Madrid's celebrations, with the capital's press already talking about 'Cibeles' last Saturday night. In case you don't know, this is the square in Madrid (where Alcala, Recoletos and Prado intersect) whose fountain Real Madrid have adopted as the place to where the supporters (and players) head when a major title is celebrated. They may have to wait a further week however, since the midweek game in Bilbao looks a tricky one, despite the Basques' relatively poor form in the league.

Barcelona's own game in the Camp Nou versus Malaga will be no cake-walk either, but the title doesn't have a midweek look about it to me. Not only that, but the San Mames faithful are in no mood to applaud Real Madrid from the pitch, come what may. The refusal of the Madrid hierarchy to allow the Bernabeu to be used for the Copa del Rey final has not gone down well in Bilbao, hardly friendly territory at the best of times.

Back to Guardiola. It will be interesting to see what happens to him in the future. His success and his importance to the game, both at a local and an international level, will assume historic proportions when future historians of the beautiful game look back on this four-year period, but the question that is currently uppermost in people's minds is what he will do once his 'sabbatical' is over. This word has been used by both Spanish and English-speaking journalists to describe the coach's 'gap-year', if that is what it turns out to be.

A sabbatical is a word associated with university teachers, who take off an academic year to both re-charge their batteries (also a phrase used by Guardiola) and to conduct some research, always with a view to enriching their contributions to academia when they return. Of course, they return to the same institution, but in the case of Guardiola that is unlikely in the short term. He has other strings to his bow - literature and politics, to mention but two. But they remain interests that have fuelled the coach that he has become, with his sensitivity to man-management (with some exceptions), his innovative and bold tactical convictions, and the Catalan nationalism that drives him. 'Classy' was the adjective that one English journalist used to characterise him, and it is difficult to disagree. That is partly because as a strongly-committed Catalanista, he possessed the emotional intelligence factor which precluded him from pushing his ideology down people's throats. There are plenty of Catalans who have made a living out of that, the previous president Joan Laporta being a prime example. Guardiola never did it, although his sentiments have never been in doubt. It was one of the reasons that persuaded Laporta to take him on. Back in 2008, Guardiola's political credentials were far stronger than his management-based ones, in pure curriculum-vitae terms. And now he is leaving a new(ish) president - Sandro Rosell - a man with whom he had less in common politically, but with whom he maintained a cordial, if more distant, relationship.

What will he do? Fine coach though he may be viewed in terms of the history of European football, he may never be considered a 'great' unless he cuts the mustard in another footballing culture. Unless he does, there will always remain the suspicion that he was able to manage wonderfully the confluence of the Barcelona 'thing' with the emergence of a group of phenomenally gifted players, all imbued with the spirit of La Masia and bonded with that all-for-one and one-for-all factor - but then failed to repeat it in another context where the background and framework had not been so perfectly prepared for his arrival. And of course, for this very reason he may not be interested in taking over at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or the San Siro, to mention three places with which his name has been associated. To quote his own word, these places may simply not have the 'feeling' that he requires to get his mojo workin'.

Also, he may never again be involved in such an intense and fascinating struggle with a polar opposite such as Jose Mourinho, a man to whom he owes a certain gratitude for pushing him all the way. Mourinho himself might say the same, but he is motivated by a different set of demons, and has no qualms in being considered a mercenary - albeit an incredibly successful one.

Mourinho, who admires Guardiola despite himself, has been motivated over these past two seasons by an inferiority complex towards the Catalan, in part because he envies the strength that Guardiola's home-based 'roots' accord him, but also because his nemesis made it as a footballer and Mourinho didn't. It's a fairly simple psychological analysis. You don't need to be Freud to get to the bottom of that one.

Guardiola is leaving because the stresses and strains of managing Barcelona would appear to have a limit. For a man such as him to carry on, the pleasures must continue to outweigh the problems, and this is clearly no longer the case. Under Rosell, Barcelona's dirty linen has been confined to the tumble-dryer, as opposed to the more public washing line, but the linen is still there. At the moment, the club needs him more than he needs them, but there is no sense that he is abandoning ship. He leaves on a wave of affection, but his departure should nevertheless mark a point of reflection for the club, and perhaps for La Liga in general.

Looking through the wider lens, the Europa final in Bucharest between Atletico and Athletic should finally put paid to all those spelling confusions about the two names. In Spanish terms, it also compensates for the surprise absence of either of the big two from the other final in Munich.

Looking through the smaller lens, I went along to Grimsby v Southport at the weekend, which was the last game of the season in the Blue Square Premier, the English 'Fifth Division'. I nearly froze, up in the highest seats. The wind howled in from the North Sea, and the game was a poor one. To compound my misery, Southport won 1-0 and Grimsby's season ended on a damp-squib note. Nevertheless, over 3,000 hardy souls had turned up to watch the game, for some reason that only they could explain.

As my mother used to say, why do we want to trudge along and watch '22 silly men kicking a piece of leather about'? It's a very good question, and the answer continues to evade me. And yet, sitting up in the butt-freezing gods, in a stadium whose brittle magic I first experienced back in 1967, the answer was almost blowin' in the wind. Barcelona, Madrid, Man Utd, Milan - they can only continue to strut their millionaire stuff so long as this grubbier end of the cosmos is protected and preserved. That's why I went along - to pay homage. Without the plankton, the whales will perish.

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