Pep Guardiola's Barcelona return will not be met with universal welcome
Supporter, ball boy, youth team player, ideologue, captain, coach, legend -- enemy.
He is now; for some, he already was.
Pep Guardiola returns to the Camp Nou on Wednesday night. He was there in March, hiding a big smile behind an even bigger scarf while sitting alongside his parents and his friend Manuel Estiarte as Lionel Messi nutmegged Manchester City's James Milner. He was there as a fan -- he had to abandon his original idea of heading to the game by foot, following the route he trod when he was younger, strolling past the Princesa Sofia hotel -- but there he was, a season-ticket holder sitting in his seat at the back of the lower tier in the main stand.
This time, if he sits at all, he will sit on the bench; the other bench, as Bayern Munich manager. For the first time in his life, the ball boy who ran onto the pitch to beg for Victor Munoz's shirt after Barcelona reached the European Cup final in 1985 and who won the trophy himself seven years later -- the first time the club had ever lifted the trophy -- will want Barcelona to lose. After the Champions League semifinal is over, whatever the result, he will go back to wanting Barcelona to win again. After the Champions League semifinal is over, most in Barcelona will go back to wanting Guardiola to win, all the more so if Bayern reach the final and face Real Madrid.
Most, but not all.
When the draw was made, Guardiola said the first message he got was from his daughter, who was happy that she was going back to see friends. "Barcelona was our life," Guardiola said. "But in the end it is only a game of football," he added. That line didn't convince. It will be much more than that, for good and bad.
"I hope and expect there to be a great welcome for Guardiola -- he will be handed the honour that he deserves," said Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
That might sound like a redundant statement, a response to a redundant question, but it was not. Whether it was a sincere response is another matter. Catalan and captain, Guardiola was the man Johan Cruyff entrusted to direct the "Dream Team" in 1980s and 90s and who won the league with Barcelona B and 14 trophies with the first team, including all six in his first year, en route to becoming the most successful coach in the club's history. His nickname was mite, the myth or legend. And that was when he was a player; by the time he had departed as manager, for some he was almost a deity.
But he did depart, although he has somehow remained present since. And some won't welcome him back. The immense majority of the fans, probably all of them, will give Guardiola the reception he deserves. But in some sections of the media, the reception will be colder. Downright hostile, in fact. Nasty and unpleasant. Worse, it will not be -- has not been, in fact -- the occasional comment or criticism, but a concerted campaign. And, darker still, the suspicion lingers that behind it lie those who have run the club since Sandro Rosell took over as president in 2010, including some on the current board.
When Guardiola left Barcelona in 2012, he was exhausted. The fact that he departed did not please some, leaving them exposed; the way his departure was handled did not please him. His relationship with Rosell had become distant already. Ideologically they were always different.
Barcelona is a club where politics and self-interest invariably play a part, where there is paranoia and distrust, a club prone to debate and division. Even those who choose not to occupy trenches often find trenches assigned to them. Johan Cruyff vs. Jose Luis Nunez was a civil war that tore Barcelona apart and has not healed; the names change but some of the struggles remain. The media plays the role of propagandists, locked in the confrontation, deepening it; sides are taken, battles fought and provoked. Alliances are always seen, even when they are not real.
Guardiola is Cruyffista; Rosell the president who prompted Johann Cruyff to return to the club offices and angrily hand back his title of honorary president -- a title handed him by the previous president Joan Laporta, who once was Rosell's partner but is now his enemy. Bartomeu was Rosell's vice-president who took over the presidency and now wishes to run again. That long-standing division lurks, always latent even when it does not come to the surface. When elections loom, as they do this summer, all the more so. In the media, points are not just made, they are scored.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that conflicts and resentment going back the best part of two decades are played out on the page. Guardiola long felt, not unjustifiably, that the Godo group (La Vanguardia and El Mundo Deportivo) were mouthpieces for some within the club, champions of the current president and his predecessors, slayers of his opponents, and that the attacks on him were thus their attacks on him. Because he appears unaligned with the current board, his status must be undermined for the success to be theirs, it must not be his. On the other side, his status must be reinforced, increased.
As Pepe Reina, the former Barcelona youth-teamer watching on from the outside, put it from Munich this week: "That's Barcelona's entorno. It has always been like that and it always will be. Everyone is subjected to that, the pressure, the constant comparisons." This season there has been something close to a desperation to compare, between those who say this team just isn't like Guardiola's and thus somehow has no value and those on the other side, who have sought to show it was better, even when it was not.
The debate has been exaggerated at times and unhelpful too, often debilitating. The nostalgia likewise: for current Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, it has been suffocating and unfair. Just as one of Sir Bobby Robson's biggest problems was that he was not Cruyff, so one of Luis Enrique's biggest problems has been that he is not Guardiola. The "Dream Team" and the Pep team became swords of Damocles, hanging over the men who followed them.
Yet if that's the background, if that attempt to protect the man who coaches the team now against the ever-present memory of the man who no longer does and who is now coming back to beat them, at times it is still baffling. It is hard to understand and impossible to justify the attitudes towards Guardiola held by some, the viciousness with which they are expressed, hinting at private confrontations and resentments yet to be resolved or revealed.
At times the cynicism and relentlessness is devastating. In El Mundo Deportivo, any excuse is a good one, no attack too gratuitous. To read Santi Nolla, the paper's editor, is to wonder what exactly it was that Guardiola did to him. How else to explain the bitterness?
In the summer of 2013 -- in the course of a news conference in which tellingly he also noted, "If I want to have dinner with Cruyff, I'll have dinner with Cruyff" -- Guardiola was asked about a comment he had supposedly made in which he had suggested that Tito Vilanova, his successor as Barcelona manager, would not get the best out of Neymar.
The question prompted a response that revealed the tension that had not always been public, underlining his sense that they could not let go, even after he had gone. That the search for blame had become endless, the desire to seek fault relentless. If his response could be seen as a cause of the way El Mundo Deportivo has turned on him, it was in fact a consequence of that. And of what he believed to lie beneath.
"I went 6,000 kilometres away and only asked them to leave me alone but they could not do that," Guardiola said. He complained that the club had used Vilanova's illness against him, filtering out the news that he had not visited his former assistant while they were both in New York. Doing so had only one motive: to make Guardiola look bad. "There are things I will never forget," Guardiola said. "All I ask is that they stop using me, and my friends, to try to hurt me."
In turn, some defended Guardiola -- and were accused by El Mundo Deportivo of doing his bidding for him. One side's "news" was the other side's "strategic leak." And so it went on.
Leave me alone, Guardiola had said. They didn't. "Guardiola does not represent me," said El Mundo Deportivo's Cristina Cubero. Maybe that's it. Maybe the fact that he does represent so many Barcelona fans and the way they cling to him, even after his departure, is the problem, the source of their resentment. His status seems to sting them.
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When Guardiola returned to watch Barcelona against City, Nolla's editorial was short and poisonous. Although it was coached in phrases like "Guardiola will always be welcomed here," it could have come with Batman-style KAPOWs and WHACKs and BOOMs on every line. Only it was more sly than that; instead, the sound would be the fleshy tear of a knife being slipped into the back of the manager Barcelona fans are supposed to love.
Guardiola has come to scout an opponent, the article began, something that by the way he didn't do when he was Barcelona coach. SLICE! Lazy Guardiola!
His football style was spectacular most the time, repetitive and predictable at others. SLICE! Boring Guardiola!
Guardiola went to Bayern after Jupp Heynckes won it all. SLICE! Lucky Guardiola!
Guardiola was lucky to have the best player in the world: this is "Messi's Barcelona." SLICE! It was never about the coach here anyway!
And on it goes. Nolla added that there is only one Barcelona coach and that's Luis Enrique.
On Wednesday night, there will be only one: Luis Enrique. But standing by the other bench there will be a former Barcelona coach. Pep Guardiola, the man the supporters will welcome back even as some in the boardroom and others in the pressroom grit their teeth. Luis Enrique's task this season has been harder because of the presence of the myth but he, unlike they, has no doubts. "Pep is my friend, and I always think my friends are the best," the Barcelona manager said.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.