At a news conference today at the Camp Nou Pep Guardiola announced that he would be stepping down as head coach of Barcelona at season’s end next month. Guardiola took charge four years ago after being promoted up from coach of Barca’s reserve team and led the Catalan club through the most successful period in its 113 year history. During the former Barca and Spanish national team player’s period at the helm Barca won an astonishing 13 of the 16 trophies available to them in a period of less than four years.
Barca’s haul during the Guardiola era, which began at the dawn of the 2008 season, included three straight Spanish league titles, three Spanish Super Cups, one Copa Del Rey, two World Club Cups, and most impressively – two European Champions League titles.
In under four years, Pep Guardiola succeeded in surpassing his former coach, the Dutch master Johan Cruyff, as the most successful Barcelona manager ever. However it was to Cruyff that Guardiola always deferred. For it was from Cruyff that Pep derived his philosophy of always attacking while creating a spectacle that would simultaneously overawe opponents while entertaining the crowds. It was a footballing philosophy that was first developed at Ajax Amsterdam in the early ’70s when Cruyff was a player. However Guardiola was able to more completely develop this high pressing modernization of Dutch total football thanks in part to the massively talented assemblage of players he shaped into what was arguably the best club side in history.
I saw Guardiola’s Barca hundreds of times on TV and once in person. It was a balmy August night at the Rose Bowl in the summer of 2009. Barca had swept their historic treble that season. They’d claimed the La Liga crown, humbling Real Madrid in the process, won the Copa Del Rey, and overcome a heavily favored Manchester United to lift the UEFA Champion’s League trophy.
That night the Rose Bowl was packed with fans who’d come to see the European and Spanish champs take a victory lap by pummeling the LA Galaxy. The match drew the largest crowd for a soccer match the Rose Bowl had seen since the 1994 World Cup. Caught up in the lengthy beer lines that night after making our way in, it pains me to say that I missed seeing Leo Messi score the opener while waiting for a couple of salted Tecates. But I did hear the uproar, and what an almighty one it was!
Going through the tunnel to our seats in the nosebleed regions of the storied Pasadena stadium, we entered into what I can only describe as a teeming cauldron of Blaugrana jerseys and the boisterous cacophony of some 90,000 of LA’s Barcelona faithful cheering on their heroes. It was a sight I will never forget.
Nor will I forget the sight of Guardiola’s players themselves out on the pitch. Seeing them on TV is one thing, but in person, they were an entirely different matter. They were obviously of a completely different class than the LA Galaxy and the MLS sides I was used to seeing (Although in all fairness, the Galaxy did make a game of it on the night with David Beckham scoring on a superb free kick from outside the box to settle the score at 2-1 Barca) But still throughout the match, Barcelona played on a notably higher level than even Chelsea and Inter Milan, who I’d just seen play a Rose Bowl friendly the month before.
Reflecting back on that night now, it seemed like watching soccer super-heroes who’d descended to Earth to face a squad full of mere mortals. There was the shaggy-headed Carles Puyol who could leap into the air to intercept a ball and then bring it down to his feet with control that was positively absolute. Or the ever-brilliant Thierry Henry who kept beguiling the Galaxy’s defense with his clever stutter steps and sudden bursts of speed. I don’t remember too much about Barca’s second goal except that it came courtesy of Jeffren, a young Venezuelan-Spanish player who now plies his trade with Sporting CP in Portugal.
But one thing was apparent that night: this was a special side, finely-balanced, exquisitely-elegant, and simply too perfect to last for long.
With another Champions League trophy, two more La Liga crowns, and a couple of Club World Cups on the horizon, this was a Barca team still very much in its ascendency. However looking back, it feels like that first Guardiola team was the greatest, the most immortal of his era. And within mere weeks of seeing them defeat the Galaxy, things would already have begun to change.
First there was the still puzzling Zlatan Ibrahimovic experiment. Acquired from Inter Milan for a king’s ransom and Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o, the towering Swede enjoyed a brilliant first few months at Barca before his form deserted him, seemingly taking Thierry Henry’s along with it. Although they still capped the following season with a La Liga title they were eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Inter, ironically. Ibra was soon shown the door and leant out to AC Milan where he remains today, while Henry, along with Mexican defender Rafa Marquez, left the Catalan capital to join New York Red Bulls.
Guardiola did a shrewd bit of business in replacing his two departed strikers, bringing David Villa over from Valencia one month before the striker put in a World Cup performance that would’ve likely doubled his 40 million euro pricetag.
With Villa partnering Messi, Guardiola inspired his side to another La Liga crown and another Champions League triumph over poor old Manchester United the following season. However by now the toll was beginning to show on Pep Guardiola.
The handsome young 38 year old coach who’d been appointed three years earlier was now grey, balding and showing every one of his 41 years. The team still rather easily mastered Alex Ferguson’s United in the Champions League final, but by now they had developed an over-reliance on the mercurial Messi that hadn’t been so apparent in that finely balanced first season with Guardiola in charge.
The current season has had more ups and downs than the last three. A series of draws in the domestic title race have effectively handed La Liga to Real Madrid, despite Barcelona mostly steamrollering over its Champions League opponents in the usual manner for much of the season. But interestingly, in his Friday press conference Guardiola said he’d known he was going to leave the club since last December. Maybe that explains why the wheels seem to have well and truly fallen off of the Barcelona wagon in just the last few weeks.
Last Saturday’s El Clasico loss to arch-rivals Madrid pretty much ended any chance of a forth straight Spanish title. Three days later a dogged and determined Chelsea did the unthinkable by besting Barca over a two-legged tie to deny them what many had assumed was their god-given right to appear in another Champions League final.
In the game against Madrid, and even more so in the second leg against Chelsea, Guardiola’s Barca resembled a somewhat pale imitation of itself. Of course Chelsea also had luck, the goalpost, and one of the world’s best goalkeepers, Peter Cech, on their side.
Still it seemed again as if Barca was overly-reliant on Messi. And the little Argentinian maestro appeared worn out, even missing the penalty kick that would have put his side through to the final. Also Barca’s previously all-conquering brand of tiki-taka passing football had taken on an air of predictability. A ten man Chelsea just sat back, absorbed the pressure and struck a devastating blow on the counter to put the result beyond even the superhuman reach of Barcelona with only moments remaining.
Although Guardiola has been consistently linked, ironically enough, with the jobs at Chelsea and Inter Milan, popular wisdom has it that he’ll take some time off before accepting another coaching job. At his Friday presser Pep confirmed this saying, “I haven’t met with anyone. Now I need to rest and look at it from the outside. Life will take me where it wants to go.”
Please enjoy your rest Mister Guardiola. You’ve certainly earned it. You’ve delivered us three plus years of the most entertaining, successful, and beautiful football the world has ever seen.