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Does Pep Guardiola secretly fancy being the next Harry Redknapp?

Sunday 23rd October 2016
Perhaps the first thing to go when big money enters the picture in any competition is the league's collective sense of fun. Any athlete with a personality tends to be criticized for not taking the game seriously. Coaches who smile and laugh are labeled as lacking intensity. They quickly find their future prospects limited when they don't win, whereas the more serious continue to be given opportunities.

Remember Phil Brown? What about Ian Holloway?  Of course, America is much farther down the funereal path when it comes to professional sport, with the possible exception of the NBA, which, unlike the other leagues, actively promotes its personalities.
In gridiron football, taunting has long been penalized, which is fine, but so has celebration. There's no Icelandic choreography after a touchdown. No rowboats. No midwives. No Rambo re-enactments. Spontaneity need not apply. Joy and creativity have been run out of the league on a rail. When New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Horn hid a cell phone in the goalpost padding, then retrieved it to make a call after scoring a touchdown during a 2003 game, his side not only received a fifteen-yard unsportsmanlike penalty, the league fined Horn $30,000. Quite the hefty roaming charge. Such strictures are why the NFL has come to be known as the No Fun League.
Veteran athletes in both baseball and hockey police rookies to cure their enthusiasm, training them to play the 'right way'. The irrepressible Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, PK Subban, one of the NHL's most entertaining personalities, as well as one of its most talented offensive-minded blueliners and a huge fan favorite, was controversially traded this summer from the staid, old money, arch-conservative Montreal Canadiens to the new money, flamboyantly kitted Nashville Predators for the demonstrably less talented but far more humble Shea Weber. This, only a year after pledging a $10 million donation to the Montreal Children's Hospital. They say class will out. The Habs organization certainly showed theirs.
Subban took the trade well, however, crashing the stage at a local honky-tonk to cover a Johnny Cash tune after promising his new supporters a Stanley Cup. Yet, he remains a controversial personality in the eyes of not just the Canadiens, but many hockey executives. He was left off the squad for the recent World Cup of Hockey in favor of Weber's more conservative demeanor and playing style, and was used sparingly at the last Olympics. Until he falls in line, that will likely be Subban's fate for the remainder of his career, despite his unquestioned talent.

European football has become unpleasantly parochial, as well. Players are carded for removing their shirts after scoring a goal, and fined when another shirt with any message not endorsed by the league is exposed. Managers must exercise extreme care when even mentioning officials, let alone criticizing them.

Perhaps the last boss to escape punishment for doing so was Harry Redknapp. After finding fault with Mark Clattenburg for not disallowing a Nani goal in a match between Tottenham and Manchester United, the media played up the possibility of a hefty fine from the FA. Redknapp suggested that, were he fined for speaking to the media as required immediately after the match, he should be free to be truthful.

Unsure how to respond to the prospect that one of the more quotable figures in the English game might refuse to speak to the press, the FA limited their response to a verbal warning. It helped the decision was a controversial interpretation of the rules. The former United winger's goal had come after he rushed in to take the ball away from Spurs keeper Heurelho Gomes, who had nudged the ball with his foot in advance of a free kick. Gomes argued he was merely placing the ball, but Clattenburg agreed with Nani's interpretation that the nudge amounted to the free kick being taken. Less than a year later, though, the FA was much less forgiving towards Sir Alex Ferguson's post-match tirade against Martin Atkinson, handing the temperamental Scot a five-match ban. Notice was served. The fix was in. Free speech was out.

That's why it was encouraging to hear Pep Guardiola take on a journalist this week in a Manchester City presser after his humbling defeat to former club Barcelona.
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Responding with "You would like that, wouldn't you?" to the question of whether he thinks he should change his style to succeed in the Premier League, then going on to note he's won titles at the rate of three per year for his career, better even than Fergie, was almost certainly unexpected. Not only have journalists been emboldened in their audacity by the FA's protection, but Guardiola is widely known for his professional courtesy. Not that the Spaniard lost his cool. The pointed reminder the reporter in question needed Pep more than Pep needed him was delivered with a friendly smile.

Of course, Pep must now back up his boast by claiming silverware in the majority of the four competitions in which City is involved. One suspects doing so won't be as easy in England as it was in Spain or Germany, and he admitted he would go back to Spain should he fail. Nonetheless, it's encouraging to see an honest personality living in the moment, enjoying himself, and gladly exposing, rather than suffering a fool. As I've noted elsewhere, the business of sport has become far too full of itself. It desperately needs a healthy injection of fun.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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