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Pep Guardiola's Zen Buddhist club

Friday 8th September 2017
Pep Guardiola rejoined Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano at Man City to restore the lost Barcelona ethos. Spiritually speaking, it was the wrong choice.

At its peak, Barcelona was a shining light for leftist ideologues everywhere.

Alone among elite clubs, it defied capitalism's increasing influence. No corporate sponsor was permitted on the Blaugrana kit. When the Barcelona board at last relented, it was to promote UNICEF, the United Nations children's charity. They did not demand a fee to place the charity's brand upon the player's shirts. Instead, they donated a share in proceeds from merchandise sales to the organisation. That, as they say, was a long time ago.
When they still sought to have their own identity, the club recruited perhaps the sagest football guru of his generation, Johan Cruyff. Although he was an outsider, he had played for them under his countryman, Rinus Michels. He lived and breathed Michels' total football philosophy. Barcelona welcomed him as a coach, anointed him as their saviour, listened to his words, put his ideas into practice. Total football eventually evolved into tiki-taka.

At Cruyff's insistence, the club's core players came from the club's La Masia youth academy. The occasional free agent was signed but the first team featured mostly academy graduates: Guardiola, Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Bojan, Thiago. Even prodigal sons Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas were brought back. The club fought long and hard to pry the latter away from Arsenal. The world idolised the Blaugrana's commitment to youth development.

In addition, Cruyff's recommendation led to Guardiola's appointment as manager.

I chose Frank Rijkaard, Txiki Begiristain and Pep Guardiola because Johan told me to.--Joan Laporta

Admittedly, Barcelona's idealism was not perfect. Players of African heritage were not recruited into La Masia as other non-Catalans were. Those acquired in the market were never made to feel at home. Yaya Toure was there three years, Seydou Keita four. Samuel Eto'o's astounding scoring rate (0.74/game, 108 goals/145 appearances) kept him at the Camp Nou five years. In the end, however, the Cameroonian was readily exchanged for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player whose style and personality never aligned with Pep Guardiola's.
Brazilians of colour were more welcome, of course. Had he applied himself, Ronaldhino could have stayed forever. Dani Alves practically did. Nevertheless, an implicit bias seemed to exist.

The club's overwhelming success and good work kept its flaws from the spotlight. Barca's own self-promotional moral preaching was in the vanguard. That, in itself, should have drawn a yellow card from admirers.

Inevitably, the club became enslaved to its arrogance. The board wasn't content with competitive dominance; superiority became an overriding need. It began spending more money in the transfer market to keep equally ambitious Real Madrid at bay. Not only did the club buy madly, it skirted the rules both in reporting financial transactions and recruiting young players.

A transfer ban for the former and a tax-evasion conviction for the latter followed. In the interim, less patience was afforded to promoting La Masia graduates or for giving them time develop into elite players. New team president Sandro Rosell stripped Cruyff of his honourary title just four months after it had been bestowed.
More than a club or less? Begiristain and Soriano recognised the philosophical corruption earliest. The pair de-Nou Camped in 2012 to start over at the Etihad. Patiently, they laid the groundwork for Guardiola to come in as coach.

Pep took a year's hiatus before accepting the coaching position at Bayern Munich. He spent that time in New York City, where few people would recognise him as he strolled through the Village, Soho, or Central Park. Introspection is easier without distractions.

If Guardiola was seeking a club that could offer as near an approximation of competitive prowess and spirituality as Barcelona once had, Bayern wasn't a bad choice. The Rekordmeister had a strong youth academy. Its products rarely moved straight into the first team, though. Instead they were frequently loaned out or sold to lesser Bundesliga clubs, the best brought back when they neared their peak powers. Mats Hummels serves as that practice's most recent example.

Despite persuading La Masia's latest uncut diamond, Thiago Alcantara, to join him in Bavaria, Guardiola couldn't replicate Barcelona's success at his new club even though he had inherited a Champions League-winning side from Jupp Heynckes. Total football's Catalonian bastard child, tiki-taka, dominated the Bundesliga well enough. The best sides in Europe had learned to deal with it, however.
After three years coming up just short, Pep finally agreed to join spiritual soulmates Txiki and Ferran in Manchester. With solid backing in the boardroom and as much money as any coach could want to spend, Guardiola is no longer coming up just short. He's doing worse.

City finished third last season, futility the beleaguered coach had never previously experienced as manager. In this campaign's early days, his side appears sluggish. It needed 97 minutes to dispatch Eddie Howe's Bournemouth, despite the Cherries renown for adventurous spirit rather than resolute defending.

Critics will say Guardiola must adjust, that he adheres too stubbornly to tiki-taka. He has admitted as much himself.

How can I convince my players to play another way that I don't feel? The players are so intelligent, they know you are lying to them. When I am sitting there also I am a fan, I want to enjoy seeing my team playing.

Of course I would like to have physical, strong teams, good at headers, fast. I like that, but since the first time I arrived here, and hopefully I will stay here a long time, the team is going to play the way I want to play. I'm not going to dismiss that way.

Any cat on its ninth life and very sensitive about its skin can tell you--although it would rather not--that more than one strategy can win a football match. As much as that suggests Guardiola should alter his tactics, have a think. You'll realise it means he needn't.  Despite physical play and lenient referees, positive football can win titles in England. Arsene Wenger turned the trick more than once. Sir Alex Ferguson's title teams dominated possession. So did Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini's City champions. They were all backed by strong defending, yes. So was Guardiola's Barcelona.
If tactics aren't the problem for Pep at the Etihad, then what is? Quite simply, obsession.

Although Guardiola left Barcelona in the early stages of its capitulation to greed and avarice, it wasn't too soon to avoid contamination. He, too, measures his worth by trophies won.

If you judge me for the titles we achieve or not, it was not a good season. It's simple like that. I've learned a lot. I'm so satisfied for many, many things we have done but it's not enough. We're here to win titles.

On the one hand, there is no point to competing if you do not aspire to be your best, to win. I am not a fan of participation ribbons.

In the other hand, however, is a palmful of sand. When you squeeze it as tight as you can, it escapes through your fingers. You can desire something so overwhelmingly your obsession prevents you from achieving it.

That is what has happened to Barcelona. It's why they lost Neymar, tried to bully Liverpool into selling Phillipe Coutinho, then overpaid for Ousmane Dembele. Going further back, it's why Guardiola, Tata Martino, and Luis Enrique, excellent coaches all, exited too soon. Everything is slipping through the club's fingers. The Nou Camp is not a happy place.

All an outsider needs to gauge Pep's happiness in Manchester is match day imagery.
Fair to say life is not unfolding as anticipated.

Should he leave? Accept failure? Only if he can't recognise his obsession for what it is. He can juggle two balls, one fire, the other water, for just so long. Eventually the fire will absorb all the moisture from the ball or the water will quench the fire.

Guardiola cannot spend hundreds of millions in the market while trying to build a self-sustaining club. Installing a solid foundation requires time and suffering; it can't be bought with money. Cruyff toiled three seasons to win La Liga as manager and at least as long as an executive and adviser before his policies bore fruit. Sir Alex Ferguson needed seven seasons to rebuild Manchester United.

The counterargument to those examples is always the same. It's a different world, now. Immediate results are expected. Well, that's the point, isn't it? Barcelona used to resist such pressure. They were a much better club for it, one to be admired rather than pitied.

Some might say you can't find a big club that can stand up to those pressures and still succeed. Some would be wrong.
If Pep Guardiola wished to rediscover his footballing spirit, to coach at a club where developing young talent was paramount, money and winning subservient to that goal, he need only return to Spain. Athletic Bilbao would be the ideal club for him.

Bilbao still abides by the cantera method. The word translates to quarry in English. It reflects the policy to primarily 'mine' one's own youth academy or geographical region for players. Los Leones rarely recruit players who are not native to the Basque region or of Basque heritage.

Conversely, they do hire non-Basque coaches. Marcelo Bielsa took them to a Europa League final in 2012. Guardiola would certainly be welcome as coach. As Barcelona's former reliance on La Masia was a less orhtodox cantera system, he would be right at home. Better for him, the club would only be concerned with developing local talent. Pep could explore and fully develop his tactical philosophy. Trophies would be celebrated yet not mandated.

True, his best players would constantly be recruited by wealthier clubs. Bielsa lost much of his squad after its Europa League run. It would not matter. Being the best would not be the priority. Teaching young players to fulfill their potential would be. Is there no pride or satisfaction to be had from that? No sense of worth or achievement?

Like Barcelona, Bilbao's cantera policy has been called discriminatory. Historically, the Basque region, remote, rough, and mountainous, hasn't attracted immigrants. Separatists committing terrorists acts until 2010 hasn't help the region's reputation. When the club recruited further afield, it almost exclusively targeted players with Spanish Basque ties. Bilbao was the last Primera Liga side to field a black player. Few have worn the shirt.
Recent events suggest the club and supporter's stance is a regional rather than ethnic bias. Inaki Williams is now among the team's stars. And why not? He's a Bilbao lad, born and bred, be it from African parents or not. Yet, supporter's ire was raised when Marcelo Bielsa recruited a French Basque. Having lost Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez, among others, following his Europa League success, Marcelo Bielsa signed Aymeric LaPorte, whose childhood was spent a few kilometres north.

It's difficult to argue racism when the club doesn't trumpet elitism in the Barca fashion. Cultural and regional biases exist, certainly. Neither takes the fore. Supporters at the San Mames take pride in knowing their community has a future, for sons who look like Ander Herrera or Inaki Williams, and daughters, too.

Ultimately, the point being made here is individual in nature, not societal. Pep Guardiola must choose which philosophy matters most: winning at all costs or teaching the football he knows and loves. Whichever he chooses, he will only become whole by leaving the other behind.
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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