Can Guardiola’s message translate outside Barcelona?

It is somewhat odd that while club owners across Europe desperately woo Pep Guardiola, he has been passed over for the one job in which he explicitly expressed an interest.
Then Inter Milan’s coach Mourinho and coach of Barcelona Pep Guardiola and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Net photo.
Then Inter Milan’s coach Mourinho and coach of Barcelona Pep Guardiola and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Net photo.

It is somewhat odd that while club owners across Europe desperately woo Pep Guardiola, he has been passed over for the one job in which he explicitly expressed an interest.

Instead of appointing Guardiola, the former Barcelona and currently unattached manager, the Brazilian Football Confederation has named Luiz Felipe Scolari as the man to take the national team into the World Cup that Brazil will host in 2014. That decision must have come as a relief to those still posturing and pouting in Guardiola’s direction, but at the risk of committing something of a soccer taboo, is he really worth such a clamor?

The Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s pursuit of Guardiola has become rather embarrassing, not to mention disruptive, and A.C. Milan’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi, has even admitted speaking with his current manager, Massimiliano Allegri, about his desire to replace him with Guardiola. “If (appointing Guardiola) was possible we would look into it,” Berlusconi said. “Anyone would try to do so if they were presented with such an opportunity.”

But despite the furious batting of eyelashes by Europe’s elite (Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Manchester United have all been linked to Guardiola as well), those close to him  insist he will not consider his next move until the new year, after he enjoys a sabbatical from the sport living in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The assumption that Guardiola possesses some sort of boundless golden touch forms the basis of each aforementioned advance, but what if he cannot match the unprecedented success he enjoyed at Barça?

It’s difficult to know where the natural brilliance of Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi and the heritage of Johan Cruyff end and Guardiola’s managerial prowess begins. The distinction becomes even more clouded when one considers the start his successor, Tito Vilanova, has made at the Camp Nou (Barça has taken 40 of a possible 43 points in La Liga and has won four of five Champions League group stage games).

Does success under Vilanova devalue Guardiola’s stock, or strengthen it?

In much the way Avram Grant was judged to have taken Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team to within an untimely John Terry slip of the Champions League title, did Guardiola construct a team so regimented that anyone could marshal them? Or does the conveyor belt of talent rolling out of the club’s famed La Masia academy mean Guardiola and Vilanova merely took their turns at the head of such an instinctively brilliant team?

Is it Vilanova’s or Guardiola’s reputation that will be undermined by any success enjoyed by Barcelona this season?

Europe’s elite are not swooning over Guardiola per se but over his philosophy and everything he represents. However, the tiki-taka philosophy is only a modern interpretation of a style imagined and woven into the fabric of Barcelona by Cruyff two decades ago.

Another assumption dictates that Guardiola’s philosophy, whether it is rightfully his or not, will be applicable at any club in any league in any country. Is that realistic?

Guardiola is a perfectionist in his idealism. Should anyone get in the way of that, he is cast aside, just as Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were at Barcelona. At Chelsea, as has been demonstrated by the dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo only months after he delivered the long-sought Champions League trophy, it is the owner who will most likely get in the way. He is the one man Guardiola would be unable to cast off.

Others who seek Guardiola’s signature have made tentative moves to prove they wish to fully adopt Barcelona’s self-replenishing program; Manchester City, for example, has hired the former Barcelona directors Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano. But Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, continues to show little commitment to a project of any sort.

When Guardiola was appointed Barcelona’s manager, the club president at the time, Joan Laporta, defended his decision by stating: “We chose a philosophy, not a brand.” Does Abramovich see Guardiola in the same way, or as the man with the biggest reputation in the sport right now, the way he viewed Carlo Ancelotti, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas?

Perhaps the biggest flaw in any plan to adopt Guardiola’s philosophy by poaching the man himself is that by overseeing a team other than Barcelona he would be betraying his own ideology. Brought through the club’s youth system from the age of 13 and molded into an almost spiritual leader, captain and then manager, Guardiola is himself the epitome of all he stands for. That is something that simply won’t translate to whatever team he takes on next.

After his forced exit from Barça, Ibrahimovic labeled Guardiola “the philosopher.” It was meant to be a bitter jibe, yet Guardiola learned to embrace the words of Juanma Lillo, his former mentor and manager: “They attack me with compliments.”

If that is how his antagonists insult Guardiola, Abramovich and the like might have to do more than bat their eyes at him.

This article was first published by The New York Times.   

 

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