Ever since Europe’s premier club competition changed its format in 1992 and was renamed the UEFA Champions League, no side has managed to win it two years running. Reigning champions Barcelona are aiming to pull off that unique achievement this season, but after going down 3-1 in the first leg of their semi-final against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, their hopes of doing so hang in the balance.
Yet, under Pep Guardiola, Barça have grown accustomed to achieving the impossible, winning an unprecedented six trophies in his first season in charge. Not bad for a side coached by a novice whose only previous experience on the touchline was with the Catalan giants' B team in the Spanish third tier.
The unassuming Guardiola has always been happy to deflect praise to his all-conquering players, but with Lionel Messi, Xavi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Co set to get their fair share of attention at Camp Nou tonight, FIFA.com momentarily turns the spotlight on the man who makes them tick.
Guardiola is not your average coach, a point that has been underlined again in the build-up to tonight’s tie. With all the pre-match talk focusing on Barcelona’s hopes of staging a dramatic comeback, the 39-year-old appeared in a press conference to say he had been spending his time reading In Praise of Pessimism by the French philosopher Lucien Jerphagnon, which he had been given on Catalunya’s Book Day, celebrated every 23 April.
Aside from being a bookworm, Guardiola is also an avid cinema and theatre-goer and a dedicated follower of fashion. And in keeping with the image he projects, he rarely loses his cool in public and is always respectful and diplomatic in his dealings with the media. Since taking up the reins at Barcelona, he has shown that good manners off the pitch and success on it are far from incompatible, that an impeccable dress sense has its place on the touchline and that being a student of culture does not necessarily mean that you cannot also be a student of good football.
With his measured and carefully considered declarations, Guardiola has demonstrated to the football world that it is possible to be gracious in both victory and defeat. As his former 'dream team' colleagues have pointed out, even when he was donning the No4 shirt to implement Johan Cruyff’s teachings on the pitch, Guardiola was already thinking and acting like a coach.
The style he adopted with great success as a player is the one he has remained faithful too since swapping the famous Azulgrana jersey for his immaculately tailored suits, namely fluid, one-touch, attacking football. “He analyses games for us,” explained midfield linchpin Xavi. “He tells where to attack, gives us two or three pointers and that’s it, out we go. For a player, the style of football he advocates is a joy.”
Meticulous in his planning, Guardiola is both an eager student of tactics and a great motivator, which is hardly surprising given the passion with which he used to play the game. His motivational techniques include regular airings of the Coldplay hit Viva La Vida in the dressing room. And before last year’s Champions League final against Manchester United in Rome, he got his squad in the mood with a motivational video in which scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator were interspersed with clips of his players in action.
As well as showing his empathy with his team, that approach has earned him their undying respect and commitment. There is a line between coach and player, however, as Guardiola showed in a curious incident last season, when he responded to an over-enthusiastic goal celebration by Samuel Eto’o by issuing a withering look in the Cameroonian’s direction.
“I would go to the end of the world with these players,” he remarked at one point last year, an indication of the high esteem in which he holds his troops. Ever-willing to absorb the pressure and accept the blame for their rare failings, Guardiola has always ensured that the praise goes their way.
“The responsibility is all mine,” he has commented on the infrequent occasions when things have gone wrong for his side. “They put all the effort in. They do all the hard work and give everything they have. All I have to do is decide what I need from them and how to get that across. That’s my responsibility and mine alone.”
A passion for the game
Never afraid to shoulder the blame in defeat, Guardiola is also quick to withdraw from the media glare in victory, preferring instead to let his players take the acclaim. There have been times, though, when his passion has got the better of him, never more so than when he hared down the touchline at Stamford Bridge after Andres Iniesta’s dramatic injury-time winner in last year’s Champions League semi-final against Chelsea. For five glorious seconds, the usually composed strategist resembled the starry-eyed teenager who once worked the touchline as a ballboy at Camp Nou.
An esteemed member of La Masia, Barcelona’s fabled academy, Guardiola has remained faithful to the club’s youth philosophy. Since taking charge of the first team, he has blooded more than a dozen of their homegrown youngsters. La Masia was where he learnt his trade as a player and a tactician and his continued commitment to giving the likes of Sergio Busquets or Pedro opportunities on the big stage has paid off handsomely.
One of the highlights of his glorious reign so far was the 6-2 hammering his side dished out to Real Madrid in a league meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu last May. Yet, even in the wake of that stunning triumph, Guardiola maintained his deepest respect for Barça’s bitterest rivals: “Real Madrid never give up. We should have been champions a month and half ago and the only thing that has stopped us has been Madrid and their players, who have kept plugging away.”
Pep faces another test of his famed patience and restraint on Wednesday evening. Yet no matter the mind games that his opposite number Mourinho employs in the build-up to the match, or the result for that matter, there is little question that Guardiola will be content to let his team do all the talking for him.