On 7 January this year in Zurich, Pep Guardiola told a press conference what many in football were very keen to hear: that after over six months out of the professional game, he was ready to make his return.
Just minutes after he made that statement, before news broke that Guardiola would go on to take the reins at Bayern Munich, FIFA.com had the opportunity for an exclusive interview with the former Barcelona coach.
And though the German giants did not come up for discussion, the former midfield metronome did touch on a range of issues, including his immediate future, his prerequisites for accepting a new role and his time away from the dugout.
FIFA.com: Pep, you’re now a regular at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala, even though you have been out of the professional game for some time prior to this year’s edition. What’s your feeling about this kind of event?
Pep Guardiola: Well, you don’t become a coach just so you can come to events like this, but it is an honour and a source of pride to be here for the third consecutive year. But by no means does it make you think you have a right to all this or that you’re better than anyone else. I was simply fortunate enough to be in charge of a very good team and that gave me the opportunity to be here.
When you left Barcelona you professed to feeling somewhat empty. How are you feeling now?
I’m fine. It had got to a point where I decided enough was enough. My family also deserved much more than I’d given them in recent years. And right now we’re experiencing a real adventure, tasting a very different way of life. But, though I may not look it, I’m only 41. That’s young for a coach and I’ll be back coaching this year.
Did choosing to live in New York, a city where football isn’t the No1 sport, give you a bit of peace and breathing room away from the game?
When you’re a footballer you don’t stop thinking about football. And when you’re a coach even more so, it’s always on your mind. But it’s true that both socially and culturally the United States isn’t a ‘soccer’ nation. There are other sports that have a stronger bond with New York. Fourteen million people live there and everybody does their own thing. And we’re doing our own thing too: living, getting to know this way of life and enjoying the millions of things this place has to offer.
So, you’re able to walk the streets without being bothered?
I could in Barcelona too! I’ll always be able to go around without being overwhelmed, though it is true that in New York you can go completely unnoticed.
What aspects of football have you missed during this time away?
I've missed the game itself. All the stuff that surrounds it, not so much. But I have missed [figuring out] the way a certain team plays and how you can beat them, deciding on which players to select to try and win a match. For me at least, that’s the only reason I’m in this game. If it wasn’t for that... Everything else, well, they’re not things that I have a constant need for. I can live perfectly well without them. In fact I’d say you can have a much better life without them. But the game itself, that’s what draws you in.
What kind of a project would it take to bring you on board?
Like every coach, you want to be wanted. It’s as simple as that. However well you’ve done before, what you’re aiming for doesn’t change. Feeling wanted is the most important thing in our lives, and it’s the same for our people and for a club too. You want them to show they want you and also to think that you might enjoy your time there. Like I said when I started at Barcelona, I didn’t go into the job thinking about winning titles come May. It’s about having a good time and encouraging the players to try and do what you think is best for winning matches. The idea is to enjoy the game.
Even so, having so much success at Barça has set the bar high for your next role. Does that put added pressure on you?
Yes, but I wouldn’t change it! I prefer to carry on like this, having experienced what I’ve been through, rather than starting out somewhere you’ve got to win everyone over. Things are a bit different now: when I started out at Barcelona some 86 or 87 per cent of people didn’t want me. Now, thanks to how well everything went, there’ll be clubs that are more interested in me. These things happen in life and you can’t control them. We achieved what we did all together, thanks to so many people, and I’ll remember everything I experienced during those years. Whatever anybody says, those experiences belong to me and nobody can take them away from me.
Over the past few months there have been rumours aplenty about your return to coaching, with stories linking you to a host of clubs and even the Brazilian and Argentinian national sides. Did the rumours reach you in New York?
Years ago it would have been impossible, but nowadays you’ve got computers and the internet, which means you’re constantly connected. It’s just about staying in touch with your people, speaking to them and knowing what’s going on. And I’m not talking about following what’s said about me, I’m talking about finding out what’s going on in the world. Information always gets through.
How did all this speculation make you feel?
It made me feel bad for the coaches who were in the clubs at the time. I personally wouldn’t like it if I was coaching somewhere and my club was releasing this kind of information while I was still there. But I’ve kept out of everything, I’m still out of it and I’ll stay that way, out of respect for the people who are trying to do their jobs. That said, it makes you think that you’re not getting the offer because of how good you are, but because of what you’ve won. We won a lot and that’s why I’m more in demand now than when I started out, when only three or four people at Barcelona believed in me. The others didn’t feel the same way.
Would you ever take a national team role?
I think that a country’s national coach should be from that country. I don’t think that I could bring anything different to the job that someone from the country itself could. In media terms too, the press are more receptive to you. You only get very short periods to work with the squad at international level, so it’s very important that the national coach and the media have a strong relationship, so that there’s a peaceful atmosphere. A national team is very closely intertwined with a country’s identity, which is something that runs in people’s blood. At the first sign of trouble, doubts would always be raised (if you’re not from the country in question). It’s much better having someone who loves their country, who knows the idiosyncrasies and key things that every country and national team has. It’s always much better.
In a past interview you once told us that “the tactics are the players”. With that principle in mind, is it possible to get another team playing the way Barça do?
The principle behind Barcelona’s style was very simple: play with the ball, do everything with it. Every footballer around the world decided to play football because one day in some corner of their small village or big city, wherever it was, they kicked a ball around and enjoyed it. Barça’s system, even if people say it’s very complicated, is as simple as that: we’ll get the ball and just let them try and take it off us; let’s pass it between us as much as possible and see if we can score a goal. That’s what my predecessors handed down to me and the message I tried to get across while I was there too. I don’t know how they’re doing things now but, from what I’ve seen of how they’re playing, I imagine it’s still similar. So when you go and coach somewhere you have to believe in what you’re trying to put across. And what I’ll try and do in the future is what I did when I was a player, what I believed in, and what I’ve coached for the past five years: attack as well as you possibly can, keep hold of the ball and pass it to a guy wearing the same colour shirt.
In that context, you must be very pleased and proud to see how Barcelona are doing under Tito Vilanova.
Yes, of course. The best present, the best prize that I could receive would be for everything to keep going well. When you do things right then they can continue to go well, and that’s a real honour for me. After what was passed down to me, the fact I was somehow able to pass the message on and that things are still going so well is really rewarding.
How hard were you hit by the recurrence of Vilanova’s health problems?
Very hard. But I know he’ll be strong and that he’s in good hands medically, at a club that will protect him and particularly with a family that’ll stick by his side and I’m sure will be ready to fight to make sure he comes through.
By the midway stage of La Liga Barça already had a big lead over Real Madrid. Is the championship race virtually won?
Too many things, far too many things, would have to go wrong for Barcelona to lose this Liga title. I don’t see it happening, the gap’s virtually insurmountable. Not because Madrid aren’t capable of winning all their games, but because I don’t see Barcelona losing enough matches either. It’s too big an ask. The Barcelona players are used to success and they’ve got so many qualities. I think that this La Liga race is pretty much over.
Staying in La Liga, we know you’re a big admirer of Marcelo Bielsa, who you once lauded as the “best on the planet”. What would you say about him now, given Athletic Bilbao’s travails this campaign?
It’s difficult to make an assessment when you’re not around, though I do think that the legacy he leaves the club will be very great indeed. What they achieved last season was huge, and the game we had against them was one of the best we ever played in. They’ve lost some very important players and it’s a club where it’s hard to make signings, because they’ve got a very restricted market to work in. If you’re asking me my personal opinion about him, I’d say I value him even more highly than before. My admiration for him is fully intact. I admire the way he faces up to problems, his bravery and the way he doesn’t hide when things go wrong. The way he looks for solutions using his methodology and hard work too. I try to learn a lot, because I know that in sport you don’t have great times all the time. And I admire the fortitude he shows when things don’t go well. I think the fact that Marcelo’s still got that level of drive is a gift for Spanish football and football as a whole.