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Homage to Guardiola

How Barcelona's manager built a quiet storm

Pep Guardiola liked to remind his players to have fun. Under normal circumstances, “go out there and have fun” is the emptiest sort of yapped-around-a-whistle coachspeak, but with Guardiola “normal circumstances” often felt like something more profound, and also stranger, than that: He made you believe that he meant it. He had the very disorienting gift of making banal sentiments seem to come from a place of deep soulfulness. Whether he was actually banal or actually soulful was a problem you could think yourself dizzy trying to solve,1 but either way he brought results: His Barcelona teams, especially during their astounding three-year run from 2008 to 2011,2 ran on a kind of sustained collective joy that was thrilling to watch precisely because it seemed so sincere.

Guardiola announced last week that he was stepping down as manager of FC Barcelona. He’ll stay till June 30, when his contract expires, but watching the press conference, it was hard not to conclude that he was already gone. He’s only 41, but he looks careworn, even haggard. Most managers leave a job — well, most of them don’t leave a job voluntarily at all; when was the last time the coach of a club with Barcelona’s profile walked away in his early 40s? But when they do — when Mark Hughes, say, parts ways with Fulham — they tend to cite other work opportunities or a vague desire to “move on.” Guardiola said simply that he was exhausted, suffering from extreme stress, and losing his motivation.

And so it was also hard, watching the press conference, to not think about Victor Valdés, the Barcelona goalkeeper, who often talks about how Guardiola taught him to enjoy playing soccer. It’s a useful story both for diagramming Guardiola’s mysterious banal/soulful tesseract and for understanding how a coach whose players were so unaffectedly happy to play for him could himself be ground down by worry. When Guardiola was named manager in 2008, Valdés was 26 and had already started 249 games for the club. Throughout his early life he’d been consumed, Valdés had, by the fear of failure and compulsive perfectionism that tend to haunt top goalkeepers.3 “The mere thought of next Sunday’s game horrified me,” he has said. And: “Playing in goal was, to put it mildly, a special kind of suffering.”

One day Guardiola took him aside, coach-like, and said, “Victor, if you go on like this, eventually your career will be over and you won’t have enjoyed this wonderful job for a single day because you’re always tense, because success is the only thing you want. Watch some soccer on TV, try to understand the game.” And that, as Valdés tells it, was that.

Here’s point one that you can take about Guardiola from this story: His intervention, while genuinely helpful and designed to make Valdés feel better about his daily existence on earth, was also deliberately calculated to make Valdés a better player (“try to understand the game”) and thus to help Barcelona win matches. For Guardiola, joy was also instrumental. He had realized that, in order to play the game the way he wanted, his players would need to be tuned in a certain way, that it would require a kind of psychic generosity for them to read one another well enough to move in the perfect tandem he envisioned, and that even the goalkeeper had to be part of that, which, odds were, would be impossible if the goalkeeper were sealed in a self-created hell. “Have fun,” the way Guardiola said it, was a cliché, and a profound statement about the nature of the game, and a tactical manipulation as fussily meticulous as the kind that used to torment Victor Valdés.

And here’s point two: The effect of Guardiola’s personality was such that he could advise a neurotic, self-critical obsessive to lighten up, and instead of taking the advice as further grounds for self-criticism and plunging even deeper into the whirlpool of anxiety and self-reproach — the natural response of any nervous perfectionist — Valdés heard the message, took the advice to heart, and lightened.

In 2008, when Guardiola was named Barcelona manager, he was 37 and had exactly one year of managerial experience under his belt. He had deep ties to the club — had played there for Cruyff, had graduated from the youth academy, which would supply many of his own teams’ best players — but apart from one season with the Barcelona B squad, he was completely new to coaching. In his first season, Guardiola refined the possession-oriented passing game the club was known for, reorganized the defense around a highly coordinated and aggressive system of pressing, and won every major competition in which the team played, including both the Spanish and European club championships.

Think about that for a minute. A question that I often waste time thinking about is which would be more stressful, being President of the United States or being manager of Barcelona or Real Madrid. That’s only a facetious question if you think stress is a function of your decisions’ objective importance, which it isn’t; stress is a function of how important you perceive your decisions to be.4 Barack Obama’s decisions are, objectively, many orders of magnitude more important than Pep Guardiola’s. But the presidency also comes with a great many buffers designed to insulate the president from directly perceiving, or at least from being utterly overwhelmed by, the stakes of his actions: a vast and protective bureaucratic staff, a 24/7 security detail, enforced professional etiquette, limited public appearances. Inevitably, a lot of the rage that greets everything a president does gets filtered out.

The manager of FC Barcelona, whose every action is furiously scrutinized by roughly, say, two United States’ worth of fans, is infinitely more exposed. He has a (much) smaller staff. All of his big moments — not just his State of the Unions, but his treaty negotiations, his backroom deals, his meetings with world leaders — take place on TV, in front of thousands of screaming people. Televisions are blaring opinions about him everywhere he goes; it’s barely a stretch to say that the entire news-disseminating industry in Spain is organized around the Barcelona/Madrid rivalry. There’s no massaging the numbers to disguise or spin results; he either wins or he loses. And if he rests Xavi at the wrong moment, or plays Messi too deep, or sells Eto’o when he shouldn’t, or buys Ibrahimovic at the wrong time, or lines Iniesta up on the left when he would have been more effective in the middle, then it becomes a major topic of angry deliberation, not just in Barcelona, but on the planet Earth. Imagine if, every time you opened your mouth to speak, millions of lights lit up all over the globe, and the lights were either green or red, and the difference had massive implications for how you were seen by everyone you met, and everybody knew. After a while, how would you ever say anything?

Top-level world soccer increasingly takes place within a kind of incomprehensible roar. What was amazing about Guardiola, and what almost justified the saintly terms in which he was depicted by Barcelona fans, was that he sailed into this roar and created his own cocoon of silence. Didn’t matter whether they were playing Osasuna, Madrid, or Manchester United, his squads had an uncanny tranquility5 that was unlike anything else in the sport. They never rushed, they passed to open teammates, they moved like a kaleidoscope, and they won 4-0.6 They played like they enjoyed playing. They played — and again, think about how rare this is in top-class soccer — like they weren’t terrified.

Guardiola did that; don’t ask me how. The problem was that the shield he put up around his players didn’t extend all the way around him. He was too exacting, too obsessed. The pressure of the job ate him up, especially after Madrid reacted to two years of Barça dominance by hiring a pure creature of noise, Jose Mourinho, who realized that the best way to topple Barça was to escalate the roar to the point that they couldn’t help but hear it. The madness surrounding the clásico got to be so extreme that even fans got sick of it. Guardiola lost hair, started going gray, looked increasingly bleak and fidgety even when uttering his usual thoughtful clichés. After a year or two of delighted praise from just about every corner of the soccer universe, his team was always going to face a backlash, and it did.7 And by this year, when Madrid won La Liga and Barça could only hope for the Copa del Rey, what had once seemed like an uncomplicatedly good thing had been overrun by — I want the scare quotes to be bigger than the word here — “debate.” And Guardiola, who wanted this to be fun, grew rings under his eyes and looked like a hellhound was after him.8

He was never a typical manager. He made normal circumstances seem like more than they were, which is both why he was so successful and why he couldn’t last.9 Mourinho beat him, in the sense that Mourinho reminded everyone that soccer belonged to his world and not Guardiola’s. By the middle of this season, I was as sick of the rivalry, the shrieking, the whole idea of Madrid and Barcelona, as anyone. But for three years, Guardiola made soccer seem quiet, and it was the best thing I’ve ever seen in sports. I’m glad he’s going. I’ll miss him.

Filed Under: Barcelona, Teams

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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