I enjoy watching Barcelona because they play with an unusual style and approach to the game. Where most clubs try to buy the best players they can afford, Barcelona attempts to grow them from their youth ranks and supplement with a purchase or two. Most clubs negotiate the most lucrative sponsorship deals they can and plaster advertisements on their shirts; until this past year Barcelona refused to do so, instead putting UNICEF’s logo on their chest and making a donation to the non-profit. Stylistically you can tell a Barcelona team from a mile away: the tiki-taka possession game relies on small, nimble players where most clubs seek fast, tall and strong players who can plow a path directly to goal.
Now their manager Pep Guardiola adds to the list. Throughout the professional ranks,
coaches struggle to their last breath to remain in power. When results start to go against them, they do not hesitate to throw people under the bus to avoid blame: the board won’t give them money to buy players. The players aren’t committed. The officials robbed them. The press is full of stories of the powerful, wizened personalities who command respect due to their decades of tenure: Sir Alex Ferguson who was appointed manager at Old Trafford on 6 November 1986 is the totem. Arsène Wenger has been at Arsenal since 1996. But sport abounds with them: American Football has Vince Lombardi, George Halas and Joe Paterno. Baseball has Casey Stengel and Connie Mack. In basketball we celebrate legends like Pat Summitt, John Wooden and Red Auerbach. Behind the story of these legends is a dirty little secret: coaching at the highest level is a lonely, debilitating ordeal. While most of these figures have spouses (long-suffering, no doubt) and children, they are otherwise monomaniacs whose entire lives reduce down to coaching, often with only one team. In the midst of this mythology, Pep was perfectly positioned to create his own historical long run, but instead on Friday he announced he was leaving the club.
And why? Well the story may develop differently later, but he left because he was tired and did not feel he was capable of giving his best any longer:
“La razón es sencilla, son cuatro años, el tiempo lo desgasta todo, son cuatro años y yo me he vaciado y necesito llenarme. La persona que ocupe mi puesto dará cosas que yo ya no puedo dar”, explicó Guardiola. Y agregó, en el mismo tono: “El entrenador tiene que tener esa energía necesaria para concienciar a los jugadores y tengo que recuperarlo. Eso sólo se recupera descansando. Creo que en caso de seguir, nos habríamos hecho daño”.
(“The reason is simple, it’s four years, time wears everything away, it’s been four years and I have emptied myself and I need to refill the tank. The person who will take my place will give things that I cannot give. The coach has to have that energy to drive the players to perform to their best, and I have to recover that. You can only get that energy back by resting. I think that if I had continued, we would have hurt ourselves.”)
This is the type of rationale managers give when in fact they already have plans to move elsewhere, as politicians resign “to spend more time with their family” but I don’t know if we will see this with Pep; he has a long history of being honest, thoughtful and conducting himself to the highest standard of dignity and class. I am thinking if he says he’s walking away because he’s tired, he means exactly that.
Guardiola joined La Masia at the age of 13, and left at 30. He went to a few other clubs and returned to coach the “B” team in 2007. He’s 41 years old and has spent about 22 years at the club, over half his life. Who can question his service and loyalty?
The way Pep has conducted himself sets the bar high, and he departed in an equally classy manner. The Spanish word that doesn’t translate here is detalle. Obviously a cognate of “detail,” its significance goes much deeper, in its highest sense and nuance it has to do with the classy thing one does that is not necessary, like sending a thank you note after a party or remembering it’s the birthday of your doorman’s daughter.
The Spanish daily El País came out with this accolade:
“lo que más se recordará del Guardiola entrenador es que ha sabido ganar con elegancia, y también perder, reconociendo los méritos de sus rivales y evitando buscar culpables circunstanciales. Eso es lo que saca de quicio a los que no saben hacer ni lo uno ni lo otro.”
“coach Guardiola will be best remembered for having known how to win with elegance, and also lose, recognizing the qualities of his opponents and not looking for scapegoats or excuses. This is what ticks off those people who don’t know how to do either one.”
Barcelona FC, through the incarnation of their retired head coach, once again demonstrates that the road to success can take counter-intuitive paths. They attack by playing the ball backwards. They get the best players by teaching children eight years before the need exists. And Guardiola helps set a tradition of strength in coaching by recognizing fatigue and walking away while he still can hold his head high.
A Spanish saying I didn’t understand when I lived there is “Lo bueno, cuando breve, dos veces bueno.” (“Good things, when brief, (are) twice as good.”) When I look back on Guardiola’s reign: four years, 13 titles, 619 goals scored and 22 home-grown players debuting in the senior team, the meaning of the proverb becomes clear.