Adios, Pep Guardiola
Reflecting on the most successful -- and soon departing -- coach in Barcelona's history
The first thing to say is that it has been one hell of a ride.
The second is to say thanks, Pep, we owe you.
That is to say anyone, at all, who loves soccer owes Pep Guardiola a debt for the style, the creativity, the thrills, the bravery and the inventiveness.
Sure, Barca fans covet and treasure the trophies, but neutrals like the majority of us simply know that someone who revolutionized football has been among us for a short, dramatic space of time. And now he has taken the correct decision.
I haven't lived his life. I'm neither his close friend nor confidant. But watching the intensity with which he works, interviewing people who work with him and for him, it would be hard not to be awestruck at how much of his life force this man has put into making Barcelona play beautifully and remorselessly.
Wait, what's that? You can't believe he's leaving?
You can't believe that with Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis still to reach the peak of their careers, with Xavi, Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol fit for so much more, Guardiola has called time?
Then take a step back and analyze it from his point of view.
On Friday afternoon in the Camp Nou press room, the same space in the stadium where he announced his departure as a player 11 years and two weeks ago, Guardiola talked about tiredness.
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
• History beckons for Barca
• No time for nostalgia
• Messi's rise to greatness
• Torres should play for Spain
• Real Madrid's title quest
• Madrid's Pepe problem
• Di Maria is odd man out?
• Jokers wild for Spain's national team
• Yellow Submarine on verge of sinking
• Ronaldo's rant, Atletico's despair
• Barca beats Madrid again
• Spain's three kings
• Ibra's book of nonsense
• Spain's balance of power
• Rossi's injury huge blow
• La Liga's ultimate late bloomer
• Messi chasing Barca record
• Laporta's fall from grace
• Barca's off-the-pitch battle
• Real Madrid's game plan
"I did cartwheels of joy when I was made Barca B coach and the same when I took over the first team," he admitted. "But time wears everything down and time has worn me down. Had we not been winning so much then I would have left sooner. These projects are always built to be short, not long-term."
One thing I admire -- although Guardiola himself apologized for his dithering and the uncertainty caused by his unwillingness to reveal either his thoughts or his decision over the past few months -- is that the 41-year-old has been sufficiently clear of vision and mind to spot that this is the right time.
Think of Guardiola's decision like this. Sir Alex Ferguson admits that he carries on, in part, because he fears death. Brian Clough held on for far too long and it cost him his health. Bill Shankly stopped too soon; Kenny Dalglish quit because of stress but simply couldn't keep away. Arrigo Sacchi knows that by the time he moved on from his revolutionary AC Milan side he had burned some of his players right out.
Guardiola, in life as in football, sees things just a little differently. His decision to leave the club he passionately loves comes at a cost because sooner or later it will move him to tears. Count on that.
But he knows he has reached that moment in time that, if ignored, will bring errors, regret, ill health and possibly failure. Rather than think about what you "think" you'd do in Pep's situation, look at it from his point of view.
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version is available in paperback and can be ordered at BackPage Press.
His maestro is Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman revolutionized FC Barcelona, brought the club its first European Cup and promoted a host of young Catalan players -- guys like Guardiola.
But during the midfielder's debut season, 1990-91, Cruyff keeled over with a heart attack. He was slim, athletic and relatively young -- in fact he was about a year older than Guardiola is now. OK, he smoked, but stopped instantly, and despite his triumphs and importance to the club, Cruyff was brutally sacked in 1996.
The Dutchman never came back to football coaching and his involvement in the professional game has always been advisory -- at a healthy distance. This week Cruyff celebrated his 65th birthday, happy, healthy and quite able to play the odd game of golf with Guardiola when their schedules permit. Though Cruyff's experience won't have been a central factor in Pep's decision to leave, these things do influence a man's thinking.
Guardiola has changed physically over the four years and, recently, there is no question that his temperament has become darker, gloomier and more prone to snappiness. None of these are sins, but nor are they the real Pep Guardiola. He's funny, has vastly wide-ranging interests (cinema, fashion, travel, languages, poetry and politics), a wife he loves and three children (the last of whom was born on the same day that her father accepted the job as first-team coach; little Valentina turns 4 next month and can't have seen a great deal of her dad in the interim).
Over recent seasons there have been other incidents to turn a man's mind toward health, happiness, family and the place of football in that micro-universe. Tito Vilanova, his successor, has had a tumor removed from his salivary gland. Eric Abidal had a tumor excised from his liver and now is recovering from a liver transplant. Angel Pedraza, the first graduate out of La Masia and a well known, well liked figure in FC Barcelona Futbol Base, died last year aged only 48, while another much-loved figure, young Catalan journalist Dani Montesinos, was killed, needlessly, in a motorbike crash.
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
We all need to have a bit of carpe diem in our lives -- and that means taking time to enjoy ourselves as well as ensuring that we put heart and soul into our work.
Heart and soul -- we've had them and his brain, his vocal cords and most of his patience. What of those who will criticize his decision, as one Madrid-based writer did in a piece carping about "throwing in the towel" in the face of the Real Madrid manager's rising challenge.
My view is that those who think that losing this season's Champions League semifinal and probably watching Madrid lift the title are reasons to delay departure are absolutely wrong.
Does it mean that because the end to the season has been disappointing for Guardiola, his players, the club and their fans that his previous achievement in racking up a freakishly successful 14 trophies in 4½ years (he won the title as Barca B coach, let's not forget) now counts as nothing? Count me out of that nonsensical argument.
What about the highlights? For me, it has been the process as much as the individual moments.
Guardiola has been a principal architect in Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol enjoying a golden autumn in their careers. Each of them is a special individual and much of the credit rests with them, but both have been given a new set of criteria, asked and taught to do new things, and have drawn inspiration from Guardiola's remarkable planning and communication skills.
Guardiola has been a principal architect in Spain winning the World Cup. Not only did he produce Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez from out of a magician's hat (both started the 2010 World Cup final), but he found a way to support, inspire and draw the very best from Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal in the final. Moreover, Guardiola taught his players a style of football, and a level of personal grit, which contributed greatly to Spain's greatest hour.
There are many other parts of the process but above all, he's given us the new, brilliant version of Leo Messi.
From the moment at which the new coach of Barcelona, in summer 2008, stood up to his employers and insisted that Messi must be allowed to play for Argentina at the Olympics, through the decision to use the 24-year-old in a deep-lying (false 9) attacking position, to the way in which he has consistently inspired and improved Messi as a footballer, every neutral who thrills to this genius of a player owes Guardiola thanks.
The matches? Too many to number. But I'll never forget the audacity of winning in Donetsk in 2008; Messi's headed winner in the Rome final a few months later; the sequential destruction of Sevilla, Valencia, Villarreal and Real Madrid in the "mini-league" of that first season when the treble was won; the brio and brilliance of Wembley in 2011; and of course, the "Iniestazo" when the wee man hit the top corner of the net at Stamford Bridge in 2009.
Congratulations to the teams who defeated Guardiola's Barcelona.
Thus far only four teams have managed to deprive him of one of the trophies he has tilted at -- Sevilla (Copa) Real Madrid (Copa, Liga), Inter (Champions League) and Chelsea (Champions League). The other 14 trophies, with the Copa del Rey final still to come, have belonged to Guardiola and his gang.
May he get rid of that cough. May he rediscover his energy and the joy and pride that football normally gives him. May he enjoy more time with his family and friends. May he be given complete and absolute freedom to take a year off or to start work at Chelsea, Manchester City or Inter, should he choose to.
But, above all, may we please see Senor Josep Guardiola back soon -- happy, healthy, strong, demanding and successful.
This is one of football's great men. Thank you from all our hearts; it has been one hell of a ride.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.