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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

The man from Numancia: Meet the midfielder who almost ended Guardiola's Barcelona career before it had started

On August 31, 2008 Guardiola took charge of his first match in senior management as Barcelona traveled to promoted Numancia. Mario Martinez Rubio, a local lad playing only because of injuries, scored the goal that would have the Catalan press wondering if Barca had appointed the wrong man. How wrong they were

Mario Martinez Rubio, left, scored the only goal in a victory over Barcelona on the opening day of the 2008/09 La Liga season that marked Pep Guardiola's first match in charge of Barcelona. AP Photo
Mario Martinez Rubio, left, scored the only goal in a victory over Barcelona on the opening day of the 2008/09 La Liga season that marked Pep Guardiola's first match in charge of Barcelona. AP Photo

August 31 marks 10 years since Pep Guardiola first took charge of a top-flight team in a league game. Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona were a troubled club in 2008 and had finished the previous season with their players forming a guard of honour at the Bernabeu for Real Madrid to enter the pitch as champions – before hammering the Catalans 4-1.

Things would get worse for Barca when they were defeated in their opening match under Rijkaard’s replacement, Guardiola. They then drew their second game, prompting calls that the wrong man had been appointed.

The Catalans had invited the more experienced Jose Mourinho to be interviewed for the manager's position months earlier, but club president Joan Laporta insisted on the appointment of the 37-year-old former player Guardiola, who had spent the previous season managing Barcelona B in the regional fourth division, traversing Catalonia with his assistant Tito Vilanova and a team of 18 and 19 year olds including Sergio Busquets. Barca B won their league, before Guardiola was offered the top job, where he quickly revitalised the team in pre-season and had his players feeling better than they had for two years.

His managerial debut against Numancia saw Barca travel to Soria, the second smallest, second coldest and second highest of Spain’s 50 provincial capitals. Numancia, a yo-yo team in the early 2000s, had won the second division the previous season, but few Spaniards could place the city between Madrid and Zaragoza on a map.

“People in Soria were happy all summer,” explains midfielder Mario Martinez Rubio. “It’s a small city where everyone knows practically everyone else.

“We were looking forward to playing in the premier division and were waiting for the fixtures to come out and there was another celebration when our first game was Barcelona at home. We felt that we had little to lose and a lot to enjoy. We were looking forward to people talking about Numancia outside of Soria.”

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The 8,200 tickets for La Liga’s smallest stadium with a capacity less than one tenth of Camp Nou’s 99,000 sold out. Soria’s entire 39,000 population would fit twice into Camp Nou.

Mario would have been on the terraces had he not been playing.

“I was a lifelong fan who’d always gone to games and stood behind the goal and banged a drum to help defend the colours of my team and my city. My father had played for Numancia, too.

“Against Barcelona, my friends were behind the goal – I was playing in central midfield. It was a hard game to play in because Barcelona controlled everything and our goalkeeper was busy.”

Numancia’s annual budget was €4.5 million, Barca’s €380 million (Dh19m to more than Dh1.6 billion). Barca had signed Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and promoted Busquets to the first team. Despite promotion, Numancia didn’t spend a penny on new players. Mario was the lowest paid player in the whole league and still living at home with his parents.

On the sideline, Guardiola, wearing a cardigan, was animated and angry as he tried to encourage his players. He hit Dani Alves on the back of his neck and the Brazilian looked surprised. Guardiola had not told them that they would win the league, but to treat every game as a cup final. After 12 minutes, he was a goal down in his first "cup final" as a manager.

“The ball came from the left. I was unmarked, stopped the ball and struck it straight away across Victor Valdes and into the goal,” recalls Mario, now 33.

Barcelona's Bojan Krkic, left, reacts after missing a chance against newly-promoted Numancia. AP Photo
Barcelona's Bojan Krkic, left, reacts after missing a chance against newly-promoted Numancia. AP Photo

“At half time I asked [Andres] Iniesta if we could change shirts at the end of the game. Iniesta was an idol of mine and he said he’d be happy to … but that they had a lot of work to do first. We did swap shirts and it hangs in my house. This is the shirt of the man who won the World Cup for Spain.”

Barca had 26 shots to Numancia’s three, yet almost all their attacks came down the middle. Numancia’s ball boys appeared in no rush to retrieve the ball and the referee resorted to sending them off. Barca couldn’t equalise.

"We had a party right there in the dressing room,” smiles Mario. “Nobody expected the win, not even us.”

Numancia’s Croation manager Sergio Kresic, who had been congratulated by Guardiola at the final whistle, said: “Barcelona had more chances and we had more luck."

“We never attacked properly,” was Guardiola’s verdict. “There’s no excuse.”

El Pais commented that while Barcelona’s players had stopped drinking and smoking, they still had bad habits. The Catalan paper Sport said: “We’ve seen it all before”.

“We weren’t in a good mood in the dressing room,” recalled Iniesta of that night at Los Pajaritos. “But Pep appeared straight away to control everything, to help us accept the result.” Other players felt that their manager was nervous beneath his calm exterior.

Guardiola told his players that night that “we shouldn’t lose sight of the target.” That target was to reach a way of playing demanded by him. If they stuck to those principles, titles would follow.

At least Barca had a relatively easy game at home the following match against Racing Santander, though Racing had finished sixth the previous season. There was a two-week gap to the match because of an international break, two weeks with little pro-Guardiola sentiment in the Catalan media.

When his players returned, Guardiola worked hard in training, telling his players in detail what they had done wrong in Numancia, without ever pointing the finger at any individual. Barca were held to a 1-1 draw against Racing.

Pep Guardiola was 'animated and angry' as he watched his Barcelona team from the sidelines in his first game in charge against Numancia. AP Photo
Pep Guardiola was 'animated and angry' as he watched his Barcelona team from the sidelines in his first game in charge against Numancia. AP Photo

“He called a meeting in the dressing room,” explained Eric Abidal, now sporting director at Barca. "Guardiola said: ‘Look guys, we worked hard in the pre-season but you have to believe in my plan if you want to win La Liga and the Champions League.’ After that, the team played like the coach wanted. At first, he’d faced egos and resistance to change. Players wanted to play how they wanted, but after that meeting everything changed.”

The media were divided and pointed out that Barca would be bottom if they didn’t beat Sporting Gijon, yet Johan Cruyff wrote that the team against Racing was the best Barca side he had seen in years.

“We won our next game away at Sporting 6-1,” Abidal said. “Guardiola worked so hard. Every day, from eight in the morning until eight at night, he was in the training centre watching young teams. He was making new tactics, always planning the little details. This was one reason why he was so successful.”

Barca won their next nine league games after the draw with Racing and 19 of their next 20 league matches. Guardiola’s side put six past Sporting, Atletico Madrid and Real Valladolid, five past Almeria and Deportivo La Coruna. Real Madrid were defeated and Numancia were beaten 4-1 at Camp Nou in the return game.

“I watched that at home because I was injured, recalled Mario. “And I watched as Barca won the treble.”

Barcelona scored 105 goals in 38 league games and won the title by nine points. Numancia had contrasting fortunes. They finished 19th and went back down, and are yet to return.

Iniesta scored a dramatic goal at Stamford Bridge that saw the Catalans through to the Uefa Champions League final, where they beat Manchester United 2-0 to add to a domestic league-and-cup double.

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Mario never scored another goal for his side and left Numancia in 2011. He went on to play professional football in eight countries, including Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Cyprus and Puerto Rico.

“I’ve seen the world because of football. Greece was my favourite and that’s where I met my partner, while I was in Puerto Rico last year when the Grade 5 hurricane struck.”

Hurricane Maria killed 3,000 people. “There was a total blackout, no telecommunications and of course the football league was stopped. It was a very difficult for Puerto Rico, but I felt a closeness and admiration for the people and they will always have a place in my heart.”

A decade after his winner against Barca, the central midfielder is looking for a club for this season having played in the Polish second tier until June.

“That goal 10 years ago was the greatest moment of my career,” he says. “My career may have been very different from Guardiola’s, but he’s a great coach who deserves his successes. I’ve felt fortunate to be paid to play football around the world and to score the winning goal for my hometown against the team that would win the treble. People still come up to me in the street to talk about it.”

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