x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Guardiola, Barca's hero and saviour

On May 7th, I watched Real Madrid humiliate Barcelona 4-1 in the Bernabéu.

On May 7th, I watched Real Madrid humiliate Barcelona 4-1 in the Bernabéu. Bernd Schuster's side played with the cocksure swagger of newly crowned champions after Barca suffered the ignominy of forming a guard of honour to welcome their hated rivals onto the pitch. As the goals flew in, I looked around to gauge the reaction of the travelling Barca fans in the 80,000 crowd. It was impossible, for only six had made the trip. Had one of the world's greatest football clubs been reduced to this? When Manchester United and Liverpool meet, both clubs always sell out of their 3,000 away ticket allocation. Ditto Celtic and Rangers, Ajax and Feyenoord, Lazio and Roma.

After the game, I was one of only a few journalists in the press room with Barca coach Frank Rijkaard. The Dutchman looked defeated. Journalists who intended to grill Rijkaard pitied this usually proud man. But, like his players, Rijkaard had no answers. Following his appointment in 2003, Rijkaard had built a monster of a team which unleashed its power to dazzle its foes. By a distance the best team in the world in 2006, Barca boasted a roster of world-class performers such as Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o. Success came quickly, but even this stellar Barca side eventually became bloated and tired as Rijkaard was unable to renew the hunger needed to sustain it. Individual egos grew and so did a divided dressing room. Results faltered and attendances slipped by 20,000. By the time of that Madrid defeat, the house that Rijkaard had built was burnt out.

Josep 'Pep' Guardiola was promoted from managing the 'B' team to first team. He'd never coached at the top level, but Guardiola had substantial credit among the cules (Barca fans). He was the most famous graduate of La Masia, literally 'farmhouse' in Catalan, the building which houses Barça's academy. Ask cules to name two former players who symbolise Barca and they will say Johann Cruyff and Guardiola. Cruyff symbolised Barça's internationalism and flair, Guardiola their home-grown, stoic Catalanism.

Given his debut by Cruyff in 1990, Guardiola played nearly 400 games, leading Barca to six league titles, one European Cup and two Spanish Cups. As elegant off the field as on it, Guardiola is adored in Catalonia. A sometime poet and model, it's difficult to overstate how highly regarded he is. His mantra was simple - that football should be played in a certain style. "Players have to think quickly and to play with intelligence, always knowing the next pass," he said. "This is the Barcelona way. It is how the public expects us to play."

Guardiola had difficult work to do. He told Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Deco that they were no longer in his plans. None wanted to leave. They loved the club and the city, but Guardiola believed they loved themselves more. Ronaldinho went to Milan, Deco to Chelsea. Nobody wanted to pay Eto'o's high wages so he stayed. His ego had been punctured by Guardiola and, determined to prove him wrong, Eto'o worked harder than ever. Alongside the mercurial Lionel Messi around whom Guardiola is building his current side, Eto'o has been Barça's best player so far this season - the Catalans have won ten of their 13 league games and head the table.

On Wednesday, I walked down Barcelona's glorious Passeig de Gracia. A huge crowd of cheering people had gathered outside a new store, taking pictures of the six men on a stage outside the store - Barca players Puyol, Iniesta, Xaxi, Marquez, Pique, Eto'o. The warmth shown by the onlookers would have been unimaginable during the summer. Guardiola changed all that. He wasn't there, smiling for photos. He'd earned his night off long ago.

@Email:amitten@thenational.ae