When English-based Spanish journalist and broadcaster, Guillem Balague, started to work on a biography of Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola, he must have hoped to dig deep into the psyche of a football genius; but what he didn’t expect was to find such a tortured soul so close to the surface.
Guardiola’s public image is of a man who is very much in control — a man who knows what he wants and has the ability to instil calm in those around him.
Juxtaposed with his nemesis, Jose Mourinho, of course, it isn’t difficult to look that way. But nevertheless something about that immaculate grey suit that suggests you are dealing with a coach whose real emotions are not only hidden from public view but probably filed away, in alphabetical order, for future reference.
The truth, as it turns out, is very different. Because what Balague discovered as he was drawn closer and closer into Guardiola’s inner circle was that the man who is now top of the wanted list of virtually every ambitious club in Europe, and studied by managerial wannabes across the globe, is so driven by the pursuit of football perfection and so tortured by his inability to switch off the brain that brought tika-taka to the world that, at times, his genius is as much a curse as a blessing.
“You don’t know what he’s like until you start scratching,” admitted Balague when asked to describe the character behind the man who brought Barcelona unimaginable success during five years in charge at the Nou Camp.
“You see a guy with an aura; one of the big personalities in football. Someone who understands football; who takes decisions in a game that are intuitive because he has football in his head. But you don’t realise how obsessive he is, how demanding he is. And I mean obsessive to the point of illness.”
There are many examples of Guardiola’s obsessive behaviour in Balague’s biography; long nights spent alone at the club watching videos of opponents that other staff have already analysed; but at the same time secretly tortured by guilt that he should be home with his family.
Inevitably that kind of behaviour didn’t begin the moment Guardiola was appointed coach of Barcelona’s B team in 2007; or even the day he was chosen — ahead of Jose Mourinho — to take over the first team in 2008.
In fact Balague, who broadcasts for Sky Sports and Cadena Ser radio as well as writing for Spanish newspaper AS, quotes former Spain manager Jose Antonio Camacho remembering him as a player and saying: “I saw Guardiola as a mystical type. The way he was dressed — always in black — he was sometimes very quiet, constantly analysing things, thinking things over: why we won, why we lost, why he’d lost the ball. Sometimes his obsessiveness was excessive.”
Even former Barca teammate Laurent Blanc once admitted ‘he made my head spin’ in reference to Guardiola’s constant analysis of tactics in the dressing room before and after matches. So perhaps it is no surprise to find the coach who guided the club to two Champions League victories is not a man to stand still.
“He works too hard,” said Balague. “The players at Barcelona wonder when he lost the balance between professional and private life, because it happened very quickly. That’s his personality, he has to do that; but at the same time it excruciates him, it makes him unhappy. He lives that drama every day; and because of those extremes being so close to each other, he has ups and downs in moods.
“During the Clasicos, he thinks of retiring saying ‘I cannot handle this, this is not life, I don’t need this’. But then the next day it’s: ‘I’ve got it, I know how to beat Real Madrid’.
“So he’s a man of up and downs; and I don’t think the public see that. For them they see a passionate guy, yes, but a man who is cool and calm.
“That’s what surprised me. You just scratch the surface and you think ‘How does a man who suffers like this stay so calm when faced with Jose Mourinho and big finals; how does he have the clarity to make changes 10 minutes into a Champions League Final that change the game?’ which he did. It’s like has two personalities; the real one and the football one.”
What is unusual, perhaps, is that a man with such a complicated character and who has taken such great trouble to keep his public persona separate from the internal machinations that drive his working life, was willing to speak so freely, so openly to a journalist wanting to tell the world about his reality.
“I’m not sure what the motivation was,” admitted Balague. “As a manager, you make a hundred decisions a day and they are taken in a split second. So maybe it was just a case of I went to him and asked — and he said ‘I know you, I trust you, go ahead’. That’s it.
“He has a right-hand man called Manuel Estiarte who was the Maradona of water polo — and he just said ‘deal with Manuel for everything you need’. From then on, I spoke to everybody. I first met Pep when he was a player and it was much easier in those days. I think I had been working with Sky already for two or three years so there was a chance to have conversations.
“But when he took charge of the B team, he started closing doors. I think Marcelo Bielsa had told him that if he was going to be a manager he should treat the smallest newspaper and the biggest television company the same way; they have the same right to work and the same right to his words. So he took the decision, like Bielsa does, not to give one-on-one interviews.
“But even so, we met off the record a few times; and from there, the confidence grew. I wouldn’t call myself his friend but it meant that when the biography was suggested I could say to him ‘I want to do this, but I won’t do it unless you will talk to me’.
“So we came to an agreement that it wouldn’t be an autobiography, it wouldn’t be an authorised biography but it would be my vision of him and he would help me. And God he did help me!
“At the time the players weren’t giving interviews but I had the changing room doors opened to me for the whole season.”
That kind of access is almost unthinkable in England where Balague has been based for the last 20 years since arriving in Liverpool to study; but there is a different culture in Spain and in some ways he has been able to transfer it across the water.
“I came to Liverpool to learn English and I realised there were hardly any Spanish correspondents here, so I started to work my way in,” said Balague.
“Now I’ve been here so long that suddenly kids who are famous in Spain but not so famous here come over to play football and treat you as someone who knows the way.
“The kind of journalism I do is not a threat; we just talk. I’m another emigrant trying to earn a living. It’s one emigrant talking to another. I have been here so long I feel half English but even so you still feel away from home — so imagine what’s it’s like for young players arriving for six months or a year. You try to help them and of course they come with a background of a relationship with the press that is different. In Spain there is more talk, more exchanging of numbers, more going for meals together; and I try to continue that here.”
Balague’s big break came when he invited himself to Sky’s television studios just as they were searching for an English-speaking Spaniard to help with coverage of La Liga; but he also remembers the early days when things were not so easy.
“Young kids are always asking me how you get on TV; they want to be famous and they want to know what to do.
“I tell them I distributed bread at 4 in the morning at university, I worked in a pub in Liverpool, I worked hard. But that’s not what they want to hear. In the end I smelt an opportunity at Sky and took it; but before that I was living off stories about Prince Charles and Diana and Camilla and sending them back to Spain!
“I remember I interviewed Sinead O’Connor when I didn’t speak a word of English. We did it over two phones — my friend was taking notes off one phone and I had learned phonetically how to ask the questions. But it wasn’t good because Sinead wanted to talk and I didn’t understand what she was saying so would just ask the next question! You have to go through things like that to get where you want to be.”
Arriving back home in Barcelona with behind-the-scenes access to the biggest club in football some 20 years later was to provide its own complications, however; not least because Balague had been in regular contact with Jose Mourinho in the previous few seasons — not a relationship that would be likely to endear him to anyone inside the Nou Camp.
“I’m an Espanyol fan, a Mourinho ‘friend’ at a time when Mourinho was the devil in Barcelona; and I was thinking ‘this is going to go bad at some stage’,” he admitted.
“I was talking with Xavi once and Manuel came in and said to him, half-jokingly: ‘Careful with him, you know he’s a Mourinho friend’. That was tough! I was inside the changing room and you could see Xavi step back and then think ‘no, but this is Balague, I know you’. Pep must have gone through the same thing because he knew I was in touch with Jose. And by the way I don’t know what Jose thinks about me doing the biography — he may never talk to me again!
“In the end I had to talk to Manuel and say: ’if you say that to people at this time — this was in the middle of the four Clasicos — it’s an insult and you are closing doors for me’. It was a moment of tension; but fortunately at the end of it, the doors were still open and I did get to know Pep better.” That was always part of the challenge for Balague, because in Barcelona, Guardiola is more than a man; he symbolises so much for the club, for its fans and for Catalonia, that his achievements and persona stand on their own merit without any need for any interruption from reality.
“I wanted to write a portrait of a man. If you read about him in Catalonia, he’s a Superman; but the reality is different. He cries in public, he tells the world he is tired — Superman wouldn’t do that.
“I certainly got to know a side of him I didn’t know about before; the drama in his head, how his head goes at 120 miles an hour constantly, how he thinks too much about things. It’s as much a curse as it is a blessing.
“That’s what makes me laugh when I read a story that says Pep has said he is going to Chelsea. Yes, at 10 he is going to Chelsea, at 11 to Man City, at 1pm he has spoken to Raul and is going to Bayern Munich because Raul tells him how wonderful Germany is. That’s the kind of head he has. It never stops.
“But on the field he is a genius. He didn’t just get it right at Barcelona; he took them to a new level. He changed football.
“And he will be back somewhere because he cannot leave football alone. I heard that just a month after leaving Barca he was asking a friend if he should start work again — the brain had already started ticking over.
“I remember interviewing him at the training ground early on and his son was sitting in the corner of the dressing room reading a comic. I felt terrible because I was taking time away from them being together.
“But others told me it was normal. The only way he got to see his children was to bring them with him – because he was virtually living at the training ground at that stage. The obsession tortures him; but there’s no doubt at all that he’ll be back next summer somewhere. He won’t be able to leave it alone.”
That, at least, is good news for fans of the beautiful game because discovering whether Guardiola’s methods can be successful outside of Barcelona will be the most important football experiment of 2013, wherever he may end up. And knowing there is a real complicated, fallible and above all human character beneath the polished veneer could make the journey all the more fascinating.
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