Prodigal son Pep proves extra special

THOSE who think Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona legacy is confined to the annals of history should think again.

Three years ago, Jose Mourinho was set to be ushered into the Nou Camp dugout to replace the outgoing Frank Rijkaard. Mourinho, the best coach in the world, looked a perfect fit to take over at the club where he cut his coaching teeth in the 1990s. The Special One was available, too, having been sacked by Chelsea the previous year.

But Cruyff, Barca president Joan Laporta’s unofficial advisor, knew of another, even more special one. Pep Guardiola.

The fans wanted Mourinho. The Barca board wanted Mourinho. Even the players probably wanted Mourinho. Why gamble on an untested novice like Guardiola? Because this was not just any novice. This was Pep.

The man who ran the midfield for Barca from the age of 20 and led them, as Cruyff’s foot soldier and later captain, to six league titles, the European Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup and two domestic cups.

The man who, as well as being Catalan, was openly proud about it. The man Cruyff wanted and Cruyff got.

It was a huge gamble. Guardiola was a rookie. His first foray into management was barely a season old, having taken the reins of Barca’s B side and led them – albeit not against the odds – to promotion.

But it was a calculated gamble, with little to lose in a way. Barca had gone stale under the brilliant Rijkaard, who had returned them to the top table of world football and brought tremendous glory to himself before his powers waned.

While Mourinho was the man to return Barca to winning ways, it would be at a premium. Could Barca justify sacrificing their footballing ethos? Could they appoint Mourinho, with his alleged brand of anti-football, yet still claim to be mez que un club?

Not on Cruyff’s watch.

And so it was, president Laporta turned to the prodigal son. Laporta bore the criticism when Guardiola lost his first game, away to Numancia, and drew his second.

Nine months later, with La Liga, the Copa del Rey and then the Champions League in the bag – the first treble in Spanish history – everybody forgot that they never wanted him, that only Cruyff, Laporta and a handful of Catalan diehards and Mourinho-haters had ever clamoured for Guardiola.

Fast-forward two years and Guardiola, still only 41, is bald, lined and gaunt, his appearance proving that it is not only struggling managers who feel the strain.

Indeed, life could not be better. That first season was impossible to live up to but in the subsequent two campaigns, the European Super Cup and Club World Cup were added and La Liga retained on both occasions. This season’s domestic success has been particularly enjoyable as Barca and Guardiola triumphed over Real Madrid, coached by Mourinho.

Now, attention turns to Wembley and the Champions League final on May 28. Almost two years to the day since the rookie Guardiola got one over Alex Ferguson in Rome as Barca won 2-0 in the 2009 Champions League final, they meet again.

Those who believe in omens will note with interest that Guardiola the player helped Barca win their first European Cup in 1992 at Wembley. The coach that night was his mentor and the man who anointed him in 2008, one Johan Cruyff.


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