Adios to a genius: Pep Guardiola has earned his break from one of football's most demanding jobs

The Catalan coach has decided to leave Barcelona after four unforgettable years in charge, and pays tribute to his achievements at Camp Nou
By Mark Doyle

On Friday morning, Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola gathered his players together and confirmed their worst fears: he will be leaving Camp Nou at the end of the season. There was devastation but little sense of shock. In the end, his decision had come as no surprise.

The 41-year-old is the most successful coach in the club’s history, having accumulated a staggering 13 titles since succeeding Frank Rijkaard at the helm in the summer of 2008. He is treasured by the outfit he represented with such distinction as a player for 11 years: Blaugrana president Sandro Rosell is said to have offered him a blank cheque in order to extend his contract, while even centre-half Gerard Pique, who has been in and out of the team of late, claimed earlier this week that he would be willing to “put his hand in the fire” if it meant Guardiola would stay.

However, in recent months it has been obvious to all observers – of which there are so many - that the strain of one of the most demanding jobs in world football had become too much for the humble Santpedor native.

Guardiola recently revealed that he has no fond memories of his clashes with Real Madrid, even though up until last weekend the Blaugrana had lost just one Clasico under his leadership, last year’s Copa del Rey final. It was essentially an admission that, in his experience, victory over Madrid provides not joy but relief - and even then, only ephemerally. There is always another Clasico looming large on the horizon, now more so than ever in light of the pair’s Old Firm-like dominance of the Spanish scene.







La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League

La Liga, Club World Cup, Supercopa, Uefa Super Cup

La Liga, Champions League, Supercopa

Club World Cup, Supercopa Uefa Super Cup
Following Saturday night’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of Los Blancos - a result which all but ended Barca’s three-year reign as champions of La Liga - Pep swore while defending his decision to include 20-year-old attacker Cristian Tello in his starting lineup.

On only one previous occasion had the mild-mannered Guardiola lost his cool in such a manner, the former midfielder lashing out with expletives at Madrid counterpart Jose Mourinho in response to a characteristically absurd personal attack from the Portuguese ahead of the first leg of last season’s Champions League semi-final between the two sides.

In that instance, Guardiola did not allow Mourinho’s provocation to distract him from the task at hand, and Barca went on to claim their second Champions League title in three seasons, eliminating their rivals 3-1 on aggregate before sweeping Manchester United aside by the same scoreline over 90 minutes in the tournament decider at Wembley.

However, this season Guardiola and his side’s sense of control has slowly begun to unravel. There are those who will claim that Mourinho has finally broken both Barcelona and their boss, and the former Inter coach’s arrival in the Spanish capital has undoubtedly increased the strain on Guardiola and his charges. However, managing to maintain such a sustained level of excellence has been the greater contributing factor. In recent weeks, Barca’s players have looked as mentally and physically exhausted as their coach, who is no longer the fresh-faced 36-year-old who returned to Camp Nou as B team boss in 2007.

There has also been the emotional turmoil of having seen both Eric Abidal and Tito Vilanova forced to battle life-threatening illnesses over the past year. It is no wonder, then, that Guardiola is now seeking a sabbatical. A break is the least he deserves.

Guardiola closes door on trophy-laden era at Barcelona
However, he also deserves our respect and our admiration. Even those who have derived a baffling satisfaction out of Barca’s European elimination at the hands of a painfully limited Chelsea side should laud a man who had become a virtual stranger to defeat for three years and yet greeted it so graciously when they were reintroduced this past week.

"Sometimes you smile, and sometimes you lose,” Guardiola mused after his side had suffered an agonising aggregate defeat to Chelsea on Tuesday evening. “This is part of the sport. You cannot win every time."

And while many have attacked Guardiola for making Barcelona too one-dimensional, failing to successfully develop a ‘Plan B’, surely he must be lauded for making ‘Plan A’ as entertaining as it was effective?

No matter where one stands on the debate of whether the Blaugrana deserve to be regarded as the finest side of all time, that it is now a legitimate topic for discussion is testament to Guardiola’s talents as a coach. Admittedly, Guardiola has been blessed with a crop of players schooled in the art of keeping hold of the ball from their formative years, but managing to win titles with a possession-orientated game is difficult in the extreme, as Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger knows only too well.

 Tito takes over | Barca have handed the top job to Tito Vilanova, Pep's assistant

Barca have acted swiftly to appoint Pep's replacement, his assistant Vilanova stepping into the dugout from next season. The intention is that the legacy, born under Johan Cruyff and which bore fruit under Guardiola, can be extended under the ambitious 42-year-old.

Guardiola’s imminent departure may have been preceded by two crushing defeats, against Madrid and Chelsea, but with a Copa del Rey final to come against Athletic Bilbao there is still a very real possibility that the former Spain international will go out on the high his contribution to the game over the past four seasons warrants.

Even if Barcelona do not prevail at the Vicente Calderon next month, the game will most likely be a fitting tribute to Guardiola’s footballing philosophy. Friend and mentor, Marcelo Bielsa, recently said of the Catalan and his side: “Even if the best team doesn't always win, you still have to try to be the best."

That is all Guardiola has ever tried to do. And he should be commended for it. Here’s hoping he’s not gone too long, because the beautiful game needs him.