Reminiscing about Pep — A retrospective on Guardiola and his team, 60 years from today

Written by  //  April 28, 2012  //  Sport  //  6 Comments

The man is sitting with his back slightly hunched on the edge of a black easy chair in his home in the Nilgiris Hills in Southern India. His thin silvery grey hair sits like a crown on the top of his head; his knees have gone creaky and old; his skin is wrinkled and weary, and his eyesight has weakened considerably. But he still strains himself and looks at the projected screen through his large black-rimmed glasses. Sitting next to him on a cushy leather sofa is a young boy of 10: his grandson who visits him at his home every summer. Spritely and merry, the boy, dressed in a blue and red football top, with the name Anakolov, and the number 10 etched on its back, is equally transfixed by the wafer thin screen that is showcasing moving images clearer than anything else you can see a few feet in front of you. Behind them on a plain white wall hangs a large framed picture of a man with a shiny balding head, unruly stubble, and wearing an immaculate grey suit with a black V-neck sweater: a photograph of Pep Guardiola on the sidelines of the Camp Nou, gesticulating with his right hand to a player on the far end of the pitch.

It is May 2072 — Barcelona is playing Paris St. Germain in a hugely important league game. Some 20 years earlier the elite football clubs of Europe had broken away to form a rogue league, a commercial behemoth, the formation of which people had anticipated for decades. There are some clubs from outside the continent too in the league, and games are played across the globe, from Melbourne to Hong Kong, San Francisco to London, and Sao Paulo to Durban. Today’s game is at the Princeton Hall Stadium, a sparkling state-of-the-art arena in Tokyo that can seat close to 120,000 spectators. Barcelona, two points ahead of Bayern Munich — the German giants who have won the league three out of the last five years — in the competition can seal the trophy with a win today. PSG has nothing to lose or gain, it is fourteenth in the league and is comfortably clear of the relegation battlers — the poor teams that may have to return to their respective national leagues.

The young boy, a Barcelona fan since he started watching football — down to his grandfather’s allegiance to the club – has never seen his team win any honours. The old man hasn’t seen his beloved Blaugrana win in years either. He longs for the 2050s when the team lifted the last of its European trophies; he longs even more for the brief days when Josep Guardiola prowled the sidelines, the days of Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and Puyol. “Oh what a team that was,” he thinks to himself, reminiscing in his mind about the foundations of his fandom, as the Ukrainian referee blows the whistle to signal the beginning of the match.

The Barcelona eleven is made up of players from all over the world — two Spaniards, an Italian, a Russian, a Bulgarian, an American, two Brazilians, a Japanese, an Australian, an Egyptian and a Paraguayan. Twenty minutes into the game, and it’s still goalless. Not much of consequence has happened, except a video referral for a contentious tackle near the edge of the box that the referee had waved on. Replays show that Barcelona’s Japanese center back Haruki Kiyo had got none of the ball and had, in fact, cynically hacked down PSG’s Brazilian winger Falcao. The decision is reversed; PSG is awarded a freekick, and Kiyo receives a blue card (one that is these days accorded for violations that are not so bad as to be sent off for, but are nonetheless more severe than ordinary yellow card offenses). Falcao takes the free kick himself, and blasts it high, wide and handsome. The score remains unaffected.

“How times have changed. Back when I was growing up, we played so fluidly,” the man tells the boy, cursing the rigid 5-4-1 that Barcelona plays today — a return almost to the dreaded Catenaccio days of Italian football under Helenio Herrera some 100 years ago.

“At least we’ve been tight this year, not conceding silly goals like we did last year,” says the boy in reply. “And Anakolov is in such great form. I hope he scores today.”

Anakolov is 6-foot-3, is built like an ox, has two good feet (as they say in football) and can score goals of astonishing variety. He has almost singlehandedly carried Barcelona this season. But the old man yearns for the golden era; he yearns to watch for one last time Barcelona play in a nonpareil style, pinging it around with élan, tiki-taka football as the history books refer to it as.

“This is such anti-football. How can the same team that once under Pep played such a lovely game play like this?” the man asks the boy, who is beginning to get somewhat irritated with the story telling. In truth, at all times except during an actual game, he loves listening to his grandfather speak about the glory days, the days when Barcelona was the best team in the world, a team that redefined football, a team that invented a new style, a team that others could only look at with dreamy-eyed wonder.

Another few minutes pass by; Anakolov has a shot from distance that sails over the bar. PSG is now beginning to put Barcelona under pressure, with Falcao particularly rampant on the right wing.

“I still remember that goal against Sevilla or maybe it was Mallorca, in 2010,” says the old man. “I was your age at the time. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, Pedro were all involved. Oh boy, how glorious we were. We must have played some 15 one-touch passes, before Villa finished.”

“Players were moving diagonally, vacating constrained areas and taking up new spaces, they were constantly stretching the game,” continued the old man. “Possession was everything for Pep. We’d pummel teams into submission by passing the ball around. Simple, effective passes, and then suddenly a bit of genius from Xavi or Iniesta, which would crack open the opponent’s defense.”

The boy is now beginning to get a bit worried about his team’s chances. The PSG striker Marc Ventura has hit the woodwork once, and has gone close on two other occasions.

“We were never dominated like this in those days,” says the old man. “Pep wouldn’t have tolerated it. Whether we were playing Manchester United in the final of the Champions League or Real Madrid in El Clasico, we controlled the game. We played it on our own terms.”

“What do you mean we played it on our own terms,” the boy queries. “Was it like how Bayern play these days?”

“Oh no, the Germans aren’t a patch on that Barca team,” says the old man. “We would have 70 percent, sometimes 80 percent possession. Every time we gave the ball away, we’d press from the top, we’d hound teams into giving the ball back, and once we got it back, we kept it. Busquets would play neat and simple balls in midfield to Xavi, who was the chief conductor. Xavi would then spray it around if needed to Alves on the right wing, or maybe to Messi or Iniesta ahead of him. It was just such unbounded joy.”

“Why don’t we play like that these days,” the boy asks, even as Barcelona once again gives away possession easily in midfield.

“You would think it’s easy to replicate,” says the old man. “But we had a lot of things going on. We had a bunch of footballers that had grown up together in La Masia. There was a philosophy installed by the great Dutchman, Johan Cruyff.”

“We won 13 trophies in four years then, didn’t we,” says the boy, as he reaches out for a coke from the fridge at half time.

For the first time that evening, the old man smiles nice and wide, showcasing all his missing teeth.

“Yep. Thirteen in four years! Can you believe it,” he says. “I think it was all down to Pep. Yes we had great players, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, but he gave them the belief. He laid down the style. We were nothing without the ball, so he made sure we kept it, and we kept it well.”

“So was it then that you started supporting Barca,” the boy asks, even as they wait for the second half to start.

“Well, I was just starting to watch football then, all my friends were either Man United or Chelsea or Arsenal fans, they loved the English league. I did too. But once I saw Barca, I was hypnotized. Oh that 2011 Champions League final against United. We killed them. This was the final of the Champions League, but Pep had us playing with such fluidity. Messi, Pedro, Villa up front, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield, it was just gorgeous.”

“You keep talking about that Pedro goal,” says the boy, who has watched the goal himself many times, but isn’t old enough to appreciate the genius in Xavi’s play, yet. He’ll get there, the old man thinks to himself.

“The way Xavi delayed the pass there was just phenomenal. Messi made an initial run, but Xavi waited, Messi took the left back, Evra, I think it was, with him centrally, opening up space for Pedro, and Xavi immediately slipped him through. It was a simple ball, but it was ingenious. It was football of the highest quality.”

The referee blows the whistle; the second half gets underway and almost immediately PSG takes the lead. Their English center back Ryan Jones heads home Falcao’s bending free kick. The old man cusses and then apologizes. The young boy sighs and plants a kick into thin air. They had heard at half time that Bayern were leading 2-0 against Ajax Amsterdam, and if things stayed that way the Bavarians would retain the title.

The man and the boy watched on in anguish as PSG continued to mount wave after wave of attack. Their club was doomed, to another year of failure, to another year of sacrificing a rich tradition.

“I at least wish we didn’t lose playing such rubbish,” says the old man. “Even in Pep’s last important game as our manager, against Chelsea in the Champions League, we stayed true to our style. Chelsea was down to ten men, and we should have probably won. But it wasn’t for a want of trying. We still passed the ball around superbly, we still stretched the game, and we played like Barcelona should.”

Another few minutes elapse, and PSG doubles its lead. Falcao is again the tormenter, planting a cross virtually onto the feet of Ventura, who, this time, finds the net.

“I still remember our 5-0 win against Madrid, like it was yesterday,” says the old man, beginning to show nonchalance towards the ongoing game. “This was against Mourinho’s Madrid, not any team.”

“Yes, I read about it in that book on Barca,” says the young boy, referring to one of the strings of works that have been written about the period. “Xavi scored the first goal, didn’t he? Has there really been no one else like him?”

“Yes, he was special that boy,” says the man. “But Pep gave him the freedom. Under Rijkaard, Xavi was still treated as an anchor, sitting in front of the defence. Pep saw Xavi as the fulcrum. And when Iniesta, Xavi and Messi played together, it was poetry in motion. They’d zip the ball around with pace and precision, and they’d constantly flitter in and out of confined spaces.”

The doorbell rings, and the boy races to get it. Another old man, bald with a disheveled beard and wearing a tweed coat, walks in cane in hand.

“He’s still reminiscing about the old days, isn’t he,” he says to the boy.

“Let me tell you something. I was a Madrid fan, have always been. But what your grandfather tells you is true. That Barca team under Pep was special. Very special. There hasn’t been another team like that since.”

“I read about Di Stefano’s team and the Dutch total football teams,” says the boy. “They said those were very good too.”

“Well, those were before even our times. What I can vouch for is that I haven’t seen football of the calibre that Pep’s Barca produced being repeated, since,” the old man’s friend says.

PSG scores another. Eighty minutes have gone. The league is Bayern’s. The boy switches the television off. The three decide to take a walk.

“That Barcelona team came to define an epoch,” says the guest as the three walk out of the door. “When they beat us 5-0, all us Madridistas could do was to stand up and applaud.”

“We haven’t seen football like that again, and we probably never will.”

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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6 Comments on "Reminiscing about Pep — A retrospective on Guardiola and his team, 60 years from today"

  1. anon April 28, 2012 at 9:53 pm ·

    typo in reference to Helenio Herrera , should be 100 years ago

  2. Suhrith April 28, 2012 at 9:59 pm ·

    Thanks for that. It’s been corrected, accordingly.

  3. ganesh April 30, 2012 at 11:24 am ·

    feel emotional and moved by your article..well written..am also one of those unlucky barca fans..

  4. arzvi May 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm ·

    Great article man. Although I am not a Barca fanatic I love their matches, it was really a different football. That Pedro goal will never be forgotten. And 2010-11 Champions League vs Real Madrid – how they won the 2nd leg.
    Football will miss Pep. I hope he returns in bigger format like coaching SPAIN for world cup.
    Only negative is I felt he should’ve changed the attack when they were donw against Chelsea – played more attacking – trying out shots at goal rather than so many one-touch passes for one try, but its just me. I am sure Xavi, Iniesta, Messi triumvirate will miss him

  5. M May 2, 2012 at 5:32 am ·

    I am one of those illiterate crickets fans and know next to nothing about football but still strangely enough I found myself moved by your article and style of writing. Great idea and brilliant execution. This is exceptional writing, Suhrith.

  6. jogger February 12, 2015 at 10:29 am ·

    Fantastic blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed
    .. Any recommendations? Thanks a lot!

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