With a Catalan flag draped around his shoulders, Pep Guardiola celebrated yet another victory with the Camp Nou crowd, relishing their support and warm embrace. Under the guidance of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, the Blaugrana had just secured their fourth successive La Liga title and were mere days away from contesting their fourth ever European Cup final against AC Milan. For now, and for as long as he could remember, Guardiola couldn’t envisage playing anywhere else – after all, Pep was not just a footballer, he was also a Culé and nothing in the world could change that.
Even after a humbling 4-0 defeat in the final against Fabio Capello’s Milan, Pep remained loyal. Not only to the club, but also to manager Johan Cruyff and his ideals.
That defeat however, proved to be the beginning of the end for Cruyff; two seasons of mediocrity followed and the "Dream Team" was no more. Andoni Zubizarreta was long gone; a scapegoat if you will of that awful night in Athens – while the likes of Ronald Koeman, Romario and Hristo Stoichkov departed a season later as Barça slipped outside of the top three. Even if the subsequent season showed signs of improvement, it was ultimately not enough and Cruyff left the club following a public falling-out with Barcelona president Josep Lluís Nuñez.
Yet, in the midst of all this chaos and uncertainty, there remained one constant at FC Barcelona – and that constant was Pep Guardiola. Hand-picked by Louis van Gaal to be the leader of a new, hopefully more successful, era for the club, Pep remained at the Camp Nou for another four seasons before finally calling an end to his time at the club in 2001.
Although unlike Koeman, Romario and Stoichkov before him, Guardiola was not motivated by the allure of a greater pay-check; instead he chose to move out of principle, arguing that football no longer needed, or at least was no longer suited, to a technical midfielder such as himself.
Time would inevitably prove Guardiola wrong, perhaps prompting his early move into coaching where he could rejoin his boyhood club and breathe new life into a philosophy on the decline. His emphasis on passing, movement and pressure were the cornerstones for a new, improved Barça; one that would conquer all before them. And before long, Guardiola once again became synonymous with the club.
Sharply-dressed, eloquent and with a tremendous eye for detail; Guardiola was the face of Barcelona’s success just as much as Lionel Messi was and it seemed as though his reign could last ad infinitum. To imagine Barcelona without Pep Guardiola was unthinkable, until one rocky season paved the way for change.
Having lost the La Liga title to Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, and having crashed out of the UEFA Champions League against Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea, Pep Guardiola decided to call it a day citing fatigue as the main reason behind his decision to leave the club. But in truth, the apparent decline of "tiki-taka" may have played just as a prominent role in his departure, echoing his 2001 exit from the club.
On the other hand, recent quotes seem to suggest that politics also influenced Pep to take a sabbatical, mirroring the scenario that played out some 17 years ago between Cruyff and Nuñez. Just as Cruyff’s dismissal prompted an all-out offensive on the incumbent Barça president, one might argue that Pep is trying to replicate, or at least influence, an "attack" on Sandro Rosell; an "attack" that in all likelihood will once again be led by the charismatic Joan Laporta.
Anticipating that a war of words would be detrimental to Barcelona’s upcoming campaign, Rosell moved swiftly in an attempt to ease the pressure, both on himself and the club. Speaking in an interview with award-winning journalist, Josep Cuní, Rosell protested his innocence over claims that he used Tito Vilanova’s illness to defame Guardiola, reaffirmed (albeit in a likely jab at Laporta) that "we [Barça] do not do politics" and confessed his "surprise" at Guardiola’s outburst.
Yet, behind closed doors, one may wonder whether Rosell is really "surprised"; for this is not the same Pep Guardiola that we all knew and loved at Barcelona.
The trademark suit had been left at home, while his previous loyalty to Barcelona and to Catalunya was temporarily forgotten as Guardiola – with a Bayern Munich crest somewhat symbolically emblazoned on the heart of his shirt – slammed the club he once called his home.
Make no mistake; this was a calculated, pre-meditated answer to a planted question, and the overall purpose was clear: Guardiola had to take this deliberate step to distance himself from his past and in turn, consciously show commitment to his own future at Bayern.
And grateful as well all may be to Guardiola for the success he has given us, it’s about time we did the same.