During Pep Guardiola’s glorious tenure as Barça manager, the image that comes to mind is the Catalan locked in congress with his assistant Tito Vilanova.
Guardiola on the sideline at the Camp Nou, Vilanova there in his ear advising, giving opinions; Guardiola resting his arm on Vilanova’s shoulder during training; sitting beside each other on a plane cradling the European Cup. The pair were inseparable.
They’d known each other since they were boys in the 1980s boarding at La Masia, Barça’s famous football academy. When Guardiola got a job coaching Barça’s reserve team in 2007, Vilanova was the first person he summoned. Together, they dominated football, helping Messi, Xavi, Iniesta & Co to win 14 trophies in four seasons.
Then came the rupture. When Guardiola stepped aside as head coach in 2012, citing burnout, he was annoyed when Vilanova was selected to replace him. He felt betrayed. There was a public falling out, which Vilanova made evident during his first press conference as head coach.
Midway through the season – en route to winning La Liga with a record tally of 100 points – Vilanova fell ill with cancer. He travelled to New York for treatment. Guardiola – who was spending the year in the city on sabbatical – visited him once in hospital.
During the visit, there were more reproaches than words of comfort, which enraged Vilanova’s wife. A few days later, she met Guardiola in Central Park where a blazing row ensued.
Vilanova died the following year, at the end of April 2014. By this stage, Guardiola was coaching Bayern Munich.
He was preparing for the return leg of Bayern Munich’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. He decided to fly from Munich to Barcelona for the funeral.
According to El Mundo newspaper, Guardiola tipped off the press that he was coming home to Barcelona for the funeral. Reporters gathered at the city’s El Prat corporate terminal, where passengers from private planes disembark, to film his arrival. Vilanova’s widow phoned Guardiola and warned him not to come to the wake. Guardiola obeyed her orders.
Guardiola has always been a divisive figure, even in Catalonia, his homeplace, where he is revered by some – as a former Barça captain and later as a coach of possibly the greatest football team in history – and vilified by others within his own house. Sandro Rosell, the president of Barça when Guardiola quit as coach in 2012, called him the “Dalai Lama” behind his back because of Guardiola’s intense, joyless personality.
When the latest push for Catalan independence started gathering momentum in September 2012, with a downtown rally attended by 1.5 million people in the city of Barcelona, Guardiola was the most prominent well-known personality to support the demonstration, posting a video message from his exile in New York.
His support has been consistent during flashpoints over the last decade, activism which has put him in the firing line. He has been criticised for the inconsistent logic behind some of his political statements.
In 2018, for example, Guardiola was fined £20,000 by England’s Football Association for wearing a yellow ribbon in solidarity with imprisoned Catalan separatists, in breach of the FA’s regulations about displaying political symbols.
When quizzed in a press conference about his double standards – i.e. showing solidarity with Catalan political prisoners while working for Manchester City, a football club backed by Abu Dhabi, a country that has cracked down severely on political opponents since the Arab Spring in 2011 – Guardiola argued that freedom of speech is somehow more valid in democratic Spain than in an autocratic country like Abu Dhabi, saying: “Every country decides the way they want to live for themselves. If he decides to live in that country, it is what it is. I am [from] a country with democracy installed since years ago, and [I] try to protect that situation.”
In 2019, Guardiola criticised “Spain’s drift towards authoritarianism” in a video message when lengthy prison sentences were handed down to nine separatist leaders for their role in organising an “illegal” referendum on Catalan independence two years earlier.
His comment drew the ire of politicians in Spain, including Inés Arrimadas, leader of Ciudadanas, a liberal political party in Spain. As a schoolgirl, Arrimadas had photos of Guardiola on the cover of her school folder. She admired him as a player and coach, but felt compelled on social media to condemn his “lies as a ‘politician’,” adding Guardiola was “very brave slandering Spain but not a word about Qatar, where he makes money,” alluding to his paid role as an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Controversy has stalked Guardiola’s career in football. After quitting Barça as a player in 2001, he played two seasons in Serie A with Brescia and Roma. In Italy, he twice tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.
During prosecution in a civil case, Guardiola used a defence of contamination, which was not accepted. In a criminal case in 2005, he claimed he had a medical condition, Gilbert syndrome, that caused the anomalous result, which was rejected too.
He received a four-month ban from the game, a suspended seven-month prison sentence and incurred fines of €59,000. However, his sentences were reversed on a technicality in an appeals court in 2007. It was a decision that Italy’s anti-doping authorities disagreed with. In 2009, Guardiola was cleared a second time.
Does he now have his hand on the tiller of a pirate ship? His club is in the dock for financial doping. Last February, the English Premier League announced it was investigating Manchester City for 115 breaches of its financial fair play regulations during the period 2009-2018, alleging it inflated sponsorship deals and hid payments to players, coaches and agents.
According to confidential club calculations, the club’s owner Sheikh Mansour supplemented revenues by £1.1 billion during one four-year period alone.
Documents from Football Leaks, which triggered the investigation, suggest that one of Guardiola’s predecessors, Roberto Mancini, was paid twice, once under the table, while head coach.
When Guardiola was asked in a press conference if he had a similar arrangement with the club, he was outraged but sidestepped the question. When an Associated Press journalist sent a follow-up text to City, the club didn’t respond.
Guardiola is an enigmatic figure. He doesn’t eat on the day of football matches – not until the game is over, so on a night like Saturday’s Champions League final he won’t sit down to eat until after midnight – which might partly explain his skinny frame.
In Catalonia, the press celebrate his successes as Barcelona’s successes, citing City’s possession-based style of play, which is inspired by the Barça school, and the brains trust surrounding him, which includes several ex-Barça executives like City’s CEO Ferran Soriano and the club’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain.
There is no disputing that Guardiola’s genius is the motor of this exhilarating City team, notwithstanding the freakish goalscoring ability of Erling Haaland.
Defeating Inter to claim his third Champions League trophy as a coach, 12 years after his last triumph, will lay to rest a ghost that has been haunting Guardiola. He is an original, an innovative thinker who has left an indelible mark on the game this century, but his story has many unexplained mysteries.