Those closest to Pep Guardiola know it as the “rule of 32 minutes”. It is the maximum period of time that Guardiola can be made to talk about something that is not football before he starts thinking about football again. “After 32 minutes,” his friend Manuel Estiarte once explained, “you can see his mind is already wandering. He starts staring at the ceiling. And although he’s nodding… he’s not looking at you.”
For those familiar with the methods of one of football’s most successful coaches, these are the tales that often come with an implicit seal of approval, a smile and a roll of the eyes; a tacit understanding that the obsession and the greatness are one and the same. Sport has always had a bad habit of conflating success with virtue, and for Guardiola’s many chroniclers over the years, these idiosyncratic traits are folded into a stirring tale of the gnomic son of a Catalan bricklayer who conquered football.
In most areas of life, obsession is depicted not as a virtue but as a flaw: something suspect, selfish, even dangerous. Working 16-hour days and sacrificing personal relationships in the pursuit of career success are behaviours we tend to discourage in others. Staring at the ceiling during dinner is quite rude. In sport, by contrast, whatever makes you win is always the right thing to do. Perhaps the only real difference between a feted genius and a brooding sociopath is 11 league titles and two Champions League trophies.
On 20 May, Guardiola’s Manchester City team won their third consecutive Premier League title – and their fifth in six years – after their closest challengers Arsenal lost 1-0 at Nottingham Forest. On 3 June City will play Manchester United in the FA Cup final at Wembley. Finally, a week later in Istanbul, City will begin as favourites to beat Inter Milan and claim their first Champions League title. Win those two games and City will win English football’s first treble of the 21st century, cementing them as one of the greatest sides in history.
But these are just the bare facts. Even on the cusp of City’s finest triumph, English football remains consumed by the debate over what any of it means. City’s success has been earned as much through the bottomless pockets of their Abu Dhabi owners as through the genius of Guardiola, a coach who – let’s just say – does not work for free. They are being investigated by the Premier League for 115 financial rule breaches dating back to 2009. Their football has been sumptuous: beautiful in places, spectacular in others, winning always. But when you have won through financial might, possibly to the extent that rules were broken (the club denies the charges), what does it mean to win?
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For Guardiola, a man of strong footballing principles who learned his trade under the masterful Johan Cruyff, these are loaded questions. Cruyff won plenty during a glittering career with Ajax, Barcelona and Feyenoord, but for him winning was never an end in itself. What mattered was expression, teamwork, improvement, the beauty of creation, the beauty of solving a problem. Some of Guardiola’s other coaching idols, such as Juanma Lillo or Marcelo Bielsa, won almost nothing. And Guardiola argued in a similar vein whenever he got the opportunity. “People always talk about how many prizes, how many titles,” he once said of Cruyff’s legacy. “That, I think, is a huge mistake. You have to look at their influence.”
There can be no quibbles about Guardiola’s influence. Mikel Arteta, Vincent Kompany and Xavi – all former protégés – are now among the most sought-after coaches in the game. Meanwhile, the proliferation of Sunday League goalkeepers inexpertly trying to play the ball out from the back is irrefutable evidence of Guardiola’s impact. But these days when he talks about his own legacy, he is more likely to refer to the titles he has won. “My legacy is already exceptional,” he said recently when asked if he needed to win another Champions League. “We won lots of things and won very well, and people should remember that.”
Guardiola’s last Champions League win came in 2011 with Barcelona, a team built around the genius of Lionel Messi. Over the years, successive failures in that competition have come to define his work. His City teams have become increasingly pragmatic: still attacking and possession-based, but also more physical and cynical, less overtly ideological and less easy to love. The final puzzle piece came last summer with the signing of the giant Norwegian striker Erling Haaland: in many ways the anti-Messi, a pure scoring machine, a towering goal-orc whose sole function is to thud the ball in from as short a distance as possible.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Guardiola came to measure himself in silverware. This is the part of obsession we rarely talk about: what gets sacrificed to achieve it. One by one the traits that made Guardiola as universally loved as Cruyff are evaporating: the idealism, the beauty, the idea that excellence can trump finance, the purity of success won fairly. Against this, perhaps all that remains is the accumulation: one more league title, one more Champions League, one more record. This is, after all, the nature of the obsessive: ultimately, it all comes back to yourself.
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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up