Pep Guardiola: 11 seasons as a manager, bagging a combined total of 8 league titles in Spain, Germany and England. 48 years old.
The other day I read it’s ten years since Michael Jackson died and I said to myself that it couldn’t be. Time flies. But I’m doing well, my family are fine, I’m healthy and very happy. The nicest thing those numbers tell us is that many people have come together to win the way we wanted to. And, needless to say, we could have never guessed what was coming next. But I’ll say this: I wouldn’t have accepted Chairman Laporta’s offer if I’d been doubtful about our chances.
Why didn’t you harbour any doubts?
Probably because I was young and so I didn’t know any better. I was 37 the year Tito [Vilanova] and I managed [Barça’s B team] in Spain’s Third Division and we persuaded ourselves that if we could pull it off on narrow pitches and we could get players who weren’t as good as the A squad to play well, surely we could manage the same thing in broader spaces and on better quality pitches, couldn’t we?
What stats of yours best explain the way you understand football?
What I love the most is having had a discussion with those who claimed that you couldn’t play like this in Germany or in the Premier League, with Silva, Bernardo Silva, Sterling, Agüero, all of whom are four foot tall (he laughs). But we’ve done it. By receiving few goals and dominating the game through positional play. By playing 40 metres away from the box, ours is the team that gets the fewest shots on goal from our opponents. And our two basic principles (to press high and to progress the ball from the back) are the same ideas that Barça B picked up in Third Division.
Rather than win, you aim to convince.
It’s very nice when people tell us they’ve never seen this playing stye in Germany or England before. We’re all a little vain and I won’t deny that I am chuffed to be ranked with the top teams in the history of English football. At the end of the day, we all want to be liked and loved in life. Our success is the result of how we go about things.
Do you not feel spent in Manchester?
I do, I am exhausted by the end of every season. However, when you win you end up feeling less tired because winning is highly addictive and it gives you a boost. Winning the league gives you that, no other competition does. When I hear “meh, he won the league, but not the Champions League …” my answer is that I’d certainly love to win the Champions League, but it is the home league that gets your players rallying behind you, because you win a game every three days. However, when you lose, players stop believing in you. The league puts you in the place where you deserve to be. That’s why it’s always been my priority, ever since I was managing Barça B. I can’t bank everything on a less controllable competition, like the Champions League or England’s Cup, with single-match playoffs.
But do you think that Liverpool fans, whose team has won the Champions League, are jealous of City supporters because you’ve won the league?
Winning the Premier League is really tough and I speak from experience: this is the first time in eleven years that a team has won two consecutive league titles, which Barça did many times. In contrast, Liverpool hasn’t won the league for thirty years and we’ve all seen what a team Liverpool were this year. I am certain Liverpool are extremely eager to win the Premier league.
You extended your contract with Manchester City until 2021. Have you found a second home?
I have everything. Honestly, I have found everything I needed. Feeling spent is not just about having won many titles or being with the same players for a very long time. Working at home wears you out much more, emotions run higher, press conferences are tougher, they’re always looking to stir something up. I didn’t get that in Germany. In Manchester I have Txiki [Begiristain], the most important person in my career because he believed in me when I was nobody and he could have picked someone else. I am very protected. There’s Ferran [Soriano] and you sometimes wonder how anyone can possibly be so cold but, at the same time, he manages stuff with surgical precision.
You feel like they listen to you.
No. I’m good when I win, but bad when I lose. It’s the same story everywhere, but there are three or four of us who make decisions on sporting matters in this club, without having eighteen executives buzzing around. I renewed my contract because we have a young team, I have everything I could hope for to do my job and, besides, where would I go from here? I’m not coming back to England or Germany. Where else would I have such superb facilities to play a league as beautiful as England’s Premier?
What idea has held you together and kept you motivated so many years?
The fear of losing. And the competition itself keeps you going. And tactics. Tactics is the reason why I am a football manager. It is a game. What can I do with my players in order to win? It’s the only reason why I find the motivation to train every morning. Sometimes I’m nervous about the match, I watch our opponent for a while and I say, “got it!”. And that calms me down because I know what I’ll do tactically. That’s the process. When a bunch of managers get together, we start talking about our families but three minutes later we’re asking: “how do you practise for that?”. It’s the most exciting thing there is.
The first thing you mentioned is “fear of losing”.
Back in my Barça days, I remember that by Thursday I was already worried, probably due to being inexperienced. Now in Manchester City it’s Thursday and I don’t experience that anxiety. I even watch fewer matches and try to spend more time on my personal life, but that’s because I know that competing is enough of a trigger. On Friday afternoon and Saturday, the match is only hours away and by Sunday you are so pumped up that you throw yourself completely into the game. It is also true that if I’ve been so successful all these years it is because I’ve worked for three amazing clubs whose structure and finances are very solid.
What happens when you lose?
Guilt. We’ve done a bad job. It’s not working. We must find out why. How come we failed to play well? We hadn’t practised that. I should have mentioned this or that. You’re hurt, you feel that you’ve let your players and staff down. What could I have done to prevent that player missing? Am I doing their heads in? Or am I being too laid-back? That’s why in the league —if you win often enough— you don’t keep wondering about those things so much and everything works better.
So I guess you don’t support the idea of a European league.
They’d have to explain that to me, but I am not too keen on the idea. It would kill off the home leagues. If Barça and Madrid leave and no longer play Espanyol, who’s going to buy that? La Liga will die. In England they are very clever about that sort of thing. Fourth Division matches draw big crowds. England will not allow the essence of local football to die out. Part of the Champion League’s greatness is that you don’t have a match every Sunday. A weekly game would make it unappealing. A Barça-Espanyol derby is a much needed fixture in Barcelona city. And the more Catalan teams that play La Liga, the better. Let’s not kill the home leagues: nobody wants to watch a match where the teams stand no chance of playing the European League.
What is a footballer’s greatest motivation?
Players stand by you right until you announce the lineup. As soon as you do, those who don’t get to play keep their distance. And that distance grows the following day. But as the date of the next match approaches, they start to smile at you more often, hoping they’ll get to play [next time]. That’s the process. And as far as the others are concerned, I try to tell them what to expect from the match. As I player, I used to find it very comforting when our manager told us “this is what’s going to happen” and then it actually did. Of course, your opponent does that, too. Pochettino is a brilliant manager, someone who disrupts the system you had envisioned.
What’s most useful when it comes to explaining what’s going on, or what will happen? Footage, big data, your nose?
My nose and video footage. Big data is useful because it provides extra help, but your nose is still very important, even if it is the exact opposite of big data. For instance, sometimes you choose to have someone play when there is actually a better player. But you do that in order to preserve the team’s balance. You need to nurse that balance over a long season.
Leo [Messi] still recalls how you used to say “this is what will happen”
(They watch a Fox Sports video where Messi says: “I had a unique master. I grew a lot with Pep as a player and learnt a great deal from him. Some managers are superb tacticians, but Pep would also describe the moves you had to make on the pitch and what would happen then. And it did”.
That’s the equivalent of getting a medal.
Two medals. When the best footballer ever says that sort of thing … I think it is as much about me as it is about Tito [Vilanova] and everyone who was there during that time. I can only be thankful to him. Tito used to say that Messi was like a student who got bored in class because he already knew the lesson. I was very fortunate to have him. We tried to get him involved in the game, in our ways, to get him to enjoy it as a choral piece. I’ve told him that many times. We’ve not seen each other for a long time now. Many football stars came together during that period, but we wouldn’t have achieved nearly as much without him. He was much more than the icing on the cake. I deserve credit, sure, but I wasn’t born knowing all this. I was very lucky to learn so much from Johan [Cruyff], for his charisma, from Charly [Rexach] and managers like Van Gaal.
Could Cruyff predict what would happen, too?
Yes, he could. But, above all, he used to say stuff you’d never heard before. Sometimes, as I’m talking to my players, I think to myself “Johan used to say that”. It’s been twenty years and I still say it because I believe it myself.
Running exactly at the right time, pushing forward, keeping the team open. Details about the turf … I was given all that. When you talk to a player, it’s you doing the talking. Johan is not there. But I got much of my tactical knowledge initially as a player. I understood that I played well when my teammates behind me would help me to shake off my opponent as I ran. So in Barcelona we found ourselves not just with the best player we’ve ever seen and will ever see by far (with all due respect for everyone else), but also several home-grown footballers who already knew all the stuff we used to explain. Xavi and Iniesta had managers such as Joan Vilà at junior level. Football is a team sport. A single player cannot win on their own. Not even Leo can.
In an interview with El País, Louis Van Gaal stated that “Messi should ask himself how come it’s been so long since he last won a Champions League”. Do you agree? What would you say to that?
Barça got very close [this year]. 3-0, without Firmino and Salah, everyone saying they’d score at least one goal at Anfield. The Champions League is an exceedingly demanding competition. Van Gaal was probably alluding to the defensive involvement, which is huge in Europe. One of the reasons why I moved Leo from the wing to the centre, besides [improving] our attack, was also defensive. In Europe full-backs join the attack a lot. I didn’t want Leo to go through that physical expenditure. That way he’d be able exploit his talent in the last twenty yards. But I watched the Camp Nou match against Liverpool and Leo ran like crazy. And he applied himself there, during the first half. But I don’t think Barça hasn’t won the Champions League because of Messi.
Well, Van Gaal didn’t stop there: “Guardiola had Messi play for the benefit of the team. But the last few [Barça] managers have adapted to him too much, rather than preserve the team spirit”. Do you agree?
That question makes me very uncomfortable because I have no first-hand knowledge of the team now and I could be wrong. I tend to look at Barça’s positive things and, believe me, I don’t want to play Barça in Europe because it’s the sort of team that will knock you out. They very nearly won all three major titles [this year]. Had they made it to the Champions League final, they’d have won it. I can speak about what I tried to do with Messi. From day one, I tried to get him to play for the team, like I’m doing now with Agüero, trying to get him involved. I believe that’s more fun. I certainly did try, no doubt about it, and he knows that. But who am I to judge what others have done? I really annoys me when other managers judge me. Van Gaal, like Cruyff, is a straight-talker. I tread more carefully because I don’t want to cause any offence —even if some feel that way— and I don’t want my words to be misinterpreted.
But as a Barcelona fan, you will agree that having the best players in history without winning more Champions League titles is a bummer.
Yes, especially the last two defeats. When you’ve won the first leg against Roma and at home against Liverpool, it’s disappointing. I thought they’d score a goal at Anfield. And I am sure the players knew that Anfield is Anfield. The motto “This is Anfield” is no marketing spin. There’s something about it that you will find in no other stadium in the world. They score a goal and over the next five minutes you feel that you’ll receive another four. You feel small and the rival players seem to be all over. We’ve all gone through what happened to Barça. They were laughing at me when we were losing 3-0 after the first 15-20 minutes of the quarter final. It’s a bugger of a ground and it’s the sort of competition where one hand, one off-side, Anfield … Next year it’ll be Torino with Sarri and Cristiano Ronaldo. I think there comes a time —and I say this with all humbleness— when Barça should learn that you’re not going to win the Champions League just because you’re Barcelona FC. It’s like Argentina, who are always expected to win the World Cup. I know they are really good, but the other teams want to win the Champions League, too.
Your words after winning the 2011 Champions League final in Wembley still resonate: “Let’s hope that Leo won’t get bored and the club is clever enough to surround him with the right players”.
I believe the right players are there. They always have been. Not long ago I said that the two toughest opponents I’ve come across in my career (this makes Madrid upset) are this year’s Liverpool and Luis Enrique’s Barça. Barça’s three strikers were unbeatable with Luis Enrique. The individual talent that is closest to Messi’s is Neymar’s, especially back then, in terms of his creativity. He was the right age. They showed order, dedication and they put in the work, as well as being madly obsessed, like Luis Enrique.
But that’s when Barça’s mid-field game began to fade.
Perhaps it’s true that they did not perform to the same level as in my time: we used to be nuts about always playing the ball forward. But they were equally good at positional play and had a killer counter attack. They added a new concept: the long counter attack. Ours was short, but Barça’s was 30 or 40 metres long. Unstoppable. It’s the same thing now: you look at the squad and you think to yourself, “wow, they’ve got such fantastic players!”.
Could they bring that back with Neymar’s return?
I don’t know. Neymar is an extraordinary footballer, but I don’t know. It’s the same as if I were to come back. Would it be the same? I don’t know. I’m not the same and I don’t know if Neymar would be. But, sure, nobody doubts he is a very good player.
It’s ten years since Barça first won all three titles, the season of [Coldplay’s] Viva la Vida. When you look back on May 2019, what memories spring to mind?
I recall we had played a fantastic Liga that season and we were going to bag the title. By chance we got through to the Rome final thanks to Andrés [Iniesta’s] goal. Three years later, playing against Chelsea, we had thirty shots on goal, but we didn’t make it to the final. We got to Rome with no defenders. Alves was injured or had to sit out the match. We didn’t have Abidal. Yaya played centre-back. And United had the best lineup ever, with Cristiano, Rooney, Scholes, Tévez and Berbatov. Yet we had a feeling we’d win. Limping, with Iniesta having been off for two months and Muniesa on the bench. But our gut was telling us we’d win.
You began to wear the yellow ribbon and didn’t take it off until they fined you. How do you feel about what’s going on in Catalonia?
I have a keen interest and I’m concerned. I put myself in the shoes of the exiles and the prisoners. If you don’t take a stand in the face of injustice, you risk finding yourself on the wrong side. They’re people like us and it was unthinkable that they would spend so long held on remand. It’s so unfair. I’m no lawyer, but there’s no hope without showing a little humanity. With all due respect —I don’t know him—, I don’t believe anybody, not even Justice Marchena, could possibly think these people have committed the sort of major crimes that might justify spending so many years in pre-trial detention. Surely their political opponents, every one of them, all realise that this is totally unfair.
Unless Spain’s unity is above the rule of law.
Well, Spain will never cease to be Spain just because Catalonia becomes an independent country. Basic rights are above any other consideration. And it’s for the people to decide that. The trouble is we don’t even know if we want independence because we’ve been denied the chance to vote on it. I am very disappointed by the Spanish state’s lack of political stature during this time. They have the power, they can apply direct rule [on Catalonia] and we are nobody. They have the force and I expected the PP and the PSOE to rise to the political challenge and say “let’s get down to work and resolve this” rather than unleash a legal persecution. During the trial we all learnt what had actually happened.
At a 2017 rally in Montjuïc [Barcelona] you said “we call on all democrats across the world to come to our aid in the face of the abuse we’re taking from an authoritarian state”. You must have paid a price for that last phrase.
Sure. Democracy is all about voting, of course, but what do you do in between elections? You can’t look the other way. It gets to a point where you get the feeling that you’ve cast your vote, but then the political parties make their own arrangements behind closed doors. I struggle to grasp what’s just happened with the mayoral election in Barcelona city. How could Manuel Valls vote to re-elect Ada Colau when their election manifestos were so different? Jordi Graupera wasn’t allowed to join the election debates and present his policies because he was not an elected official. Sure, I can understand that. But neither was Manuel Valls, who stood as an independent candidate for Ciudadanos. Then, after voting for Colau, he slagged them off and went his own separate way. Eventually we won’t even need to go to the polls.
Actually, only this week Puigdemont, Junqueras and Comín were denied their MEP credentials, despite having been elected by nearly two million voters.
Speaking on TV3 [the Catalan public tv network], Pérez Royo argued they will definitely get to take up their seats in Europe because they are innocent until proven guilty.
A couple of months ago Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez stated, in an interview with [Madrid-based sports daily] Marca, that “I’m offended when Guardiola says Spain is an authoritarian country”. And he then added that “what’s more, some news outlets have reported that he was offered the job of Spain manager”. Is that right?
That’s a lie. I’ve never been asked to manage Spain’s football team. Never. I’m sorry he has taken offence, but many things that have happened these years have offended me, too: the graft scheme in Andalusia, PM Sánchez denying the Open Arms boat permission to sail and rescue people in the Mediterranean (saving people from drowning is an obligation, the NGOs’ efforts deserve a Nobel prize, but they’ve brought charges against them instead!) while he travels to Saudi Arabia to secure an arms deal. Everybody can feel offended. As the Jaume Roures documentary shows [former Barcelona mayor] Xavier Trias was the victim of a state-sponsored smear campaign when they claimed he had cash stashed away in a Swiss account. I, too, am offended by all that. And by Spain’s then-Interior Minister. But they’ve done nothing about it. I am sorry if I offended him. I know Spain is a smashing country. It’s the Spanish state that I’m talking about. The Altsasu lads have spent 900 days in jail over a late-night drunken bar brawl [with off-duty Spanish police officers]. Being able to defend ourselves from that sort of thing, those are the rights we must preserve. Nobody can believe everything the Catalan political prisoners and exiles have been accused of.
Especially since the crime of rebellion requires the use of violence, of which there was none [during Catalonia’s independence bid in late 2017].
It’s so bad, words and their meaning are being twisted. We’ve been called Nazis and supremacists. It offends me when the president of Catalonia get called a Nazi, because they are twisting the words. I’ve experienced this in Germany: you’d better not use the word “Nazi” lightly. Displaying a Nazi symbol will land you in jail. We need to watch it: in Italy Salvini has suggested that a Roma woman who had been caught stealing three or four times should be sterilised. It’s really outrageous. It’s that sort of thing that should be facing a court of law, not the people who had asked to vote. Progress in history has been achieved through civil protest. Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart are two social activists. To be honest, my concern now is to see them walk free. We’ll see about all the rest.
How do you feel about the lack of a joint political strategy on the pro-independence camp?
I’m very disappointed. I am also offended, deeply offended by the pro-independence parties’ decision not to stand together. That also shows a tremendous lack of political stature. Still, even though some are behaving in a truly reckless manner with their voters, I see Catalonia still has some fight in her. Look at the result of the 21 December  elections. Or the more recent polls. Catalonia is still alive and strong and I think people do feel for the prisoners and exiles, so they struggle to understand why there isn’t a shared strategy.
Pep, thanks very much for joining us today.
Thank you, it’s been my pleasure. And my best wishes for your newspaper. Let’s see if you can win the Champions, since others can’t manage it (he laughs).