As a diminutive Lionel Messi headed in a cross from Xavi, the fate seemed to be sealed. It was in Rome that Barcelona announced themselves as supreme. It was in Rome that football fans across the world saw Pep Guardiola mastermind a meteoric revolution that would change the course for modern football itself, but the revolution had begun brewing years before Guardiola ever became a manager.
Living in Santpedor, around 70km away from Barcelona, Josep Guardiola was a skinny little boy with a penchant for football. Even as a youngster, everyone could see the skills he had, his passing and his ability to control the game, for his age, was exceptional.
To avoid any quarrels, little Pep would take the lead, and be the one to distribute the teams to divide them as equals. He was like a sponge — he absorbed information from wherever he could. It is no surprise that Barcelona came calling a few years later, as he represented the very core of La Masia at that point.
In La Masia, Pep became more inquisitive and would take in as much as he could from his surroundings, learning the very principle that would serve him well years after — take the ball, pass the ball.
The story of the treble is long; one that starts with Johann Cruyff first noticing Guardiola with the B team. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP)
Growing up, he remained skinny with little mass, so he had to develop his game uniquely. His technical ability was second to none, finding players behind with his passing and vision from profound positions on the pitch. It was probably this ability that piqued the interest of none other than Johann Cruyff as well. Phil Ball takes us back to the very moment that happened, through his book, Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football:
“In his first week at the club, Johan Cruyff turned up unannounced at the “Mini” stadium, a venue just down the road from Camp Nou used by the youth and B teams. Just before half-time he wandered into the dug-out and asked Charly Rexach, the youth team manager at the time, the name of the young lad playing on the right side of midfield. “Guardiola — good lad” came the reply.
“Cruyff ignored the comment and told Rexach to move him into the middle for the second half, to play as a pivot. It was a difficult position to adapt to and one not used by many teams in Spain at the time. Guardiola adjusted immediately, as Cruyff had suspected he would.”
A Johann Cruyff favourite
When Cruyff finally needed a holding midfielder for his Barcelona side in 1990, he looked no further than Guardiola. Even though he had a lean frame, the Dutchman trusted his ability to read the game and his technical skills enough to hand him a debut.
Pep might’ve hoped to start off on a good note, but he ended up with a chasting review – “You were slower than my grandma!” said Cruyff at half time. It was the beginning of Cruyff’s tutoring of the Spaniard. While the Dutchman was often harsh with his words, it was Guardiola’s steely determination and work ethic that kept him going.
Despite a shaky start, the decision to promote Guardiola (bottom row; fifth from left) was not going to be one that Cruyff (top row; fifth from left) would regret. (Photo via Imago)
Cruyff would argue a good player does not need to have the best physique — he may overcome that difficulty in other practices. It was under the legendary manager that Pep learnt how to beat players more powerful than him in the air, and how to use his weaker left foot when under pressure from the opposition.
That said, Guardiola managed to clock no more than 3 first-team appearances his debut season, but Cruyff had seemingly decided that nobody else would be at the helm of his midfield, the very core of the Blaugranes. It was not just his technical ability that stood out to Cruyff, but also his ability to communicate to his teammates, even his seniors. Guardiola stood strong and capable as a leader even as a 20-year-old.
In one of the matches, Guardiola told Michael Laudrup, a player much senior to him, to “keep it simple” after Laudrup attempted to take on a player too many, as mentioned by Guillem Balague in his book, Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning. It was clear that the Spaniard was unafraid of confrontation and would speak his mind regardless of who stood before him.
The fact that he was able to keep a stable head on his shoulders at all times helped in his rise, which was nothing short of meteoric. Within two years, he saw himself as the holding midfielder of Barcelona. His touch, his spatial awareness, his talent for spotting the right pass and his ability to set the tempo of a match did not go unnoticed. He embodied the Cruyff principles and became the star of and from La Masia.
Moreover, he was the beginning of a series of players, and more specifically midfielders who carried the same principles — Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets amongst the biggest names cropping up from La Masia in recent years who carried the learning in them.
By 1994, Guardiola had established himself as the conductor of Barcelona’s play. He moved around the ball seamlessly for his teammates, and over the years, he had developed his awareness which made him a wall in the heart of the midfield.
Pep played with some megastars at Barcelona. (Photo via Imago)
He intuitively knew when and more importantly, where the turnovers were going to occur. His ability to win the ball back and orchestrate the attacks from deep was probably the tone that was set two decades later for Sergio Busquets. While Busquets proved himself to be more capable physically, the methodological principles and positioning he has are verbatim from the Guardiola textbook.
Bearing the band
After a great run of 11 trophies, the most for Barcelona at the time, Cruyff’s tenure had come to an end by 1996, but the postulates he had set were still there instilled within Pep Guardiola. It was after Cruyff left, though, that Pep honed his leadership skills even further.
Under Bobby Robson’s management, he met a similar mind in Jose Mourinho, although they would eventually wind up taking very dissimilar footballing paths. In Mourinho, he found a mind just as curious and inquisitive, and the Portuguese became a man he often talked to for hours. At this point, Guardiola started becoming more demanding of his teammates and became more questioning as well.
“This and that and this and that in the dressing room. He made my head spin!” said Laurent Blanc, who was Pep’s teammate in 1996. He was mocking him, but illustrated how obsessive and demanding Guardiola had become by that point.
Guardiola’s stronghold over the dressing room and his demanding front led up to him officially becoming the captain in 1997 under Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman saw the ability of Guardiola to command his teammates regardless of their experience.
“I made Guardiola captain because he could speak about football. He could speak like a coach, even then – not many players can do that. He was younger than Amor and Nadal, but he was my captain. I told him in a meeting that I had chosen him and he said, “It’s not how it happens at FCB, the oldest player in the team is usually the captain here.” But I insisted, “No, you are the only one I can speak to on my level, you are my captain.” He used to tell the other players like Figo where they should be: ahead of him, out wide, where he could play the ball.”LOUIS VAN GAAL | PEP GUARDIOLA: ANOTHER WAY OF WINNING
The man with the armband now, Guardiola was more than just a peripheral figure in the dressing room. He had begun to advise his teammates on what they could change, and even went as far as to advise the manager — he was one in the making, evidently.
Over the years, Guardiola’s searching nature and his ability to quickly absorb and implement things had led him down this path. He spent hours understanding the intricacies of the game and his role and learning how he could improve. As a player, he would strive for nothing less than perfection- a characteristic that still serves him well as a manager.
Trophies followed Guardiola everywhere, throughout his life. (Photo via Imago)
It was in 2001 that Guardiola left Barcelona. It had been 11 fruitful seasons as a first-team player. He had played 379 games, and scored just 10 goals but had won 16 titles, which would instil his hunger to win as a manager. He departed not just as a great player, but as a representative of the Barcelona identity in an era where foreign players flooded the club.
The Guardiola storm had started brewing when he was a player. His innate ability to understand the game quickly, and the faith that Cruyff held in him as a youngster shaped the manager he is today. He was restless even as a footballer, constantly thinking about how to improve, and would push his teammates to reach the same level.
Winning was the foremost priority, but it never came at the cost of his principles. The seeds for Pep Guardiola the manager had been sown under Cruyff long ago and the rewards he reaps now are from the very same inquisitive tree that absorbed all it could.
Lionel Messi: The unconventional captain
“Here he is again. Here he is again. That’s astonishing! That’s absolutely world-class!” “Look at this, Kevin! It’s a brilliant run from Messi. Can he go all the way!” “But here’s Messi. Away from two…three…four. Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!”
They say mere words cannot express beautiful stories. Yet these few lines are enough to send shivers down the spines of Barcelona fans all over the world. They bring back raw emotions of those glorious days of the past. Those fervent Champions League nights, Cup finals and El Clasicos. A point in time when all the ardent Barça supporters used to have their eyes glued to their TV screens to watch the magic unfold in front of them.
The all-conquering team donning the historic blue and red colours brought exuberant smiles on the faces of every Culér out there, and at the heart of it all, was one man — Lionel Messi. An outlier in a generation of extraordinary footballers.
Born in Rosario to working-class parents, Lionel Messi had relatively humble beginnings. But his passion and love for the beautiful game was apparent from the start. He was ready to give his all for the sport.
“He would never say no to anything. If I told him to run, he would run. If I told him to do an exercise, he would do it. All I had to do was to encourage and support him.”Enrique ‘Quique’ Dominguez | This is Football (Amazon Prime Documentary)
This quote from his coach Enrique Dominguez, during his Newell’s Young Boys days, goes to show that his dedication was not something he learnt. It was a virtue he already had from the beginning, etched on his heart from a very young age.
Life did not start at high speed for Lionel Messi. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
As with any artist, Messi had the sublime levels of talent and the desire to fight for his dreams. All he needed was a canvas to paint on. And when his father took him to Barcelona for trials, he caught his lucky break. Before he knew it, he had been picked up by Barcelona and thus began the journey that defined an era.
It was not plain sailing, though. A success story never is. Carles Rexach, Jospe Maria Minguella and Horacio Gaggioli, the three figures behind the signing, faced opposition from board members and coaches. To comply with FIFA regulations, they had to pay an amount unheard of for a player in the under 14s to keep him at Barcelona. Yet they took the risk, and Barcelona supporters all over are reaping the rewards today.
The False Nine
When talking about Lionel Messi, it is impossible not to talk about the false nine position under Pep Guardiola. It is not easy to become the very definition of a particular position, but the six-time Ballon d’Or winner managed to achieve the feat nonetheless.
Everyone knew Leo was going to be a world-beater when he began making headlines at the age of nineteen. But the true potential of Barça’s crown jewel was on display when Guardiola’s team destroyed Real Madrid 2-6 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Lionel Messi left no scope for Real Madrid in this encounter back in 2009. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
A false nine is a centre forward who drops back between the lines of opposition players creating spaces and opportunities to score. ‘La Pulga’ excelled in the position because it took full advantage of his repertoire of sublime traits. Unlike most players, Messi possessed a lethal combination of skillsets that brought out the need for the use of such an unorthodox role.
Beleaguering defences at all times and causing havoc on the pitch was Messi’s job. However, he achieved it with unforeseen levels of elegance. Be it his mazy and intricate runs or his telepathic connection with midfielders like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, or with fullbacks like Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, the #10 never fails to surprise.
Messi’s understanding of the game allowed him to form sensational on-the-pitch connections. (Photo by Joern Pollex/Bongarts)
While he was a bodacious dribbler and a natural goal scorer, his supernatural passing and astounding vision made him a priceless asset. He was also a phenomenal reader of the game. But nothing was more important than his adept decision making. Not only was he almost always right in his choices, but he also made them at the blink of an eye.
“Its about understanding the game. When in every situation, he takes the right decision at the right moment. And every time, his decision is correct.”Pep Guardiola | This is Football (Amazon Prime Documentary)
A different kind of skipper
Leo Messi is, for the most part, a silent leader. His performances speak for themselves. Especially in recent times, when he has an off day, the team heavily suffers. His mere presence on the pitch is enough to lift the team spirit. He has a magical aura around him that can strike fear in even the toughest of players and one that can turn an average team into levels above.
The number of times the 800-capped La Masia graduate come to Barça’s rescue is ineffable.
But one thing that many people forget to speak about is his personality. Whenever a new player comes to the team, it is understandable that it is tough to adjust to the new environment. Especially at a club like FC Barcelona, a player may have varying levels of maturity.
Lionel Messi’s performances speak a lot more than he does. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN)
Be it an established player like Antoine Griezmann or a fledgeling talent like Pedri, Leo is one of the first to help them feel comfortable. He uses what he has learned throughout the years to help others elevate their game. Leo’s influence on his teammates is an equally important and much-overlooked aspect of being a captain.
“From day one, Messi has been good to me. He gives me a lot of advice on the pitch. He is an incredible person.”Pedri | Dynamo Kyiv Pre-game Presser
The imperfect captain
Whilst the little magician is a master of playing the beautiful game, he is not exactly an ideal leader, on the pitch anyway. When Andres Iniesta finally decided to leave his beloved club in 2018, it was natural that the mantle would fall to fellow La Masia graduate and teammate.
He had been brought up in the Barcelona academy, and the team’s principles were deeply instilled in him. Having already proven himself as a player, it was a new challenge for the Argentine. However, it was a provocation that brought with it some problems.
Despite being the centrepiece of the team, it was clear that Messi’s reign as captain was not going to be insouciant. Unlike the days of the past, Barcelona were in need of a complete overhaul. The old guard’s time was nearly up, and it was the dawn of a new era for the Azulgranas. The following years were bound to be long and gruelling. Now more than ever, the team was in desperate of a skipper who could guide the team on and off the pitch.
Barcelona were no longer the club Lionel Messi once joined, and it was time to say goodbye. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
It was evident that gone were the days where Barcelona could steamroll past opponents on their way to glory. Year after year, heartbreak followed the team as performances reached an all-time low. Roma, Liverpool and then finally the drubbing against Bayern left fans desolated and drained.
It was the number ten who came under immense scrutiny for the failures and his desire to leave the club at such a delicate time was the final nail in the coffin. Media erupted with claims of Messi’s disloyalty. He became a scapegoat for the press.
There was a hint of truth in the claim that Messi was not a deserving bearer of the armband. Much like cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, Leo did indeed let the pressure affect his performances. However, his love for the badge shone through the darkness.
Irrefutable loyalty through controversy
Loyalty is just another one of Leo’s characteristics that makes him so incredible. Be it off the pitch towards his family and friends, or on the pitch to his team, Messi’s fidelity never falters.
Most Culés know that the faults ran far beyond the Argentine, starting with the underwhelming board of directors. Years of controversies and deceit marred their five years at the helm. The Lionel Messi transfer saga looked to be the next in a line of outrageous mistakes and choices made by the board.
Leo, wanting to win the Champions League one more time before he hung up his boots, wanted to be at a club where the sporting project could enable him to fulfil his desire. Barcelona were miles away from taking the number ten close to his dream and thus he sought for a different club, such as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Lionel Messi – Pep Guardiola reunion stories had already caught fire, and it tore apart Culés. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON)
The transfer looked to be on for a free because of a clause in Messi’s contract, but club president Josep Maria Bartomeu intervened with the smallest of irregularities in the same. His argument was extremely fragile and would easily have been overturned legally. Yet the Argentine could not bring himself to take the team he loved to court.
He instead decided to stay and fulfil the agreement. All those who ever had the slightest doubts as to where his allegiance lies were silenced once again. Even if the little magician does indeed end up leaving, he would have left behind one last parting gift: the resignation of the irresponsible leadership of the club.
He came out and spoke the truth as to what was going on behind the scenes. He lashed out against all the accusations and revealed the true situation behind the scenes. This even prompted other players like Gerard Pique to hint at just how poorly the club was being run. The Barcelona Socios had finally had enough, and thus began the referendum that sent the board running from their posts to avoid embarrassment.
Like a devoted leader, he saved his team from the hands of the bureaucrats who were about to lead the club to bankruptcy.
Lionel Messi stood by the club, like any captain would. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Not to mention, he also led the charge against the board when they claimed that Barcelona players were not agreeing to a pay-cut during the pandemic, with each player releasing a statement on their social media to challenge the same. Lionel Messi’s charge as captain has been dominated by off the pitch work rather than vocal shouts, or tactical improvement – important all the same.
Respected by all
Being the best player in a club’s history brings you love from Culés all around the world. But a sensational talent like Leo is not loved only by Barcelona fans, but by football fans everywhere. The respect he has earned through his incredible performances is unimaginable.
An example of the same was when the Blaugranas faced Real Betis at the Benito Villamarin on March 18, 2019. It was the 85th minute and Messi had just scored a sensational chip from outside the box to seal the victory for Barcelona and to complete his hat-trick in the process.
One would have expected the stadium to jeer and whistle after seeing a player demolish their team 4-1 almost single-handedly. But the sight that unfolded was one that makes a person fall in love with football all over again.
The entire stadium gave Lionel Messi a standing ovation befitting the beauty that they had just witnessed. The chants of ‘Messi! Messi!’ echoed the stadium as the fans from both teams took a moment to absorb and applaud the genius of the little man.
Garnering such levels of respect and love from opposition fans is one of the most difficult things in any sport. But what else can one do but admire an artist painting out his masterpiece?
Name etched in diamond and gold
Whether he decides to stay and finish his career at the Camp Nou is something that only time will tell. After all that Leo has given to this club and the fans, not respecting his wishes would almost be a crime. He is 33 right now, and once that day comes when he leaves the club – and it definitely will, it will feel like a sword to the chest.
As his illustrious time at the very top of the game draws to a close, supporters can do nothing but reminiscence in the memories that he has left for us. Even though he may be an out-of-sorts captain if there is anyone who deserves to wear that armband, it’s him.
The day Lionel Messi decides to retire will be a sombre one for the football community. It will be difficult to see starting XIs without his name, and even harder to imagine a Camp Nou that does not shout “Messi, Messi” in unison game after game after game. Just like so many things in life, that goodbye is fast approaching.
Lionel Messi does not have a long time left with the ball. And that in itself is horrifying thought. (Photo by David Ramos)
The Ansu Fatis and the Kylian Mbappes will come and go, but there might never be another Lionel Messi in the world of football. But long after he retires, his legacy will remain, just like it did with Pelé, Johann Cruyff, and the late Diego Maradona.
Many people will have his future on their minds as the summer 2021 transfer window approaches. Many will dread the prospect of him leaving the club. But all good things do come to an end, and so will the extraordinary relationship that is Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona. Whatever happens, fans need to remember that it is time to move on. And as the great Dr. Suess said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”