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.
Andres Iniesta: The master of time and space
Time and tide wait for no one.
The famous saying hits harder in sporting environs than anywhere else. One moment, you are on top of the game you love and cherish, garnering the love and adulation of fans across the world; the next, you are staring into the abyss, painfully aware that the time on top is fast approaching its end. The same holds for footballers, even someone who so expertly controlled time and space for years on end. We are, of course, talking about Andrés Iniesta Luján.
One of the best midfielders in the world, Iniesta has gone on to earn the admiration of fans, colleagues, counterparts and coaches the world over. However, despite his staggering stature, Iniesta was not someone who you would pass off as a potentially world-class player on first glance.
Indeed, his diminutive figure could fool many. But this was a footballer who packed a punch in typically graceful fashion whenever he took to the pitch. Iniesta, though, did not really have the best of beginnings at Barcelona.
Capturing the attention of Guardiola
When Andres Iniesta joined La Masia back in 1996, he was so overwhelmed by being separated from his parents that he has gone on to describe the occasion as the worst day of his life, a day when he “cried rivers”. Little did the timid kid who hailed from Fuentealbilla know that he was one day going to become one of the best players that the game has ever seen.
Andres Iniesta took a long time before breaking into the Barcelona team, and becoming captain. (Photo via Imago)
However, many who viewed him in action even before that big day knew that Iniesta was destined for greatness. Former Albacete coach and casino employee Andre Manuel Balo recounts how he needed to watch Iniesta for just five minutes at his trial, iterating how it was more than long enough to be sure of his talent.
“We watched him at the trial, and after five minutes we said: “Take that little kid off; we’ve seen enough.” In fact, it wasn’t even five minutes. It didn’t take him long; we were convinced. After everything we had been told and with what we had just seen, that was more than enough. It was wonderful to watch him: so small, the ball at his feet, bigger than he was. Why did we take him off so soon? Because we were so sure and we had to use that time to watch the other kids, the ones we had doubts about. There were no doubts with Andrés. Andrés played in the middle, and once he got the ball, there was no way of getting it off him. It was impossible. Pretty much like it is now, in fact.”Andre Manuel Balo | An extract from The Artist: Being Andres Iniesta (Autobiography)
The trend would continue as Iniesta joined a fabled academy, where his life would change forever. The soon-to-be teenager was extremely shy and reserved when he made his way to La Masia. However, he really did not need to speak a word, as his game was enough to force people to sit up and take note of his captivating abilities.
And despite his quiet nature, Iniesta provided the first demonstration of his leadership qualities when he captained Barcelona Under-15 to lift the 1999 Nike Premier Cup. Not only that, but he also scored the winning goal in the final and was named the player of the tournament, typically leading by example, as he would all through his senior career.
Iniesta never scored an awful lot of goals, but he did get used to scoring winners, coming up clutch on the biggest of occasions, as Chelsea and Netherlands can recall correctly – just two teams that suffered the wrath of the maestro’s pitch-perfect timing.
Iniesta always came through for Barcelona. (Photo via Getty)
The first time Iniesta really caught the eye of those who mattered, though, was when he was invited to train with the first-team not long after that triumphant Nike Premier Cup campaign. It is here when he left Pep Guardiola, a Barcelona legend who would go on to coach him at Camp Nou a few years later, absolutely dumbfounded.
Even in this instance, though, his reserved nature prompted Guardiola to send Luis Enrique fishing for the prodigious teenager. It is on this day when Guardiola famously proclaimed, “Remember this day, the day you first played with Andrés,” before pulling Xavi, who would later become Iniesta’s partner-in-crime, to one side to whisper, “You’re going to retire me. This lad is going to retire us all.”
Iniesta was not too dissimilar to Guardiola himself in that he embodied the famous La Masia principles of ball retention, passing and using space — “Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer.” He knew when to pick the right pass, how to set the tempo of the game, boasting spatial and time awareness unlike any other. He would later go on to be the flag bearer of the academy at a time when youngsters would, more often than not, have an unclear pathway to the first-team due to the conveyor belt of foreign players arriving at Camp Nou in the past decade or so.
Xavi and Iniesta dominated the world of football for years to come. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Coming of Age
Less than a decade after impressing Guardiola, Iniesta would go on to inspire the now-Manchester City boss. However, he was not really on a bed of roses upon his promotion to the first-team. Instead, Iniesta slowly grew into his role of a midfield mainstay and was a deputy to Xavi and Deco till a game that changed his life and defined Barcelona for the next decade or so. This was also the game when Iniesta provided an early indication of his leadership abilities within the first-team.
As Barcelona lined up to take on Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League final in 2006, Iniesta was unsurprisingly named as a substitute. However, a slow start to the game had seen Barça fall behind Arsenal despite having the numerical advantage after an early dismissal for the Gunners’ goalkeeper Jens Lehmann. Then manager Frank Rijkaard, though, was in inspired touch on the sidelines, making three changes that would alter the course of the game.
Iniesta looked ice-cold on the grandest stage in club football, playing among some absolute superstars. (Photo via Imago)
But while Henrik Larsson provided two assists and Juliano Belletti scored the winner, Iniesta’s contribution went under the radar in the game. Installed in the ‘pivote’ slot after replacing Edmilson at half-time, the young prospect was assured rather than star-eyed playing a role he was not accustomed.
Iniesta, though, did exactly what Rijkaard wanted from him – pick the ball up in deep areas and dictate play. Soon enough, his teammates would follow his lead and dance to the tune of his moves. Perhaps for the first time in his senior career, had embraced added responsibility and come out of the experience a man who would go on to boss games as second nature for years to come.
The Guardiola era was soon ushered in and Iniesta went on to become the bedrock of the Barcelona side that dominated football for nearly half-a-decade and is often labelled as the best team of all time. It is at this time when the Spanish wizard started taking on even more responsibility. Alongside Xavi, he would go on to essay the tiki-taka brand of football to perfection, guiding Barcelona to unparalleled success.
Slowly but surely, it had become difficult to imagine a team without Iniesta at its very heart. Such was the sheer impact of Iniesta’s performance that Sir Alex Ferguson singled him out in his pre-match preparation ahead of the 2009 Champions League final, at the end of which Barcelona returned to the summit of Europe.
Barcelona and Iniesta showed Barcelona no mercy. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP)
Post the chastening that United had just received, Wayne Rooney marvelled at the mention of Iniesta, exclaiming in the dressing room that the Red Devils had just been beaten by a team overseen by the best player in the world. He was, of course, talking about Iniesta and not Xavi or Lionel Messi. The baggage of leading the team as its club captain would soon follow.
By the time of the 2014/15 season began, it had already become clear that Iniesta was next in line to become the club captain at Camp Nou. Over the course of that campaign, which saw Barcelona become the first club in the history of the game to win the treble of the domestic league, domestic cup and European Cup twice, Iniesta had already donned the armband in the absence of Xavi.
Iniesta already knew the responsibilities that came with the armband. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Soon enough, the Spaniard inherited the famous armband from Xavi for good. It is at this time when a painful transition began at Camp Nou, one that continues to haunt the Blaugrana to this day. However, the mere presence of Iniesta on the pitch meant that the passing of the torch to the next batch was elongated, although many-a-time, it was agonizingly obvious that a lot needed to change at the club.
No longer were Barça a feared quantity, which was clear in the way they were booted out of the UEFA Champions League by AS Roma, after they had appeared to be comfortable in the quarter-final tie. By the time the 2017/18 season came to a close, Iniesta had once again played his part in a league and cup double, scoring the winner in the Copa del Rey final in a man-of-the-match performance.
Even in his cup swansong, which would be followed by the poignant and powerful farewell at Camp Nou, Iniesta was the best player on the pitch, again letting his game do the talking. However, the aforementioned farewell is what would capture the imagination while filling the Culés, in with a sense of fear about what was to come.
Not quite what Iniesta would have wanted, but Iniesta’s final game with the Blaugranas was a thumping against Sevilla in the CDR, where he scored a rare goal. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty)
Iniesta’s time had hesitantly come. A player who often had the command over time and space at will on the pitch would soon no longer be putting on the famous Blaugrana strip. When the time finally, painstakingly came to bid him goodbye, Messi gave him the tightest hug seen on a football field, taking an extra moment to hold on to his dear friend. The new captain-in-waiting was aware that he would no longer be able to look towards Iniesta for inspiration. That absence is dearly felt to this day.
Doing the armband justice
Iniesta’s leadership style was another way to differentiate him from the run-of-the-mill player, the usual copybook captain. He does not scream and shout, barking out orders like a Roy Keane. He also does not look to take matters into his own hand like a Carles Puyol. He was a captain who would often lead by example, but that does not mean that that was the only way he would assert his authority or instil a sense of optimism.
The first instance of Iniesta displaying such a trait was in the early days of Pep Guardiola’s reign as the Barcelona manager. Barça had made a slow start to the season, and Guardiola was facing a baptism of fire. The team was well off being a champion outfit, let alone a feared quantity. With Guardiola buried in his notes, he heard a knock on the door. Out peeked the diminutive figure of Iniesta, who started:
“Hello, míster. Don’t worry, míster. We’ll win it all. We’re on the right path. Carry on like this, OK? We’re playing brilliantly, we’re enjoying training. Please, don’t change anything.”Pep Guardiola recalling Iniesta’s words | An extract from The Artist: Being Andres Iniesta (Autobiography)
The vote of confidence did not come from the most influential of players at the time. It did not even come from the most vocal of players.
Iniesta was a man Guardiola, or any other manager at the helm could trust. (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty)
However, in doing so, Iniesta proved that while he may not speak a lot, one has to sit up and take note on the odd occasion when he did. With Johan Cruyff publicly backing him and Iniesta buoying him behind closed doors, Guardiola had all the confidence in the world to guide Barcelona to a historic season. By the summer of 2009, Barça had won each of the six titles they had been vying 10 months ago.
As Guardiola would further state, “People usually think that it is the coach who has to raise the spirits of his players; that it is the coach who has to convince his footballers; that it is his job to take the lead all the time. But that’s not always the case. It wasn’t the case at the Camp Nou for me. You start, you lose at Numancia, you draw with Racing, you just can’t get going, you feel watched, and you feel alone and then suddenly, there’s Andrés telling me not to worry.”
“It’s hard to imagine, because it’s not the kind of thing that happens and because it’s Iniesta we’re talking about, someone who doesn’t find it easy to express his feelings. And after he’d gone, I asked myself: how can people say that coaches should be cold when they make decisions? Impersonal? That’s ridiculous! How can I be cold, distant, removed with Andrés?”
Guardiola would further hail Iniesta by saying he helped him understand the game better, simply by wielding his craft on the pitch. Indeed, when on the pitch, he carried an aura that demanded excellence, nay perfection, by himself demanding that of him every single time. When his teammates were in need of a pick-me-up, though, Iniesta would even let his words spur them on to lift their levels.
As he would privately with Guardiola, the midfield maestro knew just what to say at the right time, just as he would when releasing a pass at the most opportune of moments. Such moments also came when the time was right. By his way of leading, Iniesta taught us that leaders can be humble, unselfish, grounded and unassuming, all while leading a highly successful side.
A photo that can bring any Barcelona fan to tears. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
In the end, though, his time at Camp Nou was over, just as it was for many before him, just as it will be for many more after him. The Andrés Iniesta chapter was duly closed. However, he departed Barcelona as a legend in his own right, embodying the club’s proud slogan, Més que un club.
Time and tide wait for no one. As with everyone, it did catch up with the diminutive midfield wizard. For a long time, though, when Andres Iniesta had the ball at his feet, time would often stand still, dancing to the tune of his orchestrating brilliance, and Futbol Club Barcelona were better for it.