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What if…Pep Guardiola had never coached Barcelona?

Prajas Naik

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Header Image by Imago

After having imagined what would have happened if Di Stéfano had joined Barcelona instead of Madrid, we ask ourselves: what if Pep Guardiola had never coached the blaugranas?


Those unforgettable El Clásico victories, that late Iniesta goal, the legendary 2009 Sextuple, the beautiful Positional Play style of play and, of course, those legendary Lionel Messi goals. They send all culés back to a time when the team was on top of the world with one of the best and most successful sides the world had ever seen. They remind us of the golden days when Barcça were unbeatable. All those memories had one architect, who took the club to heights never seen before. That man was Pep Guordiola, one of the most influential managers in Barcelona history. But what if Pep had never joined the first team? What if Pep had never taken the reins? 

Pep was promoted to the senior side in 2008, replacing Frank Rijkaard, with the club having gone two years without a trophy. His arrival changed things drastically, with the club winning their first treble – Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey – and a record-breaking six trophies in the calendar year of 2009. The Catalan was the most successful coach in Barcelona history with 14 trophies in total to his name. But it was the manner in which he achieved success that really put the cherry on top of the cake. His beautiful attacking football could easily dismantle even the best sides and at times left even the opposition managers in awe. It was his tactics, his transfers and his mentality that transformed Barça.

Without Guardiola, the blaugranas would have been left in a confusing state with the ageing squad in dire need of trophies. He took risks by offloading legends such as Deco, Ronaldinho and Zambrotta whilst bringing in Dani Alves and Gerard Piqué, who went on to become legends for the club. Risks that few managers would opt to take. His 4–3–3 and later 3–4–3 diamond had its roots in Cruyff’s style of play, but Pep built on it, using his squad to maximum capacity. No manager could have replicated Guardiola’s incredible tactics and immaculate squad balance.

Pep Guardiola coached Barcelona

Pep Guardiola’s influence at Barcelona goes far beyond any result | Photo by Imago

With his approach on the ball already excellent, he revolutionised Barcelona off the ball. His six-second rule often bolstered Barça against counter-attacks and helped to regain possession. It was Pep’s genius which led the azulgranas to maintain attacking play without suffering on the defensive side too much, a trait the recent Barcelona sides are lacking. Guardiola found the tactical solution to breaking down all the best sides in Europe. He introduced a new style of play which no other manager had seen before, rendering them defenceless as Barcelona destroyed their enemies.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was his influence on the players. He mentored Messi, adding finesse to his raw talent. He unleashed the Argentinian’s full potential and shaped him into possibly the greatest player the world has ever seen. Leo had already announced himself to the world, but it was under Pep that he truly matured. His decision to play Messi as a false 9 was a masterstroke, taking advantage of his creativity, vision and goalscoring ability. Busquets adopted the role of the midfield pivot and has gone on to become one of the best holding midfielders ever. Iniesta and Xavi developed a lethal combination with Messi given their perfect passing and awareness, while Piqué, Alves and Pedro developed into the best in their positions.

❛ The best team I have ever faced ❜

Sir Alex Ferguson
after Barcelona’s 3–1 victory over Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final

In a world without Pep Guardiola, it is quite possible Barcelona would have still gone on to become successful given the boatloads of talent in their squad and the presence of the talismanic Leo Messi. But more than the silverware, it was Pep’s contribution to Barcelona’s philosophy that would have been affected the most in his absence. He built on Cruyffian principles and gave Barcelona a refined and, frankly speaking, a gorgeous identity. An identity that every culé identifies with and one which would have been dearly missed. He gave the football community a side that was an absolute joy to watch, and left legends like Sir Alex Ferguson stunned. He developed players unlike anyone else and helped bring out their hidden prospects. His eye for talent is irreplaceable. Maybe Barcelona would have become the best even in a world without Pep, or maybe they would have gone on a downhill until the next great manager had come along. But I do know one thing for sure. I am glad I grew up in a world where Guordiola was at the helm.


See also

• What if…Di Stéfano had joined Barcelona instead of Madrid?

Barcelona, it’s time to bet on potential

• Moussa Wagué and a season of only 8 games

• Lionel Messi: Perfecting the role of the false 9

• Aleñá and Riqui Puig, finally trusted by Barça?

Football is something that comes from within. Every minute spent watching or playing the beautiful game brings out emotions in ways nothing else ever could. This emotion embodied itself in FC Barcelona for me. Every piece I read or write, every moment I watch just multiplies my love for the club. The ability of being able to express this craze of mine is a remarkable gift for me. Its a gift that never stops giving.

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Ricardo Zamora: The greatest between the posts

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Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

Guest Author: Amal Ghosh

Ricardo Zamora has a rollercoaster of a footballing career, flooded with controversies. Despite that, he is said to be arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time.


“He is alone, condemned to watch the match from afar. Never leaving the goal, his only company the two posts and the crossbar, he awaits his own execution by firing squad.” Eduardo Galeano perhaps wrote the most melancholic description of a goalkeeper’s life of solitude.

The memoir of a goalkeeper lies between the thin line of glorious feats and eternal damnation. There were not many of them in the yesteryears of world football that we still reminisce. In fact, many of those who survived the rushing cavalries of the opposition attack were shot, shun, or shaded by that one slip or misplaced dive.

At the beginning of the 1900s, when the game was a far cry from the sophisticated version of the present day, the football pitch was a grant arena to celebrate the sparring between the defence and offence. Stars and idols were born and illustrated for the knack to score goals or the flamboyant display on the pitch.

In 1916, a skinny sixteen years old from Barcelona, who had a fortuitous debut for Espanyol against Real Madrid, went on to become the first superstar in the history of Spanish football. Moreover, the first goalkeeper to make a name for his style and to become an inspiration for the generations to come. Ricardo Zamora Martinez was one of the greatest goalkeepers both in the history of FC Barcelona and La Roja. He was the first and finest of his kind and left a gargantuan legacy behind.       

Zamora could do things never seen before. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Born on 14th February 1901 in Barcelona, Zamora grew up and learned his craft in goalkeeping on the backstreets of the Catalan city. What started as a leisure activity in the neighborhood, it maneuvered Zamora’s interest in the game and transformed him into a guardian in between the sticks. Challenging and extreme measures to prevent the opposition from scoring often would end up in frayed clothes and bleeding elbows. His parents were unhappy about his pursuit to become a professional footballer as his father wanted him to inherit his field of medicine.

In 1913, Zamora was sent to attend university, which was a turning point in his life. Along with picking up nicotine addiction, he also joined a local team, Universitari SC, and started playing full-time football.

At the same time, the founder of Barcelona, Joan Gamper (Hans Kamper) was scouting for young and fresh talents across Catalonia to bolster the transitioning Blaugrana outfit. Gamper inadvertently encountered a young Zamora who was delivering a staggering performance in front of the goal. Enthralled by his astounding shot-stopping technique and anticipation along with the aplomb character on the pitch, Gamper encouraged him to pursue professional football. Despite acknowledging his talent, Gamper was unsure about recruiting him due to his age, which would make it difficult for him to serve as an immediate replacement at the club. However, at the age of fifteen in 1916, Zamora signed for the rivals Espanyol and made his debut at sixteen. 

Pere Gibert, the starting goalkeeper for Espanyol was absent and the club approached young Zamora to accompany them on their trip to face Real Madrid. Zamora delivered an impressive performance against a Los Blancos led by Santiago Bernabeu. The match against Madrid announced the teenage sensational in the Spanish football and promised the starting spot ahead of Gibert. He safeguarded the Espanyol goal till 1919 and inspired them to lift the Campionat de Catalunya in 1918.

However, a dispute with one of the Blanquiazul directors resulted in him leaving the club and signing for the cross-town rivals Barcelona. Zamora dawned the garnet and the blue for the first time on 31st May 1919 in a friendly match against an international eleven consisting of players from the allied nations that had succeeded in the First World War (France, Belgium, and England).

The mere friendly match at the old Carrer Industria ground was in fact much more. It was a monumental instance for its symbolic representation of diplomacy and the introduction of two of the greatest players in the history of Blaugrana — Zamora and Josep Samitier. Both the players became the Blaugrana legends and defined the history of both Barcelona and Spanish football.

Zamora (R) captained Spain through a revolution. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

The 1920s witnessed the first footballing revolution in Spain. It was the dormant period for the political insurgencies in Catalonia, where the proletarian uprisings and anti-anarchist movements ceased temporarily. Instead, the populace was witnessing another revolution, the rise of the first golden generation at the Les Cortes. Moreover, it was the inception of the Spanish National Team as a major footballing power in world football. Zamora along with Samitier and Paulinho Alcantara were the three pivots responsible for the transformation of Barcelona in the 1920s. Zamora was selected to represent the Spanish national team in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.

It was the first-ever Spanish team to compete in an international tournament. He made his debut in La Roja’s first international match with a 1-0 victory over Denmark. Though the rampant Spaniards defeated in the final against Belgium, Zamora’s performance throughout the tournament established him as the best shot-stopper in the world.

It was an eventful tournament for Zamora in some other ways as well, who also grabbed some unwanted attention on and off the pitch. He was sent off in the match against Italy for punching and breaking the jaw of an opposing player. Another time, airport customs officials caught him smuggling Havana cigars across the Belgian border which caused the entire team to get detained and searched before leaving for Spain.                                        

At Barcelona, he earned the nickname El Divino (The Divine One) and his road to stardom surviving the assaults from opposition attacks bagged massive applause from the Culés. He possessed an immense threat in anticipation to charge down attackers in his own box and had all the physical attributes that modern-day football demands from a player. Enormous, build stature, and nonchalant character, Zamora wore the iconic high-necked polo jumper and a hard cap and stood in front of the goal to wait for the unleashing thunderbolts and storm. His style was imitated by many of his contemporaries, who could mirror all but that nerve-wracking stare at your soul.

Calm, composed, yet aggressive. (Photo by A. Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

At Barca, he moulded into one of the athletic goalkeepers of the time. His agility and quick reflexes along with the physical superiority often perplexed the attack. Zamora helped Barcelona to lift two Copa del Rey titles and three Campionats de Catalunya. He led a lavish and celebrity life; in fact, he was the first one to explore the scope of marketing the sporting stardom in Spanish football. The Spaniard spent his time with Tango singer Carlos Gardel, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and drowning in his favorite cognac tipple. Zamora and Samitier had famous night outs in the 1920s, at the time when Barcelona was becoming one of the fashionable cities in Europe. There were poems and songs flattering his honor, cocktails were named after him. Zamora even acted in a film called ‘Zamora Weds At Last’.        

Zamora’s three-year-long stint at Barcelona came to an end under some controversial circumstances. It was reported that in June 1922, Zamora allegedly asked the Barca board for a wage of 50,000 pesetas. He wanted a move back to Espanyol and Barca was reluctant to approve of the transfer. Even though he managed to convince them for the transfer; in 1922, a yearlong ban from the association for deceiving the tax authorities about the transfer fee resulted in delaying his return. Zamora stayed at Espanyol until 1930, guiding them to win their maiden Copa del Rey title, and also played the first La Liga season in 1929.

In 1930, Zamora’s performance with a broken sternum in an international friendly against England at Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid was enough for Madrid to pick him up for an astounding 150,000 pesetas, of which he personally received an enormous 40,000 pesetas, making him the highest-earning player in Europe of the time. Zamora’s eventual move to Madrid resulted in a downfall with his once admired Barça fans, who suspected him of having allegiance with anti-Catalan institutions.

At Madrid, Zamora partnered with the stopper-backs Ciriaco and Quincoces to form one of the best defenses by conceding just 15 goals from 18 matches in the league and lifted the first LaLiga title with an unbeaten record. The following season Los Blancos signed his compadre and Barca teammate Samitier and retained the league title by conceding only 17 goals. In spite of the disappointments in the league in 1934 and 1936, he guided them to lift the 1936 Copa del Rey trophy by playing a crucial role in the final against Barcelona. It was inarguably one of the best and crucial performances of his career.

The Cup final tie played at Valencia between Barcelona and Madrid was the last competitive match before the Civil war. The match was going into the final minutes with Madrid leading 2-1 and Barca was pressing high and surrounded Zamora alone in the box. After receiving the ball in the final third, an inform Jose Escola who already scored one back, fired the ball hard and low aiming for the inside post. The dry pitch was covered with blinding dust and it was obscuring the view. The crowd was already screaming and started celebrating the goal. When the dust was cleared, Zamora stood there indifferently holding the ball in his hand. A photograph that was taken near the post, the dive he pulled off seconds before the stupendous save remains one of the iconic images of a goalkeeper in the world of football. A photograph that broke the heart and soul of cules.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. Zamora who had a sound relationship with the Franco regiment was captured by the left-wing militia and imprisoned at the Modelo prison. However ABC, a pro-nationalistic paper reported the execution of Zamora and finding his lifeless body in a canal-side in Moncloa district. Nationalistic forces used this as an opportunity to strengthen their propaganda.

Zamora hailed as a gallant victim of the radical left violence. Nationalists were able to exploit the commotion caused by the alleged death of Zamora and in 1934 he was awarded a medal of the Order of the Republic by his namesake by then president of the second Spanish republic, Niceto Zamora. Whilst all this was happening, Zamora was in fact living his life with his regular three-pack cigarettes and cognac in the town of Nice in France. He was partnered with Josep Samitier who fled the country for the same cause, for the third time to play for the local club OG Nice.

Always in the public eye. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Zamora returned to his native in December 1938 to participate in a benefit match between Spain and Real Sociedad, for the Francoist militia. He was later honored by the Franco regiment by the Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros in the 1950s, an evident validation for the great services to the regime. Zamora died in 1978, leaving behind a rather complicated and memorable career. La Liga honoured his majestic contributions by naming the award (Ricardo Zamora Trophy) for the best goalkeeper in the league after him. 

“As with so many figures from the dark ages of football, it is difficult to separate the truth from the misty-eyed recollections, but everyone seems to insist that Zamora was the greatest, better than Yashin, Zoff, Banks, Arconada, and any others you care to mention”.    

Phil Ball | Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football (2003)

He remains one of the most important figures in the history of Barcelona and in Spanish football. He might have left on bad terms, but the Blaugrana still adorns the impact and legacy that Zamora left behind. The golden generation of the 1920s was the foundation that established Barça as one of the best sporting entities in Spanish football. His magnetic presence in front of the goal not only won them trophies but inspired the generations of talents to pursue the keeping role. The times when goalkeepers were overlooked for their contributions and presence on the pitch, It was the ‘the divine one’ sent by the heavens to finally write a new testament for those who guard the goal post.   

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