When the fuss dies down, when FC Barcelona’s legions have dried their tears, when sportswriters are done recounting the club’s 13 trophies in three years, when the new man takes charge at Camp Nou, when the world returns to normal … What then for Pep Guardiola? Barca’s most successful coach, who stepped down amidst much Catalonian anguish Friday, will find himself with much more to prove than the club he’s left behind.
Don’t get me wrong: Barca has a mountain to climb. Guardiola was ‘mes que un mister,’ more like a talisman for the club where he had previously been a ball-boy, player and captain. The 41-year-old will leave with the team at its lowest ebb in four years (he’ll be succeeded by current assistant Tito Vilanova next season), with the prospect (not the certainty) of a single piece of silverware this year, the Copa del Rey. That’s slim pickings for a club gloried by so many sportswriters as possibly the best-ever. The well-oiled tiki-taka machine has been creaky this season: Xavi, the midfield maestro, has been less than his genius self; Piqué, the charismatic defender often compared to Franz Beckenbauer, has been poor; Villa has been missing with injury. Indeed, only Messi’s personal-best goal tally has kept Barca in contention for silverware at all.
(MORE: TIME’s Cover Story on Messi)
Coming back from this fallow spell, under new management, will be incredibly hard. But great clubs shake off adversity, and rejuvenate themselves. And there’s no question Barca is a great club.
There will, however, be questions about whether Guardiola is a great coach. Despite his incredible success at Barca, there’s always been a sense that he inherited a team already destined for greatness. Critics (and by critics, I mean Real Madrid fans like my wife Bipasha) cavil that Guardiola had success handed to him on a plate. His predecessor, the Dutchman Frank Rijkaard, had already groomed Xavi, Iniesta and Messi into world-class players, and that Holy Troika was key to all of Guardiola’s successes (though it should be pointed out that when Guardiola took over, Barca had just finished 18 points behind Real). And his club was happy to spend tens of millions of dollars on any player he fancied. How, then, could Guardiola fail?
There are question marks, too, over his purchases as coach. A key requirement for all modern managers is the ability to spot talent outside the club, and buy it at good prices. Guardiola’s record here is awful. He paid too much for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and then failed to integrate the big Swede into the team. He paid too much for Dimitry Chgrynsky, then sold him back to his old club Shakhtar Donetsk at a cut rate. He paid too much for Cesc Fabregas, and the ex-Arsenal man’s inability to reproduce his heroics from the English Premier League is one of the reasons for Barca’s poor year.
Pep partisans will say its the club’s business brains, not the coach, who decides the price of a player, but this is nonsense: The buck stops with Guardiola.
This may be a harsh assessment, but it will hang over Guardiola until he has shown himself capable of succeeding somewhere other than Camp Nou, Barca’s fortress-stadium. He’s decided to take a sabbatical first, which saves him from the pressures of immediately replicating his Barca successes. But when he does return to the dugout, the question will come back with him: he was great for Barca, but is he great himself?
Good luck, Pep.