When Pep went to Italy: the eventful two years in Serie A that helped shape Guardiola

When Pep went to Italy: the eventful two years in Serie A that helped shape Guardiola

The love affair ended not with a bang, but a whimper. When the final whistle sounded around the Camp Nou on 24 June 2001, Barcelona crashed out of the Copa del Rey having failed to overcome Celta in the two-legged semi-final. The comprehensive 4–1 aggregate defeat capped two trophyless seasons for the once-great Catalan giants, but more significantly, it represented the denouement of Pep Guardiola’s time at the club.

Barcelona had time to prepare for the midfielder’s exit. Guardiola called a press conference on 11 April to address a room of journalists, alone, to announce that the 2000/01 season would be his last. Having risen through the famous conveyor belt at La Masia, the midfielder amassed 16 titles with his club. Still, a fresh challenge was desired as he entered his 30s, and pastures new awaited.

Guardiola epitomised Barcelona. Principally, his style of play reflected the culture installed by Johan Cruyff during his time in charge of the team; he was intelligent, positionally excellent and was a master of manipulating space on the football pitch. The academy graduate had displayed these attributes throughout his journey from the youth team to the senior setup and was the prototypical La Masia midfielder.

However, times were difficult at the Camp Nou. The 1999/2000 campaign was undeniably a failure – Barcelona did not win the Champions League, LaLiga or the Copa del Rey – and the subsequent season hardly provided much more cause for optimism. The team exited the Champions League in the group stages, fell short in the UEFA Cup, finished fourth in LaLiga and, of course, suffered against Celta in the Copa semis.

It was a disastrous campaign for Barcelona and it was one to forget for Guardiola, too. Injury problems saw him miss all six of his side’s Champions League group matches, and he was unable to replicate his flawlessly efficient showings from previous years. With his contract rapidly approaching its expiration, he decided to take a leap of faith and bid farewell to home comforts.

Guardiola himself was unsure of where football would lead him next. Available on a free, he was not short of offers from potential suitors across Europe, who sought to recruit the experienced Spain international. Following a draining, intense marriage with Barcelona, though, the midfielder was keen to bide his time and sit patiently before jumping into a totally new environment.

After playing his final match for Barça in June, Guardiola waited until September to commit to a club. Perennially calculated in his decision-making, he was desperate to ensure that this move was befitting of his ambitions; the 2002 World Cup was on the horizon and as he approached the twilight of his playing career, it would likely be the final major tournament in which he could involve himself. Regular game time would be essential, and in an attempt to ensure that he would be ready for whatever challenge beckoned, Guardiola employed a personal trainer to put him through his paces during this period as a free agent.

Many expected the Barça legend to join a footballing heavyweight abroad; it was obvious, after all, that he would not play for another club in Spain. However, Guardiola has never done things conventionally and sprung a surprise when he completed a move to middling Serie A club, Brescia Calcio.

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Legendary players such as Roberto Baggio and Gheorghe Hagi had adorned the colours of Le Rondinelle, but they remained a somewhat unfashionable, lowly club when pitted against calcio’s many juggernauts. It was a coup for Brescia, who stormed ahead and charmed Guardiola with what they had to offer, on and off the pitch. “The team came looking for me,” the 30-year-old said upon his unveiling. “And [they] wanted me more than anyone else in recent weeks.”

Guardiola was impressed by his new employers’ pursuit of his signature, and the prospect of living in Lombardy intrigued him. Having spent his entire life in the familiar surroundings of Catalonia, he supposedly told his friends that his next destination would be predicated not only on footballing circumstances but on what its culture and lifestyle would represent. Brescia ticked all of the boxes.

Gino Corioni, the club’s president over a 22-year stint, craved having global superstars at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti. He was obsessed with big names and was particularly delighted when he orchestrated the arrival of Baggio from Inter in 2000. Therefore, when Guardiola put pen to paper at Brescia, with six LaLiga medals and a European Cup, among numerous other honours, to his name, Corioni was in his element.

The allure of the club still appeared rather unclear, however. Roma were thought to have been interested in recruiting Guardiola after they clinched the Scudetto in 2000/01, but this particular move was overlooked because of the player’s concerns regarding how much game time he would receive. It was clear that he had one eye on the season ahead, but another on his chances of flying to South Korea and Japan for the World Cup finals.

Nonetheless, Guardiola took to the pitch at Brescia and immediately enchanted his new manager, Carlo Mazzone. The Italian was left stunned by the detail in which his latest arrival would analyse the team’s games, often joining the staff for lengthy conversations after matches, further putting his tactical acumen to the test. While most of Brescia’s players were celebrating wins or bemoaning defeats, Guardiola was obsessively picking apart the 90 minutes, searching for problems and coming up with his own solutions.

Just as the footballing world pondered why the legendary Barça midfielder had switched the glorious surroundings of the Camp Nou for the somewhat less glamorous backdrop of the Stadio Mario Rigamonti, Mazzone was similarly curious as to what brought Guardiola to Brescia. In truth, although the appeal of living life differently in Lombardy had piqued his interest, the dream of playing with one man, in particular, emerged as a key selling point that no other club in Europe could boast at the time: Baggio.

“Mister, I wanted to play with Baggio,” Guardiola told Mazzone, the manager would later recall. “I grew up with the myth of Baggio, they presented me with this opportunity, and I didn’t even think about it for a second.” The pair would enjoy a wonderful working relationship and the Brescia faithful adored them both, enamoured by the sight of their iconic blue strip adorning two of the game’s legendary players.

Guardiola held immense respect for the elusive Italian, whom he was delighted to finally call his teammate, and displayed his affection for the forward on 21 April 2002 in a 3–0 win over Fiorentina. After months on the sidelines, Baggio returned to the Brescia side as Mazzone called upon his star man from the bench. The second half edged towards a tense finish, with the scoreline finely poised at 1–0 courtesy of a first-half goal from Luca Toni. Brescia were in need of points as they aimed to stave off the threat of relegation to Serie B, and Baggio was instructed to consummate a vital victory.

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The Stadio Mario Rigamonti rose to shower the attacker with the adulation he had grown accustomed to during his time with Le Rondinelle, but Guardiola went one better. Noticing that the Italian was making his return from a lengthy lay-off, the midfielder removed his captain’s armband and insisted that Baggio took on the responsibility as the team’s leader.

The duo went back and forth on the pitch, generously offering the captaincy to one another while Mazzone furiously instructed them to promptly resolve their lovers’ tiff, until Guardiola eventually got his wish. Baggio, perhaps galvanised by his teammate’s gesture, scored two goals to secure a much-needed win for his club.

Mazzone may not have been especially fond of the romanticism in the middle of such a key fixture, but he acknowledged and appreciated Guardiola’s selflessness, accurately prophesying his future in the dressing room. “Peppe, today we won especially thanks to your gesture,” the manager said to his experienced midfielder. “You will become the best coach in the world.”

Guardiola’s first season in Italy had its positive moments, and he successfully helped his new club finish in 13th place, a point above the drop zone. He played in holding midfield, stationed between the more dynamic, forward-thinking players and the back-line; he would regularly drop deep to collect the ball, keeping things simple and attempting to lay the foundations for the attacking phase.

The team’s forward players made penetrative runs, which Guardiola often found with passes of pinpoint precision, but it was clear then that despite boasting greater tactical intelligence than his teammates, he did not acquit himself with quite the same panache that had proven customary during his glorious spell with Barcelona, perhaps hindered by a lack of genuine continuity at Brescia.

While Guardiola’s stop-start seasons of late had been consequential to the injury problems that riddled him throughout the latter years of his time at Camp Nou, the reasons were far different in 2001/02. Controversy threatened to jeopardise the legacy that the midfielder had constructed after he failed a routine drugs test following Brescia’s 1–0 away win at Piacenza in October 2001, as he tested positive for nandrolone. Having been initially suspended pending a disciplinary hearing, it was revealed that, only two weeks after the victory against Piacenza, he tested positive again after Brescia’s 5–0 loss at Lazio.

Guardiola was suspended for four months, in which he missed 16 games for Brescia. He protested his innocence, vowing to clear his name, and proceeded to embark upon a long-winded legal battle. In 2005, some time after his spell in Italy, he was unsuccessful with his appeal to overturn the charges, which led to a seven-month suspended prison sentence, decided by a Brescia court. Under Italian law, however, Guardiola was not obligated to spend any time in prison, given that it was deemed a first offence and the sentence did not span for longer than two years.

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With the help of close friend and confidant Manuel Estiarte, Guardiola thought he had succeeded in 2007 following extensive research into the anti-doping legislation within sport. Again, he stood before a court in Brescia and was this time cleared of all charges, only for the Italian Olympic Committee to reopen the case in 2009. Eventually, Guardiola’s appeal was accepted, and despite being made to wait for nearly a decade, the then-Barcelona manager was cleared of any wrongdoing.

His reputation was tarnished – unjustly, as it would emerge many years late –  in 2001, and he managed only 12 appearances for Brescia in all competitions during his first season on Italian soil. Having played 41 times for Barcelona in 1998/99 and 37 in his final campaign at Camp Nou, such a figure was unusual, and frustrating, for Guardiola. Mazzone and his side suffered without the midfielder: they won only twice in Serie A during this period. Upon his return to the fold, however, the Spain international turned in a typically metronomic performance in a 3–0 victory over Perugia.

Guardiola’s prospects of making the 2002 World Cup suffered enormously because of the scrutiny he had been under throughout the season. Inevitably, he lost his place in the squad for Spain’s final two qualifying matches and was then excluded from José Antonio Camacho’s selection for the tournament, with a certain other La Masia graduate, 22-year-old Barcelona midfielder Xavi, getting the nod instead.

The rejection left Guardiola disappointed, but it did not deter him from identifying the next step in his club career. Roma came knocking in the summer of 2002 and the midfielder jumped at the chance to move to the capital, where he would have the opportunity to play Champions League football again and observe the methods of legendary Italian manager Fabio Capello. Experiencing new lifestyles played a part in Guardiola’s thinking once more; he was excited to switch Brescia for Rome, and he moved to his new home, not far from the Pantheon, absorbing yet more of Italy’s culture.

Roma wanted to sign a new midfielder to bolster their squad following the disappointment of losing the Serie A title to Juventus by one point. I Giallorossi owner Franco Sensi, not dissimilar to Brescia chief Corioni, was a huge admirer of Guardiola and had attempted to lure him to the Stadio Olimpico from Barcelona in 1998. Capello, meanwhile, was unconvinced and preferred more physically-inclined midfielders, wanting to sign Edgar Davids from Juventus – but Sensi’s mind was made.

Mazzone was loath to lose Guardiola and held him in incredibly high esteem. However, when it became apparent that Rome had emerged as a potential destination for the player, the Brescia boss encouraged him to make the move. “Pep, do me a favour,” he told his key man. “If you really don’t want to stay, you have to go to Roma because Roma are the team for you.” Mazzone was in charge of the Italian giants between 1993 and 1996 and was well aware of just how special a club Guardiola would be arriving at.

From a footballing standpoint, however, the transfer was unwise. Capello simply didn’t see a place for his new signing in the starting line-up, and as such, handed Guardiola just six appearances in a 189-day stint in the capital. The midfielder started only two games – one of which came in an undoubtedly stinging 3–0 Champions League defeat to Real Madrid – and was offloaded in the January transfer window.

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It was a classic case of a club signing a player for their name rather than their suitability to the philosophy and plans of the manager. Capello was reluctant for Roma to recruit him and this proved to be prevalent in the first half of the campaign. Guardiola was not strong, nor fast, and performed best when he was reliant on his exceptional reading of the game; in many ways, his intelligence masked his physical weaknesses. Unfortunately, Capello’s system demanded more powerful players and, as such, he had little room for the veteran.

With that being said, however, Capello did have plenty of time for him as a professional. There was mutual respect between the two philosophers, with Guardiola often studying the experienced Italian’s approach to management: how he conducted his team talks, his tactical concepts, his relationship with the players.

“He’s one of the few intellectuals I have come across in a dressing room,” Capello said of Guardiola. “Intellectual in that he thinks about a lot of things. A lot about football, of course, but also about literature and other cultural things.” The La Masia graduate had always been a quick thinker, on and off the pitch, and established himself as a leader at Roma despite failing to impose himself on the pitch. ‘There are a lot of players who talk a lot and say nothing,” Capello continued. “Guardiola would find the right things to say.”

Similar sentiments were shared by former Roma attacker Marco Delvecchio. “He was ready to become a coach,” the Italian stated. “If you happened to be sat beside him on the bench listening to him, he always knew where to intervene when things were going wrong for the team. He had a really clear idea of football. He saw how the game would unfold before the others.”

After all, Guardiola was accustomed to watching on from the sidelines and gaining an insight into just what was going right or, as was the case in the 2002/03 season, wrong for Roma given his shortage of game time. “I know the bench of the Stadio Olimpico better than the pitch,” he joked in 2009 when he returned to Rome as the Barcelona boss for the Champions League final against Manchester United.

Capello, against the advice of his assistant Franco Baldini, decided that it would be for the best if Guardiola departed Roma in the January transfer window of the 2002/03 campaign. The midfielder had not been necessarily poor, but he was clearly incompatible with the manager’s approach. A young Daniele De Rossi was surging through the ranks at the Stadio Olimpico, too, and was deemed ready to step into the void left vacated by Guardiola’s impending departure.

De Rossi was fond of his more experienced teammate, though, and lavished praise on his influence at Roma despite claiming that he “wasn’t in his world” at the club. “Despite all that,” the Italian said, “he tried with youngsters like myself and Alberto Aquilani to transmit his idea of football – his principles – which even then were the ones he put in practice at Barcelona.”

Having played only 18 times in as many months in Italy, it came as something of a surprise that Guardiola was keen to extend his Serie A career, completing his second full campaign. Roma deemed him surplus to their requirements and, as such, Brescia needed no second invitation to re-sign him only months after he left.

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Guardiola again pulled on the blue strip of Le Rondinelle and looked at ease, spraying passes and initiating attacks for his side. His return handed the team a welcome mid-season boost and helped them along to a ninth-place finish, just seven points adrift of Roma, who endured a dismal campaign and found themselves in eighth.

The 2002/03 season proved to be Guardiola’s last in the top flight of European football, and he quietly headed to Qatar to play for Al Ahli in Doha after agreeing to leave Brescia in the summer. He was certainly still able to compete at the highest level and didn’t look out of place during the second half of the campaign, but a lucrative move presented itself at a time when retirement was certainly edging ever closer. His last venture would lead him to Mexico, where he played ten times for Dorados de Sinaloa, working under Juanma Lillo for a brief period before hanging up his boots in 2006.

Guardiola had developed a strong relationship with Lillo following their encounters in Spain and plumped for what seemed to have been a peculiar destination to close an illustrious playing career. The former Spain international, however, knew exactly what he was doing: he may not have played regularly for Dorados but he sharpened his tactical knowledge by learning from Lillo, as he did during the quiet spell in Rome under Capello. Guardiola never stopped learning and seized the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of how other esteemed coaches within the game carried out their work.

In 2011, many years on from his two stints at Brescia, Guardiola returned. He always retained a fondness for the club and maintained a close relationship with Corioni and his family; this was evidenced by the president’s decision to extend an invitation to the Barcelona manager, offering him the chance to observe Giuseppe Iachini’s training with the team before staying for dinner. Guardiola obliged.

Having transformed Barcelona following a difficult period, the former Brescia midfielder was considered the world’s most exciting manager. As such, Corioni could not resist cheekily asking his former player about the chances of him someday returning to Lombardy to occupy the dugout of the Stadio Mario Rigamonti. “President,” Guardiola said. “If I go back to work in Italy, it will only be to train Brescia. And I will do it for free.”

Though hyperbolic in his vow to Corioni, the 47-time former international was entirely serious about his affection for Brescia and remains grateful for the experiences he enjoyed at the club.

Whether or not Guardiola will return to Italy to test himself as a manager in Serie A remains to be seen. He has dominated in Spain, Germany and England, all while revolutionising the hegemonic playing styles in each of the countries at various times since becoming a coach, and his accomplishments in management have surely rendered his previous qualities as a footballer as secondary.

Nevertheless, the eventful two years comprising challenges and setbacks that Italy threw Guardiola’s way undoubtedly helped to shape him into one of the greatest managers to have ever graced the game. Perhaps the best of Pep in Serie A is yet to come.

By Luke Osman @lukeosman_

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