Pep Guardiola, the firebrand loyalist

Pep Guardiola’s biggest contribution to Manchester City was not the multiple titles he won, or the supremacy his club has wielded in the league, but the identity he has forged for the club. Even before he had landed, it had won titles, built a modern stadium and possessed some of the richest talents in the world, but it was he who built the club’s reputation, and burst the perception that City was buying their way to titles by splashing staggering amounts of money. He breathed life into them, helped construct a robust structure and made the audience fall in love with the sheer aesthetics of their game. He joined a club and turned into an institution.

Now, he has evolved into something bigger, something larger than life, something that would ensure their supporters that he is not only a great manager but also a champion of their collective cause, in a way their emancipator.

Ever since the club’s takeover by the Abu Dhabi royal family, they have lived with the nouveau riche stigma, an embodiment of money can buy anything snide. In the last 15 years of the Sheikh era, no other club in Europe has been viewed as suspiciously as City have. From financial irregularities to shady transfer deals, it has copped ample criticism. But it reached a breaking point last week when the Premier League accused City of 119 breaches of its financial rules between 2009 and 2018 following a four-year investigation. Some of it were failing to give “a true and fair view of the club’s financial position”, of failing to “include full details” of player and manager remuneration, of failing to comply with rules regarding financial fair play and failing to cooperate in a Premier League investigation that has concluded after more than four years.

Faced with such allegations, most managers would have dead-batted questions on that, but he came out swinging for the fences. The usual “no comments” or at most, “it’s not in ambit to talk.” But Guardiola, ever the one to speak his mind out, ever the articulate one when he wants to, sprung a staunch defence in almost 20-minute monologue. He struck strong and powerful lines, sharp, apt and incisive. “Like Julius Caesar, in this world there are no enemies or friends, just interest,” he said.

So poignant his words were that he would melt hearts of granite. Sample this: “My first thought is that we have already been condemned. What’s happening right now … is the same as what happened with Uefa [in 2020] … We are lucky we live in a marvellous country and society where everyone is innocent until proven guilty. We didn’t have this opportunity, we are already sentenced, and ‘tough’.”

It is well known that Guardiola would fight till the end for the cause he espouses. Back in his Barcelona managing days, Inter Milan found a way to contain tiki-taka with ultra-defensive tactics. Premature obituaries were penned, but he remained unshakeable in his commitment to the philosophy, and the next year, they reclaimed the Champions League in style. His friends and teammates would vouch for his loyalty and love. “The thing I love about him is that he is a man who keeps his word,” his friend and ex-teammate Luis Enrique once said.

Loyalty and dignity are virtues that he has always held close to his heart. “What I like is to represent a club who do things properly [and] well. It’s not about winning the Champions League and the Premier League, we want to do well for our people and our fans,” he said during Barcelona days. That’s why teams don’t brawl or players take potshots at their adversaries.

In an emotional speech, as emotional as you could spot him with the microphone, he swore that he would not quit the club even if relegated to the second division. “They say … you have to go to League One, or League Two or maybe the Conference? We have already been in the lower divisions. We will be back there – not a problem, just in case. We will call Paul Dickov and Mike Summerbee and we will be back,” he went on.

“I’m not moving from this seat, I can assure you,” concluded Guardiola. “Now more than ever I want to stay here.” The speech could have stirred the soul of even City haters.

But his blind devotion to the club has an alarming flip-side. What if City, as alleged by 19 other clubs, had wronged. On another occasion, when UEFA had alleged financial hand-wringing, from which City were cleared due to lack of evidence, he had claimed that he would quit the day if “the owners had lied to him.” He was reminded of that line, and he replied: “I would have loved to wait and see and time will dictate what’s going to happen. Just in case we are not innocent, we will accept what the judge or the Premier League decides, but what happens if in the same situation that with UEFA happened that we are innocent? What happens to restore or pay back our damage?” As he often does for games, he came prepared and delivered a verbal masterclass, and thus elevated his own stature, Pep the loyalist.

Guardiola had complained that his team had lacked the fire to defend the title this year. Perhaps it could be the fire and fuel that could power City to title this year. And the man behind it would be again Guardiola.

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