Barcelona and the gospel of Guardiola

A bit like Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, Barcelona’s great manager Pep Guardiola has faltered under his heavy burden. «I’m drained,» he said at his emotional valedictory press conference on Friday as star players like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta looked on helplessly with tears in their eyes.

Guardiola has been good news throughout his career. A passionate, intelligent Catalan, he learned the game from its Dutch source and took tiki-taka – or «total football» – to new levels of perfection. The numinous football Barça played in his time was inspirational, and his sudden loss to football – after successive defeats to Chelsea in the Champions League and bitter rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish league – is a cause for grief.

But the evidence of history suggests that the values Guardiola preached will continue to spread. This is because the parallels between his vision of football and early Christianity are uncanny.

Back in the mists of time a new religion began with a man we know by the initials JC. He worked with a small group of trusted friends, performed miracles, and spoke to the masses. Then came betrayal and he was taken away. Then he came back, though not for long. Later his disciples went out in the world and spread the faith.

Johan Cruyff’s miracles in Amsterdam were many. He and his coach Rinus Michels (a sort of John the Baptist figure) raised Ajax from obscurity. More important, they invented a new way of playing. Cruyff became the greatest exponent and teacher of totaalvoetbal. His vision of perfect movement and harmony on the field was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one sees in the pictures of Vermeer or church painter Pieter Jansz Saenredam. It was the music of the spheres on grass.

In 1973 Cruyff joined Barcelona as a player and, within months, raised them from the relegation zone (football’s equivalent of death) to Spanish champions. The grateful Catalan nation dubbed him El Salvador, The Saviour. In the 1980s Cruyff returned as coach, gave Barça its «dream team», instilled his ideas into every level of the club, and made his disciple Guardiola captain.

Barça views itself as «more than a club». Pope John Paul II was a member and, as an institution, it knows how to keep the faith. As Guardiola put it: «Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore and improve it.»

The Dutch writer Arthur van den Boogaard sees Cruyff’s vision as the «metaphysical solution» to football. But his path is also the most difficult to follow. That’s why modern high priests of the creed such as Arrigo Sacchi and Arsène Wenger have been as numerically few as Desert Fathers – and just as convinced of their moral superiority.

The faith even has its antichrist – José Mourinho, Real Madrid’s manager, who learned the secrets of totaalvoetbal as assistant to Louis van Gaal at Barça before turning to the Dark Side (defensive football).

As early Christianity split into bitterly competing factions with Gnostics, Arians, Manicheans and the like, so with rival total football sects. When Foppe de Haan won the youth European championship for Holland a few years ago playing a 4-5-1 formation, Cruyff was incensed by the heresy and demanded that Dutch teams must always play 4-3-3 with wingers on the touchline.

Things got bloody in the ancient world when mobs of killer monks met in places like Antioch, but Mourinho may be thinking along similar lines. At the end of a game last year he clashed with Guardiola’s friend and successor Tito Vilanova, and attempted to gouge his eye. Could this be the start of a new, more dangerous, conflict between good and evil?

David Winner is a writer and journalist whose books include Those Feet: An Intimate History of English Football, and Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football.

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