Pep Guardiola's Barcelona have made the game beautiful again
Pep Guardiola's Barcelona have re-written the rules on modern football, proving that the relentless pursuit of trophies need not come at the expense of the beautiful game.
By Rory Smith Published: 5:50PM GMT 19 Dec 2009
Under Pep Guardiola, the debonair novice who took over at the Nou Camp from Frank Rijkaard just 18 months ago, Barcelona have swept all before them.
They are Spanish and European champions, but their significance is not weighed in silverware. They will be remembered by history as the team which breathed new life into a game asphyxiated by its own tactical perfectionism, the side who conquered athleticism with aestheticism.
That is not to say Barcelona are ill-disciplined; the image of the freewheeling, free-spirited Catalans roaming forward is an anachronism.
Barca press, but they do it simply so they can return the ball to where it belongs, in an intricate pattern weaved by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, or at the feet of Lionel Messi. The gospel according to Guardiola is to destroy only to create.
Similarly, there is no sense of art for art's sake, as there was under the regime of Rijkaard and Ronaldinho. Their achievements prove that. They dismantled Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, the single finest exposition of football this year, and Manchester United in Rome, the most significant.
Beating Estudiantes in Saturday night's World Club Championship final would have made it six trophies from six.
Little wonder, then, that Guardiola's players remain devoted to their cause. "I have a role which I love playing and, right now, I could not ask for more," says Xavi. "I am made to feel wanted here. I have a contract until 2014 at the club I have supported all my life, playing a philosophy of football that I like, with an incredible coach and team-mates and I am playing for the national team. At the moment, I am enjoying every minute of my football and my life."
No player encapsulates Barcelona better. If they are mes que un club, as the steep banks of the Nou Camp suggest, Xavi is more than a player. He is a conductor, director and general. He grew up at La Masia, alma mater to nine of Guardiola's regulars. When his manager first noticed him as a youth team player, he remarked that Xavi would "retire him". It took some time, but the rest of the world has slowly caught on.
A year ago, a photo of the top five from Fifa's World Player of the Year gala was published in one national newspaper. Xavi stood stage right, next to Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Fernando Torres. The caption read: "The five best players in the world. And Xavi." No such mistakes will be made when this year's event takes place on Monday.
The team works because of Guardiola. Xavi's room at La Masia, a converted farm house in the shadows of the Nou Camp, boasted a poster of the man who would go on to become his manager. The paeans to Pep, though, are heartfelt. There is no hero worship, no obsequiousness.
"He has given me responsibility and I thrive on that," says the midfielder.
"He gives the impression that he is gnawing away at us all the time, but he is not like that. He is in his office, and we see him very little. We have two or three chats a week, he tells us what the opposition are like, how they play, and they will organise without the ball. We get four or five orders, that is it. He lets us live." WHERE IS OUR CELEBRATIONS SPAM POST?!