We’re all building sandcastles at the edge of an incoming cosmic tide, and we’re all neurotic, deep down or otherwise, and some of us are tracking oblivion with each heartbeat, and some of us have established a high-fenced parochial kingdom that bans pizza and sugary drinks, because Kafka didn’t try that, did he? A failure of imagination.
Sports, being both culturally important and practically useless, lend themselves—perhaps particularly in August, when the nothingness of the various offseasons starts to feel physical—to lonely little meditations on The Meaning of It All, but the people who work in them tend to be some of the more hard-bitten realists humanity has to offer. I’m imagining Bill Belichick's face flattening into a two-dimensional grimace after reading two paragraphs of Barthes, and I’m thinking of the time Tom Haberstroh tried to explain the spirit of a rule to Chris Paul and Paul snarled back that rules don’t have a spirit. This stuff is weird and weighty apparently only from the outside looking in. Cristiano Ronaldo has never appeared to be bothered by the great big why of a life spent kicking a ball around.
To be a famous athlete or coach, in other words, is to continually discover the schism between the doing of a thing and the heady swirl of thinking about it.
There’s a Pep Guardiola who lives in my mind who speaks in long, prescriptively Cruyffian monologues about what soccer is and isn’t, and there’s a Pep who doesn’t talk in game-recognize-game bromides about José Mourinho’s coaching. But the first one is actually Xavi, and the second appeared just once, amid perhaps the most grueling chapter of Madrid and Barcelona’s rivalry. The real Pep is much more like a figure a polemicist might invent than a polemicist himself. The byzantinely expressive, possession-heavy style his teams play is fuel for an argument he isn’t interested in making. He shepherded tiki-taka along toward its symphonic apotheosis because that was the best way to play with a bunch of lilliputian creative geniuses in the squad. He shifted toward a 3-4-3 in the post-Zlatan years because, screw it, why bother pretending Dani Alves plays the same position as Tony Hibbert? He reformed Bayern’s tactics because he correctly believed Philipp Lahm was capable of more, and that Thiago was Iniesta’s heir. These were merely methods employed to win games, he claims. Not everyone buys that explanation. You can’t control what people make of you.
Which is why the impression that Pep is an evangelist or an aesthete persists. For his part, he has constantly, to a steal a phrase from David Milch, tried to rest transparently in the spirit which gave him rise, understanding his ideas about the sport as nothing more sacred than tools. He’s been through a few trials, looking worn down and sad during his last days at Camp Nou, radiating some occupying force vibes at Bayern, and coming off a whit insecurely tyrannical at Manchester City, but the goal, on its face, has always been unpretentious enough: the pursuit of a performance and a scoreline he can be happy with.
Of course vanity is a factor in this, and of course winning games is not strictly about winning games. Pep’s not a saint who has emptied himself out for god to flow into, and he has Barack Obama-like desire to write his own history. His first big-time job at Barcelona worked out mostly swimmingly, and you could see his plan take shape as reports emerged that he was studying German five hours a day during his one-year Manhattan sabbatical: favorite son renovates spiritual home, then pulls off a similar feat in considerably less familiar confines. He dented his own legend at Bayern, but mildly, and now he’s building something out of whole cloth and an obscene amount of oil money at City. Each job has been a point Pep is trying to make, though the point hasn’t been more complicated than that he knows what he’s doing. The Cules who canonize him and the Allianz-goers who rejected his concepts as too cute and baroque don’t realize that Pep’s not in possession of some profound truth so much as he’s chasing complete expertise. He doesn’t believe in perfection, but he’d like to know the recipe for it.
If you do anything hard enough or well enough, it begins to take on the qualities of a high-minded pursuit. Some things appear that way by default: holy endeavors, fighting wars, certain types of lawyering and doctoring, creative acts. But you can find, in conference rooms of Marriotts the world over, walking suit jackets talking about something as banal as selling insurance policies or real estate or feet of PVC pipe as if it were a calling. Any work can be romanticized, made out to be something it kind of is and isn’t. Opting out of work can be conceived of the same way. Bostonian rapper-producer Edan once referred to doing nothing as reaching higher levels of spirituality. It’s all self-justification, which we all require, because we know we’re going to die.
So, transcendence through always knowing right where the holding mid is supposed to be at a particular moment? Probably not. It’s unlikely that Pep thinks of it that way, though he might on a subconscious level. He certainly labors like that’s the case. Which wouldn’t mean he’s a fool. These things sound ridiculous when you make them explicit. Marcelo Bielsa, who’s a lot like Pep in some ways and not at all in other respects, has said that if players weren’t human, he would never lose. He’s achieved enlightenment, in other words. Bielsa’s hasn’t ever won much of anything. Pep has two Champions Leagues, three La Liga titles, and three Bundesliga titles.
For the first time in his career, Pep is being described as lurking along the outer reaches of failure. One just-okay season at City shouldn’t be anything to get too exercised about, but units of time count sevenfold in sportsworld and any coach who hasn’t truly messed up yet lives beneath a thicket of arched eyebrows. You can hear the slightly accusatory suspicion in folks’ voices when they wonder if Pep’s philosophy will endure in his third stop, like they have a secret, or like they know Pep’s is that he doesn’t have one.
That skepticism is more palatable than, say, Kobe Bryant worship, but it takes aim at a bit of mythology that Pep doesn’t perpetuate. He isn’t Mourinho, who is similarly more pragmatic than he’s made out to be but also doesn’t discourage readings that posit him as part-witch, and he’s not Cruyff, who could afford to be an ideologue because he stopped coaching before his principles became outmoded. In fact, he doesn’t talk about himself or his ideas often. He’s pretty boring in most interviews. Something something played as a team. We had some trouble in the second half with their wingers...
No, Pep’s mythology—that unspoken, hallowed lie he carries inside him—is more specific and ordinary than what’s commonly said about him. He’s convinced he can think soccer into submission. Which is probably what many coaches think, but they’re not as bright or committed or fortunate. Pep is not a prophet, but instead a scientist bleary-eyed over an iPad, trying to figure out how to stop Eden Hazard—and most at peace in the grip of that anxiety. This act of applying his intellect toward superior understanding is his doomed bid to come out the other side of this thing, and what makes him like everyone else, the doers and thinkers and nothing-at-allers: building what the tide will inevitably carry away but believing it might stand up in the end.