Craig WilliamsComment

MANUEL ESTIARTE: THE OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST BEHIND PEP GUARDIOLA'S SUCCESS

Craig WilliamsComment
MANUEL ESTIARTE: THE OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST BEHIND PEP GUARDIOLA'S SUCCESS

The Guardiola model has captivated the footballing world as we know it in the last decade since he made the transition from coaching Barcelona’s second string to the full side in 2008.

A ‘risky’ decision that surprised many within Spanish - and wider European - footballing spheres when first announced in May of that year, especially given the fact that Pep had spent less than 12 months with the B team.

Then Barca president Joan Laporta, in announcing the move to appoint Pep and his assistant Tito Vilanova, spoke of the end of a cycle in respect to Frank Rijkaard’s tenure, and revealed that by promoting Pep to the helm of the first team was one which would “guarantee the continuation of the footballing ideology” which had saw them achieve their recent successes.

By appointing someone who bled azulgrana blood, and who was already in-house, Laporta also spoke to Pep’s awareness, knowledge and self-confidence in his own managerial ability - high praise for a manager who had barely cut his teeth in the second-string Barca banquillo - dugout.

But, boy, how the ‘gamble’ paid off for Laporta. Even with Guardiola doing away with the presence of Ronaldinho, Eto’o (who by that point had notched up 128 goals with the club) and Deco, a first game defeat and second game draw was followed by a third game win which heralded the start of a winning streak that would lead them to a historic first treble of League, Champions League and cup victories - the first in history for a Spanish side.

The results of the Guardiola model’s ‘fit’ in Barca speak for themselves. 72% win ratio from 247 games in charge, with 179 wins, 47 draws and 21 defeats. While in the league (which the team won three years in a row) they scored 638 goals, shipping only 181 goals to other sides.

Alongside Laporta as part of Barca’s delegatory commission who decided to release Rijkaard a year before his contract expired in favour of Pep was sporting director Txiki Begiristain, a man regarded in media circles as Guardiola’s ‘mentor’.

The ex-Barca, Real Sociedad and Deportivo midfielder, who was appointed Man City director of football in 2012, was no doubt responsible for bringing Pep to Manchester, yet it is interesting to note that the two stood against each other for the director role in the 2003 Barcelona elections, Begiristain alongside then presidential candidate Laporta and Pep with Luis Bassat.

But while many saw Begiristain, and perhaps Vilanova in his time as Pep’s assistant, as the real Robins to Pep’s Batman, it has been and still is, another character lurking in the shadows that have proved indispensable in the successes Guardiola has achieved as a manager.

A man with no footballing background, and someone who, ball in hand rather than at his feet, achieved all there was to achieve in his sport of choice, waterpolo.

Manel Estiarte.

Current personal assistant to Pep and ex director of external relations for Barcelona, he has served as confidant to the man both in Spain and in Germany at Bayern Munich, and more than anyone else, the person tasked with nourishing Pep’s tactical and footballing nous.

Appointed thanks to the insistence of a common friend, sports consultant Joan Patsy(now a South American scout with Manchester City), Estiarte was hired at Barcelona to offer a helping hand to Pep as a bridge between the directorate of the club and the squad, a role that functioned, in Pep’s own words, "spectacularly."

With a friendship that founds its genesis in growing up in the same neighbourhood of Manresa in Catalonia, Estiarte was, like Pep, touched by the hand of achievement, having won every title there is to win in his sport of choice.

Indeed, the man dubbed ‘the dolphin’ remains not only the principal architect of the international success of Spanish water polo, but also the Spanish sportsman with the most ever international appearances (of any sport) and appearances at the Olympic Games.

A man who made his debut with the national side at the tender age of 15 and who, in his 23 year career played over 570 times for his country, scoring over 1500 points in the process. As a result, his trophy cabinet surpasses even that achieved by Guardiola, be it as a player or manager.

And this even if Pep holds the medal that most mattered to both in their respectful careers, Olympic gold at the home games of Barcelona 1992. And one which he himself admitted to ‘taking the mic’ out of Estiarte for subsequently when they both returned to their home town of Manresa, 47 km away.

With a tournament that kicked off with both men walking side by side during the opening ceremony at Barcelona’s Stadio Olimpico, the tournament ended with the footballing side defeating Poland 3-2 in the Camp Nou in their final, while Estiarte side lost to Italy in theirs a day later across the other end of the city, under the pressure to match their footballing counterparts.

A loss that came, agonizingly, in the third period of extra time as both teams matched each other man for man, with the cross bar finally denying the Spanish side their moment in the sun. But Estiarte was to get his hands on the medal he deserved four years later at Atlanta.

4 Spanish league triumphs, 2 Italian leagues, one European Cup, three Cup Winners’ Cups and 4 Supercups. With six consecutive appearances at the Olympic Games (Moscow 1980, Los Ángeles 1984, Seúl 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000), he finished top scorer in his first 4 games, while also finishing runner-up with the national team in the World Championships of 1990 and 1994. And not to mention his 7 World player of the year trophies.

In a sport dominated by physical prowess and strength, it was his intelligence that set him apart from the rest, his ability to adapt to situations, goalscoring capacity and above all, his level of ambition. All attributes, when taken together, mirrored that of Guardiola in his time as a footballer and which brought him success as a player.

One Guardiola reminded his Bayern team on the eve of the penalty shootout against Chelsea in the 2013 Uefa Super Cup final against (old rival) Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in Prague. After the game ended 2-2, Guardiola, with his players gathered in the centre circle, pointed to Estiarte.

“This man is the best penalty taker in the world. And I learned two things from him and his penalties. First of all, decide immediately where you are going to put your penalty and stay with this decision, and secondly, tell yourself you are going to score. Repeat it to yourself a thousand times and only stop after you’ve taken your penalty.”

As Pep himself described, Estiarte was to his sport what the likes of Michael Jordan were to basketball and Messi is to football. Utterly dominant. But more than that, in Pep’s eyes, was his ability to help and assist others in need.

Illustrated perfectly in the case of fellow water polo teammate Pedro Garcia ‘Toto’, who, at the end of his career, found himself in a downward spiral of alcohol and cocaine addiction and who, thanks to Estiarte help and financial support, turned his life around.

The youngest of four children, all of whom drawn to the pool as their field of play, be it in water polo or in professional swimming. A man whose own life was blighted by the tragedy of witnessing first-hand the suicide of his elder sister, who competed in the 1976 Olympic Games.

“He helped me look at my own sport from a different perspective. Sometimes when I was about to make a decision concerning one of my best players, he would tell me ‘don’t, leave him’. And this made me realise that some players, like in life, needed to be treated differently. That has helped me a lot, greatly,” said Guardiola of  Estiarte.

Interviews with Estiarte in his tenure at Barca gave off the scent of a man who is almost methodical and business-like in character, and provide interesting background into how the 'machine' maintained their exceptional winning mentality.

"I have to say that the Barcelona dressing room is one the keys to their success because they understand very well the significance of union and work, respect, humility and friendship,” he said in an interview.

And this win-at-all-costs mentality, this incessant drive to succeed that Guardiola embodies so fully, was none the more so evident in Estiarte as was the case after Barca won the league title in 2010/2011, much to the castigation of the Real Madrid driven Spanish footballing press.

In a direct retort to the then Madrid manager Jose Mourinho's infamous "why" press conference charades after Barca sealed a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu in the semi-final of the Champions League (after Pepe was sent off), Estiarte gave his assertion into his team's title win...

"Why are we united, why do we know how to win, why do we know how to lose, why do we have the best attack, why do we have the best attack, the best defence, the best goalkeeper, the best manager, the best stadium and the best support, why?"

As the old saying goes, to be successful you have to surround yourself with successful people, and with Manel Estiarte at his side, Pep Guardiola is no exception to the rule.

By Craig Williams, IBWM Feature Writer. Header image credit goes fully to Sergey Cherno.

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