In 2008, a young football coach made the transition from tutoring Barcelona’s second string to taking over the full side. Ever since, the Guardiola model has captivated the footballing world.
It was a risky decision that surprised many within both the 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.
In announcing the move to appoint Pep, then Barca president Joan Laporta spoke of the end of a cycle in respect to Frank Rijkaard’s tenure. He revealed that the promotion of Pep to the helm of the first team would “guarantee the continuation of the footballing ideology” which had seen them achieve their recent successes.
Appointing someone who bled azulgrana blood, and who was already in-house, Laporta also spoke of Pep’s awareness, knowledge and confidence in his own managerial ability — high praise for a manager who had barely cut his teeth with the second-string Barca banquillo.
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. This heralded the start of a winning streak that would lead them to a historic treble of League, Champions League and cup victories — the first treble recorded by a Spanish side.
Guardiola’s results at Barca speak for themselves. A 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 the Barca delegatory commision that had 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 was appointed as Manchester City’s director of football in 2012, and he was no doubt responsible for bringing Pep to Manchester. It is, however, interesting to note that the two stood against each other for the position of director in Barcelona’s 2003 club elections — Begiristain alongside then presidential candidate Laporta and Pep with Luis Bassat.
But while many saw Begiristain, or perhaps Vilanova in his time as Pep’s assistant, as the real Robin to Pep’s Batman it has been, and still is, another character lurking in the shadows that has proved intrinsic to the success that Guardiola has achieved as a manager. That man is one with no footballing background — as a sportsman, he was more used to ball in hand, rather than at his feet, in the world of water polo.
That man is 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. More than anyone else, he is the person tasked with nourishing Pep’s tactical and footballing nous.
Initially 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. It was a role that functioned, in Pep’s own words, spectacularly.
With a friendship that found its genesis in growing up in the same neighbourhood of Manresa in Catalonia, Estiarte was, like Pep, touched by the hand of achievement: he 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 highest number of international appearances (in any sport), and appearances at the Olympic Games.
Estiarte made his debut with the national side at the tender age of 15. In his 23-year career he 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.
Even so, Pep holds the medal that most mattered to both in their respective careers: Olympic gold at the home Games of Barcelona 1992. Guardiola himself admitted to gently ‘taking the Mick’ out of Estiarte for this fact when they both returned to their home town, 47 km away.
The Games kicked off with both men walking side by side during the opening ceremony at Barcelona’s Stadio Olimpico. It ended with the football team defeating Poland 3-2 in the Camp Nou final. Meanwhile, Estiarte’s side lost to Italy a day later at the other end of the city, under pressure to match their footballing counterparts.
It was a loss that came, agonisingly, in the third period of extra time as both teams matched each other man for man. The cross bar finally denied the Spanish side their moment in the sun but Estiarte would get his hands on the medal he deserved four years later in Atlanta.
Estiarte’s list of honours is more than impressive: four Spanish league triumphs, two Italian leagues, one European Cup, three Cup Winners’ Cups and four Supercups. He made appearances at six consecutive Olympic Games (Moscow 1980, Los Ángeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000), finishing top scorer in his first four. He also finished runner up with the national team in the World Championships of 1990 and 1994. Then there is the small matter of his seven 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 are attributes which, when taken together, mirror those of Guardiola in his time as a footballer and which also brought him success as a player.
It was something Guardiola reminded his Bayern Munich team of on the eve of the penalty shootout against Chelsea in the 2013 Uefa Super Cup final. Lining up against his former friend Jose Mourinho in Prague, the game had 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 Michael Jordan was to basketball and Messi is to football. Utterly dominant. But more important than that, in Pep’s eyes, was his ability to help and assist others in need.
This was illustrated perfectly in the case of fellow water polo teammate Pedro ‘Toto’ Garcia who, at the end of his career, found himself in a downward spiral of alcohol and cocaine addiction. Thanks to Estiarte’s help and financial support, he turned his life around.
Manel Estiarte was the youngest of four children, all of whom were drawn to the pool as their field of play, be it in water polo or in professional swimming. His 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 realize 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.
This win-at-all costs mentality, this incessant drive to succeed that Guardiola embodies so fully, was never more evident in Estiarte than when 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 charade after Barca sealed a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu in the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League (following Pepe’s sending off), Estiarte asked:
"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. With Manel Estiarte at his side, Pep Guardiola is no exception to the rule.