Brescia is not quite what Pep Guardiola had in mind when he decided, last June, to wait for the right club in the right city before picking up the threads of a career cast off in Barcelona. But that is where he has suddenly washed up, a new team-mate for Roberto Baggio, somewhere in the unfashionable middle regions of Serie A at the orders of a veteran coach in Carlo Mazzone who appears to be losing his marbles.
Not exactly the route down which Guardiola had expected to march to the World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan. But then time, he suddenly found, was running out. It was last June that Guardiola, midfield fulcrum of the great Catalan club for most of the past decade, had decided to take a sabbatical from football, He did not know quite how long it would last. But his absence from Europe's pitches would not be permanent. To underline the point he employed a physical fitness instructor to keep him in shape for the day when he was ready to play again.
If he had wanted it, Guardiola could have put his signature to the foot of any of a dozen or more contracts waved in his direction during the summer. These came largely from abroad.
Guardiola is so closely linked with Barcelona that no other outfit in Spain considered even wasting their time on an offer. But after sifting through the small print of what did come his way, Guardiola decided that none was quite what he wanted. It was not the money. Guardiola had made it perfectly clear to his friends that he wanted his next club to come with the right 'lifestyle' experience. The country had to be right, the city had to be right and the 'social ambience' had to appeal. Nothing was to his liking. So he stayed home, appearing on occasional television chat shows and at a mixture of Catalan cultural festivals following an earlier popular success with a public poetry reading on behalf of one of the most renowned Catalan writers. All a far cry from the football pitches on which Guardlola made his name and to which he is expected, one day soon, to return.
Guardiola was discovered as a teenager by hometown club Barca, and coach Johan Cruyff thrust the raw 19-year-old into the midfield gap left vacant by the departure of Luis Milla for Real Madrid. Guardiola took Spanish football by storm. The boy from the suburb of Manresa was promoted into the national team after only 20 League appearances. Little more than a year later, in 1992, he won the Prix Bravo, awarded annually to the outstanding under-23 footballer in Europe. By then Guardiola had helped steer Barcelona to victory in the European Champions Cup Final over Sampdoria at Wembley.
The Cules - Barcelona's fans - loved him even more than international superstars such as Hristo Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman because he was one of them, a real Catalan, born and bred. No wonder Guardiola was quickly promoted to captain. Great players came and went including Brazilian Ronaldo, virtually a complete team of Dutchmen, Portugal's Luis Figo and Romania's Gheorghe Hagi. But Guardiola remained; as much a fixed point for the fans as he was in the heart of midfield. As Davor Suker put it during his goal-hungry spell at Real Madrid, when he often came up against Guardiola: "He is Barcelona's heart. Everything flows through him."
Unfortunately, the one man who did not share their rose-coloured vision of Guardiola was long-term national coach Javier Clemente. The little Basque was suspicious about choosing too many players from Spain's Big Two - Barca and Real Madrid. Clemente was also among out-of town critics who considered Guardiola's fitness to be suspect; his career has been scarred by a number of major injury-enforced absences. So, the coach omitted the midfielder from his Euro 96 squad, while in 1998, as if confirming Clemente's caution, injury prevented Guardiola even being available for selection to go to the World Cup in France. In his absence, Spain crashed out ignominiously in the first round.
Having won a host of honours with Barcelona in the 1990s, it all began to unravel in the late spring of 2000. Barca were overtaken in the League by Deportivo La Coruna, they crashed out of the Champions League to Spanish rivals Valencia in the semi-finals, coach Louis Van Gaal quit and so did long-time president Josep Nunez.
Last season's transition season was a further disappointment. Barcelona won nothing. Foreign players swirled in and out of the club. Guardiola decided he had had enough and to dedicate his energies into improving his golf handicap. The midfielder always insisted privately that he would return to the game "somewhere" in time to claim what he believes to be his rightful place at the heart of Spain's midfield at the 2002 World Cup finals. He would make himself available for the mid-season transfer window and that would give him half a season with one of his "dream teams".
As a player, Guardiola has always appeared to have time in which to measure the precision accuracy of his passes. In World Cup terms, however, his timing proved less secure. Current Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho warned that if Guardiola wanted to fight for a World Cup role then January was too late to start. It would take Guardiola six weeks minimum to regain competitive match fitness and, by then, Camacho would have much of his squad nailed down. Thus, in late September Guardiola suddenly appeared back on the market.
The prospects were disappointing. Roma were interested after a further serious injury to Brazil midfielder Emerson Ferreira. Brescia made contact. Guardiola is believed to have looked long and hard at Roma then realised that to be in World Cup contention, he needed to be playing consistently - week in, week out. That was unlikely at the Italian champions. Brescia, now, were a different matter. They needed a midfield anchor. His place would be secure and he could 'go for it'- always assuming the unpredictable Mazzone kept the faith. Assuming, also, freedom from injury. A player returning to action too fast after a long absence is always at risk. Guardiola more than most.
This article first appeared in the November 2001 edition of World Soccer magazine. Subscribe here.