The Pep Challenge: A Superstar Football Coach Comes to Munich
Wildly successful football coach Pep Guardiola sought out Bayern Munich as his next challenge. But he is arriving just after the team had one of the most successful seasons the Bundesliga has ever seen. Will he stand up to the pressure?
On July 26, 2011, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness were sitting in the VIP restaurant at the Allianz Arena when a man with a shaved head walked in and sat down at a table. He was alone. When they recognized who he was, Rummenigge stood up and went over to say hello to football coach Pep Guardiola. "Can I speak with you for a moment?" Guardiola asked. Rummenigge asked Hoeness to join them, and they ordered three espressos. At that moment, Rummenigge and Hoeness -- the chairman and club president of powerhouse football team FC Bayern Munich, respectively -- had no idea what Guardiola wanted. But of course they were interested in talking to him.
Pep Guardiola had traveled to Munich with his team, FC Barcelona, for a sponsor's tournament, the Audi Cup. His team had just won the semifinal against the Brazilian team Porto Alegre, and the second semifinal, pitting FC Bayern Munich against AC Milan, was about to begin.
He liked FC Bayern, the Spanish coach said. He had toured the club grounds on Säbener Strasse that morning, and now the Allianz Arena. "You have an interesting philosophy," he said. Then he said something that Rummenigge and Hoeness hadn't expected: "I could imagine coaching here some day."
"He was making a clear statement," says Rummenigge. Guardiola was approaching the Bavarians, and not the other way around. When Rummenigge talks about it at the club's headquarters today, he still seems flabbergasted. He shakes his head. "I don't know if I would have dared to ask him at the time: 'Could you ever imagine coaching for Bayern Munich?'"
At that point, Guardiola was already much more than just a successful coach, and much more than someone who is hired because he can promise victories and trophies.
Guardiola was seen as an inventor, someone who had given the game of soccer a new dimension. His FC Barcelona was playing more efficiently, faster, more precisely and more beautifully than other teams. The club had discovered a new identity through its young coach, and its game became a trademark that even the layman could recognize. There was something different about Barça games, something elegant.
"It was the best team we've ever played," said Sir Alex Ferguson, coach of Manchester United since 1986, after their defeat in the 2011 Champions League final. The secret lay in Guardiola's Barça code. After that performance in Wembley Stadium, even Ferguson would have agreed with the statement that Guardiola had changed football the way Steve Jobs changed the computer, Bobby Fischer the game of chess and the Beatles pop music.
When Guardiola said his goodbyes and gave Rummenigge a piece of paper with his mobile phone number on it, Rummenigge put it away and made sure he kept it in a safe place. He knew that he had been given a small treasure.
In two weeks, when Guardiola coaches Bayern Munich for the first time, it will be two years after the brief conversation that began the most spectacular coaching contract in the history of Germany's national football league, the Bundesliga.
A 'Very Nice Contract'
The story behind that contract is one of convergence that many believed impossible. It's the story of a relatively small group of men who got together because they essentially share the same traits: unlimited ambition and the will to prove it to everyone. The Bavarians recognized the opportunity to be the measure of all things in the long term, not just in German football, but in European football, as well. Guardiola wanted to show that Barcelona was no accident, and that he didn't just owe his success to three exceptional footballers: Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi.
He won't be giving any interviews for now, but even if he does, he will always be asked the same questions. What kind of a person is he? Can he repeat what he achieved in Barcelona? And why did he go with Bayern Munich instead of opting for the sheikhs and oligarchs of world football?
"The truth? I too was surprised when Pep called me back then and said: 'I gave Karl-Heinz Rummenigge my number in Munich, and I think he'll call me'," says his younger brother Pere Guardiola, who is the coach's most important adviser. He resembles his brother. Perhaps he is a little shorter, but he has the same comforting voice and speaks with the same musical Catalan intonation.
Pere Guardiola is sitting in a conference room on the 14th floor of a high-rise in the eastern part of Barcelona. He is managing director of Media Base Sports, an agency established in 2009 that specializes in Barça players. Pere secured several endorsement deals for David Villa and manages Iniesta's Twitter account. He negotiated his brother's deal with the Bavarians, which he calls a "very nice contract." It's eight or nine pages long, precise and "somehow German."
After returning from Munich, Pep told his brother that it wasn't just the training facility and the new stadium that he liked. Guardiola was also impressed by the squad, which was cleverly structured and, with "two or three minor corrections," had tremendous potential. He recognized the structures that Louis van Gaal had developed: the offensive game, the counter-pressing and a style of play that emphasizes ball possession.
Pere knew that his brother liked traditional teams, such as Ajax Amsterdam, Juventus Turin, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. While FC Bayern represents vast amounts of money in Germany, in other countries the club is identified with an illustrious past in the 1970s.
Pep, his brother, just happens to be a "romantic" for whom "tradition, history, the heroes of the past, those kinds of things" mean a great deal, says Pere. He used to work for Nike before becoming an agent. "Those kinds of things" aren't quite as important to him, he says. He isn't a romantic, but he is someone who has had plenty of encounters with the big money aspect of world football since last summer. Representatives of Massimo Moratti, Inter Milan, Roman Abramovich, FC Chelsea, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Manchester City, Sheikh Nasser Al-Khelaifi, Paris Saint-Germain, Silvio Berlusconi and AC Milan came to see him. They all wanted Guardiola, and they all seemed like junkies in withdrawal. They needed the drug that only Guardiola seemed to have.
"I called Giovanni and set him to work on the Bavarians," says Pere. Giovanni Branchini is one of Italy's top agents, and an old acquaintance of Hoeness and Rummenigge. Considered discreet and professional, he orchestrated Stefan Effenberg's move to Florence in the 1990s and brought Brazilian player Ronaldo to Barcelona and, later, to Inter Milan. "We didn't want it to seem as if we were offering ourselves to the Bavarians. My brother just wanted to make sure that they understood that he thought Bayern was interesting," says Pere. Branchini was given an assignment: to arrange a meeting with the Bavarians.
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