Champions League: In the footsteps of Josep Guardiola’s pilgrimage from sleepy Santpedor town to the peppy grandmaster of Man City

Champions League: In the footsteps of Josep Guardiola’s pilgrimage from sleepy Santpedor town to the peppy grandmaster of Man City


Reprising what she called her ‘Turkish summer memories’, a glamorous ‘influencer’ this week posted alluring snaps of herself soaking up the sun in the Aegean resort of Izmir and sipping iced cocktails by the pool.

Pictures that have been rapturously received by her adoring Instagram followers, who numbered 587,000 this week, and are rising by the hour. Meanwhile, in a sleepy Spanish town an hour north of Barcelona, a stoical old woman was defying her arthritic knees to scrub the doorstep of the stone-built house that has been her working-class family’s home for most of her 86 years.

I came across these contrasting images while charting the rise – to the brink of football immortality – of Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola. In many ways, they encapsulate the essence of his unlikely journey and tell us how far he has travelled from his humble roots.

The beautiful young woman posing in a crop top is his daughter, Maria, 22, a model and budding fashionista who has interned for Victoria Beckham and Helmut Lang, doubtless aided by her connections (her mother, Cristina, owns two high-end boutiques).

A fashion business undergraduate at Istituto Marangoni London, Maria has dated the fallen one-time wunderkind of English football, Dele Alli, and stoked speculation about her latest romance by posting yet more pictures, showing a Valentine’s Day bouquet and a man’s arm resting on her leg. One Spanish paper has speculated that the arm belonged to British DJ Jermaine J-Funk.

This week, she has been showcasing a recent holiday in Turkey, doubtless pleasing the daring swimwear brand she promotes. Her not-so-subtle message is that she will be back there, in Istanbul, tonight to watch her father’s team play against Inter Milan in the final of the UEFA Champions League.

Should City win – and they are such overwhelming favourites that bookies are offering odds of 2-9 on their victory – they will become only the second English team to complete the fabled Treble, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup, in the same season.

For Guardiola, whose reinvention of football’s finer arts has been compared with the way The Beatles changed popular music, it would be the ultimate confirmation of his genius.

It’s the culmination of a journey that began in Santpedor, the Catalan nationalist stronghold where I found his aunt Maria Carma scouring that stone doorstep – a scene that symbolised Guardiola’s humble beginnings and sweat-and-toil values.

And one that has pitched him into the charmed world his daughter now inhabits: a place where he is flown by private jet for desert summits with the oil-rich Abu Dhabi sheikhs who have transformed Manchester City into one of the world’s richest clubs; where he is feted by rock stars and Hollywood actors; and admired, by some, as much for his suaveness as his soccer savvy.

By all accounts, it is not a role he relishes. City, for all their wealth, have always been Manchester’s blue-collar club, disdainful of their Fancy Dan neighbours United – compellingly, the only other club to have achieved the Treble.

It was this earthy image and the opportunity to knock the club of George Best and Bobby Charlton off their gilded perch that helped persuade Guardiola – a romantic whose favourite book is Don Quixote – to move with his family to the city of redbrick terraces and rain-lashed cobbles.

One would imagine that his reputed £19.7 million salary also had some effect on his decision to join City, after trophy-laden spells at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Nonetheless, he is now to be seen cycling along Deansgate in a flat cap and popping into Sainsbury’s for a tube of toothpaste, every inch the working Mancunian. Pally with Noel Gallagher, said to possess a stack of Coronation Street videos, and obliging to the selfie-hunters who approach him as he sits, like Socrates, dreaming up football formations under the willow tree below his £2.7 million city centre apartment, he says he feels ‘loved’ by the folk of his adopted home.

Soon, a mural will be unveiled on the gable-end of a house opposite City’s Etihad stadium, capturing the passion and intensity that fire him on the touchline.

Were he to emulate Alex Ferguson by bringing all three major trophies back for the obligatory open-topped bus tour this weekend, he will be remembered eternally, along with L. S. Lowry, Alan Turing and the Peterloo Massacre heroes.

Jose Mourinho might think he’s the Special One, but Guardiola, who not only wins more, but wins more aesthetically, is the real deal. Watching his teams, with their ever-evolving tactics, their supremacy is such that they often appear to have an extra player on the field. Away from the training pitch, however, he is no less fascinating.

Highly intelligent and cultured, he speaks five languages, recites Catalan poetry by heart and sought the advice of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov to improve his understanding of how to perform under intense pressure.

Yet Guardiola has his flaws like most geniuses, not least of which is his flashpoint temper, and – as he has admitted – he is not nearly as self-assured as he seems.

When City fans map out the Pep Pilgrimage Trail it will surely start in Santpedor, a town of 7,500 people whose banal, modern outskirts hide the impressive medieval architecture at its core.

They will find pro-republican slogans daubed everywhere and the red and yellow-striped Catalan flag dangling from many balconies, for this insular mountain community has a long tradition of fighting for independence from Spain.

As a boy, Guardiola’s father, Valenti, got into trouble with the repressive regime of fascist dictator General Franco, for singing in his native tongue rather than Castilian Spanish.

However Valenti, a bricklayer, was resourceful and ferociously hard-working – traits he passed to his son – and after marrying Pep’s mother, Dolors, he built a successful construction company.

Born in 1971, Pep, or Josep as he was christened, was the third of four children. Four years later, Franco died and Pep was raised at a time of renewed optimism for Catalan nationalists, who hoped for an independence referendum. When it failed to materialise, Pep took up the republican cudgels, wasting no opportunity to promote their cause. It has brought him into conflict with the authorities.

When he managed Barcelona, his private jet was impounded and searched by Spanish civil guards, on suspicion that he was smuggling the exiled Catalan parliament leader Carles Puigdemont back into the country.

The FA fined him £20,000 for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of separatists jailed for ‘treason’ when Manchester City played Wigan in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 2018.

But as Santpedor’s mayor-elect, Agusti Comas, a school friend and junior team-mate of Guardiola, told me this week, his renown has made him a ‘powerful voice’ in the movement and he could have a future in politics if he so wishes.

When Guardiola was a small boy his father hoped he might follow him into the building trade. While his son’s authority and organisational skill shone through on a football pitch, however, Valenti says: “When it came to my territory, which is being good with his hands, Pep is an absolute disaster. He can’t even change a light bulb. The one day I took him to work with me, when he was still a kid, he didn’t come back after lunch.”

  • Daily Mail report / By David Jones
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