London – The day Ernesto Valverde left Olympiakos, bringing his second brief but successful spell to a close in 2012, Pep Guardiola was asked what he made of his departure. “Greece has lost a great coach,” he said, “and we’ve got a great photographer back.” Valverde’s work had certainly left an impression in Athens, hung on the walls of the Ileana Tounta centre for contemporary art and displayed in the trophy cabinets of the Giorgios Karaiskaskis Stadium, Piraeus – where, according to his fellow Spaniard Michel González, who eventually took over as manager nine months later, he was a “deity”.
Deity is not a word he would welcome, one former player insisting “he evades compliments and prefers the focus to be on his players”, but he is certainly different. The man who led Olympiakos to three leagues and two cups, took Athletic Bilbao to their first title in 31 years and today became Barcelona coach began studying at the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya when he arrived in 1986 to play for Espanyol. In 2012 he published a collection of black‑and‑white images described by the Basque poet and writer Bernardo Atxaga as “at once delicate and tough, as if produced by two different hands”. The proceeds went to social projects in Athens.
Atxaga is Valverde’s friend. The story goes that one day Miguel Pardeza, the former Madrid player with a PhD and literary pretensions, heard that so struck up conversation on the pitch. He is also close to screenwriter David Trueba and Basque folk-rock singer Ruper Ordorika. His brother Mikel is a cartoonist. His father was an immigrant from Extremadura to the Basque Country, a worker in a tyre factory who spent six months on strike in Vitoria the 1960s – tough, convulsive days during the dictatorship. And his wife, Monica, is a biologist.
A Stone Roses fan who likened his Athletic return to The Godfather Part II, a sequel that was actually quite good, Valverde too studied biology at university but only for a year while at Sestao River, aged 20. He was a 5ft 5in forward who considered becoming a photographer after retirement and planned to at least dedicate it time, always fascinated by what the snappers at pitchside were doing. But he said “football absorbs your brain” and he became a manager. Now he is manager of Barcelona.
He was always likely to be. Nicknamed “Txingurri”, the Ant, by Javier Clemente, Valverde played for Espanyol for two years, then for Barcelona before joining Athletic. At Barcelona, his spell was brief but he worked under Johan Cruyff, who he said “made an impact on us all”. In 1994, eight years before he even began coaching Athletic’s B team, Cruyff wrote of him: “He was intelligent and always expressed his interest to learn. As a coach he’ll be one of the most promising.” This is not the first time Barcelona have called, nor are they the only ones. Two summers ago Real Madrid wanted him: he was their first choice, ahead of Rafa Benítez.
Valverde said no, which says something about him. When Guardiola left Barcelona, he made two recommendations to succeed him: Valverde and his assistant Tito Vilanova. It was Vilanova they chose, seeking continuity, but two more offers followed swiftly. The next year Barcelona discreetly mentioned the job to him as they sought potential solutions to a delicate problem posed by Vilanova’s deteriorating health. Vilanova wanted to continue, so Barcelona respected that and Valverde agreed to return to Athletic. By the time doctors recommended that Vilanova did not continue, it was too late. Valverde had made a promise and he kept his word.
Tata Martino took over at the Camp Nou then but walked a year later. Again Barcelona offered Valverde the job; again he said he could not leave. When Madrid came, the response was the same. Barcelona accepted and signed Luis Enrique, but advised Valverde they would return. The change of sporting director did not change that intention and this summer, his contract up, European football secure for a fourth season, he and Athletic agreed it was time, no recriminations, no regrets.
As the former Athletic midfielder Javi González says: “Everything came together. He leaves through the front door, the right way. Everyone wishes him the best and hopefully one day he can come back. At Athletic there’s a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ Valverde.”
González played under Valverde during his first spell at San Mamés and speaks fondly of him. It is hard to find someone who does not. He is engaging company, generous and open, intelligent, genuine, often funny, and universally respected, rising above the rubbish surrounding the game here – although at Barça, with its politics and press, its relentless repercussion and the rivalry with Madrid, that resolve will be tested. As one former player of his puts it: “He doesn’t want to be the star and isn’t interested in the controversies.”
“I’m like every manager; if it’s in their area I think it’s a penalty; if it’s in ours, I don’t,” Valverde says. Yet few will so openly admit a decision they got was wrong as he does often and he insists that it is not right to “try to condition referees”. Fewer cut through the bullshit with such ease, and do so with naturalness instead of affected anger.
More importantly, few reach their players like he does. “His greatest strength is his management of the dressing room,” says the Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera. “He’s a top coach in that sense: honest, direct, transparent. It’s not easy to find a situation where starters and subs are both with the manager to the death.”
González says: “He’s very good psychologically and emotionally, a good motivator. He knows when to push, when to ease off. All coaches have ideas, badges, models, but ultimately that treatment, the dialogue and feedback with players, is vital. That’s his secret.”
Valverde admits that the Athletic dressing room is easy – a relatively humble, largely homogenous group, 25 men all from the same small area with similar ideas and aspirations – but González does not think that means he will struggle at Barcelona or that he will lack the necessary authority. Nor should the infamous “entorno”, the swirl of politics, press and pressure, affect him unduly. When he left Bilbao, having just held a goodbye dinner for over 200 people, he insisted he wanted to go somewhere “difficult”. The challenge suits him; he won’t shirk it.
One example comes from his handling of an infamous affair when he took Fran Yeste and Asier Del Horno out of the squad for indiscipline. As for pressure: in Greece, it was intense – all the more so in the midst of the crisis. Olympiakos were obliged to win the league and Valverde saw passion and protests first hand, trouble on the terraces, tension on the streets, and members of his staff living in blocks with electricity periodically cut. Someone who knows him well scoffs: “Pressure? He doesn’t care. It won’t bother him: if he has to sit Neymar down, say, he will.”
González agrees. “‘Txingu’ knows that dressing room is full of stars and you can think: ‘What are you going to say to Messi?’ But he will know; he’s ready,” he says. “If he has to raise his voice, he will. Most people haven’t seen that character but behind closed doors it’s there. He’ll call a player out for the good of the team, in front of everyone, even if it is a star. He knows how to impose himself. He’s calm at difficult moments and doesn’t let the euphoria affect him in good times: in that he’s a genius. He’s calm when others lose the plot, which players welcome. But while ‘Txingu’ has this tranquil image – and that is him – he also has personality.”
He has conviction, too. After his first game in charge of Athletic, a defeat by Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, Valverde insisted he would not do anything he did not believe in. When he was at Espanyol, Cruyff said: “It’s a pleasure to watch Espanyol play; I am happy there are people like Ernesto who play that way and want people to enjoy it, because that’s what football is for.” One friend calls him a “son of Cruyff”, his fitness coach José Antonio Pozanco was raised at La Masia and later worked with Rijkaard; Xavi Hernández, that most determined defender of the Barcelona faith, insisted in 2007: “Valverde’s teams play good football: they like to have the ball, they don’t just boot it.”
But while that connection matters in Catalonia, it does not mean rigidity, nor make Valverde a philosopher. “Light matters, goals matter more. In photos and in football, you seek balance,” he said when his exhibition opened in Athens. “Both depend on the elements you have available to you.”
“There’s variety in his system, his methods. He knows how to train: he makes it fun, a lot of the ball, technical work. He’s not repetitive and players love it – every day is different. He’s not overly obsessed with tiny tactical details, not least because the ideas, the philosophy, is so ingrained at both Athletic and Barcelona,” González says. “Besides I see some similarities between the two clubs. Lots of the concepts he had at Athletic fit Barcelona too.”
“One of his strengths is that he adapts,” Herrera says. “In Bilbao, with Raúl García and Aritz Aduriz, two great finishers in the air, he played in a way that aimed to get the ball into them as soon as possible, particularly from wide positions; in Barcelona, I’m sure he’ll adapt to fit the qualities of the players. These days managing dressing room egos is fundamental and Ernesto is fantastic at that. We all know what the challenge is: at Barcelona, the obligation is to win every game. But I’m sure he’ll be a success.”
The Guardian Sport