London – There is a story Joan Laporta tells of the day he called Pep Guardiola to his office and told him he was going to be the new manager of Barcelona, to which Guardiola replied: “You haven’t got the balls.” If there is one thing Barça’s former president never lacked it is balls and yet he does not see it like that, even though José Mourinho wanted the job. Nine years on, it looks the obvious decision; back then, he claims it was obvious too – and he insists Guardiola is also right for Manchester City. “It wasn’t bravery, it was logic,” he says. “And if City back him as he deserves he’ll succeed. He’s an optimist, a winner and he’s brave: he won’t hide.”
Laporta sits in his sixth-floor office on Diagonal, the wide, 11km-long avenue that cuts through Barcelona, the day after an event with the Johan Cruyff foundation. “I miss him so much,” he says, “but it’s strange: we all said it’s as if he hasn’t gone.” When Laporta was growing up, he cut his hair like Cruyff, his idol as a player and later a coach. Eventually, they became close. In the presidency and beyond, the Dutchman became his adviser. Cruyff was an ideologue, almost a spiritual guide. Not only to Laporta but to many, especially those at the gathering, Guardiola and City’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain, among them.
“Pep looked very well,” Laporta says. “He was here for a few days, so we met up and he was very upbeat. He’s happy at City, optimistic he can build something. The way they plan to go about strengthening the team, I think they’re going to be extremely strong. The fans will be very excited.”
There is a pause and a cheeky grin, which there is often with Laporta, always famously good company, and he adds: “I don’t know what they’re going to do, eh!” He continues: “What I do know, and very well, is Pep and Txiki and that they’re capable of building a team that will enthuse people.”
At Barcelona, Begiristain was Laporta’s sporting director, Guardiola his coach. “Pep was the perfect fit,” he says. “He knew the club, the style, we’d seen how hard he worked with the B team, he’d played at every level, been at Wembley [in 1992]. I’ve never thought what could have been with Mourinho: it was always Pep I wanted. We’re all sons of the Dream Team. 1973 was glorious: I was 11 and this Dutchman turned up and revolutionised Barça, revolutionised a country. Then he returned as coach. We inherited that. There are other ways to play but we have our way – and it’s Cruyff’s and Guardiola’s and Txiki’s …
“Becoming coach was [just] the next step for someone capable of anything, because he has so much charisma and extraordinary intelligence. It was a good decision, we were sure, but he achieved beyond our expectations. We thought Pep would win something; he won everything.”
Guardiola’s first league game was a defeat at tiny Numancia in 2008. “Hostia,” Laporta whispers: bloody hell. “There was a lot of pressure and that day united everyone against us. They said: ‘You haven’t learned anything, you’re just a bunch of teenagers.”
By the end of the season, though, Barcelona had won the treble beating Real Madrid on route. “On the day of the Comunidad de Madrid, 2 May,” Laporta recalls, grinning again. Sitting in the directors’ box, he contained himself but he was fit to burst. “The regional president was there, dressed in white; the president of the government; the ex-president … and you win 6-2 and Puyol kisses the Catalan flag on the captain’s armband. Imagine it!” You can imagine Laporta in a suit but with Catalan boxer shorts hidden below. “The estelada [independence flag],” he jokes, pointing out the window to one hanging across the Diagonal.
“People say don’t mix sport and politics but they’re already mixed. Those who say they don’t mix politics and football, do. A club needs soul; winning makes you proud and if that pride is for a city or country it’s greater. You’re not just playing to win. The ends don’t justify the means. One of the things I was most proud of was putting Unicef on the shirt. It gave the club soul; it engaged us with society, especially the vulnerable. You play for something else. And if a team shares the values of its place, that’s the most romantic ideal. Pep fielded 11 homegrown players one day and six of ours won the World Cup [for Spain] in South Africa. They’ll never recognise that. Maybe that’s why they don’t want to give us our referendum [on independence].”
Laporta is laughing again. “Shit, maybe that’s it.”
The problem is that when it comes to City, none of that context applies; the conditions Guardiola faces are different on almost every level. Is the model really for export? Can the identity be the same, not least as City are a private business with Middle Eastern ownership? Do they need an English core, just as Barcelona had Catalans? Build an identity, seek a “soul”, sure, but how? “Do you want me to tell them? I do consultation,” Laporta says, laughing.
There is a moment, before talk turns specifically to City, when Laporta notes some clubs “don’t have a single player from their own country”, describing that as “risky, because you can lose your identity”, but now he adds: “We’ve always said anyone who lives in Catalonia is Catalan and you can apply that to Manchester. City have players from round the world but they’re still citizens. The key is to make them proud of that; ultimately the soul of the club is in its feelings, which are transmitted to the players.
“It’s not about players being English, necessarily, more about connecting with fans. We worked hard on the youth system, developing players at home, who give you that identity, and that’s an idea Pep, Txiki and Ferran [Soriano, City’s CEO] share.
“Pep’s record speaks for itself,” Laporta continues. “Everywhere has its idiosyncrasies. He knew Barcelona as a kid but was successful at Bayern and I’m convinced he will be at City. He’s lucky to work with Txiki and Ferran, who trust him. That’s peace of mind. When I saw Pep he was animated, enthusiastic, excited for the future. He’s smart, has emotional intelligence, an ability to convince. It’s not easy: the Premier League’s a challenge and there are two great teams in the city but he’s the world’s best coach and could’ve gone anywhere. He chose City because they’d have the faith, letting him build the project he has in mind.
“He’ll make his mark. If you watch City last season they passed the ball well but it doesn’t happen overnight. You need the right players. They’ll bring in players who suit the system he wants, which doesn’t have to be identical to Barça. He’s intelligent, he’ll adapt. He’ll create an identity, a connection. The philosophy will be controlling possession, the first defender being the striker, pressing. When they came here , yes, they lost but had it not been for some mistakes … they made life difficult for us. Very. He’s only just arrived: now, let his imagination run, let things flow, and City fans are going to enjoy their football.”
But it is not only context; it is content too. The other thing Guardiola does not have, of course, is the player he most needs: Lionel Messi. “Don’t give him ideas,” Laporta jokes but he has no doubts over the Argentinian’s future with a contract renewal imminent. As president, there was only one moment he feared Messi departing and that has long gone.
“It was 2006 when Inter made an offer,” he explains. “They were prepared to pay the €150m buyout clause, which is why we [later] raised it to €250m, but I always felt reassured by my relationship with his dad, Jorge.
“I told him: ‘They’ll have to pay the clause because I won’t sell. He’ll be happy here, he’ll get glory. There, he’ll only win financially. Your son’s destined to be the greatest in history and here he’ll have a team to help get there. He’ll enjoy it.’
“I’m very Cruyffista,” Laporta continues, “but what Leo does – and I talked about this a lot with Johan – makes him the best in history. Johan said so too. Messi’s football is beautiful and effective. For me the best ever are Cruyff, Maradona and Messi. Leo’s a mix of Cruyff and Maradona but he is Leo Messi.
“Of course he could do it in England. He has a gift. He could do it covered in mud in the pouring rain. He has done it. He’s played in England and been spectacular, he adapts to any circumstance, any conditions. And I love the fact he enjoys himself and never complains, never dives. Yet he has character, eh: it’s a mistake for opponents to forget that. It happened at the Bernabéu: the moment they hit him [Marcelo split Messi’s lip], that was it. Grrr and off he went.
“He’ll stay,” Laporta laughs again. “So, the big challenge Pep has is to achieve the same as he did here … only without Messi.
“Leo is just fine where he is at Barça and Pep will triumph with City. For sure. And he’ll deserve even more credit, because if you have a player like Leo success comes more easily. Pep says it too: forget all the stories, ‘this’ or ‘that’, if Leo’s right then, relax, everything’s in hand, we’ll win. He is a destroyer of tactics and does it beautifully.”
So, that is Messi’s future sorted. What about Laporta’s? It is two years since he stood for election, losing out to Josep Maria Bartomeu. The divisions remain unhealed – in fact they have deepened – and much has happened. There is the sponsorship from Qatar, declining fortunes and a club Laporta believes is losing its identity. The former president Sandro Rosell, who gave way to Bartomeu, his vice-president, is in jail accused of money-laundering; Messi has been convicted of tax evasion; and the Neymar signing has brought them to court.
Laporta has been in court too, where he was exonerated. The current board pursued him, seeking to hold him personally responsible for alleged losses during his mandate but the ruling favoured him.
“I can’t forget that those who followed me tried to destroy me,” he says. “We left them the greatest Barça in the club’s history and they spent their time destroying it. Pep had the rare courage to publicly defend us.
“Barcelona has been kidnapped. It’s hostage to the intoxication, manipulation and lies [of this board], and it’s sad. I’m demanding they resign. What they did to us was shameful; they accused us of mismanagement, brought an action against us and tried to force us pay €79m for ‘losses’. Now it’s been proven, seven years later, that they were wrong. It’s a scandal. If they had any shame they’d resign; if they had any shame, they’d have gone when they did a deal with the public prosecutor to make the club, not them, liable in the Neymar case.
“If they resigned now, I’d definitely stand [for election],” Laporta says. He would have to go without Guardiola. “And without Cruyff,” he adds, swiftly. “He was a great source of advice for me, so if I did go back I’m sure I’d suffer a kind of vertigo not having him alongside me. We’d feel like something was missing. But we’ve learned so much from him that deep down he’d still be guiding us.
“The problem is [the current board’s mandate] ends in 2021. If they went now, I’d stand. But if they continue for three, four years, I don’t think so. We all have our moment. Right now, it’s still fresh to me, but if it goes on longer, I’d like a candidate I can look at and think: ‘Yes, this is the one’. Renewal’s always necessary. I’d like someone with clear ideas, a model I can share, a person I can trust.”
Someone such as Gerard Piqué, say, the defender who has publicly expressed his ambitions for the presidency. “If he learns about running a club, he has more than enough ability and charisma and I’d vote for him for sure,” Laporta says. “Or maybe the future of Barcelona one day is Pep as president and Xavi as coach. Why not?”
The Guardian Sport