At this stage, it is fairly obvious what happens next. Claudio Bravo is on his way from Barcelona. Joe Hart has played his last game in Manchester City’s colors and the speed at which everything has happened, with hardly a backwards glance from Pep Guardiola, means we will presumably hear more in the coming days about how cold and hard‑faced this sport can be sometimes.
Unfortunately for Hart that is just the nature of the business and, while it is easy to understand an element of the sympathy, perhaps it might be an idea for some of the more outraged to go back to Guardiola’s time at Barcelona and consider the results of a coach who knows precisely what he wants and refuses to bend for anyone.
Barcelona also had players who saw themselves as untouchable when Guardiola took control in 2008. One was a former Ballon d’Or winner, revered for elevating the sport to such extraordinary heights even the Real Madrid fans clapped him off the pitch after one clásico at the Bernabéu. Ronaldinho, according to Xavi, “changed our history”. He was the “face of the project”, in the words of Ferran Soriano, the vice-president. “Ronaldinho has the dribbling skills of Rivelino, the vision of Gerson, the irreverence of Garrincha, the speed of Jairzinho, the technique of Zico and the creativity of Romário,” Tostão, Brazil’s 1970 World Cup striker, said.
At the same time, Ronaldinho’s last few seasons at the Camp Nou could also be summed up by his puppet on Las Noticias del Guiñol, Spain’s equivalent of Spitting Image, having the catchphrase “Fiesta!” The discipline had gone and the culture of the dressing room had suffered as a consequence. Nobody, however, could have imagined what would happen next. Deco, with his ability to unpick opposition defenses, certainly didn’t. Samuel Eto’o, another dominant dressing-room personality, didn’t. “These three are not in my mind for the future,” Guardiola said on his first day in charge. “In fact, we will be going onwards without them. It’s time for a restart.”
As it turned out Eto’o was unable to find a new club and the decision was reversed. Eto’o returned to the team and finished the season as runner-up in the pichichi, the award for La Liga’s leading scorer, as well as being a decisive player in the Champions League, scoring the first goal in the final against Manchester United. What he didn’t realize was that it would be his last game. That summer, Guardiola turfed him out. “I understand perfectly that people want to know why this is happening because he’s a marvelous footballer,” Barcelona’s coach explained. “On and off the pitch, he’s been fine all year, but it’s a question of feeling.”
By all accounts the same applies to Hart. He, too, has become a question of feeling and if that feels unsatisfactory to his sympathizers then it is probably worth keeping in mind that Guardiola’s instincts helped create the most devastating and beautifully assembled club side in history at Barça, accumulating 14 out of a possible 19 trophies in four years. What he is not trying to win is a popularity contest and maybe a few misconceptions about City’s new manager have been shattered in the process. “He’s not an angel,” as Graham Hunter writes in Barça, the Making of the Greatest Team in the World. “He can be intense, quixotic and hard to please – pesado they say in Spain.”
The translation is “heavy” and Hart presumably knows the feeling given he has not encountered this kind of rejection since a little-known story about Roberto Mancini – in pesado terms, a rucksack filled with breeze blocks – taking umbrage about his goalkeeper criticizing the team’s performance after a defeat against Real Madrid and, in a fit of pique, demanding the club put the England international up for sale.
Mancini was talked out of that one and a few weeks later Borussia Dortmund were the visitors to the Etihad Stadium, back in the days when the Champions League anthem seemed to have the same effect on some of City’s players as the theme from Jaws might have on a nervous swimmer. City, my report stated the following morning, were “outplayed for long periods” and could conceivably have been on the wrong end of “a hiding”. Yet there were periods of the game when someone could have chucked a handful of rice at Hart’s goal and he would have kept out every grain. City somehow emerged with a 1-1 draw and the current captain of Manchester United joined in with the eulogies. “Best keeper in the world,” Wayne Rooney wrote on Twitter.
Not quite. Hart has had so many accident-prone spells it was not an absolute shock to see the errors that undermined England in Euro 2016 and they felt particularly chastening given all his extraneous pre-match preening.
Equally, there have been periods of brilliance, too, and it might need several sessions of hypnosis before this correspondent can be convinced his current replacement, Willy Caballero, is not a greater risk to City’s team.
Another memory comes from City’s visit to Barcelona in March last year and a 1-0 defeat in the Champions League when Hart prevented another rout, epitomized by a wonderful moment at the final whistle when Luis Suárez made a beeline for the goalkeeper. Suárez embraced his opponent, looked him in the eye and told him he had never seen a performance like it. It was sheer wonder on the striker’s face.
Guardiola was there that night – you might remember him rocking with laughter in the stands after Lionel Messi’s nutmeg on James Milner – and the shame, perhaps, is that a man with his coaching reputation is not willing apparently to work with Hart on what he perceives as the goalkeeper’s weaknesses. If he thinks Hart’s distribution dramatically needs to improve, could that have not been fine-tuned on the practice ground? If Hart needs to stop going long with his kicks, release the ball more quickly and understand the importance of building from the back, are these not tweaks that would have been relatively straightforward to introduce?
Or maybe, just like with Eto’o, the manager is relying on his “feeling” and, if so, let’s not forget he hasn’t done too badly so far trusting his instincts. Guardiola was 37 when he accepted the job at Barcelona, under the spotlight of the world’s media, and promptly announced the end for Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o. Like all great managers he can be hard, unflinching and, yes, a bit of a bastard at times. Don’t think for one second he will be concerned that Hart has the respect of the dressing room. Don’t imagine him being troubled by the risk involved, or the criticism it has attracted. Don’t presume Guardiola goes home at night worrying that Joey Barton might want to lecture him on standards of professional etiquette.
Something similar is happening at Manchester United bearing in mind José Mourinho’s decision to cut Bastian Schweinsteiger free and the froth of indignation it has caused in Germany. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and various others at Bayern Munich have taken turns to express their outrage – though not to the point, it seems, where they are willing to buy the player back – while some bright spark from Fifpro, the worldwide players’ union, seems to be under the impression Schweinsteiger had been the victim of a serious crime rather than being removed from first-team activities. “It’s clear bullying,” Dejan Stefanovic, a Slovenian lawyer, said. “In Slovenia we would have indicted Mourinho and asked for the highest penalty – three years in prison.” In which case just about every manager in the business might be banged up and Sir Alex Ferguson can expect the key to be thrown away.
Alternatively, Mourinho has worked out that Schweinsteiger’s legs can no longer keep up with his brain. The midfielder’s performances symbolized last season’s dreariness at Old Trafford and you might recall some killer detail after Louis van Gaal’s sacking about how little time Schweinsteiger apparently spent in Manchester. Schweinsteiger was injured in January and had a tendency to return to Germany, flying in for United’s matches then straight back out again. It went down badly in the dressing room, to say the least. “Taking the piss,” was one description.
Hart is a far more established figure in his own dressing room but, in a strange way, that might work in Guardiola’s favor in a profession where he always has to be seen very much as the boss. “It’s disgusting,” Barton said. But it is nothing of the sort. Ruthless? Yes. Polarizing? Undoubtedly. But there is nothing disgusting about wanting better for your team and if anyone in football is entitled to back their judgment it is a man with Guardiola’s record of achievement.
Forestieri affair awkward for FA
Fernando Forestieri refused to board the bus for Sheffield Wednesday’s game at Norwich City last weekend amid talk of a potential transfer and reports that his employers were threatening to make an official tapping-up complaint against an unnamed club.
Forestieri, strongly linked with two other Championship clubs, also had to be persuaded to appear in the opening game against Aston Villa. His club have since made it clear they will not be backed into a corner and Forestieri, displaying more nerve than an infected tooth, has subsequently released a statement apologizing for his behavior.
“I can only repeat that never once did I even consider leaving Sheffield Wednesday, and I am sorry if anyone ever thought that was the case,” he said. “My heart is with Sheffield Wednesday.”
It is good of him to clear that up and, naturally, who would ever doubt a word? It is a pity, though, that Wednesday have decided against making that complaint if they genuinely have evidence he has been offered alternative employment behind their backs. For starters, it would have been intriguing to see what the Football Association made of it after interviewing Steve Bruce for the England job without, according to Hull City, the governing body making an official approach.