SOCCER

Guardiola plays enigmatic game

Barcelona boss has still not decided whether to renew his one-year contract

A year after Pep Guardiola signed a contract extension for the current season, he remains silent on his intentions for next year. The machinery is stalled, even in a non-competitive week of the kind traditionally used to resolve matters such as the continuance of the coach. As time wears on, Guardiola's doubts grow and the circumstances under which the three-time Liga-winning coach's decision will be forthcoming remain unclear.

It is customary in soccer for the club president to resolve coaching matters, which is why Barcelona's predicament is all the more extraordinary. But there are precedents that suggest a certain level of normality in this muddle. Arrigo Saachi left AC Milan after four years because he was "tired, finished, broken," although he later rued his decision. The same thing, more or less, is occurring with Guardiola, a countercultural figure like Saachi, and who shares the fear of making the wrong decision, although his connection to the Catalan club runs much deeper than Saachi's ever did with the rossoneri. José Mourinho, by contrast, finds motivation easier because he is always seeking new pastures.

Guardiola is a coach custom-made for Barça and, as such, questions are not only being asked as to whether he has the energy to continue, but also how much personal responsibility he has assumed for his side's 10-point deficit on Real Madrid in the league. He has taken on so much responsibility for the team and acts so well as a charismatic leader that he is often considered a future president of the club.

His Barcelona blood though has not always guaranteed a smooth career at the club. Guardiola left Camp Nou for Italy but rather than playing for Juventus, as he desired, he wound up at Brescia and later Roma, before traipsing through the UAE and Mexican leagues. When he sought a return to Barça as sporting director, he ran on a losing ticket.

Guardiola might also be asking himself whether he runs the risk of emulating early 20th-century Athletic coach Fred Pentland, who left the club when he felt he had become "too much a friend of the players."

It remains to be seen how capable the board is of persuading Guardiola to continue. It can't be easy for club president Sandro Rosell to deal with his coach, who has put all the pieces in place to convince Guardiola to stay. The question is whether he is acting with interest or complicity. Rosell was able to present Ronaldinho in 2003 when John Cruyff, then an advisor to Joan Laporta, failed in his bid to sign the "triple-A" from Valencia: David Albelda, Roberto Ayala and Pablo Aimar.

Later, as Sporting vice-president, Rosell had a plan B in place to cover Frank Rijkaard's departure. His task now is to convince people that he is equally capable of replacing Guardiola as he is of persuading him to stay.

It could be the case that the subject of Guardiola's renewal will demand more time than usual, while on the other hand there is no great necessity for any announcement to be made in February. After all, if it was Guardiola who initially reserved the beginning of the year to state whether he was staying or not, he is now within his rights to ask for more time to formulate his response.

Although many barcelonistas think it is corny - above all those who reproached his farewell as a player after treating him as though he had the plague - Guardiola needs to feel the same emotion as when he first took charge of the B team and, a year later, the first team.

Passionate by nature, Guardiola would renew his contract now if he could be assured that Real Madrid would have to play for the league title at Camp Nou in the same way that Barcelona has had to win it in the Bernabéu in recent years.

The affair is so simple and yet so difficult as the 50 meters that separate Guardiola's office from that of Andoni Zubizarreta, the only person at the club whose sensitivity and intelligence can prevent the matter of the coach's continuance in the Barcelona hotseat from turning into a melodrama.

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