EUROPEAN SOCCER

Pep Guardiola prepares to face his toughest season yet

Criticized by the media and fans, the ex-Barça coach’s prestige is in peril at Bayern this year

Guardiola during a cup game against Noettingen last weekend.
Guardiola during a cup game against Noettingen last weekend.THOMAS KIENZLE (AFP) / AFP

Josep Guardiola celebrated signing as coach for Bayern Munich with a frugal dinner in the apartment he had rented in New York to spend a year’s sabbatical leave with his family following his departure from Barcelona. He had spoken to Alex Ferguson, who had called on behalf of Manchester United, while Pere, his brother and manager, had been contacted by clubs from Italy, Russia, and France. But he had resisted the offers, and decided to go with the German side. That night, he says, he began to think big. “I want to win where many have won, but in a way that nobody else has,” he told himself while studying German in the Big Apple and watching the side win a historic triple under Jupp Heynckes.

The Germans are surprised that a Spaniard works more hours than we do” A Spanish Bayern Munich player

Three years later, Guardiola has won the two Bundesligas in which he has competed, the German Cup, a Club World Cup, and the Uefa Super Cup. But for the last two years, Bayern has been eliminated from the Champions League in the semifinals by Real Madrid and Barcelona. And Guardiola has not gotten off to the best of starts this season, losing last week to Wolfsburg in the German Supercup. This Friday, Bayern will begin the defense of its Bundesliga crown with a match against Hamburg. Guardiola says it will not be easy to take a third consecutive league title, but the key to winning will be feeling he is wanted: “I will do anything to feel loved,” he recently commented. Close friends say that Bayern is more than happy with him.

But others in Germany are not so happy. Bild, the country’s best-selling newspaper, has criticized Guardiola harshly, although it has a tradition of attacking Bayern. He has also been in the headlines following an incident in the tunnel during the recent Audi Cup, when he went nose to nose with Milan’s Nigel de Jong after the Dutch international injured 19-year-old Bayern midfielder Joshua Kimmich. The following day, after the game against Real Madrid, he lost his temper when asked about a kiss he had blown to the stands after the game: “Can we talk about soccer? It was for a few friends who had come to see me, but… can we talk about soccer?”

There had been speculation that the kiss was a response to insults over his decision to stand as a pro-independence candidate in the upcoming regional elections in Catalonia.

The decline of his mentor

Guardiola’s mentor at Bayern has always been the side’s former president, Uli Hoeness, with whom he had a special relationship, even visiting him in jail after tax evasion charges were brought against him. He still keeps in contact with Hoeness, who retains an honorary position at the club. Since Hoeness fell from grace, Bayern has been pretty much controlled by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Guardiola will be hoping that Bayern continues to appreciate him, and that he can return the club’s support by winning more trophies this season.

Friends and colleagues say he is relaxed and has every confidence in his team: “He is happy and focused. You only need to look at the wall of his office, filled with notes, ideas, concepts… he’s in creative mode,” they say. “He is well, and he knows that the reality is very different to what the media says.” One player, of Spanish origin, says he has integrated well, joking: “The Germans are surprised that a Spaniard works more hours than we do.”

The side says the fans are behind Guardiola, despite media accusations that he is to blame for the departures of Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The club insists both players had wanted to move on, and that Guardiola had asked them to stay. “I hope we can work together again some day,” he told Kroos when the latter left to join Real Madrid. Guardiola has also been criticized for his limited vocabulary in German.

However, he insists that the most important thing is that the side has been strengthened. Douglas Costa, a 24-year-old Brazilian has been brought in from Shakhtar, while Kimmich has come up from the second division. He has also recovered players who were unavailable most of last year because of injury: Javi Martínez, Thiago and David Alaba, along with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry.

Bayern is a tough club to work for, and only one coach has stayed for more than three seasons over the last 17 years, Ottmar Hitzfeld. Guardiola was offered a new contract in March, but many question whether he will stay. “With Pep, you never know. He doesn’t seem to have made a decision yet,” say those close to him. “He’s fully charged. This third year we’re going to have a good time.”

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