In many ways 1995 was the year that defines modern football. The passing of the Bosman ruling, and its subsequent repercussions, meant that a team like Ajax – a club from a smaller country, comprising overwhelmingly of its youth products – could never again be the Champions of Europe. It also meant that collecting the best possible players – a victory of the individual over the system – became the easiest route to success. Juventus, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and particularly Real Madrid would use this for their success over the next decade. The decision to allow clubs to play more than 3 foreign players also meant that this can be possibly be described as the turning point in the club-v-international football relationship.
The blow-back to this era of opulence came nine years later. Madrid’s Galactico policy exploded in 2004, as did the hopes of the biggest nations in Europe – with Otto Rehhagel’s Greek side leaving everyone dumbfounded and empty-handed. Greece’s success was mirrored in the club game: Jose Mourinho’s Porto won everything in sight; Rafael Benitez’s Valencia won the UEFA Cup and La Liga (probably the best league in the world at the time). Both these then-young managers would then migrate to Blighty over Rehhagel’s summer, beginning the golden age of English club football. It would be their philosophies – allied to the money of the English game – which would define European football over the next few years. Meanwhile, always flowing against the stream, Barcelona decided to stick with Frank Rijkaard after Barcelona’s recovery in the 2nd half of the season (they had been 9th in the league at the start of the year, 15 points behind a Madrid side that they would eventually overtake). Quite possibly that’s not a decision Joan Laporta regrets.
Another nine years on from that and 2013 is gearing up to be equally important to. And one man, above all else, will define it.
It was a decision that was considered ‘cowardly’ by one Spanish journalist, but it was anything but. Pep Guardiola’s decision to go to Bayern is both ambitious and logical.
Perhaps doubts will remain (much like they exist with Mourinho), how much was it his work and how much was it the greatest generation since that Ajax side. How much was his success down to Rijkaard – and even Aragones (for he validated the style of play in the summer of ’08) – and how much was it his own work (those are questions that he will face even if he succeeds at Bayern, considering how clear an identity van Gaal had left). But of course, when you construct the greatest football team for two decades, you are allowed the benefit of the doubt. Hell, you are allowed to smite anyone who questions your holiness, for those mere mortals have never created something that beautiful.
But I digress. His decision is ambitious – for he will attempt to take Bayern that one step further; the step that has eluded them since the mid-70s. They want to be the top-dogs in Europe: not by simply winning the Champions League, but by instilling fear into the hearts of everyone who taketh their name. And there couldn’t possibly be a better man than Pep for that role.
As for Pep, he goes to a job that doesn’t have the stress of Barca, Manchester City or Chelsea; where his team is already established as the best in the country; has, by some distance, the greatest budget; has a foundation for a nearly-great team; and has a youth system that has produced Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Muller, Badstuber and Hummels in the past decade alone. How can all the money of Russia and the Emirates possible challenge that?
And this is all before considering that he doesn’t have Jose Mourinho insulting him in the papers every week.
Arrigo Sachhi never won a trophy after his tenure at Milan; Brian Clough had to rebuild from scratch due to his decision to go to Leeds; Frank Rijkaard’s done more to harm his (glorious, most beautiful) legacy than the work of Guardiola and Vilanova ever could. Even greatness and perceptions can be altered in the minds of the public. Guardiola is far too much of a history nerd to not realize the pitfalls of going to England at this moment.
Bayern have won only 5 of the last 11 Bundesligas (which considering the fact that they practically have more money than everyone else combined is pretty shameful), and despite 2 Champions League finals in the last 4 years, they’ve neither collected the trophy, nor the plaudits, that they desire. In the minds of Hoeness, Rummenigge et al they are the greatest name in European football – for all the money and cup runs in the recent past, they still don’t seem to get the ‘respect’ they yearn for. And Borussia Dortmund are taking them on like no one has done since, perhaps, Otto Rehhagel’s Werder Bremen. They needed someone to reassure them that they remain untouchable in Germany. The mirror on the wall told them that Dortmund is now the most beautiful of them all. Instead of sending someone over to kill Jurgen Klopp, the Bayern hierarchy decided upon the altogether more legal option of finding someone to give them the perfect makeover. And they found their hero in Pep. Here’s a man who makes winning both attractive and likeable. From their tussles with Borussia Monchengladbach in the late 60s till now, neither of those things has ever been associated with Bayern. They were always the “efficient machine” against Gladbach’s “rebellious artists” – and that is a relationship that remains to this day; Dortmund are only the latest to the throne created by Gladbach.
There are also more real concerns that Pep has to solve. Bayern – this great hallmark of Teutonic efficiency – are, quite frankly, a bunch of fancy-dan chokers. Last year they did the treble –finishing runners-up in the league, the cup and the Champions League. They have the best team and squad this side of the Pyrennees – they should be achieving far more than what they are. That is precisely the trick Pep was able to pull in Catalonia. It would seem that “the greatest signing in Bayern history” might well be one of the safest.
As an aside, one really has to feel for Jupp Heynckes. He will (almost certainly) wrest back the domestic championship from Dortmund, he might take Bayern to two Champs League finals in a row, and he will be “let go” for the Pep Revolution. Considering that 15 years ago he was fired by Real Madrid after he won them their first European title in thirty-two years, I think he’s a man who’s gotten used to injustice.
Germany finds itself at an interesting juncture. For the first time in forty odd years their young players are the best in Europe. The Spanish conveyor belt of central playmakers is now challenged by the German generation of number 10s (Ozil, Reus, Gotze, Schurrle, Muller and Draxler to name a few). They are the darlings of the world with their style of play. Even the English are now thinking of changing their whole system to the German model.
Yet should they not win the World Cup in 2014, this will be the longest they’ve gone without a major trophy since the war. As Spain have become methodical, dominant and maybe even a little boring, it’s the Germans who’ve started to become the lovable chokers. A far cry from the days of Jupp Derwall, when not even people in Germany particularly liked their bunch of winners. And Guardiola – and his obsession with midfielders – has played a part in Spain’s continued success. The Germans don’t even need him to be a philosophy-changing presence. All they need is a final push to convert them into winners.
The Bundesliga has had five different champions in the last nine years. That, along with the style of play and atmosphere of the stadia, has made it popular outside Germany and garnered more attention and money for the league. Meanwhile, over the last eight years La Liga has had two clubs win the championship. Guardiola’s time coincided with the decline of La Liga. Sure, the top two became the two best teams in Europe, but that (and the financial crisis) led to the league dying in terms of competitiveness. Until 2008/09 no team had ever crossed the 90 point barrier in a 20-team La Liga season. Since then, both Madrid and Barcelona have crossed it in every single season.
So backed by Bayern’s millions, would Guardiola take Bayern to untouchable heights. Would Klopp try to match him and turn the Bundesliga into La Liga/SPL. Maybe in trying to do that Dortmund might run the risk of emulating Icarus?
There are those within Germany who would be miffed at Bayern’s appointment; and that will include all fans and administrators of clubs not named Bayern
And then there are the questions that will arise from this situation. Where does Mourinho go this summer, knowing that he won’t face Pep in the league in the immediate future? If Pep succeeds then will the trend of hiring Bielsified young managers continue apace throughout Europe? What happens to ‘projects’ at Manchester City, PSG and Chelsea with Pep now booked? Will tiki-taka become the homogenized norm across the top teams in Europe over the next few years?
No matter what happens, it’s time to get your popcorn ready, this is gonna get real interesting.