Guardiola's Barcelona exit fans Catalan economic woes

By Matthias Krug


It was fitting that coach Josep Guardiola said farewell to FC Barcelona on Friday night with a win and his 14th trophy. But as jobless queues lengthen and economic unrest increases, his departure compounds anxieties in debt-ridden Catalonia.

Half-time beer breaks can be an interesting gauge of social mobility.

Alvino stands by the staircase of the Vicente Calderon football stadium in Madrid, sipping on a plastic cup next to his 32-year-old son.

His face portrays a mixture of pride, anxiety and melancholy, as he watches his beloved Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0 to win the Copa del Rey, the Spanish "King's Cup".

"There is a lot of suffering within families in Catalonia with the financial situation at the moment. I think for such a productive region we are getting an unjust share of the pie in Spain," he says solemnly.

Josep "Pep" Guardiola is Barcelona's most successful coach. In just four years, he has moulded not just one of the world's greatest ever football teams, but also created a new style.

His emphasis on attractive, possession-based football has come in the midst of a crisis in which many Spaniards have seen huge job losses and their incomes dwindling.

Guardiola has built one of the most exciting attacking sides in history while Spain finds itself increasingly on the defensive as it strives for economic survival.

His record of 14 titles in four years symbolises a boom-era bubble of perfection which has fast become an illusion in crisis-struck Spain. This is his last game. It comes in the same city where the Spanish government fights against the current banking and debt crisis.

On the same day over at the prime minister's residence of La Moncloa, Catalan politician Josep Antoni Duran was engaged in extensive talks with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Catalonia represents one-fifth of the Spanish economy. It has to take out 13bn euros (£10.4bn; $16.3bn) of loans this year to refinance maturing debt, not to mention funding whatever deficit it has for the current year.

It was widely reported that it was running out of options and asking the central government for a bailout. But Mr Duran repeatedly emphasised that Catalonia needs no rescue package, although he admits it finds itself in a "very difficult situation".

The Catalan word "patidor" (suffering) is a re-surfacing concept in Barcelona these days.

"When the economic situation is bad, to have an escape from depression in the form of football can mean the world for us," Alvino admits.

He has been a member of the club for 32 years. Next to him, his son represents the generation of those most affected by the unemployment blighting Spain.

"We have always been a club of suffering, of fear. The concept 'patidor' sums up this feeling which has always accompanied this club. But Guardiola has given us hope, he has let us dream. He represents a job well done, and has brought happiness to the club members."

Forty-five minutes later, the era of Guardiola has finished as he enters his last press conference through a little red door.

"We do it all for our people, club members and supporters," he tells the BBC.

"I'm from Catalonia, and I have grown up as a Barcelona supporter. We give people enjoyment, and we have given a good image of the club in Europe in these years, so for me there is nothing better in the world."

Two European Champions' League triumphs have augmented the Guardiola legend. He leaves a world of uncertainty behind for Catalans and Barcelona supporters throughout the country.

"It will be a long time before they find someone so culturally well-matched to the club," says Richard Fitzpatrick, who lives in Barcelona and is the author of El Clasico, a book on the rivalry between the two most successful clubs in Spanish football.

"Guardiola is a former ballboy, captain, winner of six league medals and a member of the club's most mythical side, the Dream Team, and an intelligent, sensitive man, with electricity in his eyes, whose love of Catalan national sentiment goes as far as a penchant for regularly quoting mawkish verse from Lluis Lach, a Catalan separatist troubadour."

There is a connection between the well-being of the people and football, he says.

"It's never a good time when an iconic coach like Guardiola leaves. There is certainly a lot of uncertainty in the region at the moment economically. And the club itself has also got a large amount of debt on its hands. But this does not have to be the end of the road for FC Barcelona's successful era."

The departure of the inspirational and widely-respected coach will be felt throughout the country.

Mr Fitzpatrick points to a considerable increase in nationwide support for Barcelona. In 2007, before Pep's arrival, Real Madrid led Barcelona by 7%, but that same poll advantage is now held by the Catalan club.

image captionProtesters in Spain have taken to the streets

Real Madrid fan Alejandro feels that the new situation will lead to a change in fortunes for his club.

"The departure of Guardiola signals the end of an era. Now is the time of Real Madrid again. The pressure will kill [new Barcelona coach, Tito] Vilanova."

Such language showered upon Vilanova shows the importance of football for the Spanish. For Alvino, there is some hope, though, that his club can continue to provide temporary escape.

"Pep's departure is a traumatic experience for the fans, he has become a larger-than-life figure. But we have confidence in his successor, because Tito has been Pep's right-hand-man all these years, and he represents natural continuity."

Phil Ball, author of Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, feels that successful continuity will be a difficult undertaking.

"Tito Vilanova won't struggle but he'll be so under the microscope that he might crack. We don't know how he'll respond to pressure. It's not the same being No 1 as being No 2."

What might seem from the outside as simply another football coach departing a club is being felt throughout Spanish society.

As Boris Izaguirre wrote in a column in El Pais, the day after the final: "Everything in Spain can be measured by football."