First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The best. The worst. The greatest. The most overrated. The luckiest. The unluckiest.
These are themes that sports lovers argue over like two puppies attacking a bowl of cereal and, just like the loveable furballs, everyone wins and everyone loses. It can get messy.
Defining greatness is not easy or linear.
The Springboks are rugby world champions. That is a fact. But are they the best team in the world right now? The answer to that is a matter of opinion.
Even if the Boks beat the British & Irish Lions in the anticipated series later this year, does it underline South Africa’s status as the best team in the world?
It will certainly enhance their claim but, in my mind, the best and the idea of sporting greatness can only be measured over time. Winning one match, a three-Test series or even a seven-match World Cup, in which four of the games are mismatches, doesn’t define greatness.
This brings me to Pep Guardiola. The Manchester City manager has just guided his club to a third Premier League title in four seasons and they will also appear in their first European Champions League final in a few weeks’ time.
Manchester City appointed Guardiola at the start of the 2016/17 season.
They finished second to Chelsea but then claimed back-to-back titles over the next two seasons, hitting the mythical 100-point mark in the 2017/18 campaign.
They finished a distant second to Liverpool in 2019/20, but returned to their imperious best this season, winning the title with three games to spare. In all competitions this season, they went on an unbeaten 28-game streak.
Under Guardiola, City have won four League Cups (a secondary knockout competition), an FA Cup and two Charity Shields (the traditional season opener between the Premier League and FA Cup champions) in addition to three Premier Leagues.
In all competitions, Guardiola’s side have played 290 matches, won 213, drawn 36 and lost only 41. They have scored 703 goals and conceded 233 in that time.
In his entire management career, which includes successful periods with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Guardiola has led from the dugout 652 times and overseen an incredible 478 wins (73.31%).
To put that in context, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, who has been successful in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, has a career record of 662 matches with 370 wins (55.59%) in both England and Germany’s top division.
Is Guardiola an all-time great manager?
The answer, I believe, is unequivocally, yes. He has produced results, titles and trophies over 13 years, in three countries and in a trio of the toughest leagues in the world.
Guardiola made his name at Barcelona, where he progressed from being a brilliant midfielder, winning six LaLiga titles and the 1992 Champions League and Olympic gold medal with Spain as a player, to perhaps its most celebrated manager.
The Barcelona coaching system that moulded Pep the player favoured possession and passing, revolutionising football.
Former Dutch great Johan Cruyff was at the forefront of this philosophy. It was an extension of the “total football” concept of the great Ajax and Dutch teams developed by legendary coach Rinus Michels with Cruyff as the star player.
It was a philosophy that an eager Guardiola embraced as a fledgling manager and carried further with his truly ground-breaking and brilliant Barcelona squad between 2008-2012.
They won LaLiga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey in his first year and would win 14 trophies in Pep’s four years in charge. They did it with otherworldly style. They were artists.
Guardiola’s Tiki-Taka style of football, using short passes and movement to mesmerise opponents, became not only Barcelona’s template but also the style of the Spanish national team.
Although Guardiola was not Spain’s manager, his style and his players, forged in Barcelona’s legendary La Masia academy, drove Spain to 2008 and 2012 European Championship victories and the 2010 World Cup title in South Africa.
It was fitting that the ultimate embodiment of Guardiola’s philosophy on the field – Andrés Iniesta – scored the only goal in the 2010 final. It sealed the most famous victory in Spanish football history, ironically against the Dutch, who had contributed vastly to Spain’s philosophy, via Barcelona FC.
Success followed Guardiola to Bayern Munich with three consecutive Bundesliga titles, although his failure to win the Champions League with a team boasting most of the Germany 2014 World Cup-winning squad, is the only minor blot on his record.
Guardiola is among the greatest managers in football history. Some people win once, others put together multiple titles and fewer still build empires. And then there is the rarest of the rare, who not only build empires, but also determine the shape and philosophy of their chosen sport for generations.
Pep Guardiola has made beauty sit comfortably alongside success. He has adapted, changed his style, moved away from pure Tiki-Taka, but he has never lost his soul and his identity. A Guardiola team is easily recognisable for its level of technical and tactical brilliance – and its beauty.
To me that is the sign of true sporting greatness. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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