Pep Guardiola is a genius as a football coach. Stick a curly, white, horsehair wig on him and, judging by his performance in his press conference on Friday afternoon, he’d make a decent counsel for the defence, too.
His scarcely concealed anger that his formidably powerful, fabulously wealthy, serially successful, meticulously managed football club has been called to account by the Premier League seemed to win all manner of support from the jury.
He made a reference to Julius Caesar — ‘Julius Caesar said in this world there are no enemies or friends, there are just interests’ — but this was Guardiola not as Caesar but as Mark Antony.
He was here to restore the reputation of a victim of cowardly assassins and put the attackers to flight. He was skilful in his oratory and in his sarcasm and in his wit. Manchester City’s owners in Abu Dhabi must thank their lucky stars they have Guardiola for a front man.
I’m sorry, but I don’t buy Guardiola’s moral outrage or any of his claptrap conspiracy theories about City being discriminated against by hidden forces. ‘Always I had the feeling when we arrived here that playing good is not enough to win,’ he said on Friday. ‘We have to always play much, much better. To beat the established clubs, you have to do it perfectly.’
Pep Guardiola has defended Man City, and suggested other clubs are conspiring against them
What? This is a manager, remember, who is backed by the lavish funds of a nation state. City aren’t exactly on their uppers. So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t join in the general swooning about the self-righteous intensity that emanated from the City manager.
There were moments when Guardiola behaved like a man who’d watched one too many reruns of The Godfather as he answered questions about the 115 charges alleging financial breaches that have been levelled against his club by the Premier League.
He was all brooding resentment and dreams of vengeance. ‘What they have done to us…’ he said, pausing for effect as he looked up at the assembled journalists, ‘…be careful.’
Sure, it was compelling theatre in a mildly sinister sort of way. There was something curiously threatening about the slow, deliberate fashion in which he recited the names of the nine English clubs who wrote to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in March 2020, urging it to suspend City from the Champions League for the following season while they appealed their two-year ban for alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play rules.
‘Burnley, Wolves, Leicester, Newcastle, Spurs, United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea,’ said Guardiola, counting out the clubs on his fingers, without pausing, without missing a name, without missing a beat, without needing to be prompted.
Man City have won the league in four of the last five completed seasons under Guardiola
He has thought about those names a lot, obviously. Maybe I’ve been watching too many old movies, too, but he went through that roster like they were stool pigeons on a waterfront blacklist. Pep, meet Johnny Friendly.
So, Guardiola stood up for his club. So, he was defiant. So, he suggested the other 19 clubs in the Premier League were all ranged against City in an establishment attempt to bring down the English champions.
It is often admirable to stand up for something, but whether you admire him for it this time depends on whether you believe he is standing up for what is right.
City may be proved innocent when a decision eventually comes down the line many years from now. In lots of ways, I hope they are.
Some of the football they have played under Guardiola, in particular, has been bewitchingly beautiful and City are a great old club whose supporters suffered through enough lean times to warrant enjoying the good years. Many fans would feel only regret if those memories were tainted.
But City have a case to answer. That is what the Premier League have decided. And if we should all be cynical about the timing of the charges, with the imminent advent of a Government white paper that will set out the road to establishing an independent regulator for the game, it felt odd to see Guardiola singling out individual clubs and individual executives in his demonography.
The idea this is a Machiavellian conspiracy concocted by the football establishment to keep City out of the golden circle is fanciful at best.
Guardiola and City have circled the wagons. ‘It’s us against the world,’ Guardiola might as well have been saying on Friday, neatly attempting to position one of the most powerful organisations in sport as an underdog. Close, but no cigar. The poor little rich boy thing is always a hard sell.
For all sorts of reasons, it suits Guardiola to portray City as martyrs, underdogs fighting against the might of the football establishment, scrappy outsiders resented by the old order, punching above their weight.
Guardiola cannot portray City as outsiders when they are backed by the funds of a nation state
That characterisation is absurd on a lot of different levels, the main one being that City are owned by Abu Dhabi. Far from gazing up in awe at others, others gaze up in awe at them.
If the rest of football has been trying to ruin City’s chances of success all this time, they haven’t done a very good job.
City have won the Premier League four times in the last five years, they’re second in the table ahead of today’s home clash with Aston Villa and many believe they would have won the Champions League multiple times, too, were it not for a series of brain-fades from Guardiola at crucial junctures.
As for being outsiders, well, they’re outsiders when it suits them to be outsiders, which is basically when they’re being accused of wrong-doing. They weren’t outsiders when they joined most of the rest of European football royalty in trying to form a European Super League.
That’s all forgotten now. Guardiola and the higher-ups he calls his ‘people’ are on the attack again, outrage on their lips. There is no self-righteous fury like the self-righteous fury of football’s super-rich. Friday was just the start of what may be the most fiercely contested campaign of Guardiola’s career. As usual, he got the win.