Considering I am about to commit somewhere in the region of a thousand words to the most fascinating coach in the modern era you’ll find very little mention of football below. This is a fair warning in case you were hoping for a studious breakdown of Pep Guardiola’s transfer intentions or analysis of the great man’s training methods both of which are easy to source elsewhere.
Easy to source and eagerly devoured such has been the fever pitch of excitement that has consistently spiked since the news officially broke on February 1st that he was destined for these shores. Some of us have read or reread the numerous paperbacks that cover his time at Barca and Bayern well on our way to gaining a 2.1 in Pepology. Most of us have fallen for at least a million clickbait ruses. All of us – regardless of club allegiance – have experienced that frisson of clammy anticipation that accompanies the vacuum of time before a very important person enters the room.
To put another way: for a multitude of grown men and women – cynical by nature with families to worry about and a bastard of a boss at work who should be dragging us down – these past six months have felt like Christmas Eve awaiting the arrival of that other bearded chap.
Now that he is finally here, ensconced in Manchester and smiling that smile, we can perhaps attempt to put all this hoo-ha into some degree of perspective which is almost impossible because we are swimming in unchartered waters. Parallels are not out there. Britain is smitten as if Jesus Christ has rocked up to Downing Street with Kim Kardashian on his arm and told Teresa May to do one yet uniquely we are absolutely not talking about a celebrity here, that strange cult that has thoroughly brainwashed the modern world and the only altar at which we kneel these days. This is no rock star or film star or freakishly talented sportsman with crossover appeal. We are lavishing with reverence an uber-nerd and our ‘we’re-not-worthy’ enchantment is entirely due to how good he is at processing and executing his uber-nerd thoughts. That’s rare. In these dumbed down times that is unheard of.
Pep Guardiola is not an especially charming man. Put away your pitchforks because I’m going somewhere with this. He is affable, unfailingly courteous and if you left your gran with him she’d be raving afterwards about that lovely fella with the accent: yet in truth there are five or more Premier League managers who could match him on the charm-o-meter.
Nor is he particularly enigmatic. In fact I would go as far as to suggest he is entirely one-dimensional. Again, pitchforks down people. The 45 year old Catalonian is obsessional about one thing and one thing only to the extent where he probably rearranges his peas into a 4-1-3-2 formation on his plate; to the extent where his friends and family repeatedly beg him to park up his compulsion for an evening or a single minute.
Yet these qualities have been projected onto him – along with no small amount of admiration – so bewitched are we by his brilliance and his fierce intelligence. Guardiola is Sheldon Cooper in a designer v-neck who has somehow made extreme competence cool and beguiling.
Which is in stark contrast to the mass celebration of stupid that we erroneously look up to elsewhere. Last month a leading politician claimed that “people in this country have had enough of experts” and though I strongly disagree with every other syllable that dribbles from Michael Gove’s weird Pob-mouth in this instance he was depressingly on the money. The British public no longer respect, revere or even trust any individual who has committed to a singular pursuit all their life and got rather knowledgeable on the matter. What we want is soundbites – the glibber the better – and ideally from the mouth of an attractive famous person or, if we’re being appropriately glib, painted on the side of a bus.
It seems fitting here to offer up a spurious and trivial example so let’s briefly indulge in one. A ex-member of a girl band with an IQ equivalent to a sachet of Ready Brek has a first child and though, like any new mum, she is adrift in an ocean of scary ignorance she will immediately be snapped up by This Morning to pontificate to fellow mothers on the best and safest prams on the market. Mr Expert meanwhile has spent a lifetime in the pram trade; what he doesn’t know about guardrails and swivel wheel locks isn’t worth knowing. But did he wear that dress to that award show? Did he briefly date Duncan from Blue? Of course he didn’t: not with that face for radio and cheap tie.
There was a time when he and his ilk were exalted to fame, wonky nose, cheap tie and all, because they knew more than we did; they knew more than anyone else. Now we want sheen and style. For film reviews we turn to Claudia Winkleman whereas if it’s anything sciency we are beholden to Brian Cox because he has the haircut of a twentysomething from the nineties. For anything else there’s always a whizzed-through segment on the One Show.
It would be unbecoming to lay all the blame with Jade Goody (RIP and all that) but this depressing collective dumbing down seemed to take off and fly when she asked if Rio de Janeiro was an actual person on Big Brother before insisting that Saddam Hussein was a boxer. This was certainly the first instance I can recall when people stopped laughing at someone for knowing less than the average lightbulb and began laughing with them. Joey Essex then lowered the dumbbells further with blank-eyed aplomb becoming in the process an ironic poster-boy for a generation who proudly boast of never having read a book. Very soon that irony became sliver-thin to the point where it ceased to be ironic at all. By the way Joey, ‘aplomb’ is not a fruit.
So it was that our media – in all of its many incarnations – became a shallow padding pool. Details and depth became lost in the instant need to grab your attention. News reporting became ‘5 things we learned from..’ Politics prioritised personality over policy. Culture became one big set of perfectly white teeth. Knowledge and substance and the ability to truly excel in your field with diligence and commitment gradually became values that were devalued as being extremely dull, for squares who watch Only Connect.
Then along comes Pep, a man who is all about the details and the depth. When he speaks we hang on his every word while his clinical and calculated decisions are afforded the same giddy mystique as Kanye’s latest wheeze. He is venerated for knowing more than anyone else.
These past few weeks have seen desperate warnings from the Governor of the Bank of England, captains of industry, and leading economic institutions on the future well-being of this country. They were shouted down by a PG Wodehouse creation tabloided cartoon-fashion to ‘Bojo’ and though a great many voted either way in the referendum for entirely personal reasons there’s no question that the cult of celebrity played its part in our leaving the EU. How refreshing then that the first person to emerge as a hero post-Brexit is venerated not for their complicated love life or ability to get beach ready moments after childbirth or for their ‘hilarious’ public school buffoonery but rather for their erudite, studied excellence. Best of all it’s one of those johnny foreigner types too.
In the seasons to come it is expected and hoped that Pep Guardiola will show us the way; to elevate and intellectualise British football. In the sphere of fame and how we perceive it he has already begun.