There is a glint in Joan Laporta's eye as he recalls the conversation he had with Pep Guardiola in the spring of 2008. The decision had already been made that Franck Rijkaard would not continue beyond the end of the season and Barcelona's then president called in the B-team coach to tell him that the board thought that he, a 38-year-old with no first-team experience, was the ideal man to take over. "And do you know what he said to me?" Laporta grins. "He said: 'You haven't got the balls'."
As it turned out, he did have the balls. But the decision wasn't just about courage, it was also rooted in conviction and calculation. Laporta considered Johan Cruyff but had been persuaded otherwise and a thorough search began. The sporting director had played with Guardiola in Cruyff's "Dream Team", closely monitored Barcelona B and came increasingly to see Guardiola as the best candidate. Not just for who he was but also for what he represented: former ballboy and captain, defender of a particular style and promoter of youth. "We chose a philosophy," Laporta is fond of saying.
Manchester City did too. Barça's sporting director was of course Txiki Begiristain, now at the Etihad, and Laporta's vice-president in charge of economic affairs was Ferran Soriano, now City's chief executive officer. The first call came in December 2011. Soriano met Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Khaldoon al-Mubarak in Abu Dhabi but with his company, Spanair, in a process of liquidation, he declined. When he eventually agreed in summer 2012, one of his first calls was to Begiristain. Now comes a blast from the recent past. "I'd have preferred a different opponent," Begiristain said after the Champions League draw, "but I'm happy to see old friends again."
The assumption that City simply copied Barcelona's model, air-lifting it in, is facile and flawed. So is the theory that signing Soriano and Begiristain was merely a prelude to signing Guardiola, although no doubt they would have liked to. Much of what City are building pre-dated their arrival but the official line sounds very like Barcelona when it talks of a "common football philosophy that links the youngest academy boy to the most senior first-team player," that includes the heart of the gigantic Etihad Campus development, the City Football Academy.
Yet Sheikh Mansour did see in Barcelona's model something that dovetailed with his vision and goes beyond the football: from international expansion to the opening of new markets, from youth development to revenue creation there are parallels. It may be over-simplistic, but here there's a temptation to say that City, like Barcelona, want to be likeable; to avoid being seen just as arrivistes.
There is also a need to make their economic position sustainable: financial fair play demands it. "Sustainability has always been central to Sheikh Mansour's investment in City," the statement ran when they unveiled academy plans. "The long-term future is dependent on the ability to recruit and develop young players." When Sorriano was at Barcelona he calculated that every home-grown player who reached the first team had cost the club ¤2m. "Good business," as he put it.
When Laporta's board won the elections in 2003 Barcelona had gone four years without winning a trophy, the debt stood at ¤186m and salaries accounted for 88% of their income. Soriano was obsessed with bringing that figure down to 50%, a mantra he repeats in Manchester. Barcelona's income was only the 10th biggest globally and, according to Soriano, they risked becoming a "medium" club. Soriano later wrote how every club, every business, needs a "Visionary"; a "Doctor No", who imposed realism; and a "Back", someone who carries the team in practical terms, a doer. That message, too, is familiar to staff at City.
Outgoings would be cut but more importantly Barcelona had to increase income. Soriano talked often of kick-starting a "virtuous circle", for which risks had to be taken. Another, related word used often was "mediático": Barcelona needed players who generated media and marketing interest, particularly internationally. Only 23% of their average TV audience was national and, Soriano noted, supporters could be captured through allegiance to key players. Laporta had campaigned on a deal with Manchester United to sign David Beckham.
Ironically City's CEO admitted that the model Barcelona followed was United's. "I saw David Gill once and confessed that we'd taken inspiration from his marketing and commercial strategy to make Barcelona recover. I said thank you to him," Soriano wrote in 2009. "And 'inspire' is a euphemism: what we did really was directly copy everything United did well."
Beckham did not arrive, Ronaldinho did. As it turned out, it would have been impossible to sign a more likeable player. He was a good one too. The Brazilian was Fifa world player two years in a row. "He changed our history," Xavi Hernández said. "He was more a boardroom signing than ours," Begiristain admitted.
Barcelona also sought to repackage and express the notion of "Més que un club" (more than a club) for an international audience. It was rarely defined with precision. Rather, it was projected in as something broad, a little nebulous, as something "good", a reflection of the club's "values". The sponsorship of Unicef was the result, explicitly designed to give an idealistic look to the club's identity. A commitment to a "spectacular" style contributed too. But, Soriano admitted, "A good footballing product is a team that wins." He even had a formula for it: (CxE)T. Commitment multiplied by balance to the power of talent. Soriano wanted players hungry for success, who'd not yet won much.
He insisted, too, on the style. Barcelona drew up a nine-point checklist of the attributes managers needed, with each point fleshed out. It began with "respect for the sporting model" and included references to the style of play, the idiosyncrasies and "values" of the club and the importance of youth development. For Begiristain, "talent" or technical ability had to predominate. "Good play starts from the back," he explained. "At least one of the centre-backs has to be able to play, for example."
When Rijkaard was struggling in the first season, Sandro Rosell, then one of the vice-presidents, agitated to sack the Dutchman and sign Luiz Felipe Scolari, rejecting the style that now seems so entrenched. As Soriano told Graham Hunter for his exceptional book Barça: "[Rosell and his group's] idea was that this kind of football, the Barça style, was outdated. We lost [to Chelsea] and they said: 'You see? We should hire a Scolari-type manager and bigger, stronger players.' The magic we achieved was to say: 'No, that's not who we are. We play spectacular football and will not deviate.'"
Rijkaard continued and won two league titles and the European Cup. By 2008 Soriano and fellow directors thought the hunger had gone and the search for a new manager began. Begiristain had focused on Guardiola but was initially reluctant to say so, staying open-minded. There was a process to undergo, one that took him to Lisbon to meet José Mourinho, guided by that same nine-point checklist.
The meeting was three hours long, with Mourinho offering a detailed analysis of how to remedy the team's ills and insisting he would play a Barça style. Begiristain was impressed but harboured doubts, not least that the Portuguese would start fires, inside the club and out. That footballing "identity", the concept, weighed heavily too.
It looks obvious now; it was risky then. Mourinho was the safe bet. Laporta and his board had the balls. Here again are the parallels. Sacking Roberto Mancini was not popular, just as turning down Mourinho was not. But Begiristain had played under Cruyff and still adopts an almost reverential tone when he talks of the Dutchman as a "fearless" manager whose response to problems was "always to be more attacking". Guardiola, a Cruyffist, lacked experience but fitted the idea.
Xavi is among many players who see similarities between Pellegrini and Guardiola. "We're asking the new manager to build a squad and also a football concept and a way of working that will last 10 years," Soriano said when City turned to Pellegrini. "This was a long-term decision taken with a lot of careful analysis. I was worried about the image we were giving the world."
"One of the reasons I came here was Txiki," Pellegrini said. "I chose City because I was convinced they knew my footballing model. Managers have to deliver the spectacle fans want, especially at clubs that invest a lot of money signing the world's best players. I'm not an iluso [a naive dreamer]: if someone says you're going to win 1-0 playing badly, fine. But I believe you get better results playing well. It's not about mortgaging your results for a sterile beauty."
And that's the crux. Soriano admitted that he wanted five titles in five years. As for Begiristain, not long before joining City he said: "Barcelona are attractive because of their style but without the titles that would mean nothing."