The former Barcelona manager has been hugely impressed by the project and the 'purity' of German football
When the draw was made for the quarter-finals of the 2008-09 Champions League, Pep Guardiola could not have been happier: "Bayern Munich!" he told friends. "The business!" Not so much because he thought his Barcelona team would go through, although they won 5-1 on aggregate, but because he was excited. A big, historic club in a huge stadium, one of the great names of European football? An adventure. Guardiola was seduced. Three years later, he has been seduced again.
Barcelona played Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League three years after that. On the day before the match, Guardiola welcomed a visitor to the team hotel. The former Real Madrid striker Raúl, a close friend, was playing for Schalke at the time and had found a new lease of life in Germany. To speak to Raúl in Gelsenkirchen, 30 kilometres away, was to witness an almost childish enthusiasm, his enjoyment of football renewed; it is easy to imagine Guardiola, growing weary himself, detecting much the same. It is not too much of a leap to see the parallels. And as Guardiola made up his mind, they spoke again.
Guardiola's decision has surprised and yet somehow you always felt like this story may not have a formulaic ending. The former Barcelona coach is different, from the spell in Italy and Qatar to the sabbatical in New York, from Barcelona B to the first team, on rolling one-year deals, to the sense of defending a cause, a kind of moral tone to his discourse. The only other Spanish team he would like to coach, he once said, is Athletic Bilbao, the side made up only of Basque players. Perhaps it was too easy to fall for the romanticism, too naive, but he never seemed to fit at Chelsea.
Besides, there is logic in the decision he has taken in going to Germany: the seduction of a big name, in rude financial health, playing in a packed stadium. Bayern are arguably as strong right now as any team in England. They finished runners-up in last year's Champions League and carry a kind of moral quality too: despite the FC Hollywood tag, this is a well-run club, half-owned by its fans. One with a sense of tradition and history, where former players play a role: Uli Hoeness is the president, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge the chairman of the executive board.
All of that in a league that is growing stronger, where identity matters. The Spanish, certainly, see in Germany a kind of purity lacking in their own league, confronted by serious structural problems and economic crisis. This is an opportunity for Guardiola's family too – persuading his children to speak German will be somewhat easier now. And, no, that is not a flippant remark; it matters.
Jupp Heynckes had already admitted that he was leaving at the end of the season. He will facilitate the Catalan's first steps. "I would not talk to a club with a manager; that would be a lack of respect," Guardiola said last week. An empty platitude? It looks less like one now. Rafa Benítez is only the interim manager at Chelsea but Roberto Mancini has a contract at Manchester City, Arsène Wenger is still in charge at Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson keeps on going. Guardiola leaves the path free for José Mourinho. It may not be entirely coincidental that this way he avoids him, too.
Bayern Munich made their first approach to Guardiola immediately after his Barcelona career came to an end; more conversations took place with his agent during Christmas. Guardiola was hugely impressed with what he was told, the way the project and the club was explained to him. Promises were made about authority and money. Of which there will be lots. Including, of course, for his salary.
It is striking that Guardiola has signed a three–year deal – longer than he ever signed at Barcelona. The structure and playing style is largely that put in place by Louis van Gaal, the former Barcelona coach and a man that Guardiola has publicly praised. He has a young and talented team, with players he can mould: those he cannot, he will release and he will be supported in doing so. With hindsight, it is tempting to ask whether Guardiola was consulted on the signing of Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martínez. The idea of taking a German club and adapting them to his own philosophy is an attractive one.
Guardiola is convinced that with Bayern Munich he has a team that can win things; it should never be forgotten that he is a competitor. Just as importantly, he believes he has a team that can improve, one upon which he can leave his mark.