Why a move to Mexico was key to making the Pep Guardiola of today

Mexico-based journalist Duncan Tucker tells the tale to Newstalk's Team 33

BY Raf Diallo 22:04 Tuesday 8 November 2016, 22:04 8 Nov 2016

Image: Michael Sohn / AP/Press Association Images

Nowadays, if you were to say the word "Sinaloa", it is often unfortunately associated with another term outside Mexico. That word is cartel.

The Sinalao Cartel is one of the major players in a drug war that has gripped parts of the central American nation for the past decade.

Indeed, drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, who has twice escaped from prison but now faces extradition to the US early next year after his third re-arrest, is one of the leaders of that particular cartel in the north-west of Mexico.

Sinalao is also home to the version of "an ancient Aztec ball-game called ulama. But in terms of modern ball games, a few months before the official start of the drug war, the state also played host to an important part of Pep Guardiola's evolution from player to coach.

Listen to the interview with Duncan Tucker on the podcast player:

Dorados de Sinaloa is the main soccer club in the state capital Culiacán but back in 2006 when Guardiola signed, they were just two and a half years old.

The former Barcelona captain finished his career there after brief spells at Brescia and Roma in Italy before a lucrative stay in Qatar with Al-Ahli.

But his stay with Dorados was significant when it came to turning him into the manager that he is today as excellently explained by Mexico-based journalist Duncan Tucker in a piece in The Guardian which saw him speak to many of the people who knew Pep first hand.

This week, he spoke to Newstalk's Team 33 about why Guardiola's brief Mexico stay is such an important part of his story. And it kicks off with the reason - or person to be more precise - that led him to Sinaloa in the first place. 

"[Sinaloa] is absolutely best known as the spiritual home of Mexico's drug culture because many of Mexico's biggest drug lords have come from the Sinaloa state like Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman who's the most infamous of all of the Mexican kingpins," says Tucker, who also explained that during his research, he visited a cemetery in the state which is the burial place of many drug lords.

"They have these massive mausoleums that are bigger than most people's houses. They must have cost millions of dollars because they have two or three storeys and they're built in the style of Roman or Greek temples. They have air conditioning, satellite TV inside so their family members can hang out there and even throw parties in their memories," he said.

But by the time Sinaloa had become especially dangerous, Guardiola had already left.

"It wasn't quite so bad [when Pep was there]. The drug war actually began in December 2006. That would have been a few months after Pep left. And it really got bad in that area in Sinaloa around 2008 to 2010. But even so, I spoke to a local restaurant owner who was quite good friends with Pep and he did say it did begin to get worse that year and there were shootouts in the streets.

"I spoke to some other people who worked with Pep as well - some of the coaches - and they said it was kind of still a bit removed from their day to days lives and it wasn't something they would encounter or witness. It was something, you kind of know is going on but I think they did their best to ignore it and get on with their lives and their careers."

 

Dorados head coach Manuel Lillo, from Spain, gestures during their Mexico Soccer League match Sunday, April 9 2006, at the 3 de Marzo Stadium in Guadalajara City, Mexico. Tecos and Dorados tied, 1-1.(AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

What brought Guardiola to that neck of the woods was the admiration for a particular manager.

Juan Manuel Lillo was at Dorados from 2005 to 2006, but the Spaniard, who is five years Guardiola's senior, had previously managed in La Liga before heading to Mexico. 

"He'd played against Lillo's teams in Spain before but had never played under him. So when he got the opportunity to go out there, it was more about learning his coaching methods and getting prepared for his coaching career rather than going there for playing reasons. The No 1 reason was to play under Juan Manuel Lillo," says Tucker.

As we all know, Guardiola is among a number of managers that enjoyed an exalted football education at the Nou Camp under the master Johan Cruyff and his successors, with others at Barcelona at the time including Everton boss Ronald Koeman and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, who was a translator there under Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal.

The Barcelona system has underpinned the possession-based philosophy that has brought Pep success at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. But one significant lesson he learned in Mexico was the work off the ball that would also become a feature of the Barcelona side he led to multiple trophies from 2009 to 2012. At Barcelona during the peak period of his management, players had a six-second rule when it came to winning the ball back - pressing relentlessly but then dropping back if the ball was not won within that time frame.

"I think the pressing is a big thing. A lot of that comes from Marcelo Bielsa the Argentine coach," says Tucker.

In this Sept. 11, 1999 photo the captain of Barcelona soccer team, Pep Guardiola lifts Spain's league trophy they won at the end of last season, in Barcelona, Spain. Guardiola's career with Barcelona reads like the dream of every football player, signing for his boyhood club as a young prospect and going on to play an integral part in the club's modern day successes, first as a player and then later as coach for the same team. (AP Photo/Cesar Rangel, file)

"Bielsa actually managed in Mexico in the 1990s and one of his assistant coaches was at Dorados at the same time as Pep was there. He's a guy called Jose Luis Real. He and Pep spent a long time talking everyday about Bielsa's ideas and his training methods and I think a lot of that really rubbed off on Pep, particularly the importance of pressing from the front and winning the ball back within a matter of seconds of losing it. And then once Pep left Mexico, he went down to Argentina to speak to Bielsa before moving back to Barcelona and starting his coaching career. So I think Bielsa is one of the single biggest influences on Pep's style after Johan Cruyff."

While Guardiola learned much in terms of football ideas, he also saw the less desirable side of football, namely financial issues for his club team-mates and not so lavish facilities which saw the team train in a waterpark that had an open-air gazebo for a changing room.

But he did show solidarity with his less well-off colleagues.

"At one point, the team completely ran out of money and the club stopped paying the players. Obviously for Pep, that wasn't such a big deal because he'd just come from Qatar and he's been at massive clubs and had plenty of money," says Tucker.

"But for the rest of the team, it was a big deal not to be paid. So they went on a kind of symbolic strike. They carried on playing but when they were training, they stopped using the official club uniforms and that kind of thing. Pep joined in out of solidarity for them. I also heard that whenever they went out, he would always pay for everything and one of the workers that worked with his chauffeur told me that Pep would actually give him envelopes with cash to hand out to all of the worst-paid club staff like the cleaners. Every fortnight, he would come in with these envelopes to help them out a bit which was hugely appreciated because a lot of people in Mexico do struggle to get by."

Thus, as Tucker discovered when speaking to locals, Guardiola remains well regarded in the area. 

However, he is not the only European player to go to Mexico and thrive. 

Pep isn't the only European player to head towards Mexico

Between 2010 and 2015, French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac only played for his home country sporadically.

But the ex-Marseille and Toulouse forward has found a new lease of life since moving to Mexico in 2015.

Indeed his goalscoring form for Tigres UANL contributed to him winning a place in France's Euro 2016 squad where he deputised for Olivier Giroud.

Last season he won the Liga MX Balón de Oro, finishing as league top scorer and winning the Liga MX Apertura title.

In all, he scored 28 goals during the 2015-16 campaign. 

Late Portugal legend Eusebio played for Monterrey briefly in the 1970s towards the tail end of his career, while former Germany, Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder Bernd Schuster also closed out his career in the country with UNAM Pumas in 1997.

Former Real Madrid goalscoring great Emilio Butragueno spent the final three years of his playing career banging in goals for Celaya from 1995 to 1998 

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