By Sham Majid
In an era where monetary temptations beckon footballers from all quarters, only a select few can be bestowed with the honour of being one-club men.
Liverpool talisman Steven Gerrard, Roma warrior Francesco Totti and the Manchester United pair of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have all dutifully served their respective outfits with pride, dedication and ultimate professionalism.
However, even beyond these hallowed names lies another figure who has made the transition perhaps few will ever emulate; a born and bred club player who is now managing his side from the dugout.
Pep Guardiola - a Catalan legend who epitomizes the true Barcelona creeds of loyalty, passion and enthusiasm for the beautiful game. From ball-boy to player and now Barcelona manager - it has been an almost surreal journey for the man who turned 41 on Wednesday - the day his side take on bitter rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final.
From Barca ball boy to Nou Camp legend
A 1985 photograph of then Barcelona coach Terry Venables being hoisted up in the air by his players on the pitch following his side's La Liga title triumph is one of many snapshots epitomizing the Catalan giants' insatiable pursuit of trophies.
A closer look at the picture shows a young ball boy, clapping ecstatically along with his much older Barcelona counterparts as they celebrate another championship. That youngster is none other than Pep Guardiola.
Just two years prior to when that photo was taken, Guardiola had joined the world renowned La Masia academy at the age of 13 - embarking on a pilgrimage hundreds of hopeful Catalan kids take every year. La Masia was and still is the footballing DNA of Barcelona, where youngsters are inculcated with Barca values and ethos on how to play the game.
As with most legends of the game, Guardiola's first brush with the seniors was the stuff of fantasy. As respected British journalist Phil Ball wrote in Morbo, "In his first week at the club, (Johan) Cruyff turned up unannounced at the 'Mini' stadium, a venue just down the road from Camp Nou used by the youth and B teams.
"Just before half-time he wandered into the dug-out and asked Charly Rexach, the youth team manager at the time, the name of the young lad playing on the right side of midfield. 'Guardiola - good lad' came the reply. Cruyff ignored the comment and told Rexach to move him into the middle for the second half, to play as pivot, a position not used by many teams in Spain at the time. Guardiola adjusted instantly, as Cruyff had suspected he would. When he moved up into the first-team in 1990 he became the pivot of the Dream Team."
Employed as a midfield destroyer, Guardiola cemented his place in Cruyff's first eleven when he was only 20 and played a key role as Barcelona romped to a La Liga and Champions League double in 1992.
Cruyff's outfit ran riot in Spain for the next two campaigns as they retained their La Liga crowns in 1993 and 1994. Guardiola was ever-present in the Barca midfield, nullifying the threats of his opponents with ease before allowing more illustrious colleagues such as Hristo Stoichkov and Romário to do the damage in front of goal.
Those years would represent the zenith of Guardiola's career, as Barcelona swept all over them. The beginning of the 1994-95 season brought about a downturn in the cycle of success, and three fallow seasons followed. Guardiola was still an integral part of the team, but the Catalans were no longer the irresistible force of the previous seasons.
And by the time new coach Louis van Gaal took the side to a league and cup double in 1997-98, the midfielder's star was already on the wane. On April 11, 2001 Barcelona heartbeat, skipper and talisman Guardiola announced his decision to depart from the Nou Camp after 17 sterling years of service, citing his belief that the beautiful game, once so fantastically personified by his "Dream Team", was now embracing a more physical side.
He played a grand total of 479 games for the club, spanning 12 seasons in the Barca senior team, having collected an astonishing 16 medals.
"It's been a long journey. I'm happy, proud, happy with the way people treated me and I have made many friends. I cannot ask for more. I have had many years in the elite. I did not come to make history but to make my own history," the ever diplomatic Guardiola remarked in his final post match press conference as a Barcelona player.
The Catalan connection
It is a much preached mantra among the corridors of the Nou Camp that winning a football match simply does not suffice for Barcelona. Instead, winning with flair, style and the much vaunted notion of "tiki-taka" football is and will always be the cornerstone of the club's footballing philosophy.
Guardiola, who himself first began his coaching career with the Barcelona "B" side on June 21 2007, gave an insight into how winning with a certain degree of panache is the hallmark of Barcelona.
"In Barcelona it is understood that you can win a thousand ways. All are valid. All work. There's little more to say," Guardiola then wrote in a column for El Pais in March 2007.
"But in Barcelona it is also understood that you can never win and repeat in a way that does not feel right to you-that does not feel right to the directors, coaches, players, friends of the press and the people who go every week to see them."
It is fair to surmise that Guardiola, a former alumnus of the club's legendary La Masia academy, has been ingrained with Barcelona's cultured history and heritage of "tiki-taka" football and has in turn infused his team with the same principles - helping unearth the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas. The results are there for all to see and wonder at.
The player-turned-coach has taken his side to three La Liga championships, two Champions League titles and two FIFA Club World Cup - amassing an incredible 13 titles in 16 of the tournaments his side have played thus far during his reign.
While there are several homegrown players who can boast of etching their name in the club's folklore, not many can vouch for rising all the way through the club's ranks to the top post of gaffer. And even though he may never be considered a one-club man, having turned out for Serie A sides AS Roma and Brescia following his departure from Barcelona, his Catalan values have ensured that his legacy is well and truly intact.
Lione Messi - himself a La Masia graduate and Guardiola's current protégé, perhaps best summed up the epic Catalan journey of his mentor.
"The coach knows the club better than any of us. He was a ball boy, player and now coach. He is very smart, knows what needs to be done at all times and how to treat each player," Messi purred about Guardiola.
From Barcelona ball boy to skipper to reserve manager to current chief tactician, Guardiola's Barcelona adventure will always have a unique place in Catalan folklore.