Pep Guardiola's defence of his tone deaf comments is a bizarre hill to die on
The Catalan manager has dug a hole for himself with his incendiary comments and refusal to apologise, but why?
Pep Guardiola has been Manchester City boss for five years now. Long enough, as he pointed out on Friday morning, to understand the club, to know what it truly means to be a supporter.
Unfortunately for Pep, even the kind of depth of understanding of which he claims to possess doesn’t make him immune from the odd fuck-up every once in a while. And that - as much as some might feel this is all being blown way, way out of proportion - is what appears to have befallen him after City’s win over RB Leipzig on Wednesday.
A reported crowd of 38,000 had turned out to see the game - 15,000 shy of the Etihad’s capacity. He had noted this, and, after full-time, urged more City fans to attend the league game with Southampton at the weekend.
The comment drew as much attention as the game itself, attracting criticism from some elements of City’s support. Kevin Parker, General secretary of the official supporters' club, told Sky he should stick to being the best coach in the world, and that his words were “disappointing and uncalled for”.
Pressed on these comments in his press conference on Friday morning, Guardiola doubled down. He had been misinterpreted, he said. No apology would be forthcoming. There was even what appeared to be a thinly-veiled warning that he would step away from his job if the supporters questioned him.
The thing is Pep, this, as someone who gets the club so much should know, is a touchy subject. As Parker himself acknowledged in his chat with Sky, City fans have had to live with years of Emptyhad jibes from supporters of other clubs. Banter-hungry rival fans need no invitation to pounce, so it’s not particularly helpful when the guy being paid a tidy wedge of money to be their manager starts presenting them with opportunities.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. For a man who, again, went to great lengths to stress how he understands the club and what it means to be a supporter, the difference between them and Barcelona and Bayern Munich and that lot across town, this seems a bit of an oversight, and begs genuine questions about what exactly was going through his mind to not only utter but then defend what he said.
Firstly, let's look at this from a very basic, context-free and perhaps even reductive point of view: a multi-millionaire - one of the best-paid managers in world football over the last decade - tells working class fans to stump up some cash and come watch his team play.
Even ignoring that he has said this during a pandemic (yes, we are still in a pandemic, despite stadiums once again thronging with supporters), making out that supporters are at fault for a lack of attendance - whether one agrees with Pep or not - is a road that goes nowhere good.
One could call it tone deaf. One could even call it, at a time when people are struggling and there are more football matches than ever before being played, insulting and out of touch.
This feels particularly true when it comes to City, a club that - along with its fans - has enthusiastically embraced the self-styled role of radical up-starts to UEFA's more established and historically successful elite. This attitude, which has manifested itself in protests - both planned and impromptu - against UEFA, requires a collective front, from front office to manager to the supporters.
Pep in the mirror this morning pic.twitter.com/hlaXcHhIyR
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) September 17, 2021
It's a fragile pact, as most in football are, and requires trust and at least a tiny bit of transparency. Pep has taken jibes at the supporters before, and has been forgiven, but this feels different.
His refusal to apologise, before attempting to deny that he had called on supporters to turn up to watch their (most likely) 5-0 win at home to Southampton on Saturday, is as odd as what he originally said.
Guardiola is an intelligent man. He knows that he could have killed this story with one apology. He could have said that he simply wants the best for the club, and that sometimes this desire makes him speak with his heart rather than his mind, but that he - as a man of the people who is a passionate proponent of the Catalan independence movement - is aware of the fact that we live in an increasingly hostile society that punishes working people for not being wealthier.
He didn't even need to say any of that. He could've just said sorry. That, most likely, would have been that.
Instead, he has doubled down, and in doing so has created a problem which threatens to cast a shadow over much of what he has done at the club. His most recent comments illustrate that he is fully aware of this.
“I will never be a problem for the fans,” he said. “If I am a problem I will step aside. It’s not a problem, I am one of them."
This, no matter which way you look at it, is an incendiary comment which has ratcheted up the intensity of the situation significantly more than was necessary.
No one has called for Pep to go, bar most likely a few over-enthusiastic Twitter users. He has the fans' trust, and all they want in return is the same kind of support. His words were intentional. He had time to think about it, and decided to say it.
We could hypothesise for days on end the reasoning behind what he's done. Perhaps his feet are getting a little itchy, eager for a new challenge, and he is aware that forcing a divide between himself and supporters would make that eventuality theoretically more palatable for the parties involved.
What the entire situation does suggest, though, is that Guardiola's insistence that he knows the support and history of the club is simply not true. A manager who knows his support inside out would never have said what he said, never mind refusing to apologise for it. They would have known to expect the response Pep has received, as well as the ammunition that this would give opposition fans.
For a man whose entire career has been built on the exploitation of space, Pep could benefit from doing just that when it comes to this issue; taking a step back and letting things calm down. He has instead chosen an alternate route, one which does away with the 'us against the world' siege mentality which has summed up much of the club's time under owner Sheikh Mansour.
A team like Man City, a local club injected with unimaginable amounts of capital and transformed in a rapid amount of time, requires more than most that connection between the club and its fans to ensure there is no alienation of either party.
Without that connection, a club in City's situation is in danger of disenfranchising its support base - a support base which remembers the days of Maine Road and relegation to the third tier, and will continue to remember it long after Pep goes - and that is something which can often take years or even decades to turn around.
Less talented managers have succeeded in this role as the face of the club, the much-loved Roberto Mancini foremost amongst them. Pep appears to have little desire to do the same, or is perhaps too stubborn to do so.
Whatever his reasons, it is from the outside a bizarre hill to die on, and one which threatens to sour his relationship with the club's fans irreversibly.