SANTPEDOR: Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola is revered and respected in his native Santpedor even if he remains somewhat aloof to the local population, who have watched on with pride as he achieved his countless successes.
Guardiola's career with Barcelona reads like the dream of every football player: A young prospect signs for his boyhood club and goes on to play an integral part in the team's successes, first as a player and then as coach. His success is unprecedented and he is the overwhelming favorite to win FIFA's coach of the year award on Monday.
Santpedor, with a population of nearly 7,000, lies 75 kilometers (47 miles) inland from Barcelona, deep in the heart of Catalunya's wooded Bages region. The medieval city, which dates back to the 14th century, has honored Guardiola as a “favorite son” while the town's football complex is named after him - Municipal Sports Center Josep Guardiola.
Photos adorn various spots, especially in the city's supporters club where they are hopeful Guardiola will make an appearance on May 27 when it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“(Santpedor's) a small town and while people don't all personally know him, they are very proud of him,” club president Toni Valverde, a longtime friend of Guardiola's, told The Associated Press on Sunday.
“But like any small town there is also the usual envy that accompanies it and people tend to criticize and find personal grievances. I suppose it's normal to feel envious of him.”
The locals are accustomed to queries about Guardiola, and they eventually slip out of Catalan to answer questions in Spanish to accommodate visitors and their questions. And there have been more and more visitors in recent years visiting No. 15 Plaza de la Generalitat, the lime-green, three-story building where Guardiola lived with his parents Valenti and Dolores, his brother Pere and sisters Olga and Francesca until leaving for Barcelona's youth academy at the age of 13.
“We have a lot of tourists who come to look at the house, last month we had a large group. They take photos and ask questions, they are nice usually, always curious,” said 38-year-old Khalid Abid, who is from Morocco and now lives in the home with his family and another.
“It's pretty nice knowing you live somewhere like this, somewhere people want to remember and see. I've spoken with the parents a few times and they are nice. Never with Pep, though.”
Valverde, who will celebrate his 41st birthday just like Guardiola later this month, said the former Spain midfielder returns only for holidays and local town celebrations, and rarely ventures from his parents' home on the outskirts of town due to the excessive fanfare.
“I'm sure he would like to go out more but people go nuts when he is here,” said Valverde, who traveled to Barcelona to see his friend's games until he reached Barca B, when it became more difficult.
“He is much more extroverted than he seems in news conferences, where he seems to hold himself back a lot. He's very outgoing,” said Valverde, who visits Guardiola at his parents' home when in town with his wife and three children.
“We don't talk about football much. The thing is you don't feel like you are in front of the world's best coach, you never feel a distance between yourself and him. He's very inquisitive, always asking questions.”
Neighbors recall the young Guardiola breaking windows and knocking down power lines as he used the doorways in the plaza outside his home as a goal.
“He never stopped kicking the ball around,” Guardiola's mother Dolors told Spanish TV several years ago. “As soon as he finished breakfast, he carried his ball down into the street and into the plaza, where the doorways worked as the goal.”
Like most of the villagers, Genis Cos Rubio holds Guardiola in high esteem but those early bonds of friendship - Cos Rubio is also 40 and went to school with Guardiola - are now distant memories since Guardiola never really returned after coach Johan Cruyff gave the skinny and technically gifted midfielder his debut as an 18-year-old.
Guardiola went on to be an integral part of the “Dream Team” of the 1990s that won four straight league titles and the club's first Champions League in 1992. Since then, coming home was never as easy.
“I knew him when I was in school but he left as a child and now, it's nearly impossible to see him here on the street with so many people clamoring for photos with him. He can barely go out,” Cos Rubio said. “He put Santpedor on the map. Every time we see him on TV, we think ‘he's one of ours’.”
Since taking over as Barcelona coach in 2008, Guardiola has led the Catalan club to 13 of a possible 16 trophies including a pair of Champions League titles, Club World Cups and European Super Cups, three straight Spanish leagues and a Copa del Rey.
He is the overwhelming favorite to win FIFA's award for best coach over Real Madrid rival Jose Mourinho and Manchester United's Alex Ferguson.
Valverde preferred not to speculate whether Guardiola could maintain his current level of success, but was certain his work ethic and determination would remain unchanged.
“What Pep assures is work and discipline, and success comes from that,” Valverde said. “Maybe he doesn't win anything else this season but at least there is always a chance because of who he is.”