'Mr Club World Cup' Pep Guardiola eyes era-defining victory against Fluminense

Manchester City boss can become the competition's most successful manager on Friday

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Kyle Walker celebrate their victory over Urawa Red Diamonds in the Club World Cup semi-final in Jeddah. Reuters
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Ten years ago, Pep Guardiola touched down in Munich on a flight from Marrakesh to an array of approving headlines. One German newspaper hailed him as ‘Mr Club World Cup’. In his native Spain, they wrote of the “Bayern empire”. Guardiola had been the Bayern Munich head coach for only a few months, but was already overseeing the smooth running of their trophy conveyor belt.

Bayern’s annexing of the 2013 Club World Cup, with a 2-0 victory over Raja Casablanca in Morocco, took to three the number of Club World Cups on Guardiola’s stacked resume of titles. The club had won that year’s treble of Bundesliga, German Cup and Uefa Champions League under the veteran Jupp Heynckes, who then stepped down to make way for Guardiola, back in management after a year’s sabbatical.

The Fifa club title bore his stamp. There were tactical tweaks in the Bayern line-up. Thiago Alcantara, with the second goal, sealed the outcome. Thiago had been the signing, from Barcelona, Guardiola was most insistent on when he joined.

A fourth Club World Cup, this one with a team he has spent seven-and-a-half years shaping, Manchester City, is widely anticipated on Friday against Fluminense and would elevate Guardiola to the top spot, all on his own, of the leaderboard in the competition.

In the decade since Guardiola’s third triumph, Carlo Ancelotti has caught up with him, steering Real Madrid to victories in 2014 and 2022, to add to the Italian’s gold medal with AC Milan in 2007. But repeat triumphs are rare. Since the tournament was launched at the turn of the millennium, only Zinedine Zidane – two first places with Madrid – Ancelotti and Guardiola have won it more than once.

Accumulation is not easy, even as the coach of giants such as Bayern and Barcelona. Guardiola’s extended relationship with the trophy City hope to capture against Fluminense in Jeddah got off to a treacherous start. History remembers his historic first 18 months managing Barca as a blessed waltz to six trophies and a team beautifully constructed around a majority of home-developed talents. But of all the six prizes that Barca won in the calendar year of 2009, the Club World Cup was the one that came closest to eluding them.

Guardiola’s first season in charge at Barca, 2008/09, had yielded La Liga by a nine-point margin, the Spanish Cup and Super Cup via heavy scorelines against Athletic Bilbao and a 2-0 win over Manchester United in the European Cup final.

But in Abu Dhabi, hosting the first of its five Club World Cup tournaments, the audience for the final were treated to genuine suspense. Argentina’s Estudiantes, their opponents, led for 57 minutes of the first 90, Barca struggling to convert their higher share of possession into an equaliser after Mauro Boselli’s header had put Estudiantes ahead. On the touchline, Guardiola winced and grimaced as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thierry Henry put chances off target and Lionel Messi was stymied, often robustly, by his markers.

With a minute of normal time remaining, Pedro, on as a substitute, carried the final into extra time with a rare headed goal. A very atypical Messi finish would deliver Barca the prize. He bundled in a cross via his chest, or more precisely, his left rib cage. Guardiola was in tears, overcome by emotion, at the final whistle.

Two years on, Guardiola’s Barca, by now admired as perhaps the finest club team of the 21st century, travelled to Yokohama to face Santos, who had a young star named Neymar and a highly-rated playmaker in Ganso. The same Neymar who would join Barcelona 18 months later; the same Ganso who, now 34, will be in Fluminense’s midfield on Friday evening.

Barca won 4-0. Eleven players who had come through the club’s youth ranks took part in the final. Messi, the star academy graduate, scored two delicate goals, Xavi another and Cesc Fabregas tucked in Barca’s third after a Thiago header had been parried.

It was the 13th trophy from 16 competitions Guardiola’s Barca had been involved in up to that point. “This will be remembered, even if the players aren’t aware of that now,” he said presciently.

Six months later, he stepped down from the job at Barcelona, and moved for part of his year off to New York, where Bayern came calling, leading the chase to make him their conqueror of the world, their innovator.

Come the 2013 Club World Cup final, the German champions had their distinct Guardiola traits. They played with a ‘false nine’, Thomas Muller, and captain Philipp Lahm was mastering his new role in central midfield, where the new coach had moved him from full-back.

Bayern led Raja 2-0 by midway through the first half, quieted the Marrakech crowd, and as they celebrated their first ever Club World Cup, their executives congratulated themselves on having hired the most sought-after coach in the sport, their guide and guru until City offered him the chance to create a dynasty.

Updated: December 22, 2023, 3:33 AM