Busy toiling in Serie B, Brescia are far from being a Serie A outfit these days. However not so long ago, some of the world’s best players plied their trade at the Mario Rigamonti stadium; including a young Luca Toni, Calcio’s golden boy Roberto Baggio and a baby faced Andrea Pirlo. In fact, it was Pirlo’s departure in 2001 that prompted Brescia to find a world-class replacement for the deep-lying playmaker.
As Biancoazzurri coach Carlo Mazzone searched Europe for Pirlo’s successor, one of Spain’s finest was taking a sabbatical from the game. After over 200 appearances for his beloved Barcelona, Josep “Pep” Guardiola called time on his career with the Catalonian giants. Before deciding where his talents would be appreciated next, Guardiola took a break, enjoying some of Spain’s finest golf courses and making the odd TV appearance. But with the 2002 World Cup just around the corner, the central midfielder’s next move would be crucial to determining whether he made the Spain squad for Japan and South Korea.
Aged 30 and with a glowing CV, Guardiola was not short of options. Contract after contract was placed in front of him, but his strong affiliation with Barcelona made a move to another Spanish club highly unlikely.
But if not Spain, where? England? Germany? Italy? Guardiola had stressed that his next move would be dependent upon the country in which the club played and what kind of lifestyle he would lead. The city had to be right and the 'social ambience' had to be appealing. However, the offers on the table weren’t to the midfielder’s liking.
While Guardiola was busy working on his handicap and soaking up the Spanish sun, he was given a much needed wakeup call. Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho warned Guardiola that were he not to find a club; he would have no problem leaving the midfielder at home and out of his World Cup squad.
Italian champions Roma were extremely interested in bringing the Barcelona legend to the Stadio Olimpico, especially after losing Brazilian midfielder Emerson to serious injury. But Guardiola was shrewd and knew that if he had any chance of making the World Cup, he had to be playing week in week out. This was no guarantee with Fabio Cappello’s Roma, a star studded squad that had just lifted the Scudetto. Thus in September 2001, Guardiola surprised the world of football by deciding to join Carlo Mazzone’s Brescia.
Analysing the move in more detail, it made perfect sense. Brescia required a deep-lying midfielder. If Guardiola could perform to his lofty standards and stay fit, his place in the starting line-up was all but guaranteed. Mazzone also had the up most faith in Guardiola, while the city and the Mediterranean lifestyle suited the Spaniard. There was also the added bonus of playing alongside Roberto Baggio. It was a real transfer coup for Mazzone and Brescia, who captured a truly world class player for no transfer fee.
Yet despite having ruled the Camp Nou for over 10-years, Guardiola’s time in Italy was turbulent. Just a few months into his Italian adventure, the midfielder tested positive for the steroid nandrolone after Brescia’s 5-0 defeat to Lazio. Despite vehemently protesting his innocence, Guardiola would be handed a four month ban, something for which he was later exonerated in 2007.
When Guardiola did return to action, he became an integral part of Brescia’s midfield and his impressive displays helped steer the club clear of relegation. But just as things were looking up, Guardiola would be left heart broken. Having missed out on the World Cup finals in France four years earlier, the midfielder would sustain serious collateral ligament damage to his knee as Brescia were thrashed 5-0 by Juventus. With Guardiola ruled out until July, his World Cup dreams were over. In spite of this, Guardiola’s contribution still helped the Rondinelle achieve their highest ever Serie A finish at the time, as Mazzone’s side ended the 2001-02 season in thirteenth place.
Guardiola’s performances towards the end of the campaign had again caught the attention of Fabio Cappello and Roma. This time the offer was too tempting and Guardiola put pen to paper, joining the Giallorossi in 2002. But his time in Rome was miserable and after failing to cement a place in Capello’s starting line-up, Guardiola made a swift return to Brescia half-way through the 2002-03 season. The former Barca man quickly re-gained his place at the heart of the Brescia midfield in what turned out to be an inspired move for both parties. Mazzone’s men would go onto to finish ninth in Serie A, beating the record they set the previous season. It was a fitting way for the Spaniard to bow out.
As Guardiola approached 33, his Brescian romance came to an end after he joined Qatari outfit Al-Ahli, a league in which he came face to face with ex-Serie A hitman Gabriel Batistuta who was also winding down his career in the Gulf State. Throughout his playing career Guardiola was held in high regards for his passing range, vision and composure on the ball. In the early 2000s, Brescia fans were treated to a fleeting glimpse of this prodigious talent.
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By Giovanni Dougall