America, Pep and the quest to find the meaning of...football
Irish warehouse operative Paul Ring crosses the globe in the hope of finding an answer to the game's biggest question...
Have you ever had a question that just keeps nagging away at you? Ever had one of those Wednesday morningÃ¢ÂÂs when you drift away and begin to contemplate the deeper issues, like football, life in football and your love of football?
On one such morning, this particular warehouse operative kept coming back to one puzzler; what is the meaning of football?
Anyone who says it is a sport played by twenty-two players would also say the Great Wall of China is merely a boundary line.
Bill Shankly once famously explained the importance of football as more important than life and death - though he may have been joking, but what, if any higher meaning does the beautiful game have? And who could answer such a question?
It could not be Jose Mourinho, who would explain the functional meaning of the game - score goals, win trophies, prod opponents in the eye and uncover the odd conspiracy along the way. It would have to be his nemesis; for if Jose is the Special One, then Pep Guardiola is The Guardian. The man with the answers. The question needed to be put to the Barcelona coach.
It is 3,286 miles from Shannon in County Clare to Washington D.C. Not quite a small step for man, but it could be one giant leap towards the answer. Tickets were booked, hotels were reserved and a press pass was secured via Manchester United fanzine Red News. In the interests of pure journalism I planned to follow Pep wherever he went .
Barcelona were in the US capital to play United in a glamorous pre-season friendly. A press conference was scheduled for two days before the game and I made my way to their hotel and blended in with the great and good of the football media awaiting the guardian.
I had poured over interviews with Juanma Lillo, PepÃ¢ÂÂs mentor, and dissected FourFourTwoÃ¢ÂÂs summer feature on the Nou Camp boss. He doesnÃ¢ÂÂt do one-on-oneÃ¢ÂÂs. He is the mythical figure atop the mountain who can answer anything and everything, but he has a press officer next to him saying; one question only.
Details were a little hazy as to what we could expect from the European championsÃ¢ÂÂ press conference, but it had to ask my question. I had crossed an ocean, taken a metro and now braved the harsh confines of the Ritz Carlton. The moment was close.
There cannot be many who feel a crushing sense of disappointment when Xavi and Gerard Pique walk into the same room. The pass-master and elegant defender were good company, with Pique especially diplomatic in his answers. But it just wasnÃ¢ÂÂt Pep.
I nodded and cracked the smile of a kid whoÃ¢ÂÂs just unwrapped a pair of socks on Christmas morning. The greatest socks in the world, but socks nonetheless.
I resumed the hunt at FridayÃ¢ÂÂs open training session. I was pitch-side as Andres Iniesta, David Villa and the rest emerged into the giant FedEx stadium and quickly began to zip the ball around. Pep took his bow soon after. I shouted in vain but my plea was defended by the school-girl-style screaming of the Barca fans.
My pursuit was failing. Later that night at the Lincoln Memorial I heard people asking honest Abe for answers to lifeÃ¢ÂÂs problems. I pondered for a second if the Great Emancipator might have PepÃ¢ÂÂs number but thought better of it. He wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt have given it to me anyway.
Saturday was the day. He would be appearing after the game to take questions. First, if somehow Barca lost a game or second if they had won. I readied myself. My incessant itch would be scratched. The meaning of football, hell the meaning of life would be explained in a soft Catalan whisper.
Barca lost to a Michael Owen finish. A functional finish. We awaited Pep with baited breath in the press room.
Ã¢ÂÂMr Guardiola will take questions nowÃ¢ÂÂ
My hand went up. I wasnÃ¢ÂÂt called. It was to become the theme. Pep said he was Ã¢ÂÂso, so happy with this performanceÃ¢ÂÂ. He lauded United for their performance and praised them because they used Ã¢ÂÂthe counter attack, their best weaponÃ¢ÂÂ. You get the feeling he distains counter-attacks.
He drew the biggest laugh of the night when pushed on Cesc Fabregas, then of Arsenal. Ã¢ÂÂThere is a lot of talking on this, he is an Arsenal player, there is nothing more to say.Ã¢ÂÂ
When the reporter tried to force the issue, Pep cut him off like he was sweeping in front of Koeman; Ã¢ÂÂOnly one question per personÃ¢ÂÂ I only need one!
The language was then effortlessly switched to Catalan and Spanish. Why didnÃ¢ÂÂt I have a translation ready?
The end came soon after and it was abrupt. He moved swiftly through the room and passed effortlessly through comments and handshakes. The sage was leaving and my answer was leaving with him.
He was now mere meters from me, I pondered calling out but a mixture of fear, respect and sheer awe prevented me from doing so. He embraced a Catalan journalist and the two jovially skipped out while I was left wide eyed and disappointed. How I wish the question I wanted answering was when Lionel Messi would be back fit.
My question remains unanswered, but only because I have yet to ask it.
Lillo once said Ã¢ÂÂFulfilment comes from the processÃ¢ÂÂ I am in the middle of that process. The question remains.