Pep Guardiola has haunted Yaya Touré’s career for more than a decade. That much is true, regardless of whether you believe the Ivorian’s claim that the suave Catalan hates Africans.
Those explosive remarks, from an interview in France Football magazine, have largely been met with patronising sighs and condescending dismissals from the media in Manchester. They say this is nothing more than an attack provoked by bitterness that grew uncontrollably on a bench in the Etihad Stadium.
In truth, we can’t confirm that Guardiola is a racist, nor can we denounce Touré as a sour reserve. What was been plainly illuminated is the extent to which one individual can guide the course of another’s entire life.
“As a soccer player,” warns Bafana Bafana legend Phil Masinga, “you should never develop hard feelings because you never know when you will meet [the other person] again.”
Masinga played throughout Europe during his career, including a two-year spell at Leeds United in Britain and four years at Italian Serie A team Bari. He, like most of us, can’t comment on actions behind the scenes at Manchester City, but he insists that manager-player fallings-out are part of the game.
“There are definitely coaches that have had difficulties with players, but it’s not because they hate them or they don’t like them. It could even be because he’s not the type of player that he enjoys working with. All players and coaches are different, though.”
In Touré’s case, the problem lies in the fact he has always repeatedly felt the nudge of Guardiola — his breath on his neck — intentionally or not.
We’ve had enough bust-ups to more than sate our appetite for the salacious in modern football. Sir Alex Ferguson alone has been responsible for some of the most high-profile transfers driven by bad blood. No one will ever forget the respective deportations of David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid.
The Touré quarrel arguably represents something much more than either of those.
Thanks to his playing career, Guardiola was destined to be a giant at Barça. Even while he oversaw the B side and La Masia, he undoubtedly had a shadow that cast influence over the whole club. When he fully took the reins from Frank Rijkaard, he hurriedly transformed the club into vicious winners, capturing the treble in the 2008-2009 season.
Touré sat at the fulcrum of that incredible side, the anchor that empowered the ingenuity of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. Up front, the sharp trident of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o pierced any defence Europe had to offer. At the end of that season, the latter was sold nonetheless, deemed not fit for the philosophies of Guardiola. Incidentally, he is African.
A year later, it was Touré’s turn. The Catalan boss professed to prefer the rudimentary but efficient passing of Sergio Busquets to the power and drive of City’s next star midfielder.
Touré thrived on the rejection, adapting his game to become a more complete player. His increasingly penetrative runs and polished scoring boot earned him African Footballer of the Year for the next four seasons. It’s fun to ponder whether he would have received the same acclaim if he had stayed firm and comfortable in Catalonia.
But just as Guardiola’s veto arguably strengthened his resolve, it also tore down his prospects. City promised Touré raucous celebrations for his service to the club — a gesture that will likely be damply received by a player who may struggle to sign for a top-tier club again.
Although certainly past the prime age for a footballer, the midfielder was given no opportunity to display his fitness, to prove that he can adapt his game and remain a supreme player à la Cristiano Ronaldo.
The result has been his agent Dimitri Seluk’s insane promise that Touré would sign to a top English side for only £1 a week to get back at his former club.
“Everyone is entitled to raise his own opinion, and what he said is what he believes in,” remarks Aaron Mokoena, another Bafana stalwart who has spent extensive time in the English league. “From a player’s point of view, I think I could play Yaya at any time.”
To the former Portsmouth captain, it’s clear that there was significant build-up that led to Touré’s headline-making comments. Leaving the club, however, gave him the opportunity to release his true opinion.
“When players retire, you actually have that advantage of saying whatever you need to,” Mokoena says. “While you’re still playing, you need to focus on playing … In the field of play, there are things that you can say, things that you can’t say. You need to be diplomatic. From frustration, anyone can do what he did.”
Now that Touré no longer has to play that game of diplomacy with his coach, we have a window into just what one man has been to his career. Guardiola, in one way or another, has always lurked around the corner, ready to stifle, not prepared to budge on his stubborn ideals. Touré has achieved so much; still, one can’t help but wonder if, in quiet moments, he wonders what his career would have been without his nemesis.