Roberto Martínez ready to fulfil a Barcelona destiny
Belgium manager Roberto Martínez has emerged as a surprise favourite to replace Ernesto Valverde at the Camp Nou, and his appointment would bring closure to an ambition that has stirred within his Catalan heart since he first learnt to kick a ball.
Quite simply, Martínez was never good enough to play for Barcelona. His playing career was spent in the lower divisions of Spain, England and Scotland, but there was always an internal desire within the man from Balaguer that he would make his name as a manager at the very highest level.
Former team-mates would comment on his interest in staying up late during hotel stays between games to watch highlights of fixtures from around the world. Even then, while his primary focus was on developing his own game as a player, he was researching and studying for the next stage of his football journey.
When the call came from Swansea City in 2007, he brought his playing career to a premature end at the age of 33, understanding that in order to make the most of his opportunity he could afford himself no distraction to the task and challenges ahead.
He succeeded, leading Swansea City from League One to the Championship, and then returned to former club Wigan Athletic where he claimed FA Cup glory over Manchester City in 2013. However, it was a bittersweet success, as the club were relegated from the Premier League a few days later.
Everton were the next club to offer Martínez another step on the managerial ladder, and in 2016 he moved into international management as Belgium targetted him as the man to bring the best out of an under-achieving group of talented individual players.
With two years to prepare for the next FIFA World Cup, Martínez made big decisions, with Radja Nainggolan finding himself out of favour as the Catalan coach focused on rebuilding the group collective necessary to succeed. By the time the finals came around, Belgium lost to eventual winners France in the semi-finals.
Supported at the time by long-serving assistant Graeme Jones and World Cup winner Thierry Henry, Martínez ensured his eclectic assortment of staff brought balance in terms of knowledge, experience and respect, and in Henry, in particular, it showed bravery for the greater good.
For a manager who had played at a lower-level through his own career, Henry could have been seen as a threat to his authority in a group of world-class stars, but Martínez recognized what Belgium needed to succeed, and the revival under his control following the failed tenure of Marc Wilmots proved him right.
In two years, Martínez brought the best out of Belgium, and the contrast between their approach and performances at UEFA EURO 2016 to those at the World Cup in Russia was testament to the work that he had put in behind the scenes to change a culture and an environment that was not conducive to success.
Simply put, Martínez has proven his ability to work with, and get the best out of, some of the biggest names and egos in the football world. He has shown that he is not afraid to make the big decisions, and his energy and passion for the job suggests he would now relish a return to the day-to-day involvement of club football.
A heart that beats for Catalonia
It was Pep Guardiola who set the highest standards at Barcelona during an era of domestic and European domination, and the club have been searching for the same ever since his departure in 2012. But as a former hero of the Camp Nou, Guardiola was given time to create his masterpiece.
Patience is a virtue in the modern game, but that is what Martínez will need if he is to succeed at Barcelona. He will be looked at skeptically by the big names that pull the strings, and he will need to prove himself quickly to make the right impression, and to inspire a side that has failed to produce in key games recently.
But there is a desire for Martínez to succeed in this job that few other candidates will possess. Only Guardiola himself will appreciate the emotional attachment that Martínez has. Two elements, Catalonia and football, bring these two contrasting characters together, and their burning ambition to bring success to the Blaugrana.
The playing career of Martínez dictates that he should not be in contention for this job, but he has worked his way up to prove himself as a successful manager in his own right. He has a connection with Barcelona and what the club represents to Catalonia, and should he finally arrive at the Camp Nou, it will complete a destiny.
Ambitious individuals have goals that will define their work. For a proud Catalan like Martínez, there is no bigger or better job than Barcelona, irrespective of the demands and limited security of staying in position for any significant period of time.
Ambition is critical
It is a target that has always burned within him, even years before he made his first steps into management at Swansea City over a decade ago, before he even realised it himself. The early studying of the European and world game, the appreciation of tactical systems evident in his style as a player, and his eventual calling as a coach and manager.
Barcelona is an insular club built upon the spirit of Catalonia, and it represents a nation in the club game. The fans are demanding, but they are also eager to be represented by one of their own. Martínez has the credentials from both a personal and professional point of view.
A charming and emotional figure, Martínez would leave nothing behind if he is offered the opportunity that he has internally craved since he dedicated his professional life to the game. Like every manager, he has his flaws, but he is also an eternal optimist, and money could not buy the passion and desire Martínez would bring to this once in a lifetime job.
Barcelona could do much worse than choose a man like Martínez, whose heart beats for Catalonia with the rest of the Camp Nou, and whose dedication to proving himself against the odds ensures an unrivalled dedication to the challenge it brings.