- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2012

SANTPEDOR, SPAIN (AP) - In this medieval town that dates to the 14th century, the locals remember when Pep Guardiola was practicing his game in the plaza and smashing windows with a soccer ball.

The Barcelona coach is revered in Santpedor, the city of some 7,000 where he was born, about 50 miles from Barcelona, deep in the heart of Catalunya’s wooded Bages region.

Guardiola is the unquestioned favorite son. Santpedor’s soccer complex is called Municipal Sports Center Josep Guardiola. Photos adorn various spots, especially the city’s fan club, which hopes Guardiola will make an appearance May 27 when it celebrates its 25th anniversary.

One more honor should come Monday _ Guardiola is the overwhelming favorite to win FIFA’s coach of the year award.

Guardiola’s career with Barcelona reads like a soccer dream. A young prospect signs for his boyhood club and goes on to play an integral part in the team’s successes, first as a player and then as coach.

“(Santpedor’s) a small town and while people don’t all personally know him, they are very proud of him,” club president Toni Valverde, a longtime friend of Guardiola‘s, told The Associated Press on Sunday. “But like any small town there is also the usual envy that accompanies it and people tend to criticize and find personal grievances. I suppose it’s normal to feel envious of him.”

The locals are accustomed to questions about Guardiola, and they eventually slip out of Catalan to answer in Spanish to accommodate visitors. And more and more visitors of late have been heading to No. 15 Plaza de la Generalitat, the lime-green, three-story building where Guardiola lived with his parents, Valenti and Dolores, brother Pere and sisters Olga and Francesca until leaving for Barcelona’s youth academy at age 13.

“We have a lot of tourists who come to look at the house, last month we had a large group. They take photos and ask questions, they are nice usually, always curious,” said 38-year-old Khalid Abid, who is from Morocco and now lives in the home with his family and another. “It’s pretty nice knowing you live somewhere like this, somewhere people want to remember and see. I’ve spoken with the parents a few times and they are nice. Never with Pep, though.”

Valverde, like Guardiola, will celebrate his 41st birthday this month. He said the former Spain midfielder returns only for holidays and local celebrations, rarely venturing from his parents’ home on the outskirts of town.

“I’m sure he would like to go out more but people go nuts when he is here,” said Valverde, who traveled to Barcelona to see his friend’s games until he reached Barcelona’s B team, when it became more difficult.

“He is much more extroverted than he seems in news conferences, where he seems to hold himself back a lot. He’s very outgoing,” said Valverde, who visits Guardiola at his parents’ home when in town with his wife and three children. “We don’t talk about football much. The thing is you don’t feel like you are in front of the world’s best coach, you never feel a distance between yourself and him. He’s very inquisitive, always asking questions.”

Neighbors recall the young Guardiola breaking windows and knocking down power lines as he used the doorways in the plaza outside his home as a goal.

“He never stopped kicking the ball around,” Guardiola’s mother Dolors told Spanish TV several years ago. “As soon as he finished breakfast, he carried his ball down into the street and into the plaza, where the doorways worked as the goal.”

Like most of the villagers, Genis Cos Rubio holds Guardiola in esteem but those early bonds _ Cos Rubio is also 40 and went to school with Guardiola _ are now distant memories since Guardiola never really returned after coach Johan Cruyff decided to use the skinny, 18-year-old midfielder.

Guardiola went on to become a key part of the 1990s teams that won four straight league titles and the club’s first Champions League in 1992. Since then, coming home was never as easy.

“I knew him when I was in school but he left as a child and now, it’s nearly impossible to see him here on the street with so many people clamoring for photos with him. He can barely go out,” Cos Rubio said. “He put Santpedor on the map. Every time we see him on TV, we think ‘he’s one of ours.’”

Since taking over as Barcelona coach in 2008, Guardiola has led the Catalan club to 13 of a possible 16 trophies, including a pair of Champions League titles, Club World Cups and European Super Cups, three straight Spanish leagues and a Copa del Rey.

He is widely expected to capture the FIFA coaching award ahead of Real Madrid rival Jose Mourinho and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson.

Valverde prefers not to speculate on whether Guardiola can maintain this level of success, but he is certain the work ethic and determination will remain.

“What Pep assures is work and discipline, and success comes from that,” Valverde said. “Maybe he doesn’t win anything else this season, but at least there is always a chance because of who he is.”

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