FFootball looks different from where Ernesto Valverde is. “The idea was to change the approach,” he says, which he has always done. This week a photographic exhibition was inaugurated at the Ernest Lluch Kulturetxea in San Sebastián. Comprised of 1m x 1.50m black and white images, on linoleum and bolted to the wall to give an uncomfortable industrial feel befitting the world it captures, the collection offers a portrait of the game from the other side through the lens of the former Barcelona coach.
Valverde did not always plan to be a coach. After having studied at the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya as a player, he prepared for a career as a photographer, but football has a way of attracting you, expressed in its images. Twenty uninterrupted seasons he spent as coach, leading Espanyol to the UEFA Cup final, Athletic Bilbao to their first trophy in 31 years and Barcelona to the double, until the Catalan club fired him in January 2020, maximum of a league that has not won since. .
His pact accompanied him. In 2012 he published his first collection and another book will follow next month, while the exhibition is a selection of photos taken over a decade in football, partly inspired by his time at Olympiakos, where sport and problems sociopolitical joined. “I could tell a thousand stories,” he says, of “a place where football is lived with passion, to put it mildly.” Flares Half time of one hour. Physical stress. “I realized that it was a good idea to win.”
He did it: having originally gone reluctantly, Valverde won three Leagues and two Cups. He also saw something, “a door that opens”, an idea: “the fans do not go to the games to watch, they go to take part”, Nothing mobilizes like football. “Life to the beast“He says: roughly, life is wilder, exaggerated. On tour in the United States and Japan with Lionel Messi and Neymar, it was like Beatlemania. His photography, largely from inside the bus, becomes amorphous and individualized to the crowd at the same time.
“You have all these people watching, many drinking; I took photos from the inside looking out, ”he says. “The direction changes but I don’t want to distance ourselves from ‘us’ and ‘them’ because in the end it is the same: all this paraphernalia is part of the same scenario. The concept of popularity does not have to be football and the object is them, not us. I never took the camera backstage. “
The photographs project an awe-inspiring power, which is perhaps part of the point, and help explain Valverde as a coach. Seeing his images and listening to him speak is to understand something of the importance of human and environmental management. Locked in the bus, this kind of bubble, looking into a vivid expression of pressure, the responsibility for people’s happiness must be overwhelming. “Does not say. There is a pause, a laugh. “Well, it’s stressful inside. But if you think like that, you have to retire the next day ”.
If his photos show the scale of everything, one of the things that distinguishes Valverde is his ability to de-dramatize football, rationalize, filter noise, normalize it. Success is also based on ease, the ability to ride waves seemingly indifferent to the coming storm, thus guiding others through it. Witness how quickly the cracks opened when he left Barcelona, without the cover of the crises.
“No,” he says, which he says quite often. “Soccer has become this thing we all live from cover to cover. It is a spectacle, this great drama, the intrigue. Is this coach going? Will that player be ousted? “He says. And that despite not knowing the half.” The problem is that you know too much, “says Valverde, laughing.” They also ‘know’ things that are not true.
“You have this idea: ‘Damn, it’s the end of the world if we don’t win this weekend.’ And you don’t win and on Monday life goes on. It is this incredible crisis, a real disaster. Don’t worry, there will be another to cover this one. And the following week, another. You come to the end of the season and it is the final judgment. But then: chop it up, add dirt, and another season begins. Tomorrow the sun rises. A new season, hope, illusion and all that … “
There is another smile. “Wait, wait, I’m not done,” protests Valverde. “Having said all that, I am one of those who are there permanently, involved in all that, and it is stressful, huh. You step back and rationalize it, sure, but on the inside, damn hell. “We have to win”. There is a tension that is host, amazing. If not, you will not win. Rationalization is one thing, but you have to be there. And being there is different. The whole thing takes you. “
Until you come out again. The 4-0 defeat at Anfield did the damage, Valverde described a match that “was not real” where the disasters of previous years returned and “there is a moment of instability, and in a field like that.” But he continued eight more months, the club stayed with him, if not always with him. Maybe I should have walked, in hindsight? “There are times when you think, well maybe,” he says, “but once you judge it, no. Soccer always gives the opportunity for ‘revenge’ ”. In the end, he was denied that opportunity, sacked after a defeat in the Spanish Super Cup.
Photos showed him smiling behind the wheel, waving as he drove away. The situation had become untenable, the pressure was intense, sometimes absurd. If it had gotten to the point where the sack was a solution, something that want?
“No, no, no, there is always a part that fights, that wants to prove yourself. You think: ‘Wait’. There are many crises and you think you can overcome this one too. Why wouldn’t you think we can still win the league? Our first game, we had lost the Super Cup 5-1 to Madrid. Bloody hell. You’re affected, hit. And then …”
And then Barcelona went on to win the double. The following season they won the league. He did not reach the end of the third.
“I know the meaning of what I say, but if people are looking for you there is nothing you can do,” he says of that parting smile. “There were a lot of photographers and you’re not going to come out with a face: ‘Oh, that poor thing.’ I don’t want anyone to think that. That they interpret it as they want, what does it matter?
“You stop, you breathe. You have been living with those demands for so long, the tension, not only in Barcelona, but in Athletic. You need time. Some loneliness, distance. And then there is a pandemic. Not that I locked myself away; is that everyone did. You avoid soccer for a while, and then soccer goes away and disappears. “
Fifteen months have passed, the longest time Valverde has been out of the game. There hasn’t been a word. Just silence. “Well, I guess doing this interview …” he says, apologetically. But there have been no recriminations, excuses or sales pitches. Despite the fact that, champion two years in a row, the best when he left, Barcelona have not won the league since then.
“Y?” he says. And they are two league titles. “Yes, but I know.” Others? Those titles feel unappreciated. “Look, this ‘cherished’ thing. I appreciate those leagues. How could I not? There are people here: ‘We won the league, meh.’ But I appreciated it, of course I did. There are people who think that it is not enough. Okay, but I can’t change your mind. “
Photography has filled its time. Could you call football again? “If there is something that motivates me, yes, I might be tempted,” he says. “Things have come up that I rejected. The idea of going abroad is attractive: something different ”. England? “Could be. I wouldn’t mind trying. You have a feeling that there is respect for what the game is.”
Ah, the game. For all the noise, for all that it entails, that is part, as Valverde’s photographs convey, there is always the game itself, still pure. “Yes,” he says. “It’s what we like in the end. What is it I like, at least. That is why we are here. “
The other difference, organized by the Fundazioa Real Sociedad and the Fundazioa Athletic Club, it will be at the Ernest Lluch Kulturetxea in San Sebastián until September 4 and at the Ensanche Building in Bilbao from September 15 to October 28.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism