Gerard Pique: Barcelona's pin-up boy insists he's a model pro
Pique has the good looks, the pop star girlfriend and the fashion contract. But, he prefers the quiet life, he tells Pete Jenson
Saturday 19 March 2011
Leaving Manchester United does not normally do much for a player's career but with nine trophies won from a possible 12 since he left Old Trafford two and half years ago and returned to his boyhood club Gerard Pique's move hasn't gone too badly at all.
Having conquered La Liga and Europe with Barcelona, and the world with Spain he now has the fashion contract – he's the face of Mango – and the celebrity girlfriend to create as many headlines off the pitch as medals won on it.
If he and Sir Alex Ferguson had not parted company in 2008 then maybe it would be time for that little chat about not letting all those flash bulbs make him take his eye off the ball. It must have been hard as his own popularity and the interest in his life beyond the touchline has gone off the scale in the last three seasons. He dates Shakira, the Colombian pop star, is a pin-up boy with rugged good looks and, as a result, models menswear. But "no", he doesn't like being called the "Catalan Beckham" – a name given to him this week by the Spanish media when he was discussing his Mango role.
"I would prefer to keep my distance a bit from the cameras," he said. "I want to keep a private life. I don't want to be in the public eye so much that you reach the point where everyone has an opinion about you."
The breakdown of David Beckham's relationship with Ferguson was perhaps accelerated by the distance between their respective worlds. Ferguson and the sarong were never going to sit well together. But Pique has his manager Pep Guardiola to call upon – a man who also stepped out on to the catwalk while still a player. He was able to advise his player recently when the pressure of being hunted by the Paparazzi desperate for the first photo of a kiss with Shakira became too much.
It's not just off the pitch that Guardiola can and has helped Pique, though. On the pitch, Barcelona have an exciting end to the season which could involve four matches against rivals Real Madrid. And if he needs to draw any deeper for inspiration then he can always call on those three formative years spent at Old Trafford.
"My style suits Barcelona's style of play. I came through the system here and the way I play now is the way I was taught to play when I was a kid, he says. "But my relationship with Ferguson was always very good. He knew I had the quality to be a good central defender I will always be grateful to him for the way he treated me."
He has come a long way since the day, as a 17-year-old kid at United, he was handed a video of Franco Baresi and told to watch and learn. "I was given the film by one of the coaches, Jim Ryan, because he said that I shared some of his characteristics and that I could learn a lot from him," says Pique remembering the moment back in 2004 when United's backroom staff began the job of grooming the former Barcelona youngster into a Premier League defender.
But Pique left Manchester United before he was really tested in England. As he reached the point in his career when he needed to play regularly or move on, United possessed the finest central defensive pairing in the world – the same one they have now, only back then they were fit every week and undroppable.
"I speak with Rio [Ferdinand] on Twitter sometimes," Pique says of one half of that formidable duo. The Spaniard suggests that Ferdinand – whose career has been so blighted of late by injury – has perhaps not been given the recognition his achievements deserve.
"What you have to remember about Rio is that he always cost so much money," he says. "He has always had to maintain a very high level to justify the price tags [from West Ham to Leeds United and Leeds to Manchester United]. That is why the fact that he has always performed game after game, season after season, at such a high level has so much value. Nobody could have asked any more of him throughout his career."
Pique came face to face with both Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in the Champions League final in Rome one year after he flew the United nest. He came out on top and his former manager Ferguson was one of the first to congratulate him. "To find myself up against the players who just a year earlier I had shared a piece of history with [winning the League and European Cup double] was very emotional and to see Ferguson again was special. We spoke after the game and he said that we had been worthy winners and that meant a lot to me."
Pique's relationship with Ferguson was always a healthy one. The manager took the young defender and his parents to dinner when he had just arrived at the club, despite suffering a defeat on the Saturday – something that had a big impact on the new arrival. So much so that he admits he was filled with trepidation when the moment came to tell his manager that he wanted to head home. "I learnt so much on a professional and personal level," he says of his four seasons on United's books.
He was given his Champions League debut by Ferguson in a 3-0 defeat to Fenerbahce and he took his place in the stands in Moscow in 2008 when United beat Chelsea on penalties to win the tournament.
"To play alongside players such as Rio, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs, who for me is one of the greatest players in the history of football, is unforgettable and invaluable in terms of what I then went on to do."
In contrast to his close friend the Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas, there was no resistance when he wanted to go back to Barcelona. His market value now is probably not far from Fabregas's but at the time his limited starts and a nagging doubt, perhaps more from the United No 2, Carlos Queiroz, than from Ferguson, that he lacked the aggression and concentration to make it in England, contributed to the decision to allow him to leave.
If Fabregas does one day follow Pique back to Barcelona then a big part of one of the greatest Under-13 teams in history will be reunited. The Arsenal captain played alongside Pique and a shy, scrawny Argentine by the name of Lionel Messi in 2000. "The fact that we played together pushed us on as a group," he says. "Every training session with Leo and Cesc meant that you had to improve or they would leave you behind."
Despite the obvious brilliance of his two team-mates, Pique believes there was nothing inevitable about all three of them going on to become top players. "You see Leo and Cesc do the things they did as kids but the doubt always existed as to whether, once they reached professional level, they would be able to play the same way.
"It turns out that as professionals Leo is exactly the same and Cesc is exactly the same. They play just as they did in the youth team."
Returning to Barcelona was easy for Pique and he believes it will be for Fabregas, although he does not see his imminent homecoming as a foregone conclusion. "For me it was a case of two or three months and the adaptation was complete. I knew so many players from before and that helped me. It's a very healthy dressing room – one you want to be part of." It was Pique who helped force the Barcelona shirt over Fabregas' head in the celebrations that followed Spain's World Cup success. "It is still possible," he says, "but when it is time for it to happen then it will happen. It is a move that should not be forced. There will be a moment when Cesc thinks to himself that his time at Arsenal has reached its finish point and he needs a new environment or wants to come back to Barcelona. That is a decision that needs to be made by him, by Arsenal, and by Barcelona if they still want it to happen. But I think one day he will come back."
Fabregas was back two weeks ago but was whistled off as he left the pitch injured during the second half of Arsenal's Champions League exit. Pique is not as critical of the Gunners' shot-shy approach that night as some of his team-mates were immediately after the second leg. "It is difficult to play against a team that has such a high level of possession," he says.
He even suggests Arsenal's plan would have worked had Robin Van Persie not been sent off. "Wenger opted to defend because he had the goal advantage and in the end it did not work out but, to a point, it worked well. It is true that they did not create chances on goal but they defended well and it was after the sending-off that we were lucky enough to score the second and the third."
Barcelona's popularity perhaps suffered in England after the win over Arsène Wenger's 10-man team, giving way to a feeling that Barça somehow benefit from Uefa's desire for Europe's top act to remain on the Champions League bill.
Pique sees the change as a natural consequence of his club's domination. "People want something new. They want other teams to win. We have been lucky enough to win a lot of titles and when there are other sides who want to win the titles and can't then it winds them up. But we have always been very honest and straight and have never complained so there is no reason why people should have anything against the club."
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