The offices that house Gerard Pique’s Kerad Games, employing some thirty or so bright young men and women to keep his Golden Manager online football game successfully expanding, are plush and located within a long goal kick of the FC Barcelona training ground. In the modern vogue, they are a mix of open-plan and glass-walled executive offices but there are touches of flair: a carpet made out of the latest 4G artificial turf, table tennis, a “substitutes’ bench” along one wall where people can wait for appointments or staff can sit and chat.
His office is full of mementos, one of which I helped him earn: a cutting from the 2010 World Cup final goal net. On the wall there’s a startling picture of the Catalan central defender almost cheek-to-cheek with his mother, Montse, and the two of them are sobbing their eyes out. Not crying; sobbing in the way that shows you have no regard for who’s watching, no control over your facial muscles. Tears flowing like monsoon rain.
It’s just the most beautiful thing. It was taken, very close up, when Gerard spotted her by the side of the Soccer City pitch after helping steer Spain to become world champions in 2010. By that point in his career he’d already been part of two Champions League winning squads, been crowned a European U19 champion with Spain and was a title holder in both La Liga and the Premier League.
But that World Cup win, as the emotional tsunami showed, was totally different. He’d helped make his nation the best on the planet. Now here he is, six years on, announcing that while his intention is to take Spain to the Russian World Cup and win it, he’s had his fill of how he’s been treated and will retire after that tournament.
He’s not beaten, broken or emotionally scarred; just clever enough to take his destiny into his own hands.
In what’s been written about the latest affair, where some clowns whipped up a false storm about him having doctored his Spain strip to eliminate evidence of the national flag colours, there’s been too little outright saluting of what Pique’s done. By which I mean: he’s beaten the machine, overcome the odds. He’s the kid who stepped up to the bullies and took control of his situation. We all have to admire that.
Card player that he is, to his core, he’s known precisely when to hold and when to fold. He’s done what almost no great in the public eye manages: he’s taken the maelstrom by the throat and said “I’m in charge.”
Pique’s commitment to club and country is matched by his ability to block out the noise and do the right thing.
My first reaction, not as someone who’s known him a long time but as a lover of football, was regret that we have, at very best, 14 more competitive international matches during which we can watch the guy who, for the last two years, has been the best in the world at his job.
Once you strip away the colour of his shirt, whether it be Barça or Spain, if you don’t confess that this is a footballer for whom it’s worth turning on the television or paying the price of a match ticket, you should be following crown bowls or televised backgammon instead. Not simply because he’s a football player of elegance and grace, nor because he’s a terrific athlete. It’s not just because he’s a ferocious competitor, nor a defender who has a compulsive habit to score vital goals at the other end of the pitch.
This is a guy who lays it all down for us. He admits that he craves to consistently achieve like an all-time elite sportsman, but also that he sometimes loses his enjoyment of the game, drifts into “auto” mode and has to fight, hard, to keep his motivation at peak level.
These are very human traits. Aspirations to perform at your peak, yet acknowledgement that it’s damn hard to do. Some of us never even reach for the former, the majority of us succumb to the latter.
What I like a lot here is that Pique has asserted control. When he played, numb, for quite some months because he was subconsciously sated by success and thought about retiring long before his current age of 29, it was he himself who spotted the malaise and worked through it. Had he not been strong enough to do that then, by his own admission, this might have been the age at which he was retiring from all competitive football, both for club and country.
All the while, he has surfed the wave of boorish, faddish, moronic jeering and whistling that dogged him for a couple of seasons. While it was happening, I was laughing.
It was like the old Joel Chandler Harris stories when Brer Fox catches Brer Rabbit and Brer Rabbit cons the predator by begging and begging not to be thrown in the briar patch because that’s what he’d hate most. The Fox falls for it, thinks he’s inflicting the ultimate torment on his rabbit foe, but is tricked into doing just what his opponent wanted.
Pique is a tempestuous guy — far from perfect. He’s headstrong and sometimes capable of believing everyone is out of step except him. One or two of the things he’s done have been reprehensible. No question. But like David Beckham, he thrives on being put down. When he’s insulted, taunted, written off, treated unfairly or goaded, it’s like his entire character gets lean and mean so that he can prove everyone wrong.
While some utter clowns who have attended Spain games whistled and jeered his every touch it’s no coincidence that he’s produced world-class concentration and superb football for club and country. In fact, he’s thrived. He couldn’t stop them, but he could control the impact by turning it into a spur. Brer Pique.
Gerard Pique has been one of Spain’s best-ever defenders but stands apart for taking his future into his own hands.
Right now, in my opinion, he is the axiom of Napoleon’s phrase that “he who fails to learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” Thus, “he who learns from history is empowered to avoid its pitfalls.”
Pique has been paying attention. Raúl was the cornerstone of the Spanish team for years: leader, scorer, icon, spokesman. But when he became a barrier to advancement, his treatment by Luis Aragonés was ruthless. Astute, productive, successful… but completely ruthless. Raúl and Aragonés literally divided the nation and his “adios” wasn’t just painful; it was bitter.
Take Aragonés himself. During an unbeaten run from November 2006 until 2008, he had La Roja playing their best-ever football. His team was jeered, abused and booed from pillar to post. I’ve spoken to the players of that era and they could not believe the hostility and vindictiveness directed towards them by fans and media. In due course they won Euro 2008, at which point one million people turned out in Madrid to fête them. But by then Aragonés already knew that he’d been replaced, that he wasn’t wanted and that his “splitting the atom” work with Spain would go unrewarded.
Xavi — still La Roja’s greatest ever player in my view — was persuaded by Vicente Del Bosque to stay on instead of taking a Pique style exit after gloriously winning Euro 2012 4-0 against Italy. Two years later, the Brazil World Cup was a horrible experience. A calamitous failure and he was dropped, wrongly, after the first match as if to carry the blame.
What kind of reward is that for his years of brilliance?
There are others from this golden generation — David Villa and Iker Casillas are examples — who’ll tell you that how, when and with what degree of appreciation it’s possible to call time on a great international career is a thorny problem.
Each is entitled to feel hurt and even bitter about things. From here on, things could go wrong for Pique if he plays badly, gets injured or if Spain fail to qualify for the World Cup. Or if he relents and withdraws his planned retirement. But from this distance, what he’s done is to read the “play” like he reads football.
He’s taken matters into his own hands, acted like a winner and acted elegantly, for which reason I quote you what Piqué told me on July 9, 2010: two days before making Spain world champion.
“Elegance is everywhere. It’s how you dress, how you comport yourself, how you play. If you have elegance as one of your natural characteristics then you need to expose it when you play football. The elegant players are not just better footballers they are better because they are the ones the people want to see.”
Neither he nor any of us can live up to that maxim every single day of our lives. But more often than most, he has. And this time, in particular, he’s shown elegance of thought, word and deed. Chapeau.