Gerard Pique: Barcelona would not win Premier League
Defender discusses Wayne Rooney, which young Englishman has caught his eye, and how Lionel Messi would fare on a rainy night in Stoke
Gerard Pique names his current ‘dream team’. “Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Iniesta,” he begins. “There is also Pogba, Cristiano Ronaldo. I have the best players in the world.”
With Spain facing England in Alicante on Friday the question has to be tentatively asked: are there any English players?
“I have Wayne Rooney because he is one of the best English players in history,” he replies swiftly.
“He needs to win an important title with England. It will be difficult, but you never know. Recently he became England’s all-time record goal-scorer - a very important record. And he’s not old. Just 30.”
As Pique talks of “titles” it is impossible for the eye not to wander across from him, conducting this interview on a large exercise ball in his smart office in downtown Barcelona, to the shelves just to his right.
On the shelves, which stand on an artificial turf carpet, is an array of medals, memorabilia, books (among them Sir Alex Ferguson’s latest) and keepsakes.
Pique says he does not know the number of medals he was won. And it is not a question he is naturally comfortable with. “If you stop now and start to realise what you have achieved then you start to relax and you start to lose,” he says. “I don’t think about everything I have achieved. I will do it when I retire because then I will have a lot of days to remember.”
For the record, so far, there are four Champions Leagues (three with Barca, one with United), five La Liga titles, three Copa del Reys, three Spanish Super Cups, one Uefa Super Cup, a Fifa Club World Cup and a Premier League title. Then, for Spain, there is a World Cup and a European Championship. All by the age of 28.
“I never imagined in my life to win all these tournaments,” Pique does admit. “But I want to win more and I have a good chance to do so. I have four, five years more of my career… But I have to perform at the top-level. If, just once, I say ‘listen, I don't want to work as much’ then I will be on the bench. Then in the stands. Then out. It’s over. It’s a responsibility when you have won as much as I have done, as much as the teams I have played for have done, then the fans are waiting for more.”
The collection on the shelves includes Pique’s Champions League winner’s medal from 2009 when he was part of the Barcelona team that overwhelmed his former club, Manchester United, Rooney and all.
Barcelona’s superiority over English teams is evident but Pique insists his side would not win the Premier League if they were a part of it. Not in their first season, anyway.
“I think that if Barcelona or Real Madrid goes to the Premier League then the first year of playing there, there is no chance of winning it,” he says. Really? “Yes, I think so, because if you go to Stoke, or other types of teams, then it will be really tough. It’s a debate – we could spend hours on it. If Manchester United or Chelsea go to Spain then the same. No chance to win the league.”
So it’s true: Lionel Messi could not do it (immediately, at least) on a wet November night at the Britannia Stadium?
But first a player who has faced Stoke many times: Rooney. There is genuine warmth when Pique discusses his former team-mate and friend. “Sometimes we have phone calls, texts,” he says.
“He’s a fantastic lad. When I was there [at United – from 2004-08] he was really young and I was really young too and he helped me a lot. He involved me in the team, helped me to learn English. He was the joker in the dressing room. I have great memories.”
Pique accepts that Rooney is going through a tough patch. “He’s not as quick as he was, maybe, but he will always score goals – he scored a hat-trick against Brugge, he scored against CSKA (Moscow). He has kept scoring.
“It’s true he’s getting older, we all have to accept that, but he has the ability to play for a long time. And, you know, when you don’t score sometimes it is not because of you. Sometimes it’s maybe the team is not creating chances for you.
“Not everything, always, is about your performance. It’s about the team performance. When the team is not playing well then normally you will not play well. It’s all about the team.”
Pique sees signs of hope for England. “I think now they are in one of their runs,” he says of Roy Hodgson side’s 10 straight wins achieved in qualifying for Euro 2016. “That is a really good sign. But I think, in England, the problem has always been that there is no stability.
“For me, it all depends on the youth team. I remember when the Spanish team won the European Championships [in 2008]. Before that there was a lot of criticism. They won the Euros then we won the World Cup and the Euros again and there were players – Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres – who had worked together since they were 12, 13 and finally the first-team were getting results.
“You have to have that faith. With a club you can change players. With a national team you cannot change your country. But in England the team has continually changed.”
There is another English player who has caught Pique’s eye, though, and one he thinks offers England hope: John Stones. “Rio Ferdinand and John Terry were the two main central defenders in England. Top-level,” he says. “Now I think John Stones is a really, really, good player. He will have a good career. He’s like Rio, a bit. He’s young and alongside him they probably need one who is more experienced. Jagielka is injured. But Smalling is playing well at Manchester United.”
Pique, that most graceful of defenders, says English football is evolving and also becoming more progressive. “I remember when I arrived in England a lot of people said that my style of play was not for England. And now it is changing.
“I also remember when Cesc Fabregas and Cazorla arrived in England and people said ‘no, it’s not the same style of play’. But everyone loved it and now they are the stars of the league. I think finally the English fans have to accept that this is the way football is played all over the world. It’s true they love box-to-box but if you want to win titles and trophies then maybe you have to change a little bit.
“Now the position of the centre-back is not just about defending or being nasty or tough. It’s about knowing how to play football, control the ball, pass and be more comfortable in possession. And this is something that 10 years ago [in England] they didn’t understand. Rio was the first one who did it. And now there is Stones, he’s one of the new generation who understand football not just as a defender.”
It is a theme that Pique, a guardian of Barcelona’s style of play, who collected the award as Catalan Player of the Year on Monday evening, soon after this interview, warms to.
“The centre-back is the first attacker, the first one who builds the attacking play,” he explains. “Then the ball goes to the midfield and the midfielders find the strikers. So the defenders start to generate and create the chances. It’s hard because it’s about changing everything to understand football. But it’s getting better [in England]. It’s a different philosophy.”
Although this is an interview with Pique ahead of Spain’s friendly against England, in preparation for Euro 2016, it would be remiss not to also take the opportunity to discuss what it is like to be a team-mate – and a training ground opponent – of ‘MSN’: Messi, Suarez, Neymar.
After all they are the first three names Pique chose, unsurprisingly, for his ‘Dream Team’, the team he uses when he plays his own online computer game “Golden Manager”, established four years ago, through a company employing 30 people, and which now has more than eight million users.
“It’s a challenge for you everyday,” Pique says with a smile, talking about the real-life challenge of taking them on in training. “It’s an opportunity to grow up as a player because every day you have to try to defend against them.”
Then comes the killer line.
“The key of these three is the relationship that they have,” he says.
“You can see that on the pitch. It’s magnificent. For example, when one is scoring a lot and the other is not scoring - Neymar, the other day, he gave the penalty to Luis Suarez. When you see this kind of attitude, it means a lot.
“Because the only problem when you have players of this magnitude is the ego. Suarez was the main star in Liverpool, Leo before we had Suarez and Neymar; it was just him. And how they connect – they do not have any ego and this is the most important part.
“And they are different. Neymar is the best one-on-one. He is unstoppable. You have Leo Messi who is the most complete player in the world – he can attack, defend, he can head the ball even though he is small. And then you have Luis Suarez and his first touch in the box is fantastic.
“It’s really easy to win titles when you have team-mates like Messi. Well, not really easy but easier than if you have another kind of player. To have Messi, Neymar and Suarez up-front. It is the best in the world.”
It felt similar, in mentality, he says when he was at United. “When I was there – Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Giggs, Scholes, Roy Keane. We won the Champions League in 2008. We won the league. It was a really, really good team,” he says. “The centre-backs – Rio Ferdinand, Vidic. I was really unlucky! They never got injured – then I left and then they started to get injuries! This is football but I’m not really worried.”
Why should he be? Pique bravely left, because he feared a lack of opportunities, and then returned to the club closest to his heart, the club he lived and breathed almost from birth; The club for which he can still recite the starting line-ups from 1-11 for the years he followed them as a fan (with his grandfather a vice-president for 20 years and still on the board).
“It means everything,” Pique says of playing for Barca. “It’s true that I was happy in Manchester even though I didn’t play as much as I wanted to. But the day I finally signed for Barcelona and I came back it was ‘wow, the dream comes true’. After this we won a lot of titles and other dreams come true but the main one was playing for the club that I had supported all my life.
“It’s not something I can explain with words. Imagine – since I was five years old I had gone every week to the stadium, following this team. I remember everything - all the teams every year; all the players. From one day to the other you are supporting the team and then you are inside the dressing room with the players.”
And Pique is passionate about the need to nurture ‘local’ players such as himself something that they are in danger of getting away from, as other Premier League teams have.
“We know how to play this game in the way that Barcelona is playing right now because we have learnt it,” Pique enthuses.
“And at the same time we know how much it means to the Barcelona fans. The slogan is ‘more than a club’ and we know that it’s not just about winning. It’s about how you win, the manner of the win.”
With Spain, Pique will hope to win on Friday in a manner becoming of one of the great modern national sides. But, regardless of the result, there will be a hug for Rooney and an exchange of shirts afterwards – as he always does when he comes up against his friend – and a reflection on how far he has come. And how far Pique still wants to go.