Gerard Pique: 'With Mourinho there was an extra edge to El Clasico. He yanks your chain'

The Barcelona and Spain defender tackles FourFourTwo readers' posers about being pushed by Louis van Gaal, being out-jumped by Kevin Davies, and stink bombs...

FACT FILE

  • Date of birth: February 2, 1987
  • Height: 6ft 4in
  • Position: Centre-back
  • Place of birth: Barcelona
  • Clubs: 2004-08 Manchester United 23 games (2 goals); 2006-07 Real Zaragoza (loan) 28 (3); 2008–present Barcelona 322 (27)
  • International: 2009–present Spain 72 (4)
  • Honours: Premier League (2008); Champions League (2008, 2009, 2011, 2015); La Liga (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015; Copa del Rey 2009, 2012, 2015; UEFA Super Cup 2009, 2011, 2015; FIFA Club World Cup 2009, 2011
  • International honours: FIFA World Cup 2010, UEFA European Championship 2012

It’s strange to be a Barcelona player and have one of your names as the Real Madrid stadium, but you don’t choose your surname. I’m proud to have a strange surname like that, if anything

When Gerard Pique smiles, his whole face joins in. Fresh from a frenetic training session at Barcelona’s training ground in the foothills of the Collserola mountain range that looms over the Catalan capital, the 28-year-old centre-back approaches FourFourTwo with a typically goofy grin and skip in his step. “Welcome to my house,” says Pique, stretching out both arms to take in the sun on this early autumn afternoon, a perfectly manicured pitch stretching out behind him. It’s not hard to imagine why Pique is so happy all the time. He’s won every major honour there is for club and country. He’s playing for his hometown team. His other half is Colombian superstar singer Shakira, with whom he has two young sons, Milan and Sasha.

But there’s more to this unexpectedly tall defender than a few trophies, the odd dressing room prank and a pop-star girlfriend. He’s very bright and could have gone to business school. He owns his own company which makes online games, including Golden Manager, similar to Football Manager. His post-retirement ambition is to be Barcelona president. You wouldn’t put it past him, either: he’s been a natural-born winner since he was a kid.

The pride of Catalonia, he’s inundated with interview requests, but only has time for a few. The chance to “do something different” and have FourFourTwo readers ask the questions sparked his fire, and why wouldn’t it? From beating his dad at table tennis to his hatred of fish and chips in England or hiding from the “scary” Roy Keane, Pique laughs his way through more than an hour in FFT’s company, that beaming smile never far from his lips as he answers your top posers. Over to you, Gerard...

Is it true you were a Barcelona member from the moment you were born?
Rowan Bartram, Newcastle
Absolutely. My grandfather was a Barcelona director – he later went on to be vice-president – and he made me a member immediately. Turning 25 and completing a quarter of a century connected to the club was a proud moment for me. I’ve been to games since I was small, but I was never allowed to sit with him in the directors’ box! I had to sit with mum and dad in a normal seat a few rows behind.

What does your club mean to you?
James Percy, via Facebook
I love this club so much because of its history, style of play and how it identifies with Catalonia. I was lucky to play in the youth teams and get a football education like no other. It’s unique.

Your second surname is Bernabeu. Did you get any stick for this, growing up in the Barcelona youth teams?
Adria Migales, Barcelona
[Laughs] Not too much. It’s strange to be a Barcelona player and have one of your names as the Real Madrid stadium, but you don’t choose your surname. I’m proud to have a strange surname like that, if anything.

Did you always want to be a footballer? What were you like at school?
Jack Ward, Warminster
I did. That’s every youngster’s dream, isn’t it? I got the taste for it and didn’t want to let it slip. At 17 I picked up my suitcase and went to Manchester United and everything else is history. If I hadn’t been a footballer, I think I’d have done something business-related – maybe be the director of a company. It’s difficult to say; I’ve always fixed on being a footballer.

My dad never let me win at anything, not even ping pong, cabron! But once I beat him for the first time, that was it: I haven’t let him win since. He’s half-blind now, so he can barely see the ball!

I’ve heard your brother Marc say you’re the most competitive guy in the world. Do you let anyone beat you at anything?
Jaime Torres, Madrid
Yeah, that began in the street, where competition is always fierce. It motivates me to improve. It’s always better to win than lose. My dad never let me win at anything, not even ping pong, cabron! But once I beat him for the first time, that was it: I haven’t let him win since. He’s half-blind now, so he can barely see the ball! [Laughs] He taught me that it’s great to participate, but much better to win.

You grew up in the same youth teams as Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi. You must have been unbeatable! Is it true you called Leo ‘the mute’? And did you ever get into trouble with your best mate Cesc?
Scott West, Shrewsbury
[Laughs] We didn’t lose many! It was a great team that’s gone on to do great things around Europe. Me and Cesc were always getting into scrapes. Away trips and tournaments were the best. We were always in and out of each others rooms, playing FIFA or a game of cards. Messi was certainly very introverted at the beginning, but we played a tournament in Switzerland when he really came out of his shell and stopped being ‘the mute’. It’s difficult for a kid to adapt to a new continent, but he’s since shown himself to be the best in the world. An incredible talent, and remember: I’ve played with Cristiano Ronaldo, too.

I was a defender in the youth team so [Van Gaal] told me: “All centre-backs need to be strong” before pushing me over. Did I push him back? No chance – he was the Barça coach and I was really small!

Did then-Barcelona coach Louis van Gaal really push you over at your grandfather’s house? Did you push him back?
Liam Best, Gloucester
He did indeed. I was about 12 and he knew I was a defender in the youth team so he told me: “All centre-backs need to be strong” before pushing me over. Did I push him back? No chance – he was the Barça coach and I was really small! I had a chat with him before Spain’s game against Holland at the World Cup, actually, but not about the push!

What made you leave Barcelona for Manchester United? Did Cesc moving to England influence your decision? How difficult were the early months?
Will Rhodes, Manchester
There are moments in life when you have to take difficult decisions. United offered me the special chance of being in daily contact with professional players. At that point, it was very difficult to make the step up from the youth team at Barcelona – the philosophy was different then, and foreign signings were given more opportunities than the youth team. So I don’t regret it. The first few months, staying with an English family without my friends and family, were tough. Coming to terms with not playing, and spending day after day without sun, as well as the different food and being all alone, made me mature. Eating an evening meal at 6pm was really strange; in Spain it’s at 10pm. [FFT: Did you try beans on toast?] Yeah, I did, and fish and chips. I can’t say I liked either too much.

How do you reflect on your three years in Manchester? Would you ever come back?
Steve Davids, Manchester
You never know in football. I’ve always said my club here is Barcelona and in England I want Manchester United to win. I’ve got a few friends there now – Ander Herrera and David de Gea being two – and I got on well with everyone while I was there. I was a kid of 18 and having stars like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney looking after me was great. Being honest, I’m at the best club in the world now. It’s where I’ve always dreamed of playing and I have no intention of leaving. I’ve just renewed my contract and would like to finish my career here. But you never know.

I was a kid of 18 and having stars like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney looking after me was great

Who has influenced your career more: Sir Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola?
David Reed, Kent
Oof, they’re two very different characters that have influenced my career a huge amount. It’s almost impossible to imagine someone else spending 27 years at a club like Ferguson did, and in Guardiola’s first season we won all six trophies. It’s impossible to split them.

What was the biggest example of Fergie’s ‘hairdryer’ you received, and were there any other people that scared you at United?
Andy Martin, Salford
The what?! [FFT explains the hairdryer to a befuddled Pique] Oh, right. Of course! At the beginning I couldn’t understand a word he said – I was just relying on his face or body language, his accent was so broad. Mancunian is hard enough, but Scottish is impossible! I wouldn’t say I was scared of him, though. Roy Keane? Well, maybe that’s different! I remember we were in the changing room at Old Trafford and my phone started vibrating from inside my trouser pocket. Keano could hear the vibrations and went crazy trying to find out who the phone belonged to. That’s who he was. Before we beat Celtic 1-0 [in October 2013], I noticed him by the side of the pitch as a pundit as we went out to warm up. I hid my face with my hand because he still scares me. I was 26 years old, and I was sh*tting myself!

No dodging the question: who is better, Scholes or Xavi?
James Biddles, via Facebook
Oh, come on, you can’t make me choose! Maybe because of the trophies he’s won at international level it’s Xavi, but at a technical level they are both incredible. Scholes is one of the best passers I’ve ever seen from a central midfielder, as is Xavi. They’re references for their teams.

Did it surprise you that Barça re-signed you after not appearing much for United?
Neil Jones, via email
It did a bit. I’d had a good season on loan at Real Zaragoza, which helped me a lot. I didn’t play as much as I’d have liked at United, so as soon as I had the chance to come back, I didn’t think twice.

Before we beat Celtic 1-0, I noticed [Roy Keane] by the side of the pitch as a pundit as we went out to warm up. I hid my face with my hand because he still scares me. I was 26 years old, and I was sh*tting myself!

You won back-to-back league and Champions League titles for Manchester United in 2008, then Barça in 2009. How different did you feel for the 2009 titles?
Domingo Lopez, via email
They were definitely two unforgettable seasons, even if I didn’t play as much as I’d have liked in the 2007/08 season. The problem is almost that you become accustomed to that much success and it’s only later when you realise that winning all these titles – the six trophies in my first Barcelona season, especially – isn’t normal. Maintaining that success is football’s most difficult quest. That’s what we have to do now at Barcelona after a trophyless year.

Describe Pep as a coach. How did he change Barcelona after a disappointing season under Frank Rijkaard?
Brad Joseph, Minnesota, USA
He’s very intense and lives for football. He spends 24 hours a day thinking about how to attack or defend against strong opposition. He’s helped me a lot in my understanding of the game, how to play it and why to do things at certain times. Obviously, I consider him to be one of the best coaches in the world. I wasn’t here under Rijkaard, but from the moment Pep arrived, things changed. Guardiola was the beginning of this great team.

Would it be fair to say your relationship with Guardiola at the end of his time at Barça wasn’t as good as it had been?
Kevin Hedges, via email
Whenever you spend a long time with team-mates or a coach, you’re going to have clashes and different points of view. You reach a conclusion that works for both parties. The relationship was always good; he always expected the best from me, which is what I always tried to give him. I’ll be forever grateful for what he did for my career: he converted me into an important player after my spell at Manchester United.

Barça under Pep: what did you make of the acclaim hailing that side as the greatest ever, playing the best football of all time?
Phil Muldoon, Lancaster
It’s obviously nice to hear, but I wouldn’t say I felt under any extra pressure. At Barça you’re expected to win at all times, like any big club. Perhaps we have an extra responsibility to play with style because we must maintain our philosophy, but the pressure is the same.

With Mourinho around, there was an extra edge to the game because he makes you play to the limit. He yanks your chain a bit. We wanted to put them under similar pressure

There was an ugly edge to El Clasico when Jose Mourinho was Real Madrid coach, with players often overstepping the mark. How would you sum up the rivalry in this period?
Ryan Healy, via email
I’d sum it up as two strong teams who created a massive rivalry. Historic, almost. It’s never just been about the sport between Madrid and Barça – it goes beyond that. But with Mourinho around, there was an extra edge to the game because he makes you play to the limit. He yanks your chain a bit. We wanted to put them under similar pressure.

I’ve never seen a defender score a goal like yours against Inter in the 2010 Champions League semis. Have you ever thought about playing up front?
Nathan Brown, Hertfordshire
Well, as a kid I played as a striker, but as time’s gone by I’ve moved all the way back, probably because my height and physique make it easier to play there. But you should have seen me at training today – I smashed in loads of goals! We did a crossing and shooting exercise and I was on fire [laughs]. I love playing up top.

What was going on in that picture of you and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the car park? What did you make of the media reaction to that?
Bobby Henderson, Liverpool
[Smiles] I’d just released my autobiography and he came over to say “well done”. I’m a tactile person, very caring, and the photographer took the shot [of the two holding hands]. He was inside the training ground, so it couldn’t have been someone from a gossip magazine. I couldn’t believe it turned into this massive thing [the internet went into overdrive, claiming they were lovers]. I can’t say the reaction surprised me. We were ahead of Real Madrid with only a few games to go, so the press would jump on anything to destabilise us. We still won the league, though.

What did Cesc Fabregas, then at Arsenal, say to you after you put that Barça shirt on him during the World Cup celebrations? Did it surprise you that he left this summer?
Ash McLaren, London
[Knowing smile] Nothing too bad! He was certainly angry with me and Puyi [Carles Puyol] but in the end we were right, weren’t we?! I think he had three very good seasons here with us. His transfer to Chelsea is a personal decision for him. Everyone knows he has great quality and feels the Blaugrana colours very strongly, but there are moments – like when I went to United – when you have to make difficult decisions about your future.

At what point did you decide you wanted to keep the Wembley nets as a memento after the 2011 Champions League Final? Where did you find the scissors?!
Holly Axford, York
I’d already done it in Rome when we won the 2009 Champions League and after winning the 2010 World Cup. I’ve always done it: it’s for my personal museum. I’ve got keepsakes in there to remind me when I retire of the magnificent moments I’ve experienced in my career. The physios gave me the scissors that night. They’ve got everything in their little bags.

Which gave you more pleasure: winning the 2010 World Cup or Euro 2012?
Roland Allen, via Twitter
It has to be 2010. Spain had never won the World Cup, so to have done that for the country was a fantastic feeling. Vicente del Bosque has been a massive part of my career and we couldn’t have won those titles without him. [FFT: What happened in Brazil?] We obviously didn’t reach the level to which we aspire. We went to the World Cup with a good team, but things didn’t work out. We’ll analyse what went wrong over the course of qualification for Euro 2016 and learn from those errors.

You recently said that your form hasn’t been at the level of a few years ago. What do you have to do to get back to your very best?
Marcus Hoewig, via email
I’ve got to train harder, with more intensity, concentrate more whenever I’m playing and leave everything I have on the pitch. A footballer must always be looking to improve in all aspects, especially those where you’re weakest, not only at an individual level, but as a team as well. Last year wasn’t a good one, so this season we must look to improve across the board.

He understands that when you’re winning there’s no better place on earth, but when you lose it’s a different feeling. He knows the Barcelona philosophy inside-out, both on and off the pitch, and he’s a great coach

What are your early impressions of Luis Enrique? How important is it to have someone with Barcelona DNA in charge of the first team again?
Rob Sittingborne, London
It’s very important. He understands that when you’re winning there’s no better place on earth, but when you lose it’s a different feeling. He knows the Barcelona philosophy inside-out, both on and off the pitch, and he’s a great coach. He’ll show that.

Xavi calls you the ‘Captain of Jokes’ in the dressing room. What’s your best prank?
Jerry Peters, Birmingham
Pfft, I don’t know, there have been a few. I pull away chairs when people are about to sit down, hide phones, that sort of thing. There were plenty more when I was younger, too. [FFT: What about the stink bombs you let off on a flight during pre-season?] Yeah, he told me to set those off! [Points to his agent, who rolls his eyes]. Seriously, though, I did it to liven up the long flight to Helsinki, for a bit of fun. My team-mates were beside themselves. We all try to have a laugh.

I saw you were recently in a World Series poker event. Are you the poker Don of the dressing room?
Amber Shotton, London
It’s a game that requires a lot of intelligence. You’ve got to study your opponents very intently and it’s very mathematic in the sense that it’s all about probabilities, knowing what you’ve got and therefore what others might have. Then there’s the bluffing, which I love. You’ve got to use your brain – it’s brilliant. Am I the Don of the dressing room? No chance! It’s just a hobby; some people play golf or tennis.

Her songs are fantastic, especially the lyrics and how she expresses what she’s feeling into music. On the analysis stakes, I’d say it’s about even. She knows her stuff

Do you listen to Shakira songs to prepare you for matches? Who does the better analysis, her of your performances or the other way around?
James Parsons, Devon
Come on, what else would I listen to before a match? It’s the best music there is! I mean, her songs are fantastic, especially the lyrics and how she expresses what she’s feeling into music. On the analysis stakes, I’d say it’s about even. She knows her stuff.

What will your son Milan be when he grows up: a footballer or a singer?
Ana Velez, Manizales, Colombia
I hope he’ll be a footballer, but who knows? Given the choice, a footballer, but I’m quite happy for him to decide what he wants to be.

PAL'S POSER

Do you think you’d beat Kevin Davies in the air if you were playing against him now, Gerard?! - Gary Neville
I know the game you’re getting at, Gary! [Pique can’t stop laughing] It would still be pretty difficult – Davies was just incredible in the air. But I’m a defender, so you’ve got to find a way to beat them. I would try!

Is it true you provided the voice for the Pirate King in the Catalan version of The Pirates! Band of Misfits? Do you fancy yourself as an actor?
Abel Olson, via email
No, not really. That was good fun, though. Actually, maybe. We’ll see what happens. [FFT: Is it right that Andres Iniesta performed in the Spanish version of the same film?] Absolutely. Who’s best? What kind of a question is that?! Mine, for f***’s sake, come on! [Laughs] Always back yourself.

What player, past or present, would you like to partner at centre-back?
Reilly, via Twitter
Wow, there are a lot. I never saw him play, but [Franz] Beckenbauer would have been nice. Others include Ronald Koeman and Fernando Hierro, who were fantastic players in their eras for Barça and Real Madrid. It was amazing to learn from Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic but from the videos I’ve seen, Beckenbauer was incredible. He joined in attacks, had goals in him and bossed his team. Amazing.

This interview originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!

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