It's hard to believe Gerard Pique is just 26 years old. The Barcelona and Spain defender has already won a Premier League title (with Manchester United), La Liga four times, two Champions League titles, a UEFA European Championship and a World Cup. And his peak years may still be ahead of him.
In an exclusive interview for Bleacher Report, Pique answered our questions on everything from Barca's La Masia academy to playing with Lionel Messi, how being a father has changed him, his hopes for the 2014 World Cup and beyond. His answers were translated by his PR guru, Benjamin Miller.
BLEACHER REPORT: Take us back to those early years at La Masia. What was Barcelona doing so right to develop so many good players, yourself included?
GERARD PIQUE: Barcelona always had a clear philosophy about what their players had to do, both on and off the pitch. Technique was, and still is, valued above everything else. It was hard work too—very competitive and demanding. As well as football, we learned the responsibility of schoolwork too. If you didn’t make the grades at school, you were out.
I was up at 5 a.m. some days to finish my homework or prepare for exams. The same goes for anyone failing to act with the club’s general principles of respect, teamwork and humility. No matter how good you were, if you didn’t follow the club’s moral code, you had no future at Barcelona.
Barcelona has an amazing youth system with a clearly defined philosophy and a team of incredible professionals. But you can’t deny that they also had the good fortune to come across an exceptional generation of players. From Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Valdes, through to my year—I played from 12 years old in the same team as Cesc and Messi—to Pedro, Busquets and right through to the guys who are now coming through like Montoya, Sergi Roberto, Tello and Bartra.
B/R: You went from Barca to Manchester United. Can you tell us a little bit about how that move came about?
GP: I'd become a member of FCB the day I was born, and all I ever dreamed of was playing for the first team. I started playing for a FCB youth team when I was 10. When I was 17, Manchester United showed interest in me, having seen me in a youth tournament. My family, my agent, Arturo Canales, and myself all thought it would be a great opportunity for me to develop, both as a player and also as a person.
It was difficult going off by myself so young to a new country, but I left Barcelona as a boy and returned a man. Sharing a dressing room with players like Ruud, Ronaldo, Keane, Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, under the orders of Alex Ferguson, was an amazing experience.
B/R: What were the best things you learned from Sir Alex Ferguson during your time there?
GP: I learned so much from him—he was like a father to me when I was there. I have a great deal of affection and respect for him. He’s a legend. His track record speaks for itself, but maybe the most surprising thing about him is that he took the time to look out for all the players, even unknown kids like me!
With all the work he had with the first team, it seemed amazing to me that he found the time to know every single player at the club and their families personally and was always there willing to help out. In the end, he didn’t want me to leave but understood that returning to Barcelona was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and he was gracious in letting me go. I owe him a great deal.
B/R: You're a central defender now. Was that always the position you wanted to play in? How did you end up there? And who is most responsible?
GP: I always enjoyed being a defender, but in the Barca sense of the position—defending, yes, but with the ability and technique to dictate play from the back and occasionally get involved in attack. I haven’t changed much in that respect.
B/R: Which elements of your game do you still feel you need to develop? And which are you most proud of?
GP: I am only 26, so I have plenty to improve on, and I’m working hard every day in training to achieve this. I am proud of having played a part in everything that FCB has achieved in recent years and of having played in every single minute of Spain’s victorious World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 campaigns.
B/R: Do you remember the first time you played with Lionel Messi? Was it obvious early on that Barcelona had something a little bit special?
GP: I was in the same team as him from 12 years old. It was blatantly clear from the first time I saw him run with the ball stuck to his foot that he was a unique player. Now that he’s not only the best player in the world, but the best player in the history of the game, in my opinion, what is most impressive about him is that he hasn’t changed a bit. He is still the same humble, shy, nice guy he was when we were kids, even though he now has the world at his feet.
B/R: You've seen managers change a couple of times recently at Barcelona. Does the ethos remain the same—in terms of the playing style—or has each man brought a different slant?
GP: Barcelona’s style is non-negotiable. What Tata (Martino) has added to the equation is perhaps more options in terms of occasionally opting for more direct play—a long pass now and again to ease pressure or create a fast attack, as when the match dictates. This only helps us improve, and it gives us more options and alternatives.
B/R: What do you say to those who criticize "tiki-taka" as boring? Do Barcelona players even use that term? Or do you think it simplifies what you're trying to do?
GP: I respect their opinion. Everyone is free to reach his or her own conclusions in life. Having said that, Barca’s football has been pretty popular and extremely successful over recent years. We’ve won 16 titles in the last five years! It certainly hasn’t been boring for us—the players and the fans!
I’ve never used the term "tiki-taka" in my life. Possession football, constant movement and pressing are things that all the players here have ingrained in their DNA.
B/R: Camp Nou is a wonderful stadium. What is your opinion on plans to potentially move Barcelona to a new home?
GP: Let’s see what happens. I spent my childhood in the Camp Nou watching every home game and have now played more than 250 matches as a FC Barcelona professional. I love the stadium. That said, it’s at times when everything is going well that you should most look toward the future.
B/R: How has being a family man changed you? Do you have different motivations? Has it helped put football in perspective?
GP: How have I changed? Well, I’m much better at changing nappies. And I sleep less regularly! I love being a dad. I hope to be as good a parent as my parents were to me, which won’t be easy! Nothing has changed on the pitch. Perhaps it’s helped me mature a little, like any other first-time parent.
Maybe the biggest difference is that coming home to your own family allows you to disconnect from football more. The second I walk in the door and see my son, everything else fades away.
B/R: The World Cup next summer will see Spain try to achieve back-to-back wins. There are those who say Brazil are favorites, but you are the team in possession. Will you go to Brazil expecting to win?
GP: We’re a pretty humble group of people in the Spanish team. I don’t think any of us are cocky or silly enough to go to Brazil expecting to win. There are several top teams. Brazil, Germany and Spain are among the favorites, but there are no weak teams at the World Cup. What about Argentina? France? Portugal? Italy? Uruguay? Netherlands? England? Chile? Or two teams that nobody is talking about, but that I think could be real revelations: Belgium and Colombia?
There will be no easy games at this tournament. If we play to our best and have that touch of necessary fortune, who knows…winning a World Cup isn’t easy. Spain has only managed it once. Like all the other players that will be in Brazil, right now I am focused on what I am doing with my club, but the World Cup is there in the back of my mind, and to be honest, I can’t wait—I am really looking forward to it.
B/R: Finally, what's next for Gerard Pique after football? Do you see a career in coaching? Or a life in the media? Or maybe a move away from the game altogether?
GP: I’m only 26, so I believe that I still have my best years ahead of me as a player. Outside of football, I have my family, the same friends as always and I’ve been really involved in creating a company that develops free-to-play video games played across social media platforms. I am very passionate about it.
Our first game, goldenmanager.com, has just come out and is doing well. There are already almost a million people playing around the world. It’s a manager/club president soccer game that you can play for free with friends. I love technology. And music! And all sports! And business and the economy—a lot of things!
I can’t see myself coaching when I retire, so maybe I’ll become the president of FCB one day!