"Culers, I have to tell you something," he posted at 6.36 p.m. on a grey Thursday evening in November, and just like that, it was over. Twenty-five years after he joined the club where he'd been a member from the day he was born, and 15 years since he played the first of his 615 games in the first team, Gerard Pique announced that it was over. A video, beautifully shot, nicely scripted, cut together with camcorder footage of him as a boy in blaugrana, reclaimed the narrative and bid farewell. He was gone -- for now, at least.
"You know me, sooner or later I will back." It was lost on no one that he said so with a glance at the directors' box. One day, he may be Barcelona president Pique, an aspiration publicly held and not just for a laugh, although there is a lot he does for fun; it is a post for which he has prepared himself. By next week, he will no longer be just the player Pique, if he ever was. Saturday night will be his last game at Camp Nou; Tuesday in Pamplona (against Osasuna) will be his last game, full stop ... if he plays, which these days he doesn't much. (And which is why this has happened, although that is not the only reason.)
"I'm in shock," Barcelona legend Carles Puyol said, and he was not alone. No one expected this; no one knew. On Wednesday night, Barcelona's players had eaten together; Pique didn't say anything. President Joan Laporta said they had been contemplating this for a while, but he didn't know it was coming either. Not just yet, and not like this. Pique had done it his way, and that mattered to him, as it always had. After months of people talking about me, it's my turn, he said.
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That was significant. These have been difficult days, an increasing feeling that many have turned. It was all happening at once, easy to feel like you're in everyone's crosshairs, an ever easier target. There have been personal issues, repeatedly made explicit in soon-to-be ex-wife Shakira's songs, and pressure had been placed upon him to walk away, expressed even in whistles from the fans. The club's CEO had talked publicly about the need to "destroy" contracts like his, a burden the club could not afford: the veterans, the captains, were portrayed as a problem now, responsible for many failures including those that are not their own.
Loyalty becomes a lead weight fast; how quickly people forget. Service now was to sever the relationship. At a club like Barcelona, things do not always happen and are not always said in isolation, but with intent. Even when they are not, it can feel that way when you're the focus. It can feel like you are pushed. "We share this decision," Laporta said on Thursday night, and it wasn't just a platitude.
In the summer, Pique had been told by head coach Xavi to look for a way out. The 35-year-old replied by saying Xavi could bring in the best central defender in the world and he would compete for his place and win it too. It didn't happen. For a player, it is always hard to accept that the end is close, and it's easy to see other elements at play. Here, the economics certainly are. Pique was not just second choice: he was fifth, sixth even. Players who were not centre-backs were preferred and new signings identified, likely seeing him slip further. In the end, he chose to slip out.
If it had been a surprise, everyone had been forewarned. Pique was as good as his word; this decision is consistent. After the 8-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League in 2020, he had said that if he needed to step aside, he would do so. But that was not what they needed. Up until this season, he played. For all the criticism, the decline, his place was occupied on merit. This season, he has played little. When he did, in the 3-3 draw against Inter Milan, his was the error that cost them, so visible as to be a statement, a realisation, or to be taken as one: so this is the end.
In an interview with El Pais in October, Pique told Juan Irigoyen that one day he would retire and it would be at Barcelona -- he wasn't going to play anywhere else. As long as he could "compete with the best and not feel inferior," he would play. But when he couldn't -- and competing depends too on opportunity and continuity -- he would be gone, and quickly. He said that he would not accept retiring as a substitute; if it happened in the final three months, he would have to accept it, of course, but he said: "A season on the bench? No, I don't want that."
That was what awaited, so he went. The enthusiasm, the joy -- illusion, the Spanish always call it, a word that has a kind of childlike quality about -- was slipping away. The thrill was gone, or going. In Thursday's video, over images of himself as a kid in the club's kit, Pique admitted: "I didn't want to be a footballer; I wanted to play for Barcelona. ... I have been thinking about that boy a lot lately."
Timing matters, don't let it come to a bitter close, don't let the dream go bad: leave first. Timing is so hard to get right. At 35, this is late, some may say, but soon enough he will hope to hold onto the good times, to not allow any (more?) of his legacy to be lost. And it is some legacy. At Valencia last week, far too much was made of the time it took him to get on when called upon. Sitting on the bench, he did not expect to play; he scrambled for his shin pads, teammate Sergio Busquets had to untie his boots, struggling with the knot.
There was some sort of symbolism there, maybe: Pique was no longer fit to lace his own boots. Yet for years, no one else was fit to lace them either.
In the summer, he had said that Barcelona could bring in the best centre-back to compete with him. In 2008, they had. He had been at Real Zaragoza and Manchester United; now he came home and stayed for 15 seasons.
Pique was much more than a footballer: entrepreneur, communicator, club owner, Davis Cup boss, promoter of the balloon World Cup, poker player. But if that other stuff took 0.5% off me, I wouldn't do it, he said and he was a footballer too; the best of them. And cule, always cule: the man who wound up Real Madrid, describing the Bernabeu whistling him as a "symphony" to his ears and who raised his hand when Barcelona scored five in the Clasico in 2010, more aware than anyone of what it meant. "Without Pique, this whole invention falls apart," former coach Tito Vilanova said once. Winner of eight leagues, three Champions Leagues and seven cups. And that's just at Barcelona, his club.
There are 30 trophies in total. A European Championship (2012) and a World Cup (2010) with Spain.
One day, when Pique was little, Louis van Gaal came to his house for lunch. Pique's proud grandfather told Barcelona's then-coach that the boy was going to play in the first team one day. Van Gaal walked over to him and pushed Pique to the floor. Standing over him, he declared, "You're too weak to be a centre-back at Barcelona," but he was wrong. One day that boy, lying there looking up at him, "liquidated" as he put it, was going to become the best they ever had.