Gerard Piqué was 13 or 14 the day the Barcelona manager came to tea. When his grandfather proudly introduced him as the future Camp Nou centre-back, Louis van Gaal walked over and without a word pushed him to the floor. Standing over him, he looked down at this kid lying there and delivered a devastating verdict: you’re too weak to play for Barcelona.
Twenty-one years, 567 games, eight leagues, eight cups and four European Cups later, a World Cup and a Euros too, he’s not just still standing; he’s carrying the club on his shoulders. Well, someone has to.
That was how it felt for a moment on Sunday night, anyway. It’s an exaggeration, but it wasn’t just that Piqué headed the first goal of a new season, his 14th, back in front of fans after 526 days. That it was his 50th for Barcelona – more than any defender except the man who’s now his coach. Or even just that he scored the first of a new era, after the departure of Lionel Messi: the quiet kid he met the same year Van Gaal pushed him over and who became their best footballer ever. It was also because the man who passed to him wouldn’t have been on the pitch without him.
On Saturday, Barcelona announced they had finally been able to register Memphis Depay and Eric García, just in time for the opening game of the season – “thanks to an agreement with Gerard Piqué whereby the Barça second captain’s salary has been substantially reduced”.
The following day, Depay curled in a gorgeous free-kick and Piqué scored, setting the new post-Messi Barcelona on course for a 4-2 opening-night victory over Real Sociedad, an emotional release they really needed.
On Travessera de les Corts and into the Camp Nou, more shirts carried Messi’s name than anyone else’s. Those fans that didn’t have them could still buy them in the stalls around the stadium, but not the club shop. Banners hung around the ground, blaming Joan Laporta for his departure. “Messi in Paris, you in Ibiza,” read one regarding the club president; “Judas: you conned God,” said another; “Laporta, Florentino’s lackey,” said a third, referencing his Real Madrid counterpart, Florentino Pérez.
To judge by the font they were all hung by the same person; most know the real culprit was Laporta’s predecessor, Josep Maria Bartomeu, and after a depressing week, 20,834 fans came seeming determined to enjoy this, to look ahead, and made the Camp Nou a noisier place than it has sometimes been with four times as many in.
They did enjoy it, too. Ronald Koeman said he seen “the best Barcelona in years”, which was wildly over the top but this performance did offer optimism, a glimpse of a future that may not be a disaster after all, with a team that the coach believed could be “more collective” now.
“After everything that has happened recently, it was important to give a good impression,” he said after a game when García, Frenkie de Jong and Depay impressed, the last of these looking like a man who really couldn’t care less who was here before. Antoine Griezmann appeared liberated and Martin Braithwaite was superb, scoring twice and assisting another.
“The future is coral,” Sport cheered. “Ici c’est Barça” ran the cover of El Mundo Deportivo. “Piqué shows the way,” was the headline in AS.
The grandson of a former board member, Piqué has been a soci from birth, a kid who remembers Hristo Stoichkov – Stofiko, he called him – who listened to the 1992 European Cup final on the radio, watched the 1994 final on television and went to every home game, sitting in the main stand. On Monday morning, he posted an old home video from his birthday 29 years ago, in which he approaches Koeman and asks for his autograph. A Catalan, a youth-teamer and now vice-captain, Piqué grew up with Messi and played with him for 20 years, more aware than anyone what the Argentinian had given them and what his loss could mean.
Nor is it just Piqué’s connection to the club, it is his understanding of it. Piqué has said before that he would like to be president. Cheered when the teams were read out, his name was chanted in the third minute of each half. If he stood tomorrow, he would win by miles – and not just because of how bad the men before him have been. Not even because of what he has just done, but because the founder of the Kosmos group, owner of the Davis Cup and Andorra FC, the man directly responsible for Rakuten’s sponsorship of Barcelona’s shirt, is qualified, too – aware of the seriousness of the club’s situation and willing to seek a solution.
After the 8-2 defeat against Bayern Munich in the Champions League on 14 August last year, Piqué said Barcelona had hit rock bottom, but there was still further to fall. “The club needs changes, structurally. We all have to reflect, to focus on what’s best for the club, which is what matters,” he said that night. “No one is irreplaceable and I’ll be the first to offer myself up if new blood is needed.”
Exactly a year later, he did pretty much that, allowing for signings to be completed at last.
“I did what was needed,” Piqué said on Sunday night. “I was born here, I grew up here, I came as a fan and a player. I want to say that all the captains intend to do so, but I had to do so first because of a timing issue, to get the registrations done.”
Difficult is an understatement; Barcelona's condition remains critical. On Monday Laporta gave a press conference that painted a dramatic picture, revealing that the club's debt is now €1.35bn (£1.1bn), its value is minus €451m, salaries account for 103 per cent of total income even with Messi's departure, that they were forced into taking out a €550m loan and that the salary limit the league first proposed for them was not much more €80m.
Impossible, in other words. For every euro beyond that they wanted to spend, they had to make four euros in savings. Which is where Piqué came in. Where he said the other captains will too, and then the rest of the players.
“Piqué’s reduction enabled us to register Memphis and Eric,” Laporta said. “We’re happy and enormously grateful. We hope the other captains do something similar. Some players are more than just players. Piqué is a club man who loves Barça above all. He saw that we’re in a difficult situation and did something worthy of praise.”
A week after watching Messi walk away, taking part of their childhood and an even bigger part of their careers with him, Piqué’ stood up to allow García and Depay to walk in, making the new era less uncertain. Maybe even fun, which in the end is what matters most of all.
As he stood at the north end of the ground, arms wide, Piqué looked down and briefly lay his forehead on an advertising board, a moment’s pause, reflection in the middle of the celebration.
“It was everything, a day full of emotions,” he said. “It’s been 17 months without the fans and to hear them again was amazing. After Leo’s departure and everything surrounding it, this will give us confidence. I think we’re going to enjoy this year.” – Guardian