People worldwide have theories of what’s ailing FC Barcelona. The club’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, has his own: the decline began when Barça’s coach Tito Vilanova got cancer and then died last year. “Of course we’ve reduced [performance],” Bartomeu admits, in a private lounge above his presidential lodge one chilly night before Barcelona-Atlético Madrid kicks off. “But nobody is responsible for this. It’s because somebody died in the middle and we are mourning. We’re not conscious of this. But we are in mourning.”
Certainly there is unhappiness in the giant club. It’s not simply that Barcelona have lately been outstripped on the field by rivals Real Madrid. Worse, many fans feel that Barça is no longer Barça. “Més que un club” (“More than a club”) is its Catalan motto and, until recently, Barcelona lived up to that. Its mostly homegrown team played bewitching attacking football in shirts that advertised the UN children’s fund Unicef. Barça prided itself on decency. From 2010 through 2013 Madrid’s coach José Mourinho, a verbal provocateur, helped by playing the baddie to Barcelona’s good boys. But now Barça’s image is crumbling: the unique short-passing style is fading, the shirt carries the logo “Qatar Airways”, the youth academy has stopped producing world-beaters, and the club is shedding icons. Poor Bartomeu is left trying to repair things.
Two hours before tonight’s kick-off he walks into the empty presidential lodge, a smiling, bespectacled, understated presence in this land of egomaniac club presidents. He has spent much of today running his engineering company.
His moment in the limelight arrived unexpectedly. Bartomeu is something of a Catalan Gerald Ford. Like the 1970s US president, he was a vice-president who took over amid scandal: his predecessor Sandro Rosell resigned last year over irregularities in the purchase of the Brazilian forward Neymar. Like Ford, Bartomeu isn’t expected to last: grumbling among Barcelona’s 150,000 socios (members) about his unelected status forced him to call early presidential elections this summer. It will be the biggest democratic spectacle in sport. Even Real Madrid only has about half Barça’s membership, notes Bartomeu.
Many socios are upset that Barcelona keeps losing icons. Coach Josep “Pep” Guardiola resigned, Vilanova died, and the club’s spiritual father, the very difficult Dutchman Johan Cruyff, sits in his villa in Barcelona fuming at the board. Retired captain Carles Puyol quit his staff job in January after Bartomeu sacked sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta.
Now fans fear Barça’s best player Messi — reportedly unhappy with new coach Luis Enrique — will leave. The usually silent footballer said last month that he wasn’t sure where he would be playing next season. Bartomeu is categorical: “People say, ‘Messi, he’s sad, he’s leaving.’ It’s not true. We don’t have any doubt that Leo Messi will continue playing in our club. He has a contract until 2018.”
Are you sure he will be here next season?
“Next season, and the following, and . . . Well look, last June, July, on this table” — Bartomeu points at the conference table across the room — “we renewed his contract. His family is here, in the city, happy this is his club.”
But Messi has strong views on how his teams should play. Does anyone at Barça have a word with him before buying Neymar or Luis Suárez? Bartomeu laughs: “No. His relationship with the team is correct. But he doesn’t decide anything at the club. The decision in the club is made by the board, by professional people that work there.”
Barça’s signing of Suárez for €94m last summer caused controversy: the Uruguayan striker, already previously punished for biting and racism, had just bitten Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup. Should Barça be employing this man?
“Of course we had to help him,” says Bartomeu. “We always try when a player comes here to receive him as a person, not as a professional. The majority of our players are from our youth academy. They learn since they are young what we think should be those values that we want to show people. Well, in the case of Luis Suárez, some of these values he has because he learnt, but it was a challenge.
“It was a challenge to bring that person back to the football family. We think we are succeeding. Because now I see Luis Suárez — I talk sometimes with him — happy, integrated in a big club, polite, well-brought up. He had a problem that — well, we think we help him solving this.”
Bartomeu understands why football’s global authority Fifa suspended Suárez from matches for four months after the Chiellini affair. However, he is enraged that Fifa also banned Suárez from training or even watching matches in a stadium. Moreover, Fifa has slapped another ban on Barcelona: because of irregularities in signing foreign players aged under 18, the club cannot make any transfers until 2016. Bartomeu admits: “OK, we did something incorrect, on the documents for the registration of youth players for the federation. But in Europe or Spain, there are thousands of kids that play football with wrong documents. Many are young immigrants. So why only look at Barça? We have to be punished. But we cannot stop those children from playing. Because football for them is a way of socialising in a new country.”
Still, he says, for all Barcelona’s problems, “There are not any objective reasons to say we are unstable. Things are going pretty well. We put together the three best attackers, I think, in the world. Maybe Cristiano [Ronaldo] is, but having Leo Messi with Neymar and Suárez, I think it’s something extraordinary.” Barça are on Madrid’s heels in the Spanish league, and are still in the Spanish Cup and Champions League (where their next opponents are Manchester City). “This is the year we have to smile again. Sunrise and happiness go back to the Nou Camp!”
“Economically, our club is, I think, in the best position in history,” says Bartomeu. Annual revenues have trebled in a decade to €530m. Only Real does better with €604m — the most for any club in any sport ever. Barça, notes Bartomeu, has no sugar daddy and probably the lowest average ticket prices of Europe’s 15 biggest clubs. The €30m a year it gets from its Qatari shirt sponsor allows it to compete, he insists. “We need the revenues.”
Relations with Madrid have improved since Mourinho’s departure, he says. “There was a lot of tension. I think this is a strategy of coach Mourinho. Relations between Real Madrid and Barça have always been good, as institutions. But in sports, they have been bad. The top level was when Mourinho put his finger in the eye of Tito Vilanova. Since Mourinho went to the Premier, well — [Mourinho’s successor Carlo] Ancelotti is another type of coach.”
Bartomeu thinks Barça’s revenues will keep soaring. The socios voted for his “Espai Barça” plan to renovate and expand the ageing Nou Camp from its present 95,000 seats (already Europe’s largest stadium) to 105,000 by 2021. Total projected costs are €600m but, says Bartomeu, “It will help us reach €700m, €750m in revenues in four or five years.” The remodelled Nou Camp is expected to carry a sponsor’s name.
Meanwhile, Barça is opening its latest foreign office in New York. “The strategy is global. We have to, how do you say it — monetizar — monetise this global image.”
A club official walks in with tonight’s team sheet. Bartomeu seizes it and reads Barça’s line-up aloud. “Only the goalkeeper changed [from the last match],” he remarks.
Perhaps the coach is relaxing his controversial policy of rotating players? “No, no, you have to do rotations!” says Bartomeu. He returns to the presidential lodge to meet the evening’s guests but turns in the corridor with one last thought: “Sometimes I feel surprised that football let us have Messi and Neymar and Suárez in one attack. I was thinking someone would say, ‘Stop! No! You can’t!’”
That night his team squeezes past Atlético 1-0, after Messi misses a penalty but nets the rebound. This isn’t quite Barça.
You can only begin to understand someone when you meet their parents, and just after my interview with Gerard Piqué, his dad walks in. We are in an office park outside Barcelona, at Kerad Games, the video games start-up that Piqué founded in between winning pretty much every trophy in football with FC Barcelona and Spain. His dad is a fantastically elegant middle-aged man with a silk scarf draped just so. He gives me a quick, friendly lesson in Spanish grammar. Piqué senior is a businessman who also writes novels. Piqué’s mum is a leading neuroscientist.
Gerard Piqué (also the grandson of a Barcelona director) is that rare beast, an articulate upper-middle-class footballer. That gives him an unusual vantage point on a prodigious career. He joined his neighbourhood club, FC Barcelona, as a child, began playing with a tiny, silent Argentine kid named Lionel Messi at 13 and, by 23, was central defender of an all-conquering Barça team and a world champion with Spain. By then he had met the singer Shakira. The day of our interview, she is heavily pregnant with their second child. Piqué has come straight to the interview from her doctor’s appointment. All the while he continues to try to lead what he considers a normal — that is, an upper-middle-class Barcelona — life. How does he make sense of it all? And what do you still want if, at 28, you already appear to have everything?
When his agent Arturo Canales and I drove into the office car park earlier, a car more or less attacked us from behind, hooting. We dismissed the incident as yobbery. Then the hooting vehicle disgorged Piqué, tall, handsome, bearded, and laughing with delight at his joke. Inside, Kerad’s office is carpeted in green artificial turf, like a football field. Piqué greets his staff (he says he finds software programmers fascinating) and then sits rocking in his desk chair like an absurdly young CEO. I ask questions in English — a language he understands perfectly after an early four-year intermezzo with Manchester United — and he replies in Spanish.
Barcelona bought him back from United for about €8m in 2008, when he was 21. He had never become a regular in England. Barça, also at a low ebb, had decided to make a fresh start under an equally novice coach: 37-year-old Pep Guardiola. In the next four years, Piqué scarcely lost a match. With Barça he won Spanish titles and two Champions Leagues, and with Spain he became world champion in 2010 and European champion in 2012. Probably no other footballer in history had become so decorated so young.
On the wall of his personal office at Kerad hangs his World Cup medal.
“You’ve won it all already,” I say.
“The Confederations Cup is missing,” he laughs. The trophy for national teams invented in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s is taken seriously by nobody.
But how do you adjust emotionally to winning the World Cup aged 23?
“To tell you the truth, it all happened so quickly that I found winning normal. When I began to lose was when I started to understand everything I had won. It was as if you’d go to play a competition like the World Cup or the league, and you were going to win it. You start winning everything and you think, ‘You’re the best and you must win. You can’t waste this opportunity.’ Because we were going at such a speed that we’d beat any team put in front of us.”
But didn’t you need time to realise, “My gosh, I’m 23 and I’m world champion”?
“No, because Shakira arrived and I began to think of my more personal side. And we kept winning.” Shakira, he grins, initially struggled to understand the import of winning a World Cup. “I think now she gets it much more, now that I’ve explained it to her. For her it was just another competition with different teams and one of them winning and everyone happy at home — and football isn’t like that.”
The brain behind the new short-passing Spanish game was Guardiola. Piqué says, “Many coaches make you do something, and you do it because basically they are your bosses. But Guardiola would explain why. He made you understand the sport. He’d analyse the opposition then explain that we had to do this because they do that, and then we’d get space in this or that place. And it would turn out that way in the match — he’d be proud because he’d been right. He created the game before playing it.
“From the first year he led us, he was helping us win titles but he was also learning with us. Almost all his life is football. In the things he loves he is very obsesivo.” (The Spanish word translates as “obsessive” but carries the more positive meaning of “focused, dedicated”.)
Piqué himself admits to being less obsesivo. On the field, with his beard, his apparently effortless loose-limbed lope, and his unhurriedness on the ball, he can look like a chilled hipster enjoying a kick-around among fanatical athletes. “When I’ve had a bad game, I don’t like thinking about the game. In the end, each person understands football the same way he understands life.”
In Guardiola’s team, Piqué lightened the mood. He tried to play “with a smile”, the way his hero, Magic Johnson, played basketball. Barcelona’s playmaker Xavi said: “Gerard infected us with his joy and youth. He came with the idea of having a good time, and that’s not football. For us, football is a job.”
From Manchester United, Piqué imported to Spain the often infantile humour of an English changing room. He’d take the battery out of Messi’s phone, and Messi, a born innocent, wouldn’t even suspect foul play. Piqué and his long-time partner at centre back, the obsesivo Carles Puyol, used to have in-match conversations along these lines:
Puyol: “Geri, Geri, Geri!”
Puyol: “Nothing. I just wanted to make sure you were concentrating.”
Piqué and Guardiola had their clashes. Guardiola suspected him of sometimes coasting, of gaining weight and taking less care of himself after meeting Shakira. However, their admiration was mutual. Guardiola thought Barcelona’s creativity began with Piqué’s incisive passes from the back. Alex Ferguson, who had managed Piqué at Manchester United, wrote in his memoir: “Piqué was without doubt the most underrated player in their [Barcelona’s] team . . . Guardiola told me he was the best signing they had made.” Accordingly, Guardiola rarely dared rest him. Barça’s then assistant coach Tito Vilanova recalled in 2011: “There was a moment when we prayed for Piqué’s health. If he’d gone down injured, everything would have gone down.
Some say Piqué plays like a coach on the field. I quote to him a maxim of the Dutchman Johan Cruyff, father of Barcelona’s style: “Football is a game you play with your head.”
Piqué replies, “I think that’s more true here at Barcelona than at all other clubs.”
Much of Barça’s game is as pre-programmed as set plays in American gridiron football. Players have preordained tasks. For instance, after losing the ball, Barça implement the “five-second rule”: they spend five seconds chasing the ball trying to win it back. (The book Pep Confidential by Marti Perarnau reveals a variant, the “32-minute rule”: Guardiola’s staff know that the coach cannot think about anything other than football for longer than half an hour.)
Piqué says, “Real Madrid are maybe more physically powerful but when they attack they are not as organised as we are. They have players that take much more advantage of their speed, their pure talent. Maybe Cristiano Ronaldo goes past you on the right or left, [Gareth] Bale on the right or left. They have far more freedom, and so maybe they are more anarchical.”
Barcelona’s defenders calibrate their positions every second, says Piqué. “Special players like Leo [Messi] or Neymar maybe have more freedom and don’t always think as much about being in position. The attack can win a game — Leo and Neymar can go out with their talent and win — but I think it’s defensively where you win titles.” Defending at Barcelona is particularly tricky, he says: “We’re the only team in the world that defends with the ball, and in the opposition’s half. Teams like Atlético Madrid and Chelsea feel much more comfortable defending in their penalty area with 11 players behind the ball. We don’t understand football in that way.”
Even after Guardiola resigned, exhausted, in 2012, Barcelona’s style barely changed. Guardiola’s disciple Vilanova took over. “It was fantastic news for me,” Piqué recalls. “Tito and I were united by a distinct relationship, because I had him as trainer when I was 14, 15.” That was in the invincible Barcelona boys’ team co-starring Piqué, Messi and Cesc Fàbregas, all born in 1987.
In 2013, Vilanova’s Barcelona won the Spanish title with 100 points, a club record. But Vilanova had throat cancer. In April 2014 he died, aged 45.
“Imagine,” says Piqué. “Your boss suddenly starts to feel bad, and one day to the next he isn’t there. It made us pick ourselves up and continue winning, knowing he was up there watching us.”
Hang on. Surely Vilanova died with bigger things to worry about than Barça’s results?
“The truth is it doesn’t have much sense,” admits Piqué. “But it is a way to invoke him, to feel that he’s with us in some form.”
In January 2013 Piqué and Shakira (10 years older than him to the day) had a son, Milan. Like Piqué, Milan became a socio, a Barcelona member, at birth. Piqué and Shakira posted photos of him online, to reduce the value of the pictures and thereby deter paparazzi. On January 30 Piqué tweeted the birth of their second son, Sasha. (Unusually for a footballer, Piqué writes his own posts on social media.)
In Barcelona, he says, he and Shakira can now go to restaurants together. He describes their family life as “very calm and normal”.
“I like doing household chores, changing the diapers, playing, reading before bedtime, fetching Milan from school. I had the luck that my family always gave me much love, and I think I have the capacity to give it to my children.”
Do you still sing Milan the Barça anthem every night?
He laughs: “I did when Milan was small because he’d always ask me for this song. He’s very culé (a culé, literally “a backside”, is a Barça fan). Now he prefers the Mickey [Mouse] song.”
Given your privilege, can you feel the economic crisis in society around you? “People always think footballers live in a bubble, disconnected from what happens outside. But we have brothers, relatives, friends going through this crisis. Obviously, however much I try to put myself in the skin of a person who is suffering, I’ll never suffer like he does. But we do know where we are and what is happening. Many more footballers have more interests than people think. I never felt that a footballer was the prototype of a person who has little culture, little intelligence. I’ve met all sorts. Just today, for instance, I was talking to [teammate Javier] Mascherano about how and where to invest.”
Piqué’s father once told La Vanguardia newspaper that his son had an IQ of 170. For a time Piqué studied business economics at the ESADE business school in Barcelona. Then he founded Kerad Games. He grew up on the Spanish game PC Fútbol, which let the gamer “be” club president and coach. (This may be good practice: Piqué is considering one day running for the quintessentially upper-middle-class role of president of Barça.)
He says: “I played [PC Fútbol] for many years, and it had one main drawback: you couldn’t play against your friends.” He dreamt of a version that would let you compete against friends on social networks. He wrote a 30-plus-page proposal himself. Kerad produced the game, called Golden Manager, which now has five million users including Wayne Rooney.
While Piqué’s off-field life was moving ahead, his club was entering decline. Vilanova resigned in July 2013, too ill to continue, soon after Bayern Munich walloped Barça in the Champions League. Barça haven’t won Europe’s biggest prize since 2011. If Manchester City knock them out of the competition in the coming round-of-16 encounter, the countless media who follow the club round-the-clock will proclaim full-blown crisis.
If so, Piqué will get some of the blame. Last Monday he and Shakira celebrated their joint birthday. At 28, he is now the age when a central defender normally hits his prime. But given what Piqué achieved in his early years, the debate about his decline started long ago. In last year’s World Cup, Spain dropped him after their 1-5 opening defeat to Holland. Early this season, Barcelona’s new coach Luis Enrique repeatedly benched him.
But Piqué sees himself as a budding leader helping shape a new Barça team. Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Messi “are the captains and the most veteran players”, he says. “Then the coming ones are [Sergio] Busquets and me, people who’ve been around for years and are starting to have a lot of weight in the team.” Being homegrown players, he adds, “we know what this club means and all its history. It’s not the same for someone from outside.”
He thinks the homegrown players should help foreign newcomers integrate. The Brazilian Neymar told me last year that when he joined Barcelona, “I was quite shy. But they were great with me, joking around from the beginning, saying they were getting ready to beat Brazil at the World Cup. I don’t think there are any egos.”
Perhaps not but everyone knows who is the most important person in the dressing room — despite the fact that Messi rarely speaks. This experienced team doesn’t need a vocal leader who tells teammates what to do every day, says Piqué. For him, Messi leads through his actions: “Take the ball, have the personality to stand up when things are going badly. The sense of responsibility Messi has now is very big.”
Piqué is possibly the person outside Messi’s family who has known him longest, and he has watched him change. He says: “When you’re smaller, football is playing well on the field. When you get older, you see there are many other things, like looking after yourself, sleeping at night. I think that in this sense, Leo has grown a lot.”
Have you grown? Are you better than the 23-year-old who had already won everything? “Definitely,” Piqué uses the English word, for emphasis. “Although in recent months there are people who think the contrary. I feel much more secure on the field. If I made a mistake three years ago, I’d have more doubts. Now when you make a mistake you know you need to fight against it and step up.
“I could score more goals. People always say Barça’s defence is weak but this year we’ve conceded only nine goals in 19 games. Personally, I’d like to be a leader like Puyol was. But I’m happy with the career I’m having.”
The recent criticism of him, he says, “was more about the commotion off the field. There are two or three things I did incorrectly, like the mobile phone on the bench.” After he was caught checking his phone in the dugout during a minor game in October, Luis Enrique dropped him. Also around that time, Piqué and his brother had a night-time squabble with police in Barcelona.
He says he’s left all that behind him. “Now I’m hoping my career will be as long as possible, whereas a few years ago I thought I’d quit at 30. That change happens to all players: the footballer’s syndrome.”
Will you spend the remaining years with Barça? “I now don’t see myself playing in another team. Here is where I feel happiest, most comfortable playing. We have the best team in the world.”
Photographs: Ciro Frank Schiappa; Reuters; Getty; AFP