x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pique and Barca are a perfect fit

When the stylish central defender signed a five-year extension to his contract last week, it seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to do.

When Barcelona's stylish central defender Gerrard Pique signed a five-year extension to his contract last week, it seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to do. As a Barcelona-born Barca fan, life could not be better for the 23-year-old Spanish international. There is his house with views over the Mediterranean to the north of the city, friends and family close by (his grandfather is a former Barca vice-president) and more female attention than he could have ever imagined. Not forgetting the six medals he won during Barca's all-conquering 2009.

I bumped into Pique at a petrol station in Barcelona recently as he filled his top-of-the-range Audi and glad-handed all of the garage workers. He may have the word Bernabeu in his name, but the locals adore him and he is happy where he is loved. Outsiders may think that he has had it easy, but there are good reasons why the central defender does not take any of his success for granted. I first met Pique - unique among footballers in that he is from a privileged upper-class background - soon after he joined Manchester United as a 16-year-old in 2003. He was a Catalan living in Manchester, I was a Mancunian living in Catalonia.

A bright lad, Sir Alex Ferguson rated him highly enough to put Barca's nose out of joint by snaring him after watching him in several youth tournaments. Pique made his United first-team debut in 2004, but the breakthrough he hoped for never came. He played more in the 2007-08 season, but, unsure of what lay ahead and unable to break the indomitable partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, he asked me this question one night in January 2008: "What are they saying about my future here?"

I told him what I knew, that some in the club did not consider him good enough for the top level. He had sensed that too and when he returned to sign for Barca in the summer of 2008, there was little regret on both sides, despite the mutual public plaudits of appreciation. Pique then proved, without question, that he did have what it takes to compete with the best. Elegant and comfortable going forward in the role expected of every Barca defender, within a month of making his full Barca start he made his Spain debut.

He retained his place in both sides during a season which finished sweetly for him scoring his first league goal in the 6-2 demolition of Real Madrid and then playing against his former club in the Champions League final. "It was strange to play against United," he told me last week. "I was playing against friends, my team of three years. But when the whistle went, I was only looking to win the game to show Europe that we were the best team in the world. I also wanted to show United fans the real me.

"I didn't play all the time at United, that was the problem. Rio and Vidic played every week, which I could understand because they were so good, the best pairing in the world. It was almost impossible for me to break into the team, that's why I had to leave. Ironically, when I left they started to get injured. As soon as I started appearing regularly at Barca, fans saw me at my best." It is Barca who have benefited most. They paid just ?4 million (Dh20m) for a world-class defender who is a better footballer and person for his English sojourn. That he is a card-carrying Catalan only adds value for the club. Little wonder then that they want his name under contract until at least 2015.

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