12:30 PM ET
Graham HunterSpain writer
- Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.
No one could have imagined that when Barcelona played their first competitive match for nearly 17 years without Lionel Messi as a first-team squad member, they could produce something as remarkable as almost anything the Argentine magician routinely produced at Camp Nou?
OK, the quality of the goal — Memphis Depay assisting Gerard Pique’s headed opener against Real Sociedad was good — but not earth-shatteringly so.
But the fact that during the week preceding the match, Pique — a hard-headed, shrewd businessman — had renounced a sum close to 50% of his salary over the next three years so that the club he loves could meet La Liga’s FFP regulations and be allowed to register Depay, plus Eric Garcia and Rey Manaj, made the goal something beyond historic.
Try unique — try transcendental.
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Think of it. Pique makes a gesture that, in pure financial terms, is probably unequalled in the history of professional football so that the Dutchman was not only registered with LaLiga, but could play against the Txuri-Urdin on Barca’s first night shorn of Messi’s genius. Then, with some sort of universal karma, Depay lofts the ball right into the path of Pique’s run so that he can smash the ball past Remiro in La Real‘s goal. Hollywood would have dismissed it as too unlikely, too saccharine.
Earlier, during the warm-up, the Catalan had been greeted by a roar which was disproportionate to there only being around 30,000 fans in the house. They saw him as a “saviour,” and his goal duly prompted chants of “Pique President!” throughout what was, ultimately, a comfortable 4-2 victory in the Blaugrana’s season opener.
If you’re reading this, Gerard: what about it? We’ve had a player-coach and a player-manager, but no elite club since Barcelona’s foundation well over a century ago has ever had a player-president. Fancy it?
Anyway, what those chanting for Pique’s immediate presidency certainly didn’t know was how Pique’s initiative began, how well thought out it was, or how much it had cost him.
These are turbulent times at the Camp Nou, and while we all have our sources, it’s tougher to obtain firm information when every single employee is swimming harder than they ever have in order to keep above the aggressive tide of debt. However, if I read the runes correctly, the “investment” Pique has made to keep his club on the rails is twofold.
Some salary deferral — which means to say he’ll be paid it, but significantly later — is move to give Barcelona immediate relief on what they owe. But also, crucially, he’s forsaking a sum of money (I mean, giving it up completely, folks), which is a significant eight-figure sum across three years. But I’m led to understand, too, that this president without the office has also foregone the bonuses and incentives which are de rigueur in any high-profile sports employment contract. Meaning that if, by some miracle, Barcelona won the Champions League and/or LaLiga in the next couple of season, then gifting away the “add-ons” in his contract pertaining to team and personal performance, would mean Pique is giving up an even greater eight-figure amount of money he was due.
You are, of course, free to form your own opinion. Some, sadly, will be dismissive. Yes, Pique’s already rich; yes, too, his partner, Shakira, is also fabulously wealthy. But across all the many rich men or women I’ve met, two of the most unifying factors are that no matter how much money they have, “it’s never enough.” The other is that even those who are wealthy and philanthropic usually view giving back money they’ve negotiated, and believe they’ve earned, with the same enthusiasm as Dracula regarded stakes, garlic and daylight.
If you’re incapable of appreciating this as a hugely significant, shrewd and probably unique gesture, then you should leave the debate.
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After Sunday’s match, Pique ensured the (long) on-pitch interview wasn’t much about him, his goal or his salary gift-back and instead defended his fellow captains and their willingness to follow suit. (He also didn’t waste time on finger-pointing at the “men in suits.”) His conclusion is that unless everyone at the club is rowing in the same direction immediately, then FC Barcelona will run aground. And messily so.
When Jordi Alba later talked about Pique having been ahead of the curve on giving up salary so that Barcelona could once again operate normally (in the immediate short term), he used the phrase “timing.”
The truth is that Pique was ahead of the curve because renouncing a large eight-figure sum was his idea — not the club’s. He took the initiative. Over the past three weeks, Pique has been planning, canvassing opinions from those he most respects, crunching numbers and calculating the risk/reward/consequence equation.
The first platform of his initiative had to do with personal ambition and personal satisfaction. The 34-year-old Catalan long ago decided that he had no desire for an experiment in another foreign team, having played for Manchester United between 2004 and 2008. Barcelona, the city, was home, and his family felt — just like Leo Messi, his wife and kids did before him — when they received the club’s shocking news. Leaving was unpalatable.
More than that, Barca felt like “his” club.
Late on Sunday night, Pique released a little video clip of him as a four-year-old, in the company of his grandparents, politely requesting Ronald Koeman’s autograph. It was taken about two years after Koeman scored the club’s first European Cup Final-winning goal. There’s vast context for Pique’s love of his club, but that was the most recent historic reference. Anyway, having long since decided that he now fancied playing for Barcelona until he was 37, a central factor in his thinking over these three weeks was a determination not to coast. Pique wanted to win.
If you’ve watched or listened to him closely, it will already have been crystal-clear that it’s not the playing itself that inspires him. It’s competing, competing hard, challenging himself, risking defeat but craving victory. These are the same things that inspired his investment in FC Andorra (he’s the owner and majority shareholder) and his purchase of tennis’ Davis Cup (with his friend and business partner Hiroshi Mikitani). On a smaller scale, the same thing that inspires Pique’s fascination with poker.
For Barcelona to be more competitive, particularly without Messi, it was imperative that Depay and Garcia (each of whom performed excellently against La Real) weren’t left sitting on the sidelines until January, when player registration re-opened in Spain.
Frank Leboeuf breaks down Barcelona’s 4-2 win vs. Real Sociedad in their first match without Lionel Messi.
In gifting a multimillion-euro sum back to the club, Pique was investing in his team’s ability to compete and joust for trophies.
That makes his daring move seem more logical, right? But be truthful. In an identical situation, how much of what was contractually yours, by right, would you have dared to forego? €10m or €20m? Less? More? Nothing? Be honest.
We are talking about a guy who’s pretty obsessed with the NBA. Pique computed the fact that a couple of great “leader-players” in recent NBA history, capable of forcing mind-blowing, epoch-making personal deals, who ceded (just a little) to their franchise because forcing as much salary as they could have would have left their squad less competitive and less likely to win.
Think of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2010, if you like.
Pique injected another, often bitter-tasting, element into his salary-reduction planning: realism. He talked to his parents, his partner and his highly experienced, highly regarded representative and friend of 20 years, Arturo Canales. While many of them, conditioned over many years to fight for and protect sizeable contracts, presented him with doubts and advice against his move, they also played devil’s advocates.
Football, as a business, is pitiless, has very little memory or loyalty, and the karma of good acts being rewarded in kind is for the naive or the extremely fortunate. And several voices reminded Pique that he was investing in an, as-yet, untested Barcelona board. Would they intelligently and honestly use the windfall he (and, in due course, the other captains) were gifting them? The consensus was that this was unproven.
A few months ago, Pique decided, calculating all the medical advice, to avoid surgery on a damaged interior knee ligament so that he could return more quickly last season instead of this, and help his team. A calculated risk, but a risk nevertheless. Ultimately, there was some reward in that while both the Champions League and LaLiga slipped away, he lifted his 36th trophy when he and the rest of Koeman’s side won the Copa Del Rey. But who’s to say how long his knee will continue to respect the rigours of relentless top flight football?
Hopefully he plays and continues to earn until the age of 37, but there are no guarantees.
Equally, a couple of bad games, a few bad results and one or two (accurate or inaccurate) media stories, and who’s to say that some or all of those who were chanting “Pique Presidente” on Sunday night won’t be booing him and the rest of those who’ve made economic sacrifices instead? This was discussed, factored in and accepted.
(We are, remember, talking about the club that promised Eric Abidal a contract extension as soon as he fought back from cancer and began to play first team football, only to them usher him straight out the back door. We’re also talking about a president in Laporta who, when Pique was a youth-team prospect fighting for his contractual rights, was part of an administration that froze the player out of playing weekly football and helped force him out the door, aged 16, when Manchester United pipped Arsene Wenger to Pique’s signature.
None of this is to paint Pique as a saint. He isn’t; he knows it and anyone who’s on “Planet Pique” understands his fierce temper, his mulish stubbornness to say precisely what he wants, sometimes regardless of consequences. But this is a significant football man who’s just produced a remarkable initiative that’s worth stopping to consider and understand. You can bet your bottom dollar (or 20 million of them) that some top European players and agents are utterly horrified by what’s happened.
In many ways, Pique reminds me of his former manager at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson always knew that across his brilliant career, his innate ability to confront threatening problems, game them out in his mind and then fearlessly attack them having done actuarial calculations about possible consequences, consistently set him ahead of his most voracious domestic rival managers.
Pique has that, too. This is also the kid who, many years ago, revealed to the late Michael Robinson, that, as bored young teenagers, he and Cesc Fabregas used to nip down to the Barceloneta beachfront and pinch petrol caps off parked cars. This is also the guy who, on graduating from high school, partied with fellow alumni on a boat owned by the parents of one of his friends.
High spirits being what they are, and the parents being unaware of the impromptu party, the sizeable yacht was unmoored, revved up and heading out to sea when the coast guards intervened. I make no comment about the ring leaders, but if you address the subject of this column as Rear Admiral Pique, he’ll know why.
I’d also be a liar if I didn’t admit, again, that I was part Pique’s most infamous “goal-net clipping” after the 2010 World Cup final, deep in the bowels of Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium. A rude, objectionable employee was lying about where the match nets were hidden and not only denying Spain’s centre-half the chance to snip ‘n save even a tiny section, but sneering at him too.
“Right, Graham: I’ll punch him, you grab those nets and we’ll make a run for it” suggested the man who, 35 minutes earlier, had lifted Spain’s first-ever World Cup in front of a global TV audience of billions. In one of the few demonstrably wise decisions of my life, I persuaded Gerard that negotiations were better than pugilism.
Barcelona and USMNT defender Sergino Dest reflects on his time playing with Lionel Messi after the forward left for PSG.
These negotiations, over the past three weeks, have been complex, interesting and unique and on Sunday night, they yielded spectacular consequences.
Many moons ago, interviewed by a Catalan radio journalist, Pique let slip the idea that one day, he expected to become President at Camp Nou, but recent business adventures were beginning, in my opinion, to suggest his ambition had changed its gaze. It felt like esports, tennis, social media expansion, blockchain-supported fantasy football investment, film and documentary-making might all be starting to make his future-vision macro, not micro.
Today, I’m not so sure. I think the prospect of running the club he loves still drives him. Pique, don’t forget, was directly responsible for bringing over €250m of Rakuten sponsorship to FC Barcelona — remarkable. If he indeed becomes FC Barcelona president, I’d imagine that will be some considerable time in the future — and against the advice of most of his close confidants. Yet the recent evidence shows he’s likely to do a far better job than (between them) Sandro Rosell, Josep Maria Bartomeu or this version of Joan Laporta have been capable.
Remember the ill-conceived, sublimely selfish and embarrassingly announced Super League project via which Laporta is still umbilically tied to Florentino Perez? Who was the biggest Spanish footballer to come out and oppose the concept? Yeah, you guessed it.
President Pique? I’d say so. Wouldn’t you?