[PORTRAIT] When he was 12 years old and a member of Barcelona’s youth program, Gerard Pique was taken aside by then coach Louis van Gaal and the Dutchman told the boy he was too stubborn to ever make it as a Barcelona defender. Pique proved van Gaal wrong, and then some.
Pique recalls that he went home and cried after van Gaal’s assessment. But it also inspired him.
The grandson of Amador Bernabeu, a former Barcelona vice president, Pique played in Barca’s cantera with Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas. Like Fabregas, Pique moved to England before breaking into to Barca’s first team.
Pique debuted for Man U at age 17 in a 2004 League Cup game. He played sparingly for Man U during his five-year stint, but scored twice in its run to the 2008 Champions League title.
He returned to Barcelona for the 2008-09 season and helped Barca become the first Spanish team to win the La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League treble.
Pique’s stylish play at central back, breaking up attacks with smarts more than brawn, and his ability to hit perfect long-range passes, earned him the nickname “Piquenbauer,” a reference to legendary German libero Franz Beckenbauer.
And like Beckenbauer, the 23-year-old Pique frequently ventures into the attack. He has scored four goals in 16 appearances for Spain since debuting in February of 2009.
Pique says at Manchester United he improved his tackling, aerial play and positioning, but returning to Barcelona was a dream come true.
And Barcelona fans welcomed back their Catalan prodigal son. His replica jerseys outsold Messi’s last Christmas.
For Spain, Pique has strengthened a backline that had been already been good enough to win the 2008 European Championship.