Covering It All: Q&A with Spain, Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué
As a strapping center back for Spain and Barcelona, 27-year-old Gerard Piqué has already hoisted a host of soccer trophies: World Cup (one), European Championship (one), UEFA Champions League (three) and domestic league (five). He was named to Europe’s team of the year in 2010, ’11 and ’12.
And yet when he goes out for a stroll with his girlfriend, he’s the less famous of the two. Piqué and his partner, the Colombian pop singer Shakira, have a 17-month-old boy, Milan, and the mother-son duo are certain to be prominent in Spain’s fan section in Brazil.
SI sat down with Piqué at the office of his Barcelona soccer video-game company GoldenManager.com—decorated with framed jerseys from the ’10 World Cup final next to a piece of the goal net—to talk about Spain’s mind-boggling run, celebrity life and . . . the San Antonio Spurs? (Interview edited for length and clarity):
SI: Spain has a difficult World Cup group: The Netherlands, Chile, Australia. What are your thoughts on this group?
Piqué: I think, as you say, a really difficult group. Because the first game we are playing the same game as the final in 2010, that makes it important. Normally the first game in the World Cup, it’s really important for the team to start with a win. Then you have Chile, which is another really difficult team, really tough. They pressure a lot; they are really intense. Australia is maybe the easiest one of the three, but you never know.
In a World Cup, everything can happen. I think we have to be really concentrated and try to finish first. Because if we finish second or don’t qualify; it will not be great news. If we finish second, the first game we have is against Brazil if Brazil finishes first in its group. I think I prefer to qualify first and face Brazil in the semifinal or in the final.
SI: The Dutch were unexpectedly dirty in the 2010 final. Do you think your game this time with them will be different?
Piqué: I think so. I think because it was a final, and we were playing really well during the World Cup, they tried to change a little bit their game, their style of play. It was a decision that the coach or the players made at that time. It wasn’t right for them because I think that we deserved to win the final. We were the better team. They just tried to stop us, and they have a lot of quality to try to beat us without tackling as hard as they did. But you never know. We won that important game. And we will see in 2014 how it will work.
SI: I went back and I counted. If you go back to Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, Spain has conceded six goals in 19 games and zero goals in the knockout rounds.
Piqué: It’s incredible, eh?
SI: It’s crazy. How do you explain it?
Piqué: Sometimes Spain is recognized in the world because we are playing really well. But I think our main strength as a team is that we are really powerful because we are strong defensively. I mean, we are playing with [Sergio] Busquets and Xabi Alonso normally, but they are two defensive midfielders. At the same time, they know how to play the ball. And then, I think, we have a really good defense, too.
In tournaments like these where you are playing knockout, you have to maintain zero in your goal. Then, if you score a goal, you qualify. If you see the World Cup in 2010, the four knockout games, were 1-0. It was important to be really good in the defending part.
SI: You have so many superstars on the Spanish national team. How do you get everyone to put their egos aside and just play for the team?
Piqué: I don’t know. I think that we are lucky in some way. It’s true that maybe the best player in the world is [Argentina’s Lionel] Messi; the second one is Cristiano [Ronaldo of Portugal]. We don’t have either of these two. But we have the third, the fourth, the fifth… We have Andrés [Iniesta], Xavi, etc. This is a good equilibrium. We don’t have just one and all the others are kind of not very good.
We have all the team at the same quality. This is very good for what you were talking about. The ego. We are a very balanced team, very experienced. This is always positive. We know how to face difficult moments, difficult situations during the game. I think we have a chance. I’m really positive on this one.
SI: Your midfield hub, Xavi, is 34 years old now. At that age does he have another high-level World Cup in him?
Piqué: Yes. I think he is arriving really good for the World Cup. Obviously for his style of play, he doesn’t need to be really strong or really powerful. All he needs is to be focused, concentrated and trying to be at his best in touching the ball quickly, thinking really fast. Xavi is one of the best midfielders in the last decade because he changed a little bit the how to play football. Before, everyone is running and running and running. Xavi never runs. The ball runs; he stays. So he changed a little bit how we play the game.
SI: Your coach for Spain, Vicente del Bosque, seems like a very nice man. But he is not a big personality. What’s the most interesting thing you can tell me about him?
Piqué: I think he is the best coach ever. He won Champions League with Real Madrid twice. He won the World Cup. He won the European Championship. He’s won everything with clubs and with the national team. And he is really humble, like a village guy. He’s with a team of superstars, and he is really calm. We lost against Switzerland the first game at the World Cup 2010. Everyone was like, “Crap, this is s***.”
He was like, “Easy, easy, we can qualify.” He doesn’t want to be a star. He doesn’t want to be the focus. He doesn’t want to be the protagonist. He wants to stay a little bit away. I think he is a great coach. He understands the football player because he was a player. He knows how to treat a dressing room like this.
SI: You’re from a prominent FC Barcelona family. You became a Barcelona social member at birth. Do you ever want to be president of FC Barcelona?
Piqué: Pfft. I don’t know. It’s too early to think about it. It’s true, as you said, Barcelona is my life. Since I was born I am a socio, a member of Fútbol Club Barcelona, and all I want is to be a part of this club for my life. I love football, I love sport and I love this club. Now as a player, in 10 years, you never know. I would like to be involved in the club definitely.
SI: I know you’re a big NBA fan. Very late at night during the NBA playoffs, I’ll be looking at Twitter and Piqué is tweeting about the NBA playoffs… '
Piqué: Because next day is day off [laughs]. I don’t have training the next day….
SI: You’re a tall guy, 6-foot-4. Do you play basketball?
Piqué: When I was young I played all kinds of games. I played football, I played basketball, I played handball. The only thing I didn’t play was hockey. I am horrible at that. I was good at basketball, too. Not as good as football, definitely. I liked to play basketball with the basketball players when I was young in school. But football was better for me as a player, and at the same time I prefer, as a sport, football more than basketball. Which is why I went that way. But basketball is a fun sport. NBA, I think, is a great competition and at the same time it’s spectacular. I enjoy a lot to watch NBA games.
SI: Have you ever tried to do a slam dunk?
Piqué: Yes. I try sometimes. We have a net in the dressing room, and sometimes we play some basketball there.
SI: So what happens when you try the dunk? Were you able to do it?
Piqué: Ah, ah…pfft. [Laughs] I have tried, but it’s difficult to do.
SI: What’s your favorite NBA team?
Piqué: I really like the Spurs. I mean, I know they are old. And sometimes you can feel in them that they are too old, and that the season is long for them. Gregg Popovich is doing a great job. He knows how to order the team. Like, sometimes [Tim] Duncan doesn’t play or [Tony] Parker doesn’t play or [Manu] Ginóbili doesn’t play. But the last NBA finals, I think, was amazing. It was one of the best I remember. It’s true that Miami has a really, really good team, but I prefer the Spurs.
SI: You are one of the rare global superstars whose significant other, Shakira, is also a global superstar. What is that like?
Piqué: For me it’s kind of normal. It’s natural. It’s my own life, and I see a normal guy who is in love with a normal woman. The problem is when you see it from the outside. People start to think we are kind of different. Oh wow, they are stars. We are normal people. We go to the cinema. We go with friends to have a meal, or have some dinner. I am trying to live as natural as I can with my son.
It’s true that sometimes we have paparazzi or some kind of photographers following us, but you have to live normal. I mean if you try to not go to the supermarket or not go to the cinema, you won’t live properly and you won’t enjoy living. We are trying to be as normal as we can. I think we are enjoying a lot our relationship, and now that we are parents, we are enjoying a lot too with Milan.
SI: How did you decide on his name?
Piqué: We had a couple, like three, four names. We chose Milan because it was easy to say. In English. In Spanish. Sometimes you chose a Spanish name or an English name, and then in another country it’s difficult to pronounce. It’s great to be a father.
SI: Shakira is very popular in the United States. Her television show, The Voice, is doing very well. How did you guys first meet?
Piqué: Just before the World Cup in South Africa 2010. She was doing the Waka Waka song. And she chose me to do the video. I didn’t meet her during the video, but with that excuse I met her once in Madrid. Some friend introduced her, and from then on we started to talk, to chat. And, I don’t know, it happened. During the World Cup, it’s true that one of the motivations was that she was singing in the final. So, I said to my team, “Come on, we have to arrive to the final, so I see her again.” [Laughs.] And, we arrived, and I see her again. It was great.
SI: She is from Colombia. Colombia is in this World Cup.
Piqué: With a good team.
SI: Which team will she support if Colombia plays Spain?
Piqué: I don’t know, to be fair. It’s a tough question, and I think you will have to ask her. I hope she will chose Spain, but you never know because it’s her country.
SI: Obviously, she may be one of the best dancers in the world. Do you ever feel self-conscious when you try to dance with her?
Piqué: No, I don’t try to dance with her. I don’t want to be ridiculed by her. I just try to follow her. She dances, and I just stand next to her trying to dance—because I’m not dancing, but following her.
SI: Back to the Spanish national team. Who is the funniest guy on the team?
Piqué: The funniest guy? I was really funny when I was young, but not now. When you have a son, you relax. To be fair, Pepe Reina maybe. I think he is the top one. And then like a joker maybe, Jesús Navas. He is a joker.
SI: Spain has always had lots of talent, but it never really won anything until 2008. Why is this generation of Spain different?
Piqué: Maybe we are more competitive. Before, as you said, Spain has always tried to play well, but maybe we were not as competitive as Italy, Germany or teams like this. They weren’t better than us, but they wanted to win always. Like, Italy doesn’t play the best game ever, but they are winning in penalties, they are winning in the kind of small things that ultimately decide a game and a competition.
I remember in Euro 2008, the quarterfinal against Italy was the first time we beat them in penalties. Maybe that game changed a little bit of history of this country. We always got beat in the quarterfinals. It was such a switch of our history.
SI: What else are you interested in away from soccer?
Piqué: I really like business. I am trying to do now some kind of food for babies. We are starting now with some ideas. I’m trying to do another startup in the States with some friends there. I like to stay busy. I have a lot of things on my mind. Obviously football is my main thing right now, but in football, you train for to three hours then you have all day for yourself. I really like to think about things like this.
SI: Did you study economics for a little while?
Piqué: Yes. I studied economics with some teachers from ESADE. It’s a really good school here in Spain. They helped me to understand a little about numbers, stats, economics, etc.
Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl previews Group B for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and picks his teams and players to watch once play begins.