Unable to carve out a niche for himself at his boyhood team, a talented Spanish youngster packs his bags and heads for British shores. That is a story that has been repeated with ever-increasing regularity in recent years, with lifelong Barcelonista Gerard Pique Bernabeu a perfect example.
Despite sharing a surname with the illustrious former president of Real Madrid, young Gerard received his footballing education in and around FC Barcelona's hallowed Camp Nou. Unsure of what the future held at the Azulgranas, where a first-team opportunity was by no means guaranteed, Pique made the gutsy decision to pull up sticks and head for England and the open arms of Manchester United.
"In Spain, the big clubs are under enormous pressure to win every game, and that pressure stops them from taking a chance on youth team players. The opportunities for home-grown youngsters are very limited, and that makes you think twice about where your career is going," Pique tells FIFA.com. "Even though I've been a culé (Barça fan) since birth, played for them all the way through the youth ranks and would have loved to have won things wearing their shirt, first and foremost I'm a professional footballer. And if I need to go to England to achieve that goal, then so be it."
"I think that young Spanish players perceive England as a way to enjoy a better future as a professional footballer," he explains. "That's because over there they don't get hung up on your age - when they see that you're ready for first-team action then in you go. Here [in Spain] that's a lot less likely." Pique speaks from personal experience. After joining the Red Devils at the age of 16 back in 2004, he was made to wait a mere four months before being given his first-team debut by United manager Alex Ferguson . The classy defender has since played more than ten top-flight games for the current league leaders.
"Leaving your family, friends and your country behind is tough, especially when you're so young. But I'd given an awful lot of thought to that decision and it's turned out well," underlines the U-20 international. "Two years living alone in England helped me grow up both on and off the field. I really hope that my time there has not come to an end."
At the start of this season, Pique's employers decided that a return to Spain on loan with Real Zaragoza would be the best way of guaranteeing regular top-level action. "I came here because they were putting together a very attractive project involving world-class players, and we knew that we were capable of making a real impact in the league," says Pique, whose contract at Old Trafford runs until 2009. "There was a great deal of optimism in the camp and, at the halfway point of the campaign, we can say that things are going well."
The sheer quality of the players competing for a place in the Zaragoza rearguard should do wonders for the Manchester United man's footballing development, although he has found that a starting role does not come cheap. "I've got two seriously great players in Sergio Fernandez and Gabi Milito ahead of me in my position. There's fierce competition for places in the team and that has driven me to keep improving as a player every day." Such single-mindedness has clearly paid off for Pique, who says, "I've been in the team since matchday 10 and I'm really happy. So far it's been a wonderful experience and I hope that it continues that way."
A future star of
Blessed with a true centre-back's build, the willowy 1.85m defender catches the eye thanks to his aerial prowess and innate leadership skills. He has been a virtual ever-present at every age level of the Spanish national team, helping his country to second spot at the 2004 UEFA European U-17 Championship before going one better at last July's UEFA European U-19 Championship.
"It was a really great experience. I think that it was the highlight of my short career so far," he recalls fondly. "We had a real spirit of togetherness within the squad as we'd all been on a 15-day pre-tournament training camp, which shows that togetherness is what ultimately breeds success. Winning that competition was unique and unforgettable."
Pique is in no doubt that it was the camaraderie in the Spain dressing room that laid the foundations for European success. "There were some very gifted individuals in that squad, but they used their skill and quality for the good of the team as a whole, and that deserves credit," he says, modestly neglecting to mention his own key role. "The team were hungry for victories, gave everything they had all the way through and stuck together, which is why we didn't lose a game. We've got the potential and the quality. If [Spanish] clubs gave us a chance, we could show just how good we are in La Liga as well."
In a repeat of Netherlands 2005 , Spain go into this year's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada (30 June - 22 July) as the reigning European champions. Having bowed out of the competition two years ago in the quarter-finals at the hands of a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina, this group of starlets is determined to go all the way. "We're going there to win it. We can't set our sights on anything else. After becoming European champions we have to prove our worth and win in Canada, and emulate what Spain achieved at Nigeria 1999," vowed the young Catalan. "Becoming a world champion is a real honour, and that's a dream we want to make happen."
Such is his determination to come home from Canada with a winners' medal, Pique claims to be unconcerned about the outcome of the group-stage draw on 3 March. "At global competitions like these the South American sides are very difficult to beat, as are the African teams, because of their physical strength," says the central defender. "That said, if you want to be world champions it doesn't matter who you come up against [in the group stages], you're going to have to face them sooner or later. And if you want to take the title you need to be capable of beating them all. We're not looking to avoid anybody, we're going over there to win and are hoping to lift the trophy."
However, not everything has gone according to plan recently for the gifted 19-year-old. In October last year, Pique and his national team colleagues were left to rue what might have been after a home defeat against Italy cost them a place at the Olympic Football Tournament at Beijing 2008 : "It was a massive blow. We had been really looking forward to it [going to China] because Spain missed out on Athens. We'd managed to come back from Italy with a 0-0 draw, but then they beat us at our place." Despite this undoubted setback, Pique refuses to be downcast: "It was a bitter pill to swallow but this generation of players will bounce back. It was simply an unpleasant experience that we'll have to learn from."
As the interview drew to a close, this Blaugrana that got away heralded the continued success of Spain's production line of talented youngsters: "There's certainly no crisis [at youth level]. Year on year they [young players] prove that there is a lot of talent to be found and that we can be sure of a bright future. We've got guaranteed quality in our youth teams."