Pique: Pep makes us better players
© AFP

For a couple of years now, no discussion of the finest central defenders currently playing will have failed to include the name Gerard Pique. A product of Barcelona’s famed youth system, the classy centre-half returned to his boyhood club in May 2008 at Pep Guardiola’s behest after a spell with Premier League giants Manchester United.

Having since established himself as a key figure for Barça and subsequently the Spain side which strode to glory at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Pique has also earned inclusion in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI line-up for 2009 and 2010. At the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala in Zurich on 10 January this year to collect his award, the man nicknamed ‘Piquenbauer’ spoke to FIFA.com about his phenomenal 2010, life at Barça, social networking and his interests outside of the beautiful game.

FIFA.com: How did you feel after being voted into the 2010 FIFA/FIFPro World XI?
Gerard Pique: Very happy. I know that everything happens very quickly in football, and for that reason I’m very aware of how fortunate I am and want to enjoy every minute. What’s more, the fact that it was my fellow players that voted for me is a real sign of recognition.

Including you, there are six Barça players in that World XI, five of whom are products of the club’s youth system.
The fact that five of those players came from La Masia is very important, because it means that those people who put their faith in home-grown players are now reaping the rewards. Besides which, Barcelona didn’t have to pay anything to sign them and they’re now among the best players in the world. That means a lot to the club and to the fans too, who can relate to these players because they’re home-grown.

In your opinion, what is La Masia’s secret formula?
More than anything, the footballing standards they set there, which put the emphasis on looking after the ball, never risking it, never giving it away, always choosing the right pass and perfect control. And on a personal level, it teaches you that football isn’t the be all and end all, that you also have to be honest, hard-working and a good friend off the pitch.

Do you think that having so many youth-team players in the first-team squad has been key to the club’s recent success?
Definitely, because we know each other inside-out. The fact there’s such a good atmosphere in the dressing room is a direct result of that. And in football terms, our results speak for themselves.

The World Cup Final with Spain, without a doubt. The whole country came together as one, which is quite a feat, but football has the power to do that.
Gerard Pique on his highlight of 2010

You made the unusual step of leaving Barcelona only to return later in your career. Why do you think things didn’t go as well for you at Manchester United as they are now at Barça?
I was just 17 when I joined United. I came on a lot there, by training in the first-team squad with players like Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand. I think I was too young , and barring my path were two of the best centre-backs in the world in Rio and Nemanja Vidic, who Sir Alex Ferguson rated more highly. But it was a very good experience, I still get on well with the coach and my former colleagues and I think it was a very useful period.

You then rejoined Barcelona, at Pep Guardiola’s behest. What makes him such a special coach?
The fact that he makes you understand the game. He doesn’t just give you orders, he also explains why. That makes you a better footballer because you learn the reasoning behind his instructions. That gives everything meaning.

Guardiola has also brought in new methods, such as ending the practice of players having to spend the nights before games in a hotel.
He has a different way of thinking and he’s always been consistent, in good times and bad. I love the fact that even when the team’s not winning and he receives criticism, he sticks to his guns. He’s a coach who doesn’t let what’s going on around him get to him, and he’s got a lot of self-belief.

What can you tell us about Guardiola’s tactical nous?
He’s got a lot of tactical variations up his sleeve. But however we line up, we always stick to Barça’s footballing philosophy, which revolves around keeping possession and using the ball well. Using that as a basis, we can shift things around quite a lot, setting our stall out with three or four at the back or varying the midfield line-up, because every one of us knows what he has to do. That gives us an edge.

There’s no doubt that 2010 was an unforgettable year in your career. Which was your personal highlight?
The World Cup Final with Spain, without a doubt. The whole country came together as one, which is quite a feat, but football has the power to do that and we were the ones who pulled it off. And it’s not just that, it’s also the things we experienced over there: being in South Africa for a whole month, meeting so many people and getting to know team-mates who you may not have known before but who’ve ended up becoming close friends.

Having won virtually every honour in the game by the age of 23, how do you stay motivated?
By simply remembering the moments after you’ve won something and how happy that made you feel. You try to always keep those moments fresh in your mind so you can repeat them. Winning is a lovely feeling and you miss it when you lose. That’s what motivates you.

After victory at South Africa 2010, Spain’s performances have been somewhat hit-and-miss. Why do you think this is?
Listen, in qualifying matches for EURO 2012 we’ve played really well and won all our games. The defeats came in Argentina and Portugal, against two great national sides. I think if there was ever a time to allow ourselves the luxury of losing, it’s now, since we’re world champions and they were both friendlies. That said, 4-1 and 4-0 aren’t acceptable results for us, and we’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

You’re one of the most active Spain internationals when it comes to Twitter. How important are social networking services to the career of 21st century footballers?
It’s a good tool for staying in touch with your followers. I think it’s positive for them to know a bit more about you and for them to realise there’s more to you than your job as a footballer.

Staying on that topic, can you clear up a doubt we had? What does “moc, moc” mean?
(Laughs) Ah, that doesn’t really mean anything. (Laughs again) It’s an expression that me and my friends [Carles] Puyol and Cesc [Fabregas] use on Twitter which means “I’m thinking about you”. It’s also because Cesc lives over in London and sometimes it feels like he’s very far away. It’s a way of bringing us all closer and keeping in touch.

What are you like away from football?
I like to spend plenty of time with my childhood friends, the ones I’ve known all my life and the ones with whom I can be myself. Apart from that I like to go to the cinema, read, use the computer. It’s not very different from what other young people do nowadays.

Can you see yourself leaving Barcelona again one day?
It’s my home and where I’ve always dreamed of playing. They’re one of the best, if not the best, teams in the world and I’ve got some enormously talented team-mates. I’m not planning on ever leaving.

As part of the Azulgrana backline, is it easy to switch off given your team-mates often have so much of the ball?
Because we have so much of the ball, that can often be tricky. You can even find yourself shocked by the extent we end up dominating games. The problem is that other teams can then catch you unawares on the counter-attack, so you must never let your concentration waver.

Finally, can you tell us who was your idol when you were growing up and who do you look up to in the modern game?
I remember I used to watch Real Madrid’s Fernando Hierro, who I admired despite the fact he played for our eternal rivals. And at the moment there are several players I look up to, Ferdinand and Vidic being two examples, as well as Carles Puyol, who is a great friend and an example to follow.