From lifting the World Cup in Johannesburg 12 years ago, to his iconic ‘manita’ wave in the Camp Nou after a 5–0 humiliation of Real Madrid, to forming the bedrock of a Spanish defense in its greatest era, to playing with both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Gerard Piqué has lived the dream. More importantly, he has lived his dream as he powerfully explained in his farewell video: “From a young age, I didn’t want to be a football player, I wanted to be a Barça player.”
A product of La Masia, FC Barcelona’s revered academy, Piqué’s footballing journey spanned more than two decades as he went from an excited young boy running around in an oversized Barça jersey chasing autographs from players like Ronald Koeman, to walking off to an ovation from 92,000 fans chanting his name in adoration of another local boy turned legend.
“Visça el Barça, siempre,” Catalan for “long live Barça,” were Piqué’s final words as he was subbed off for the last time when Barcelona hosted Almería in La Liga on Nov. 5. A comfortable 2–0 victory, courtesy of goals from Ousmane Dembélé and Frenkie de Jong, who were both 11-year-olds when Piqué made his debut in 2008, extended Barça’s lead at the top of La Liga. But the night was hardly about the two points as the entire team walked out wearing the Spaniard’s iconic No. 3 jersey while chants of “Piqué” echoed throughout the game.
During the 82nd minute, Piqué’s name appeared on the big screen as Danish center-back Andreas Christensen prepared to come on. The time had come. Embracing his teammates who gathered around him, including young Ansu Fati and the magical teenage duo of Pedri and Gavi, Piqué handed his armband to a teary Jordi Alba before heading for the touchline. Emotions ran high for longtime teammate and current manager Xavi, who watched another piece of the historic Guardiola dynasty bid farewell.
Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola, who spent four years at the Camp Nou, praised Piqué’s big game personality, saying it was an “honour” to be his manager and that he is just the type of player that big clubs need. Xavi, another member of Spain’s 2010 World Cup winning side, reiterated Guardiola’s sentiment, saying that Piqué’s legacy “goes beyond football.” Piqué’s early potential convinced former Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him — the Scottish manager even had dinner with his family to convince them of the move when Piqué was only 17.
Piqué’s career reached its pinnacle between 2009 and 2015 where he dominated for both club and country. A long time partnership with Carles Puyol came to define his legacy in both teams as the contrasting pair merged as one of the greatest defensive duos in history. As a player, Piqué had more of an elegance on the ball, committing calculated tackles and remaining composed under pressure. Puyol was a relentless gladiator, a born leader who put his body on the line each time he played. Their backgrounds differed too: Piqué was brought up in the heart of the city to an affluent family while Puyol came from the small town of Pobla de Segur, 260 kilometers northwest of Barcelona. In the end, these contrasts balanced each other out as both players evolved in ways they wouldn’t have without the other.
Despite his success with Barcelona — which includes eight La Liga and three Champions League titles — his greatest achievement, as would be true for any player, was winning Spain’s first World Cup. In a run that included victories against Portugal and Germany, Spain’s triumph in South Africa marked them as one of the great international sides in history. Piqué would also go on to win the Euros in 2012 and form another strong center-back partnership with Sergio Ramos.
His recent career with Barcelona, however, has not matched the glory of the past. A devastating 8–2 defeat to Bayern Munich, which led to several key departures including childhood friend Lionel Messi and president Joseph Maria Bartomeu, began showing cracks in an aging side. Despite the injection of new blood from the academy, namely the rise of Pedri and Gavi, several Barça players, including Piqué, simply aren’t the players they once were. This season, Barcelona couldn’t make it out of their Champions League group, winning just two out of six games and finishing third behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. The Catalan side will now face Manchester United in a Europa League playoff, far from the level both clubs should be competing at.
Perhaps a changing of the guard is needed now more than ever at Barcelona. Piqué has undoubtedly been a bridge between Barça’s old and new, but it is time for others to carry forward the philosophy of the club — a philosophy he has lived by for the last 25 years. At full-time, Piqué was hurled into the air by his teammates before addressing the crowd in an emotional speech. “To love sometimes means having to let go,” translated from Catalan, was a line that best captured his relationship with the club as the veteran defender promised he would return one day. For now, football must celebrate another modern great calling “time” on a legendary career.