Decorated Pique will eternally divide opinion

Andy West 09:07 11/10/2016
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Gerard Pique.

If there is anything positive to emerge from Gerard Pique’s announcement that he will quit international football after the 2018 World Cup Finals, it is that Spain at least have plenty of time to plan for his departure.

And Pique’s boots will be very tough to fill, because he has without doubt been one of the best central defenders in the world for several years.

For some reason, however, he rarely gets the kind of recognition his consistent excellence deserves, neither for his club nor his country.

On the domestic scene, this is no doubt because, at Barcelona, he is part of one of the greatest attacking teams in the history of the game – once Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez, Neymar and co have taken their share of the limelight, there’s not much left for anyone else.

And at international level, Pique was initially a peripheral figure, dominated by senior partner Carles Puyol, and more recently he has been talked about more for off-the-pitch controversy than what he has actually done on the field of play, which is generally faultless.

The lack of plaudits heading Pique’s way should not be allowed to obscure the fact that he is an exceptionally good central defender, who has played arguably the best football of his career since being given a kick up the backside by Luis Enrique a couple of years ago.

And Spain will find him extraordinarily difficult to replace a couple of summers from now, especially considering their dearth of top-quality replacements.

The lack of central defensive strength in depth available to recently appointed manager Julen Lopetegui is evidenced by the fact the replacement for Sergio Ramos against Albania this week was Inigo Martinez of Real Sociedad, who has never really fulfilled his youthful promise.

Other candidates such as Marc Bartra and Nacho Fernandez have also consistently failed to convince, and Lopetegui can only desperately hope that a young player – perhaps Sporting Gijon’s highly-rated teenager Jorge Mere – will make significant advances in the next couple of years to fill the void.

Of course, there is still a fair amount of time before Pique’s newly-announced retirement becomes effective, and the next 18 months or so will be pivotal in determining how he is remembered by Spain fans.

Really, it’s extremely odd that a player who has (already) earned 84 caps and played an integral part in winning both the World Cup and the European Championships can have his legacy even questioned.

But the reality is that Pique has always been an extremely divisive character among Spanish fans, and it’s currently difficult to envisage how the country’s many millions of Real Madrid fans will be able to see past their club biases and regard the Barcelona star with any affection whatsoever.

He deserves better, but the partisan nature of club rivalries – especially the most intense club rivalry of them all – makes it unavoidable that Pique, who has always been the first to celebrate Barcelona’s victories and mock Real Madrid’s failures, has infuriated a significant number of people in his homeland.

When you further consider his belief that Spain shouldn’t even be his homeland, and that he should instead be a proud member of a newly-formed state of Catalonia, and it’s easy to understand the ambivalence.

Perhaps only one thing will convince Pique’s haters to wish him a fond farewell: winning the World Cup in 2018. Anything less, and he will have more enemies than friends in Spain.

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European WCQ round-up

Sport360 staff 08:33 11/10/2016
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A searing first-half strike from Paul Pogba handed France a 1-0 win at rivals the Netherlands as Belgium and Portugal clocked up 6-0 victories and Christian Benteke grabbed a slice of World Cup qualifying history.

Criticised by coach Didier Deschamps for his performance in Friday’s 4-1 win over Bulgaria in Paris, the world’s most expensive footballer emphatically replied with a towering display for Les Bleus in Amsterdam in the most eye-catching fixture on Monday.

The Manchester United midfielder’s powerful hit from 25 metres out after half an hour left diving Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg able to get his hands to the fizzing ball but unable to stop it.

Belgium striker Benteke set a new World Cup record for the fastest goal ever — just seven seconds — on his way to a hat-trick in Faro.

The 25-year-old Crystal Palace forward picked up the ball in the first action in Faro and racing towards goal with the Gibraltar defence in disarray left goalie Deren Ibrahim with no chance.

Andre Silva scored a hat-trick for the European champions before captain Cristiano Ronaldo netted his fifth goal in four days, with Joao Cancelo and Joao Moutinho also scoring late on.

Switzerland maintained their unbeaten run, coming away 2-1 winners from Andorra with Fabian Schaer and Admir Mehmedi scoring in either half.

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#360view: Humiliated Rooney continuing to show little fight

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Recent struggles: Wayne Rooney.

England players often lead a joyless existence while on international duty. What was once a privilege and an honour to represent your country is increasingly an unwanted pressure which runs disproportionate to the national team’s standing in the game.

England are, and have been for many years now, a deeply average side yet premium levels of performance are anticipated. Much of that is to do with the illusionary factor of the Premier League which somehow hoodwinks fans into thinking the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and David Silva will translate to the England team.

Instead, it sets an unobtainable bar for a group of players still struggling to come to terms with moving on from the embarrassment of Euro 2016. None more so than Wayne Rooney whose misery in the white shirt is beginning to resemble some kind of purgatory.

Self-inflicted, admittedly, but such is the torment he’s experiencing, it’s admirable he keeps turning out for the Three Lions. But turn out is all he seems to do. As another vapid display on his 117th appearance for his country saw him booed by sections of the Wembley crowd in 90-minute display as captain where he was also subjected to a year-defining nutmeg.

As the ball broke loose in the middle of the park, Rooney attempted to close down Malta’s Gareth Sciberras but was beaten to the punch by a player three years his senior who flicked it through his legs and continued forward. Against a side ranked No. 176, he looked passive throughout; his passing tentative with an apparent unwillingness to receive the ball when denied obvious space, made worse by midfield colleague Jordan Henderson’s all-action display as he played with the sort of fire and craft once emblematic of Rooney.

Make no mistake, England are carrying Rooney, but as his game visibly deteriorates, people continue to make excuses for him. Former team-mates and ex-pros have realigned their views gradually over the last 2-3 years, with Rooney’s misgivings as a No. 9 first blamed on a lack of service then a realisation the decline of his pace means is more suited to operating as a creative No. 10.

But his inability to affect matches in the position then saw the school of thought morph into the concept of a deeper role where his “football brain” can work more freely.

After a reasonable first-half against a hugely-depleted Russian midfield at Euro 2016 helped support this theory, he was soon shown up by Iceland in a truly horrible display of inactivity and apathy. Yet Jose Mourinho, despite insisting he wouldn’t, persevered with him as a No. 8 and now Gareth Southgate following in the wake of Sam Allardyce.

But despite so many substandard performances, we’re still told he “still has something to offer”. What that is, remains unclear to anyone watching.

Rooney as a midfielder is akin to if Metallica reinvented themselves as a synth-pop band or if Michael Bay decided his true calling in cinema was romantic comedies. His game was blood and thunder, reactionary football and about momentum, charging forward and playing off the cuff. A “street footballer” as his apologists like to remind us. But that Rooney appears to be a slice of nostalgia.

And that in itself makes for a truly sad situation, as a player so personified by a primal rage every time he stepped onto the field is showing little of the sort against the dying of the light.

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