Gerard Piqué has an impeccable football pedigree. The grandson of famed FC Barcelona vice-president Amador Bernabéu - no relation of Real Madrid CF's Santiago - the defender was developed by the Camp Nou side before being signed by Manchester United FC aged just 16 in 2004. Within four months he had made his first-team debut, and he has been a regular for Europe's strongest nation at youth level, Spain.
His rise continued apace in 2006. Two years after helping Spain win the UEFA European Under-17 Championship final, he went one better for the U19s in Poland last July, setting up Alberto Bueno's winner in the final against Scotland. However, the identity of Spain’s opposition did not endear Piqué to patriotic United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, a man the youngster has described as like a second father. "He rang me after the final and said he was angry because we had beaten Scotland," Piqué told uefa.com. "I told him it was my job and he was just going to have to be happy and proud because someone from his club had won. I think in the end he was happy!"
Piqué, who turns 20 next Friday, made his first Premiership start in March, and this summer was sent on loan to Real Zaragoza for 2005/06, though he remains under contract at Old Trafford until 2009. It has become normal for Sir Alex to send his young prospects out to another club to sharpen them before using them regularly. "I talked to Sir Alex and agreed it was the best decision for me and for the club, I can get first-team experience," said Piqué, who scored on his Primera División debut in September. "It's going well. I'm playing games and scoring goals, even though I am a defender. But
I hope next season I'll go back to Manchester and get a place. I talked to the boss and he said he wanted to come to the stadium to see us play. I will try to show him that everything is going fine and I'm playing well."
That he has already picked up English parlance like "the boss" shows how quickly he was able to settle when he first moved to Manchester. "When you first go you don't have your family or friends, you have to start a new life," Piqué remembers. "You meet new people and after six to seven months you are happy again." But then he did have an example to look to - his friend Cesc Fabregas left Barcelona for Arsenal FC not long before Piqué’s own English switch and they remain close. "Every week we try to talk. But we don't always talk about football, we talk about our lives. We've played together since we were six or seven, after that he went to Arsenal I went to United, but we are still in touch."
The victory in the U19 finals was especially sweet for Piqué and many of his team-mates, due to the disappointment at U17 level two years earlier when a Spain side including Fabregas lost the final to a late goal from hosts France. "A lot of the players were in France, so we were extra motivated to win in Poland," Piqué said. "We didn't want to repeat that experience. We tried to react and we succeeded." However, Spain's stellar record at youth level - it was their third U19 title in five years - meant they knew expectations back home were high. "It can be hard," Piqué admits. "All the country thinks you are going to win the tournament before it starts. This is very difficult to handle. Also, we are the favourites and all the teams respect you. You have to use that respect to change it into fear, make them scared of you."
Certainly, he has enjoyed his experience with UEFA's youth finals. "These tournaments are nice as you develop," he said. "It is hard as you are young, 17 or 19, but once it has happened you are better as a player." Next on the agenda is adding to his two caps at U21 level, then in the summer gaining another triumph at his generation's farewell to youth football at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada, to repeat the celebrations he experienced last July.
I remember when we got to the airport a lot of people were waiting for us and that was a great experience. You feel you have a country behind you and following you," Piqué said. "I hope to repeat that after the World Cup in Canada." And doubtless many more times in his career.
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