There’s a clear public enemy number one at the Santiago Bernabéu, and his name is Gerard Piqué. The Real Madrid fans who visit the ground religiously to see their team play every fortnight love to hate Piqué more than any other player. He plays for Barcelona; he’s Catalan and proudly so; he’s cocky; he’s outspoken; he’s the comic book-esque villain they’ve been brought up to root again. There was a night, though, when the Bernabéu cheered for Piqúe.
We all know that Spain won the 2010 World Cup, but back in 2009 they were only European champions and had still to qualify for the finals in South Africa. There was a new coach in the form of Vicente del Bosque and they had to come through a tough group that also included Belgium, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After four wins from four to start, two of which were by the narrowest of margins against Belgium and Bosnia, La Roja faced the next of the tough trio at the Bernabéu on 28 March 2009.
Spain would take on Turkey twice in the space of four days in a weird quirk of the fixture list, first of all at Real Madrid’s home on a Saturday night. At the time, Piqué had never played a competitive match for his country, yet he was cementing his spot as a starter alongside Carles Puyol in the back four of Pep Guardiola’s Barça, having returned from Manchester United in 2008.
It was the first year of the Guardiola project at the Camp Nou and the Blaugrana were getting better and better. Piqué was a major factor in that and earned his first Spain cap in a friendly against England in February 2009, a 2-0 win at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán in Seville, before taking the place of the injured Puyol for Spain’s double-header against the Crescent Stars in March.
The then-22-year-old started on the left of central defence alongside Raúl Albiol, with Sergio Ramos at right-back and Joan Capdevila at left-back. Of course, the ever-present Iker Casillas was the goalkeeper this quartet was protecting.
It was a tough game. Fatih Terim’s Turkey were strong and had quality, as they’d shown by reaching the Euro 2008 semi-finals the previous summer, ending up just one game away from meeting Spain in the final. They sat deep and frustrated Spain, who struggled to unpick the lock. There wasn’t too much work for Piqué and his defensive colleagues to do, except on the rare occasions when Turkey launched long balls forward. But, Piqué was still able to leave his mark on the game.
In the 59th minute, Spain won a freekick at the right corner of the Turkish penalty area. Xavi stood over the ball and launched it towards Ramos. Inexplicably, Ramos couldn’t finish it himself from just a couple of metres out and the ball bounced across the goal. Yet that’s exactly where Piqué was.
It wasn’t a great goal. In fact, it was one of the easiest he’s ever scored. Yet the Catalan was at the right place at the right time to sidefoot the ball in off the goalkeeper Volkan Demirel and to get the Bernabéu crowd on their feet. “It just fell to where I was and I put it in,” he said afterwards.
There’s no national stadium where the Spain team play the majority of their games. There is no Wembley, no Stade de France. It’s a travelling show moving from one city to the next, taking the talents of La Roja around the country, mostly to the areas of Spain where they bleed the most Spanish of reds.
When Spain do arrive in a city for a fixture, the members and season ticket holders of the club whose stadium is being used tend to be given priority for purchasing tickets. Either they can buy them earlier than anyone else or they are given a discount. Or both. As such, each Spain game on Spanish soil has a distinct flavour. When they play at Mestalla, most of the attendees are also Valencia fans. When they play at the Benito Villamarín, most support Real Betis. And when they play at the Bernabéu, the majority of those in the seats are Madridistas.
So when Piqué scored against Turkey and spread a wave of joy over the Bernabéu, most of those cheering his goal were Real Madrid fans in their other life. When Spain started spreading the ball around in the moments after the goal to provoke a round of “olé, olé, olé”, it was Real Madrid fans who were getting carried away.
Piqué’s goal proved to be the match-winner. It finished 1-0 and it meant Spain took a huge step towards confirming their qualification for the 2010 World Cup. By the end of that night they had a six-point lead over second-placed Bosnia in their group, while a 2-1 win over the Turks in Istanbul four days later – in which Piqué played the 90 minutes – pushed them even closer to South Africa.
Spain, of course, did qualify for that World Cup. And Spain, of course, won that World Cup. Piqué scored two more goals during that qualifying campaign, against Belgium and against Bosnia, to help book his country’s ticket to the tournament and to help guarantee his own spot on the plane and, ultimately, in the starting XI.
Yet, even by the time the plane returned from Johannesburg to Madrid with the World Cup trophy in tow, Piqué had already lost some of his admirers in the Spanish capital. Just 35 days after his Turkey goal, he’d scored at the Bernabéu again and this time his goal provoked bubbling frustration and a march to the exits. The centre-back netted the sixth in Barcelona’s 6-2 victory over Real Madrid in LaLiga, a three-point haul that ultimately helped Guardiola’s men win the league title and the club’s first-ever treble.
That goal angered Madridistas for a few reasons. Firstly, because it wasn’t a set-piece. This was an open play goal in which the centre-back felt so comfortable with the result and so determined to rub further salt in his rivals’ wound that he sprinted into the six-yard box to make himself the furthest forward man in blue and claret.
Then, his famous celebration still irks Real fans, with Piqué stretching his Barça shirt for all to see, especially the away fans in the top corner of the Bernabéu. What most frustrated Real Madrid fans, though, was that this goal came to symbolise the power shift in Spanish football.
Guardiola’s Barcelona were simply better than them and this was one of the defining moments of that era. Barcelona won and won and won, meaning Piqué, one of the poster boys of that side, won and won and won. For Barcelona and Real Madrid fans, there are two positions that matter. First and not-first. And, for a while, Real Madrid were in the latter.
As the rivalry turned nastier, particularly with Real Madrid’s appointment of José Mourinho, the admiration that Madridistas once felt for the Barcelona players who’d helped win the 2010 World Cup faded, with the unique exception of Andrés Iniesta. With Piqué fully embracing the rivalry in press conferences, on social media and with another famous celebration as he raised five fingers following a 5-0 victory in 2010/11, his goal against Turkey and exploits in South Africa had long been forgotten by the Bernabéu regulars.
Almost every time he returned to the Bernabéu, it was for a Clásico with all the marbles on the table. And these meetings between Spain’s two footballing superpowers were growing more and more unsavoury. Yet there was a trip back to the Bernabéu for Spain duty on 9 February 2011 for a 1-0 friendly victory against Colombia, where Piqué received more cheers from the away fans than from the home fans given that his relationship with Shakira had just come out in the press.
It would be several years before Piqué played at the Bernabéu again in Spain’s colours, as the next international fixture at Real Madrid’s home didn’t come until 2 September 2017, a 3-0 victory over Italy in a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup.
By then, Piqué had truly completed the journey from Bernabéu backing to Bernabéu boos. A lot had happened between the Guardiola-Mourinho era and this match in 2017, as Piqué had become a persona non grata at every home Spain match due to the common perception that he was backing the Catalan independence movement – even if all he had ever said was that he believed in the Catalan people’s right to a vote.
Having already announced that he would retire from international duty following the 2018 World Cup, many Spain fans wanted him gone already. Despite Spain coach Julen Lopetegui and captain Sergio Ramos urging the Bernabéu crowd to refrain from booing the centre-back during this important World Cup qualifier against Italy, the whistles were deafening the first time he touched the ball.
Then something strange and something special happened. Some fans applauded at the next pass to the feet of the Catalan. Some even chanted “Piqué, Piqué”. They’d had enough. The abuse had become tiring and petty. This was a player who’d given his all to the national team during his years of service with the youth teams and then with the senior side, with whom he’d won a World Cup and Euro 2012.
Sure, he loved nothing more than winding up Real Madrid fans during the club football season. Sure, he supported the right for a Catalan independence referendum. Sure, he’d called Álvaro Arbeloa a cone. But Piqué had put blood, sweat and tears into the Spain shirt every time he pulled it on, leaving club rivalries and politics aside. The problem was that not all of the national team’s fans had done likewise. They couldn’t separate Piqué the Barcelona player or Piqué the Catalan from Piqué the Spain player, even though he himself was able to do so.
On that night in September 2017, though, some brave fans took a stand. This was the night that the Bernabéu cheered for Piqué. They’d cheered after his goal against Turkey too, but that was primarily in response to Spain’s number on the scoreboard clicking from zero to one. This time, though, it was a purposeful and determined chant for the player. At the time when he was hated more than ever by some at the Bernabéu, others took the gentlemanly approach to bang their hands together and to chant the name of Gerard Piqué Bernabéu.
That’s his full name, by the way, with Piqué the paternal surname from his father Joan Piqué and with Bernabéu his maternal surname from his mother Montserrat Bernabéu. Piqué has Bernabéu in his blood and, on one night in a World Cup qualifier against Italy, he received the support of the stadium of the same name. That was the night when the Bernabéu cheered for Piqúe.
By Euan McTear @emctear