What to do if you’re a footballer continually abused by one set of supporters? The authorities will advise to ignore them, to rise above them and that they’ll go away. They do not want more flashpoints, to throw fuel on the fire.
Gerard Pique does not go along with that. The Barcelona defender has been abused by rival Espanyol fans for years, with vile songs about him, his children and his pop star wife Shakira.
Pique, 31 last week, is intelligent and speaks his mind. He provides the opposite of the usual cliched footballer quotes. Many envisage him as a future Barcelona president, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who was a vice president of the club.
Barcelona and Espanyol have just met three times in 18 days. As expected of the derby, the games were heated, aggressive and far from one-sided. Mid-table Espanyol won the first against the neighbours they detest, ending Barca’s 29 game unbeaten run with victory in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final.
They lost the second leg and drew the third in the league on Sunday. There is not a team in the world who would not be happy with that record against Barcelona this season, though Barcelona did knock Espanyol out of the cup. In both games at Espanyol’s Cornella stadium, fans again chanted against Pique.
Pique grew up near Espanyol’s old stadium in Sarria, which they sold and left in 1997. Fans did not want to leave, but the club were in debt and their stadium, a typical inner city Spanish ground with steep sided stands, stood on prime real estate.
After 18 years subsequently playing in Barcelona at the unloved – at least for football – Olympic Stadium, Espanyol moved to their new home in 2009. It is one of the finest stadiums in Spain and boasts one of the best atmospheres too.
However, it was built in Cornella on the edge of Barcelona’s southern urban fringe, on cheap land next to motorways, heavy industry and housing that will never feature in Barcelona’s tourist promotions, alongside the Llobregat river, which was swelled by the heavy rain during Sunday’s game. Espanyol have long felt that Barcelona’s authorities could have done more to help them.
Cornella’s population swelled thanks to economic migrants from outside Catalonia in the 1950s and 60s. They speak Spanish over Catalan; most do not want independence from Spain.
Cornella’s not seen as ‘pure’ Barcelona by bigots and Pique keeps touching a nerve by calling them Espanyol from Cornella – and therefore not Barcelona. Manchester City fans used to say United were from Trafford and not the city of Manchester. Are not such barbs part of every rivalry?
“They are from Cornella,” Pique repeated after Sunday’s game – at Cornella, a stadium he has accused Espanyol fans of never filling. He talks like a fan.
“They are more and more rootless,” added Pique. “They have a Chinese owner and all their advisers are Chinese. I know it hurts them and I used sarcasm to annoy them. But saying they play in Cornella is not disrespectful, it’s a fact.”
What also hurt Espanyol fans is that Pique scored an 82nd minute equaliser, which he celebrated by holding his finger towards his lips to request the home fans – and there are almost no away fans in the Catalan derby – to be silent. That infuriated Espanyol fans more than Barcelona maintaining their 22-match unbeaten run in the league, as did Pique's comments about them.
Primera Liga’s president Javier Tebas said: “Pique’s not a xenophobe but I think he was mistaken...” (to celebrate as he did). Espanyol have complained about him and there were calls for Pique to be suspended for his supposedly provocative celebration, yet other players have done similar, from Cristiano Ronaldo at Atletico Madrid to Raul at Camp Nou and not been suspended.
Barca fans love it and if fans who dish out abuse cannot take a little gentle ribbing back then that is not the fault of the player. Espanyol regularly accuse Barça of having sold out to the highest bidders, that their ‘more than a club’ motto is merely holier than thou marketing nonsense.
“The least I could do was bring silence to the Espanyol fans,” said Pique after Sunday’s goal.
Pique is speaking for Barca fans. He knows his market and has the confidence to speak for it. The defender has also never scored more than three goals against another team. He has now scored six against Espanyol.