Gracies, Gerard Pique

Wow. Just … wow.

Gerard Pique is retiring. Quite abruptly, it might appear. People will grumble that it took too long, etc, etc, but why be churlish? However and whyever he did it, an emblematic player is leaving the club in a way not entirely of his own doing, or choosing.

Obituaries are weird in that people always say good things about the deceased, because why wouldn’t you? Who ever rolls up to a eulogy and says, “Good riddance to a right shitbag.”

But let’s be clear about this: Gerard Pique is the best centerback I have ever seen play for FC Barcelona. Yes, that includes Puyol, who was enhanced by the elegant presence of Pique. Yes, he had concentration problems. Always did. But at his peak the man was majestic, nicknamed Piquenbauer for the way he strode out from the back to start yet another Barça attack.

To ask how good he was, the club still hasn’t replaced his profile, just as they haven’t replaced Abidal’s, and the back line has suffered for it. Without that bridge from defense to attack, the options become a Ter Stegen pass over distance, or a fullback making a run. The absence of that Pique profile is made even more acute by the demise of Busquets, who used to stand farther up the pitch, to take the ball, say thanks and “I’ll take it from here.”

Now, Busquets hangs around just outside the Barça box, old and vulnerable, another faded symbol of how things used to be, just as Jordi Alba hangs around like a ghost of failures past. And none of it had to be like this. The proper way for a legend to leave is the way Xavi did, with streamers cascading from the night sky in celebration of another pile of trophies.

Since then, FC Barcelona has been a club that doesn’t know how to say farewell to its legends, that is so abysmally managed that it can’t properly say farewell to its legends. Ideally, they groom their successor, become a match closer as Xavi was, then they stroll off into the sunset to the sounds of cheers. Football is a cruel game, particularly for heroes who stay around long enough to become villains — who can no longer perform at a level necessary to justify their existence.

Some will blame Pique for the Inter failure, but that was a group effort. Pique was just a symbol of the collapse, an implosion of a club that went from an example of how to do things properly to a living, breathing example of what happens to a fool and his money. The club was run by greedheads and fools, noses to the air like a paranoid dog, handing out long contracts to players who shouldn’t have been given them because they weren’t anything like competent enough to develop any sort of a succession plan. “This is fine.”

It wasn’t fine. It wasn’t fine even before it was evident that it wasn’t fine, but the club wasn’t the only one needing a mirror check. Supporters who have a hard time letting go, who convince themselves that the signs of something aren’t the signs of anything at all, that a player sliding down the rungs somehow still has it, is still good for one more year. They bat aside naysayers until Time, the ultimate arbiter, makes everything apparent.

It shouldn’t have ended like this for Pique. It shouldn’t have ended how it will likely end for Busquets. It’s still difficult to adequately fathom just how good those teams were, and Pique and Busquets, most recently capped with goat horns as Barça was saddled with another Champions League failure, were two essential linchpins for that period of sustained excellence, still the best football anybody with truth in their veins will confess to having watched.

Pique started at the club as a boy, big grin and unfortunate haircut, had a brief stint at Manchester United and returned at the call of Pep Guardiola, returning as a grown-ass man ready to be part of one of the best teams in history. FC Barcelona is so often guilty of hyperbole, but not in this case. “A life in Blaugrana,” indeed, that deserved a better ending.

The legacy of shame of Bartomeu and his henchmen is long enough to reach the moon, but how their appalling, avaricious negligence focused on nothing but hoovering up every possible Euro in preparation for scuttling down the ratlines has damaged the shining jewel of the club should leave them all ashamed.

Players don’t have the kind of introspection that lets them admit to reality. Some do, but it’s rare. So many legends stay on because they feel like they can still help their club. A player such as Pique, thrust into a role due to events beyond their control, is likely an example of this. “I can still do it. My club needs me.” For a while he was the only fit centerback. Should he have been on the team? Nope. But management put him there, supporters justified his presence for year after year, and there he was.

Pique didn’t fail the club. The club failed him.

The pact an athletic club makes with its legends who devote entire sporting lives to an entity is dignity. But of late, from Messi leaving the Camp Nou in tears to board a plane to Paris, and Iniesta’s tearful farewell after a Champions League failure, and now Pique. Everything about it is wrong.

Yes, Pique was past it. Yes, his recent performances proved it, part of an arc of demise that was clear years ago, but what was he to do? Who was there to replace him, to make it evident that it was time? What did his club do to make it easy for him to leave if not on a high note, at least with dignity. Not some video released just before the World Cup break, but in something planned, an event that allows supporters to give a proper farewell, with nary a hint of the “Good riddance” that will be in the back of some, too many minds.

Athletes deserve a proper farewell, not a death spiral at the end of a series of circumstances thrust onto them. “He should have left.” Why? He was just fine, until he wasn’t. A properly run club doesn’t let things come to that, doesn’t let a legend go like that. The Bartomeu legacy is failure, ineptitude that dogs the club and its football team even now, and will continue to. Ineptitude that sullies what should have been a departure as elegant as the passes of a club legend.

Pique was magnificent. Never forget that. There are people who came to the club when he was on the downhill slide, who owe it to themselves to go back and watch him back in the day, when he was one of the best CBs in the world. And they should clap a legend out the door, as justice will dictate a packed Camp Nou should do this weekend. There won’t be streamers or trophies, but there should be respect, admiration and love.