World Champion, European Champion, La Liga winner … and all in just one year. That’s not bad.
No, it’s not bad at all. It’s been an incredible year. Playing for the best national team in the world and the best club team in the world at the same time allows you to aspire to that kind of record. I have been fortunate enough to be part of those teams – that is what allowed me the opportunity to win the World Cup, which Spain had never achieved before. As for the Champions League and the Spanish league, that was special too: to be able to win the league for the third year in a row and win the European Cup again after 2009 is an amazing experience. I think we played brilliantly in the final against Manchester United – it was a great performance.
Are you surprised at everything that has happened? And the way it happened too… This has been an intense season, marked by four clásicos in just eighteen days.
Not really. We knew there would be nerves in the semi-final against Real Madrid, we knew that both sides would play the way that suited them – using the weapons that work for them. In the end, I think we were able to impose ourselves on the pitch, playing football the way we know, faithful to our philosophy. The best team went through. The truth is that in the final against United we felt like we were the better side all the way through. That confidence and conviction shows in the end. We played superbly; from the first minute to the last you could see how focused we were and then when you add the quality we have in the attack to that, well … it was a great game.
Not just because of the clásico series – although, quite honestly, that was the focal point – it feels a little like this has been the hardest season yet for this Barcelona team. The feeling seems to be that not only did Barcelona have to show their class but also their competitiveness. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, because off the pitch we have had lots of accusations thrown at us – accusations that are not true. It is always hard to live with that because you know that there are people who believe the media, that there are people that believe what they read even if it’s not true. You try to ignore it but that’s not easy. We felt we had to prove ourselves day after day on the pitch, to show that if we’re the best it’s because we work hard, because we have talent and because we play the kind of football that right now no one else in Europe plays.
In that sense, Barcelona’s title celebrations really stand out. First there was the throwing of peppers into the stands, to symbolise the team’s guts. Then, there was the moment that you took the microphone to declare: “We don’t take drugs, we don’t dive, we don’t buy referees, we just play football”. That seemed like an act of vindication. Does it anger you for people to keep questioning what Barcelona have done, to keep inventing things?
Of course it does but we can’t really do anything about it. Those are the weapons they have chosen to use to shoot us down – to annoy us or try to distract us, to try to stop us playing at our best. We just try to do our job and focus on what we can control. We have to concentrate not on what they say but on winning titles. And for the moment, it’s working. The challenge for us now is to keep that going.
You’ve been a Barcelona fan all your life, your grandfather was a club director, you’re Catalan … this year must have been all the more special for you. Can you explain a bit what it is like being a culé in a moment like this?
I think all culés are very proud of this team. We have performed, we have done the club proud. We have shown what we can do for Barcelona and when you win tittles people are happy. That reaches you and what we want now is to do the same thing next season and keep them happy.
How will you go about trying to repeat that feat for next season? On the face of it, it would appear quite difficult to maintain the same level of motivation after a year in which you have won virtually everything …
Every year is harder than the last but not because of a lack of motivation but because your opponents continue to improve to try to beat you – you know that they are going to sign great players and constantly strengthen, you know they keep fighting. But we’ve been very consistent over the last three years, we have been able to maintain our level. Looking back, people thought that the second season would be hard because we had won everything in the first season, but we won another league. Then people thought that the players would relax after winning the world cup, that we would not fight so hard as we had, but instead we have won a league and European Cup double. I think we have shown that we can continue to be hungry and that we have won the respect and admiration of lots of people because of that. Our idea is to continue and try to carry on winning titles.
But how do you do that? Frankly, I’d retire after winning the treble! You’re never going to better that.
Yeah, but you always aspire to more. You know that your trophy cabinet always has room for more. You want to be able to look back on your career and say that you were at a great club, that you experienced great moments. Also, there’s something less concrete than that: when you’re a footballer and you retire, I think the thing you look back on is the moments as much as the titles – those moments that make you happy. So you keep wanting to have that experience. You keep striving for that. Success brings great satisfaction.
Was there a key moment during the season in terms of the motivation of the team? From the outside there seemed to be a shift between the lost Copa del Rey final and the Champions League semi-final. What happened during those few days? Did Guardiola motivate you in any specific way?
The Copa del Rey final was a real blow, very hard to take, but we have always shown that we are able to come back from those kinds of moments. Then we went from that to playing the first leg of the semi-final at the Bernabéu and we were ready. Guardiola has a huge influence on us – his words reach you, they convince you. He knows how to motivate us and I think he has done an exceptional job over the last three years. We feel very privileged to be with him.
So what did he say to you after the Copa del Rey final?
That we were still the same team, with the same talent: if we kept on working as we have, he said, we are better than them. We showed that at the Bernabéu and at the Camp Nou.
What impact has Guardiola had on you personally?
The way we play, the centre backs have a lot of work. But it is not just defensive work, it is offensive work too. There’s a lot of responsibility on me when it comes to bringing the ball out from the back and starting the moves. Also, from the back you see the whole pitch and you have a duty to help organise the team, to make sure players are well positioned – it’s your job to read the game. Those are the things he asks of me. The coach is very demanding and that’s why we have had such good results.
Barcelona play with the defence very high. Is that a relief or a disaster for a centre-back? The team pressures high to make sure that teams can’t begin to attack you but when they do they tend to have a lot of space and men over on you.
It’s a relief when we are controlling the game, when we have a lot of possession and we’re focused. But when we struggle to move the ball with pace and keep possession then we are exposed to quick counter-attacks and that’s hard because you find yourself running back towards your own goal, which is the worst position to be in. That’s where it becomes really demanding but we know what club we’re at and we know what is asked of us.
Tito Vilanova, the assistant coach, said the other day: “Without Gerard, the whole thing would have collapsed.” What did he mean? What is your specific role in the Barcelona machine? Why are you so important for the model to work?
I imagine he said it because there was a time during the season when Abidal was ill, Puyol was injured, and we didn’t have many centre-backs. I imagine he was referring to the fact that if I had been injured as well we would have suffered more.
But there’s a systematic importance too, isn’t there? It’s not just about numbers. You’re the starting point of everything …
Everyone has a role and of course I try to help as much as I can. That’s what Pep does – he shows us exactly what each person has to do, what role they have to play. Whoever plays at centre-back, whether it’s Mascherano or Busquets, has shown that they are talented enough to play there. But of course, the fewer injuries we have the better.
What about your role alongside Puyol? It feels like the perfect partnership: he imposes upon you what you maybe didn’t have and you give him what he lacks … But it seems to work on a person level as well, not just a professional one.
We compliment each other very well. From the first minute I arrived here we have understood each other perfectly on and off the pitch. Sometimes a look is enough to know what we need from each other. I hope we can play together for years until he finally retires.
He seems almost younger alongside you … it’s like your personality has rubbed off on him and he has got a new lease of life.
Puyol has always been young in spirit. He works very hard, he has a great attitude and despite being 33 I think he has the body of a younger a man – he is a real athlete and he’ll be playing for years yet at Barcelona
To what extent are Barcelona’s players conscious of history? Does that provide extra motivation? For example, a fourth league in a row would equal the Dream Team, while a second successive Champions League has not been done before … is this not about a season so much as en epoch?
That’s the thing: every season you find new points of motivation. Right now there is no way of judging this team. People talk about the best in history but we won’t know that until afterwards, until we retire. What we have now is the opportunity to keep winning and the privilege of having come together at the same time. We know that we have lots of very good players here and we want to enjoy that for as long as we can. Chasing those kind of historic records helps. When our cycle comes to an end then we will be able to evaluate how good this team was and whether it was one of the best in history. Right now, we want to enjoy the moment. We believe we can win more.
You just used a key word: enjoy. Sometimes it seems like people don’t allow themselves the time to enjoy success. As soon as you win something they’re already demanding more. This is already historic. Is it hard to not be allowed to just enjoy the moment a bit more?
Yes but everyone has very short memories in football. You win things, the summer comes and soon it’s all forgotten; you have to win all over again. If the following season you don’t win anything, well … We know that for a club like Barcelona it is important to win something every year, and that is what we are going to try to do. We know we have won the league and the Champions League but we also know that does not allow us to take it easy – we are aware that the fans will again be demanding success.
Is it hard to live with that kind of pressure?
It’s hard when the first season is like it was for me, when you win everything and they start asking for the same thing every year, which is impossible. But you get used to that and you know that at a great club that’s always going to be the case. You have to be at the very top all the time.
Fans always say it’s easy for footballers – it’s only a sport, you’re paid very well, it’s an easy life … that message must reach you. How does it make you feel? Are fans conscious of the pressure you live under? Is it harder than it looks?
We’re not machines. We’re people and in the end there are lots of factors that can affect you. Sometimes people don’t understand that you’re a person and you have a private life. There are things that get to you and sometimes that shows on the pitch. That’s when you have to try to isolate yourself from everything that’s going on and try to play as best you can regardless of everything else.
How do you rid yourself of that pressure?
It’s hard, it really is We’re people and it does have an impact. But I just try to be professional. When you go into a dressing room you know you have 90 minutes ahead of you, you focus on that and you have to try to give everything you have got.
What are the most important characteristics of a football boot for you?
These are great boots, they are very comfortable, the contact with the ball is good – you can really feel it, which is vital. That helps you control the ball better, it gives you a better feel for it, better touch. The leather is incredible; it adapts perfectly to the foot. It’s an elegant boot too. Orange stands out a bit but it goes well with the black. Nike have done a great job. I think they’re very good boots.
Part of the obsession in the development of these boots is the touch … that’s very much the signature of Barcelona too …
Definitely. Barcelona’s style is about touch, about maintaining possession of the ball, controlling games. These boots fit that and I think they’ll be great for me.
How does that Barcelona philosophy get so ingrained? What’s the mantra at the club? How are players educated in the Barcelona approach?
The model is the same at all levels of the club. The day I joined was the same as it is now. The fundamental idea is to have the ball, to control games, to impose ourselves always. There is continuity and at first team level Barcelona have managed to achieve that over the last three years; we have brought that philosophy to the field.
Is it an exaggeration to talk of Barcelona DNI?
I think it’s reality. Every player that comes here from another club struggles to adapt, even if he is a great player, because our personality is special and very specific. It is a kind of DNI. Our players have lived with that from a very early age, they have been brought up on it. That means that those kids who have been here for a long time find the step up to the first team easier – because there is a continuity of style.
But your style is a Manchester United style too. Or, at least, your education is … What did you learn there and what are the biggest differences?
Football is much more physical there. It is more direct, the are fewer touches on the ball, it is less elaborate – there are more long balls, it’s more aerial. Teams look to get into the opposition areas as quick as possible and force chances. You have to adapt to everything so when I was there I had to work hard on the physical side of the game and increase my speed – English football is very fast. That added to my game.
Are you a better player because of that time there?
I think it was very good for my career. I didn’t play as much as I would have liked and that made me strong mentally. I also learnt new things and experienced something different. I was 17 or 18 and I was playing with Rooney and Ronaldo … that was hugely enriching. Right now I am enjoying great times thanks to them.
There has been lots of talk about the players Barcelona have to sign; people are focusing on the weaknesses of the team. Which seems bizarre …
Yes, but a team that wants to win things all the time like Barcelona has to renew itself each year, it has to improve. Even if you have won tittles there are things you can do to get stronger.
There’s also the European Championships at the end of the season. You weren’t there in 2008 so that must be a particular target for you. It’s the only trophy you haven’t got.
True. But right now my aim is simply to have a good preseason, prepare well and get ready. It is going to be a very long season which will start with two tough Super Copa games with Real Madrid and then with Porto in the European Super Cup. We want to win that because those are trophies we want to see in the club’s museum. Then we’ll try to win the league, the Champion League … and then, after that, we’ll think about the European Championships with Spain. Hopefully we’ll get there in good shape, 100%, and ready to win it for Spain.