Problematic Barca great Pique bows out before reputation rusts

Gerard Pique leaves Barcelona as a club icon whose time was laden with silverware and glorious memories, along with controversy and, inevitably, decline.

The 35-year-old defender cut his contract short, with a year-and-a-half yet to run, announcing his impending retirement on Thursday.

Pique will feature for the last time at Camp Nou against Almeria on Saturday, and is expected to travel for the game against Osasuna on Tuesday.

While his manager, Xavi Hernandez, left the club in a blaze of glory after winning the treble alongside Pique in 2015, the centre-back departs mid-season, following a humiliating Champions League elimination.

Out of favour, when Pique has played his performances have come under scrutiny, and his sudden decision has been made to wrest control of the situation, preserving his dignity, before his reputation can degrade.

Despite glorious years in his prime, making a case for being the club's best ever defender, winning three Champions Leagues, eight La Liga titles and seven Copas del Rey with Barca, recent seasons have seen him and the other veterans linked with repeated failures in Europe.

Most recently, a glaring Pique error against Inter Milan cost the team a goal, with Barcelona drawing and virtually sealing their Champions League exit.

Supporters showed their anger with whistles when he came on against Villarreal and against Valencia he was mocked for not being ready to replace the injured Jules Kounde.

"For months they have talked about me and until now I haven't said anything, but now I want to be the one to talk to you about myself," Pique said, taking charge.

- Plenty to say -

Pique has never been shy of doing the talking, from wars of words with eternal rivals Real Madrid, neighbours Espanyol, and anyone else who got in his or Barcelona's way, including Spanish media and even the club's board.

Media-savvy and businessman with his fingers in many pies, including his own production company Kosmos, and revamping tennis's Davis Cup, Pique will be aware of the message he is sending by cutting short his fat contract, which was a problem for Barcelona.

"We are working on the resolution of his deal but there is a great disposition on the part of the player to help the club," said president Joan Laporta.

"Gerard understands the financial fair play situation perfectly at Barcelona. The salary level needs to be lowered and Pique is ready to help the club in this sense."

It is a move certain to garner good will from supporters, which will be remembered in a future bid to become the club's president, a goal of Pique's.

The noise around Pique through his career helped grow his profile –- as did his former partner, Colombian pop-star Shakira -– but sometimes spoke louder than his immense quality as a defender.

Playing at Barcelona is particularly hard for centre-backs, with his coaches including Pep Guardiola, utilising incredibly high defensive lines.

It meant Pique's reading of the game had to be immaculate, along with his ability on the ball, starting attacks from the back. Often he ended them too, with 52 goals in 615 appearances for the club.

Pique joined Barcelona at 10 years old but signed for Manchester United and made his professional debut there in 2004, winning a Champions League and Premier League double in 2008.

Guardiola gave him his Barcelona breakthrough after he returned that year, and he quickly became vital as the Catalans won the treble in the 2008-09 season.

- Glittering career -

Pique also netted against Madrid in a famous 6-2 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2009, celebrating wildly to upset Los Blancos supporters for the first, but certainly not the last, time.

Spain, using many Barcelona players, including Pique, won the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euros, concluding a golden era for La Roja on the international stage.

Pique teamed up with Sergio Ramos, his Real Madrid nemesis, as they put their club rivalries to the side and created a formidable partnership.

There was time for another club treble first under Luis Enrique in 2015, with Pique starting the season shakily, like Barcelona as a whole, but finding spectacular form by the end of the season.

As Barcelona added league titles but struggled in Europe, with big defeats by Roma, Liverpool and Bayern Munich among others, Pique's extra-curricular activities came under fire.

The defender also took flak for his production company making Antoine Griezmann's documentary over whether to join Barcelona from Atletico, in which he snubbed the Catalans in 2018.

Despite good performances last season, this campaign has been painful. Off the pitch his partnership with Shakira collapsed, and on it, he was off the pace.

Xavi brought in Kounde and Andreas Christensen in the summer and Pique dropped quickly out of favour.

Perhaps not for long though. In his goodbye video Pique looked up at the presidential box and said: "Sooner or later, I'll be back."

rbs/nr