Pique on the future of football and why Man Utd must trust in youth

“It’s always good to be back,” announces Gerard Pique with fondness as he declines the offer of a pause between interviews. “I love being in the UK as I spent four years growing up here. The weather is always grey but at least it’s not raining.”

Osterley’s overcast sky is a far cry from Barcelona. But for a man so decorated from an illustrious playing career, not even a deluge could dampen the spirits of someone fresh from an early flight who has won it all. That his medals totalling over 30 are boxed in an office back home betrays an individual in touch with the present.

As welcoming a guest as he was gracious on the pitch, Pique is a world champion turned visionary hell-bent on creating a version of the game that is more in keeping with the demands of the modern world.

There have been other, less successful, ventures but having hung up his boots following 18 years at the sharp end of the professional game, Pique is confident he has backed another winner.

The Kings League is just over a year on from its launch in Spain, an offbeat seven-a-side game where team owners are content creators expanding to the Americas with Mexico hosting an inaugural World Cup in May.

Where late goals count double in 40-minute matches, draws don’t exist and audiences are larger than some LaLiga games, what drove one of the greatest defenders of all time to pursue what has been described as the Twenty20 of football?

“I felt there was a need to appeal to the next generation,” Pique explains to Sky Sports. “There’s a lot of young people who are attracted more to entertainment that is short and exciting.

“It was important to find something where they couldn’t lose focus. What is happening with traditional football is that 90 minutes is too long for the new generation.

Pique played with Xabi Alonso at international level
Pique played with Xabi Alonso at international level

‘Alonso was destined to succeed as a manager’

One manager who has been linked with heading to the Premier League is the Bayer Leverkusen boss Xabi Alonso.

Pique played with Alonso at international level and says his step into management was an inevitability.

“For sure, I could see he had what it took to be a successful manager. He absolutely loves football. He understands how to play the game and it’s very similar to Sergio Busquets.

“Busquets is still playing but he will be another incredible coach. Xabi has demonstrated at Bayer Leverkusen why he is so highly regarded.

“He is having the perfect season in not losing. Let’s see next year what he’s doing. Everyone says Liverpool will be an option after Klopp leaves, so let’s see.”

“That’s not the case for the semi-finals, the final of the Champions League or the last games of the league but there are too many games and people get lost in all the competitions.

“We wanted to create a product that is similar to football as there are a lot of people who like football and they also like the Kings League.

“It’s a different product with crazy rules but the key is that I see it as being complementary.”

Penetrating a Spanish-speaking audience is perhaps unsurprising given Pique’s global reach. Three Champions Leagues and nine LaLigas with Barcelona, a World Cup and a European Championship with Spain is being put to good use.

The Kings World Cup which runs from May 28 through to June 8 is expected to build on the capacity crowds witnessed at the Camp Nou and the Wanda Metropolitano last year.

Ronaldinho, Andrea Pirlo, Andriy Shevchenko and Sergio Aguero have all brought extra kudos to this form of chaos, but Pique is keeping his cards close to his chest when pressed on future guest appearances.

“The presidents love to make big signings – legends of the game have played,” the 37-year-old outlines with the promise of another stellar cast.

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Former Barcelona player Gerard Pique discusses whether he has a future at the club, suggesting he hopes to be involved and help out in the future.

“For the World Cup, top players are being signed. Next Monday, there’s a huge player we’ll announce is playing in the competition.

“He’s someone who has played in the Premier League and it’s very recent that he retired so I think you’ll love the name.”

The culture of player fandom has exploded since the advent of social media and clubs are acutely aware of how page views and following can swell exponentially if footballing talent is matched by off-field marketability.

For a growing number of football aficionados, satisfying that appetite for a deeper connection with the game’s biggest stars feels increasingly inaccessible. Pique feels that disconnect has to be addressed.

“Clubs nowadays are trying to protect players,” he admits. “There’s good intention behind it as they don’t want them to be exposed. So if you really want to get to know a player… what he likes, his dislikes, his personality, it’s very difficult.

“There are young lads coming through at Barcelona but you don’t know much about them because they’re overly protected.

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Gerard Pique says ex Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi was ‘something different’ compared to every player he ever played with.

“In our world with the Kings League, what we want to do is the opposite. The players create their own channels on Twitch and YouTube. They talk a lot to their communities, and they want to be famous.

“This is the big difference from traditional football. In our ecosystem, every day there’s a lot of content. On Twitch, you can see a coach talking to a player of another club or a president of another club discussing transfers.

“Football will forever by the king of the sport and the most followed but it’s impossible that this could happen in the game we all know.”

While football’s tradition and what Pique describes as a “fractured” ecosystem means altering any rule is met with robust opposition, the Kings League is built around the audience voting for changes themselves on a weekly basis.

Pique called time on his glittering career in 2022
Pique called time on his glittering career in 2022

Recently, 200,000 streamers voted over a change to the colour of the artificial pitch. Green became black.

“If there is a rule that doesn’t work, we change it the next weekend,” adds Pique. “The audience feel the Kings League is owned by them as we give them the power to vote on change.

“You want offside, or you don’t? You want 40-minute or 30-minute games? Now, our grass is black. So, it’s real football but in a way it’s a video game. There’s this mix and this balance that works very well.”

Some critics have labelled the concept a “circus” for TikTokers and YouTubers, and Pique would be inclined to agree.

Pique collected 35 trophies during his 18-year career
Pique collected 35 trophies during his 18-year career

“In a way, it’s true. We are a mix of sport and entertainment. We want to put on a show. But it is very well balanced because they really care about winning.

“I see a lot of players and presidents crying when they don’t reach the finals. But, at the same time you’re having fun. The fact finals are being held at a big stadium tells you the interest is there.

“The players have never been in front of that many fans so for them not to qualify for the finals is very painful. You can see that they really care about winning and that’s very important.”

‘Manchester United must put faith in youth’

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Gerard Pique reveals that Sir Alex Ferguson played a big part in his transfer back to Barcelona, asking for a low transfer fee when the Spaniard wanted to leave the club.

While Barcelona find themselves eight points adrift of Real Madrid in LaLiga, their presence in the Champions League quarter-finals offers the promise of something greater.

The same cannot currently be said of Erik ten Hag’s United, and the man whose departure from Old Trafford in 2008 was described by Sir Alex Ferguson as one of his “biggest regrets” believes more trust needs to be instilled in the club’s academy products.

Reflecting on his two former clubs, Pique says: “The difference with Barcelona is that this period of transition at Manchester United has been going on now for quite a long period of time.

“It’s been quite a few years that they’ve not been able to win the title. I think that after Sir Alex left, they lost a little bit their focus and guidance.

“They didn’t know where to go. Little by little, they are trying to put everything back together in order to compete for titles.

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Gerard Pique believes Manchester United should focus on bringing players up through their academy like Sir Alex Ferguson did with the ‘Class of 1992’.

“I still believe Ten Hag is a very good coach. I don’t really know if he will be able to turn things around but the win against Liverpool [in the FA Cup] was incredible.

“It’s the sort of victory that will give them power for the rest of the season. Then, I would say they need to trust more in the people coming through from the academy.

“It happens when you are suffering as a club. It was the same at Barcelona, but you have to trust in the academy players. We saw Sir Alex Ferguson show this with the Class of ’92 and they have to trust in the next generation in the same way.

“In the last few years, they’ve spent a lot of money, and it hasn’t worked out. So why not try to give the new, young generation the chance to at least try and perform.”