Èric, you did not hesitate to return to Barça despite being comfortably settled at Manchester City with the confidence of Guardiola and knowing that you were returning to a Barça that was going through a bad time. Why did you decide to take the risk? As a child my dream was always to succeed at Barca, but due to circumstances there was a time when we believed that the best thing was to go to England for the sports project that they put on the table for me. Obviously they can promise you a thousand things, but in the end you are the one who has to answer. But they bet heavily on me, I had Pep’s trust very quickly and I tried to learn as much as possible. Of course, I was still from Barca and I knew that if he had a chance to come back at some point, I would take it. You can never say no to Barça. It is true that it was not in the best moment, but things change very quickly. You go from being low to high, especially in these big clubs, and I was very convinced of the decision.
The first months of your return to the Camp Nou were tough because the team did not respond and you were one of those singled out for your irregularity.
I have to admit that at first the criticism surprised me because I came from Manchester from a season in which I didn’t play much and in the first games I was already cross. But I was very calm because I knew what I had to do at all times. Keep working and focused. No footballer plays to make mistakes, we give our all and sometimes things don’t go the way we want. I knew what I had to do, I was calm with what I was doing and the people I trusted told me the truth at all times, no matter how unpleasant it was.
“I have to admit that at first the criticism surprised me because I came from Manchester from a season in which I didn’t play much and in the first games I was already cross”
Have you learned much from those difficult moments last season? I think I’ve been lucky, or unlucky, that since I was little things have always gone well for me, from academy football to reaching the Barça first team or City. I’ve never had a bad time because I didn’t play. And when I got here I collided with the harsh reality that Barça lived. But this is part of football, luckily or unfortunately, we all go through better or worse times, whether for sporting or personal reasons. In the end everything happens and you have to keep a very cool head and know what you want. And time is returning everything to its place.
Has your way of seeing things changed in any way after those difficult moments? Can be. I would say that now I appreciate much more the moments in which everything is shot. It’s what we like and what we always work for: play, win, enjoy… And this year I think it’s being like that for both the national team and Barça, who are the best one can aspire to in football . But to achieve that you have to give your best, and more so with the quality of players around you.
It should not be a coincidence that both Xavi and Luis Enrique have shown their public support for you when the most intensified criticism against you. Is there an explanation? That the coach supports you, especially in difficult moments, is something very important as a player. I have been lucky that when there have been things to improve, and there always are, they have said it to my face, directly. As a player I think I have a lot of room for improvement and that’s a very good thing.
How do you explain the change from the hesitant Eric of last season and the fast and determined center back of this season who is experiencing his best sweet moment of the game? Physically, it came from a year in which I had not played because of the decision I made not to renew and come to Barça. And it was also a complicated summer because I linked the European Championship, the Olympic Games and the start of the League and the Champions League. I had to adapt to the team, the situation was not good and if things do not go well, it is more difficult to adapt. Now on a physical level I feel much better and on the pitch I function more like myself, with more confidence and more personality. But I still have room for improvement. Last year I already knew what I had to improve and now I still know. So I keep working.
“Xavi and Luis Enrique are very similar. They are close coaches for the player. It is a pleasure to work with both of them because I learn a lot”
Piqué, Koundé, Christensen, Araujo and you. Five center backs, although his versatility allows him to play as a winger, for two positions. It seems that if there is an expensive place in eleven it is the central one. The competition at Barça between central defenders is very important, and I have to say that this also happens in the national team. And that is very good for me because it makes me pay attention to every detail, give my best in each training session and take advantage of the minutes on the pitch or when you come on from the bench to give your best and that the coach takes it into account. Competition always makes the footballer better. And I am lucky enough to compete with some of the best players in the world.
Piqué is going through a difficult moment because he is not enjoying minutes, something he has always been used to. You who see him on a daily basis, how are you doing? I am not going to reveal anything if I say that Gerard is very professional. For me, he is among the five best central defenders that I have seen play in a field and having him as a partner is a luxury. I am sure that he will have minutes because there are many games and he is an important player in the Barça squad.
“For me, Piqué is among the five best central defenders I’ve seen play on a field and having him as a teammate is a luxury. I’m sure he’ll have minutes”
Both in Barça and in the national team they face a season of important challenges. Where does he set the bar both with his club and with Spain ahead of the imminent World Cup in Qatar? Obviously we have high expectations. Barça has a team to win titles. We have to gain confidence, but we have started the season generating a good game. The new signings are adapting and we already know what the coach wants. Here Luis Enrique is also very clear about what he wants and we have been showing both in the European Championship and in the Nations League that there is quality to fight for titles, always with humility and respect. Starting from there you can surely get things.
They have Xavi and Luis Enrique as coaches, two coaches with personality, character and a lot of hierarchy. What do they give you? Xavi and Luis Enrique are very similar. They are coaches who are close to the player, they are also similar in that they have a very clear idea of the game, and also that idea is very similar. It is a pleasure to work with both of them because I learn a lot.
I think you are very fond of basketball. I am.
Don’t tell me you expected gold at the Eurobasket? Obviously I didn’t expect so much, but I did expect them to compete as they always do.
What reading do you get from your success? Before the Eurobasket nobody trusted the national team and all they received was criticism, even destructive. But they have stood their ground, with a group mentality against NBA superstars. It has been a great success and an example from which we should all learn.