Arsenal came within a failed work-permit of signing Barcelona star Gerard Pique, before he made a move to Manchester United as a youngster, Sky Sports’ Spanish expert Guillem Balague has confirmed.
As relayed on the Sky Sports website, the correspondent has go into considerable depth to describe how Arsene Wenger missed out on the chance to sign both Pique and his superstar teammate Lionel Messi, despite the fact he had identified both youngsters as having great potential for the future.
The trio of Pique, Messi and Francesc Fabregas were all scouted by Arsenal’s man on the ground in Spain, Francis Cagigao, during the 2002/2003 season, and Wenger’s representative was so impressed that he implored the Gunners boss to sign them all.
As history would dictate, they were successful in luring the latter of those three men to north London. What’s not so widely-known however is just how close they also came to recruiting the other two footballing juggernauts.
"It all began with a game in Lloret de Mar against Parma. On that day Pique didn’t play, but the rest of the gang, who had already won the game, did. Arsenal’s representative in Spain, Francis Cagigao was astonished," Balague explained.
"He had just witnessed something very different, and quite extraordinary, namely the control of Cesc and the talent of Leo. He spent that day, and many more, fruitlessly searching for the Argentinian’s agent
"He came back to see Alex Garcia’s side in the MIC tournament at Easter. While Barcelona were battling against a new rival, Cagigao was speaking on the telephone. ‘If only I could find someone who works with the Argentinian youngster…’
"As he put the phone down one of Leo’s representatives in Spain, Horacio Gaggioli, who had overheard the conversation, approached him. ‘I believe you’re looking for me.’
"That night Francis had dinner with the agent and expressed an interest in Messi, an interest that culminated in an offer being passed to the boy’s father, Jorge. From that moment the lines of communication between Arsenal and the Messis were open. Cesc and Pique were also targets."
After eventually losing out on Messi however, Pique became more of a priority target, as Balague confirms.
"Pique travelled to London to see their training facilities, everything was agreed and confirmed, only for a legal matter to delay the process: he was not yet old enough to sign and Arsenal suggested that they should make a verbal agreement that would be confirmed in a year’s time, when he was 16. The same agreement that they worked out with Cesc. Pique (or, to be precise, his agents) said no."
Whilst it’s all water under the bridge now Wenger must look back on that period with pain, particularly given how good both Messi and Pique have become. The former now ranks amongst the greatest players to have ever played the game and, whilst it’s fair to argue that he wouldn’t have developed in the same way in England as he did in La Masia, his natural ability meant he was always going to be world-class.
As for Pique it transpired that Arsenal’s loss was United’s gain, with Sir Alex Ferguson taking the player on around a year later. The Spaniard never really got up and running at Old Trafford but his return to the Nou Camp in 2008 heralded the beginning of a very profitable chapter in his career to date.
Up until this season he has been regarded as one of the most competent and composed central defenders in the world, with his years under Pep Guardiola proving especially fruitful.
Current Blaugrana boss Luis Enrique doesn’t seem to be as trusting in his abilities as previous managers, but Pique remains a focal point of the squad at the Nou Camp nonetheless.
In comparison Arsenal have never looked rock-solid at the back, and the days when their defence sat amongst the toughest in Europe are long gone.
The partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny has often promised to ensure that Wenger has little to worry about at the back, but injuries and suspensions have meant that the two are separated far more than their manager would like.