Soccer  

What is Pique’s Kings League? Chicharito, golden cards, more

BARCELONA, Spain — Former Barcelona and Spain defender Gerard Pique brought us the Balloon World Cup, revamped tennis’ Davis Cup, is the president of FC Andorra, who play in the Spanish second division, and is now looking to bring a new audience to football with the launch of the Kings League.

The league kicked off in Barcelona on Sunday with teams presided over by the likes of Sergio Aguero and Iker Casillas, players of the calibre of LA Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and VIP onlookers in the stands, including Barcelona’s Jordi Alba and Hernandez’s Galaxy teammate Riqui Puig.

Pique announced his plans for the Kings League in November, just days after retiring from professional football, where he spent over a decade at the top of the game with Barca. He made the announcement during an interview on Twitch with popular Spanish streamer Ibai Llanos, who is a key part of the project. But what is it all about?

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What is the Kings League?

It is a 12-team competition, with presidents from each team drawn from the world of football, streaming and social media. The format is seven-a-side and each team has a squad of 12 players. The first 10 players were picked via a draft, which was streamed on Twitch in December, from players that had signed up in November — anyone could register. The 11th and 12th players are ringers, in most cases ex-professionals, but in some cases are current professionals, too. The 11th player has to be the same player for the whole season. The 12th player can change from week to week.

Perhaps the best sporting comparison is cricket, where shortened versions of the game, such as T20, have been introduced to speed matches up and create instant drama.

Who are the stars?

Pique, dressed in a blue suit, a white T-shirt and sporting snazzy sneakers, sat in the VIP box with his two sons watching the action unfold as the league started on Sunday.

“He gets really nervous watching the games,” the league’s general director Oriol Querol told ESPN.

Pique is far from the only big name involved, though.

Llanos, with over eight million followers on Instagram, is another big draw for local fans. He is one of several streamers bringing a different demographic to the project, attracting what Pique hopes will be a new, younger audience to the game.

However, there are also footballers involved, of course. Casillas and Aguero are both presidents of teams in the league — Kunisports and 1K — with former Argentina international Martin Posse brought into coach Aguero’s side.

As for the players, at 31, Carles Planas, the ex-Barcelona and Celta Vigo defender, is one of the standout 11th men. He is currently without a club in the professional game. On Sunday, former Spain international and World Cup winner Joan Capdevila was also involved, scoring the winning goal in a heated final game for TheGrefg’s Saiyans against Llanos’ Porcinos.

The format suits more technical players, so ex-Espanyol midfielder Joan Verdu and former Real Madrid and Derby County player Alberto Bueno stood out more than prolific strikers such as Sergio Garcia and Raul Tamudo, who both played for Espanyol, and Jonathan Soriano, who scored 172 goals in 202 games for FC Salzburg.

Chicharito was the biggest star on show, but the Mexican striker could not stop Porcinos falling to defeat. Due to his commitments with the Galaxy, it’s unlikely he will be able to feature again.

What’s the level like?

“Some people think [projects like these] are recreational, but it’s much more than that, it is a great opportunity for everyone involved,” Chicharito told ESPN. “The level really surprised me, although what did not surprise me was the intensity and desire everyone played with. I didn’t want to come from Los Angeles just to kill time. I wanted to play, win, score…”

Beyond former and current professionals, the majority of the players selected in the draft are either playing in local non-league football or have a background at one of the big academies in the Catalan city, at either Barca or Espanyol. They are all paid the same set fee by the league for playing.

One of the names selected in the draft may sound familiar, too: David Alba. He is the brother of Barca left-back Jordi and the Alba family were present to see David, wearing the No. 10 shirt, get the better of Chicharito.

What are the rules?

The 12 teams compete every Sunday in 40-minute matches (two halves of 20 minutes) and will play each other twice across the season. The format is seven-a-side, but there are twists, with fans able to vote for some of the rules.

“I like the interaction with the fans and the rules,” Chicharito added. “That’s what it’s all about. Gerard is someone that dares to innovate and follow through on things that people maybe are scared to do.”

Kick-offs are water polo style, which means the two teams line up across their goal line and then race to the ball in the middle when the buzzer sounds. There are offsides, unlimited substitutions and sin bins for yellow and red cards — two minutes for the former and five minutes for the latter.

There is also VAR, although only upon request. Each team can call for VAR to review a decision once in a match. If they are successful in their appeal, they will maintain their option to turn to VAR again. If they are wrong, they don’t get another chance to use VAR.

“We decided this was best to limit the amount of time VAR intrudes in a game,” Pique said on Sunday, with the schedule tight to fit all the games in the allotted timeslot.

If games are drawn, there is a penalty shootout, but not as we know it. Players start at the halfway line and have five seconds to score.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the golden card selected by the coaches before the game. They select from five cards (but don’t know what they are picking): instant penalty, rob a card, remove an opposition player for two minutes, any goal scored in the next minute counts double, and a joker card. With the joker card, coaches can choose to use any of the aforementioned cards.

“Some presidents were in favour of the cards and some were against,” Querol said. “So we left the decision to the fans.”

The most drama stemming from the cards came in the first game. At 3-2 down, Casillas’ 1K played the joker card, choosing a penalty, but Aguero’s Kunisports swooped in to rob the card and give themselves a penalty, going on to win the match 4-2.

Where can it be watched?

All the matches are streamed on the league’s Twitch channel and the teams also broadcast their games on their respective channels. Across the different streams, the league says the audience peaked at around 800,000 viewers on Sunday. There is also extensive coverage across social media and highlights packages on YouTube.

“Everything that is being done, on social media, Twitch, is with an in-depth approach; the product is fantastic,” Chicharito said. “I still don’t think we are conscious of the impact it can have.”

Fans can’t yet attend games, which are held in an industrial port next to the airport in Barcelona, but Querol says they hope to have the capacity for around 300 spectators in the future. The size and location of the venue doesn’t allow for many more at this stage.

What next?

Pique is working on a lot of projects, but the Kings League is one that he and his team around him feel has scope for expansion.

“There are a lot of plans,” Querol said. “But, for now, we have just started the Kings League and announced the Queens League, the women’s league that will start in May. That is where we are at right now.

“After that, there are many plans, but we also want to improve and fine-tune the product, fulfilling the expectations we had. Obviously there are a lot of ideas to expand, but the key thing is that the product we have works well, this is just the first week, and then the Queens League, which will start in May.”

So, Kings League franchises? Next stop, London and Los Angeles?

“Definitely, why not?” Chicharito smiles. “You always have to shoot for the stars.”