Political tension overshadows Spain's road to World Cup
06 Oct 2017 - 12:25
Madrid: A backdrop of political division will dominate Spain's potential path to World Cup qualification on Friday with Gerard Pique in the eye of a storm over Catalonia's drive for independence.
Pique is set to win his 92nd Spain cap against Albania in Alicante where a win could secure the 2010 world champions a place in Russia next year.
But his participation in a referendum on independence for the wealthy northeastern region, deemed illegal by Madrid and marred by scenes of police violence last Sunday, has seen some fans intensify their calls for Pique to stop playing for Spain.
After being targeted by insults and jeers at an open training session in Madrid on Monday, Pique was met with a mixed reception in Alicante on Thursday.
The defender has never publicly backed independence, but has been an outspoken campaigner for a referendum on the issue.
Leading members of Spain's 2010 World Cup winning team, including Pique, have led calls for dialogue between political leaders on both sides of the divide to avoid a repeat of the shocking scenes of violence seen last weekend.
"Before we do any more harm, those who are responsible for all this must hold dialogue," Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta said on Thursday.
"Do it for all of us. We deserve to live in peace."
Born in the central Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha, Iniesta is a symbolically important figure as a Spanish hero who scored the winning goal in the 2010 final, but who has also lived in Catalonia since joining Barcelona as a 12-year-old.
The divided opinion across Spain was also on show in the national squad as captain Sergio Ramos described a controversial address from Spain's King Felipe VI as "impeccable".
The monarch dismayed many Catalans as he described the separatist ambitions as "illegal" and made no mention of those hurt by police in a speech on Tuesday.
By contrast, Pique has criticised the police's heavy-handed tactics on social media.
However, despite often clashing at club level in the fierce rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, both Ramos and Pique have insisted this week that they maintain a good personal relationship.
"We have an excellent relationship despite our different characters and different ways of thinking," said Ramos.
In a lengthy address to the media on Wednesday, Pique even claimed the two are about to go into business together.
Pique announced a year ago he intended to retire from international football after next year's World Cup.
And tonight's match could even be his last in Spain at international level if La Roja rubber stamp their ticket to Russia and decide to play their pre-tournament friendlies on the road.
Spain lead Italy by three points in Group G of European qualifying and with a 17-goal superior goal difference, victory at the Jose Rico Perez stadium will virtually guarantee automatic qualification.
"Tonight there is a party," an upbeat front cover of Madrid-based sports daily Marca said on Friday.
However, Barcelona-based newspaper Sport struck a more somber mood with a picture of Pique under the headline "More than a game".