BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spain could clinch their place in the 2018 World Cup on Friday but the figure of Gerard Pique has cast a shadow on their qualifier with Albania following Sunday’s highly-disputed independence referendum in Catalonia.
Barca defender Pique, who voted in the banned referendum and has been outspoken about his home region’s right to decide on its future, was booed upon arrival at the team’s hotel in Alicante on Thursday by around 100 supporters, who urged him to quit the national team.
Pique broke down in tears after Barcelona’s win over Las Palmas on Sunday, declaring “I am Catalan and feel Catalan” and offered to quit the Spain team if anyone in the side had a problem with his views.
Pique also fiercely criticised the Spanish government and prime minister Mariano Rajoy after Catalan officials said over 840 people had been injured in clashes with police as they stormed polling stations across the region.
The Barcelona defender was mercilessly booed by Spain fans during an open training session on Monday, prompting him to give a lengthy news conference on Wednesday to explain his views.
He insisted he is still proud to represent his country, saying the national team is like a family to him and that he had the support of his team mates and coach Julen Lopetegui, who later gave the defender his backing in a radio interview.
Last week, however, Spain captain Sergio Ramos criticised Pique for tweeting in favour of the referendum ahead of the World Cup qualifiers.
“Pique’s tweet was not the best thing to do if he doesn’t want to be booed, perhaps the tweet is not the best thing for the group,” said Ramos, who has been Pique’s centre back partner for Spain since 2012 and is set to play alongside him again against Albania.
Spanish media reported that Ramos admonished Pique when the Spain team met up on Monday although Pique said any talk of ill feeling with his team mate was untrue, adding that he gets on “phenomenally well” with Ramos and is working on a business project with the Real Madrid defender.
Spain are three points clear at the top of their World Cup qualifying group and will seal their spot in Russia on Friday if they better Italy’s result against Macedonia. They travel to Israel on Monday for their final qualifier.
Pique’s Barca team mate Sergio Busquets said he would never discuss politics, which was received in the Spanish media as a thinly veiled pop at the defender.
“I only focus on playing football and I’m sure it’d be better if everyone else did the same,” Busquets said in a radio interview.
The midfielder backed Pique a day later, but said it was inevitable his team mate would face the wrath of some supporters against Albania.
“I’m sure there will be people that boo Pique, this has been happening for a long time,” Busquets said.
“The booing affects us all, it’s not nice, we’re all on the pitch, it doesn’t just affect Pique and we don’t deserve it.”
Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond