“Piqué, I love you”, screamed a section of the fans as the Barcelona player jumped onto the Rico Perez stadium in Alicante on Thursday. Another section booed him with all their might. While a silent majority of the 28,000 supporters present watched the Spanish National team train, both groups kept at it with decreasing intensity.
Of course, Pique had done an impeccable job of explaining his views on the secessionist issue in Catalonia during a long press conference the previous afternoon. Likeable, relaxed and tackling all questions – although only in fact answering those which he wanted to answer –, Pique showed his best face and insisted on an obvious point: he’s never publicly argued for independence, but for the right of the Catalans to vote whether or not they should remain in Spain.
It’s obvious that the player who many believe will sooner or later become the president of FC Barcelona is well above the average footballer and, why not say it, the average citizen as well in terms of brains and eloquence. Under scrutiny, having heard boos and whistles in most cities where he’s played with Barcelona and especially with the national team for several months, his words have indeed improved his perception among fans, like him or not.
Some of us, though, still saw glimpses of Pique’s favourite disguise, Agent Provocateur. For instance, among all his thoughtfully worded statements, he said he hadn’t watched the King’s speech on Tuesday because he was playing cards. This is hard to believe given the importance of the King’s message and the obvious involvement / concern of Piqué with the whole situation.
In fact, for a while Piqué has carefully played the part that many Catalan politicians from the region’s traditional conservative party have represented in the last 40 years: conciliatory to a disarming point in Madrid (he even resorted to the classic line “I believe that Spain and Catalonia would both be weaker if they part ways”), provocative and at times borderline radical when playing in his home turf. Hopefully the former version is the one we’ll see more often in the future – although his Agent Provocateur incarnation is at times fun indeed – and not only Pique’s, but especially that of top-level politicians involved in the current turmoil.
In no uncertain terms, Phil defends and obviously enjoys the undoubtable mixture of politics and football in Spain. This scribe is less of a fan, especially when that mixture becomes intoxicating and politics take over football, as it’s the case right now.
In case you have forgotten, the Spanish National Team have the chance to seal their classification to the World Cup in Russia on Friday. Due to Spain’s huge goal-difference advantage over Italy, a win against Albania in Alicante is more than enough to make it to Russia next summer.
As you can imagine, Friday’s match has been barely discussed in Spain, more focused on what will happen with Catalonia and, secondarily, on Pique’s spot in the national team than in Albania, a serious team that has put together a more than decent performance during this qualifying stage. Coached by former Real Madrid player Cristiano Panucci, Albania should finish in a comfortable third place behind Spain and Italy, and well above Israel, Macedonia and Lichtenstein.
The heated atmosphere in Catalonia and its potential impact on the Spanish national team could derail what now looks like a very promising Spanish squad. After a few attempts, coach Julen Lopetegui seems to have found the right approach on offence, recovering Vicente del Bosque’s false nine approach and riding Isco’s great shape. Spain’s latest win over Italy was one of the best performances one remembers since the final of Euro12 against the Azzurri, and it would be a shame that off-the-pitch issues, extremely important as they are, end up distracting players and generating controversy inside the dressing room.
If we must judge by Pique’s and, almost as importantly, Ramos’ pressers the following day, things do seem under control. But since all this chaos started, every day brings its share of unsettling news, its consequences on the squad’s atmosphere impossible to foresee. The future feels now as hard to predict as the results of a complete quiniela, although in this case the uncertainty is remarkably less exciting.
On Friday, Lopetegui will try a few new players and will surely test at least a couple of tactical dispositions. It’s great for him to be in a position of trying new things to add more alternatives to the arsenal, rather than experimenting because what has always been done does not work. The country, now firmly entrenched in the latter situation, desperately needs a dose of imagination so that we can go on with our football, certain that the lives, wellbeing and welfare of so many aren’t endangered.