Independence from Pique: Barcelona defender under fire for supporting Catalunya

COMMENT: The Barcelona defender has been criticised for appearing to back the Catalan separatist movement and many Spaniards feel he should retire from La Roja
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Gerard Pique has had his fair share of criticism recently. His form for club and country constantly under scrutiny, the Barcelona defender is back in the Spain squad for the Euro 2016 qualifiers against Slovakia and Luxembourg, but many fans are opposed to his inclusion - and this time it has nothing to do with his football.

A World Cup and European Championship winner with La Roja, Pique posted a picture of himself on Twitter last month with son Milan celebrating Catalunya's national day - 'La Diada' - and followed up with another tweet that September 11, when an estimated 1.8 million Catalans took to the streets in a march for the right to vote for independence from Spain.

"I have never seen anything like it. Simply unforgettable," the defender wrote in Catalan to his following of more than 9.5m on the social networking site. He was quickly bombarded with responses from furious fans demanding he write in Spanish, while many more called for his retirement from the Spain side.

Despite parading in Catalan colours that day, Pique has never adopted a public stance on the independence issue, other than declaring (as many others have) that the people should be allowed to decide on separation from Spain. In 2012, he said: "I consider that, in a democracy, everyone has the right to decide. If people don't have the right to express what they feel, we would be going back to a bygone era. Evolution is all about looking forward."

Catalans hope to take part in a referendum on November 9, although a vote is set to be blocked by the Spanish government, which currently considers the ballot to be unconstitutional.

Pique was dropped at the World Cup following a disappointing display in the 5-1 defeat to Netherlands, while his dedication to the Spain cause was questioned after he pulled out of the games against France and Macedonia early last month with a hip problem, only to play 90 minutes for Barcelona at Villarreal on August 31. But coach Vicente del Bosque backed the defender this week. "We only look at the sporting aspect," he said. "Pique has been with us for a long time and he has always been committed."

The 27-year-old is one of a number of Catalans selected for the Spain squad in recent years, with Xavi, Carles Puyol, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdes, Joan Capdevila and others all playing their part in the success of La Roja. But none have been criticised quite like Pique, who has been condemned by the Catalan press for his faltering form over the last year and also by the Madrid media following his participation in La Diada.

The "manita" gesture after Barca's 5-0 win over Madrid in 2010 and his taunting of fans at the Bernabeu the following year won the defender few friends in the capital, while it also appears the centre-back has become an easy target for abuse and criticism due to his celebrity lifestyle off the pitch - in particular, his relationship with Colombian pop star Shakira.

"Pique is very clear," team-mate Cesc said this week. "If he didn't want to play for Spain, he wouldn't be here. His presence in La Diada has nothing to do with it because Xavi, for example, was also there and he is well loved in Spain and considered one of the most committed players in the history of the national team. He wants to be here and he is giving everything for the Seleccion."

And Sergio Ramos added: "Like Vicente del Bosque said the other day at his press conference, the doors of the Spanish national team are always open to him. He has been a member of the squad for many years. Everyone is free to think and do what they like. No-one doubts Pique."

Unfortunately, however, many fans do doubt the defender. And after a difficult World Cup, pulling out of the last squad and the issue of Catalan secession, the centre-back will now need to show his commitment to Spain all over again - however unfair that may seem.

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