On Tuesday evening, Gerard Pique will win another cap for Spain when he runs out on to the pitch at Stade de France in Paris. All being well, he'll make a century of caps at some stage during the 2018 World Cup finals—should Spain qualify, as expected—in Russia. Then he will call it quits on his international adventure.
At international games on Spanish soil, he's booed by his own fans. He ships abuse outside of matches, too—getting off the team bus, walking the streets of Gijon and during training sessions, for example.
Things turned sour in the relationship between Pique and Spain supporters in autumn 2015. Fans started barracking him during a friendly against Costa Rica in Leon in September 2015. A month later, he got further abuse all through the Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovakia in nearby Oviedo.
Columnists for Spain's newspapers pondered why their people had turned on one of their own players. El Pais dubbed the saga "whistlathon" (h/t the Daily Telegraph).
Former Barca star Xavi Hernandez traced its roots back to Pique's goading of Real Madrid during Barcelona's treble-winning celebrations earlier that summer. "Only Real Madrid's fans boo him for his words at the Camp Nou and nothing else," he said, per Bolsamania (in Spanish).
After an open-top bus tour through its city streets on a balmy evening, the team's official celebrations concluded at Barcelona's stadium. On a podium in the middle of the pitch before 75,000 fans, Pique gave thanks to "the technical team, the physios, the club medical staff, the fans … and thanks to Kevin Roldan—it all started with you!" The crowd howled with laughter.
Midway through the previous season, Real Madrid had been galloping along, notching up a 22-game winning streak, but the wheels came hurtling off, notably during a Madrid derby at the Vicente Calderon in February 2015. Atletico Madrid stuffed them 4-0.
Within hours of the defeat, Cristiano Ronaldo went ahead with a party for his 30th birthday. The leaked pictures of the Portuguese star and his Real Madrid team-mates partying with the Colombian reggaeton singer Roldan didn't go down well with the fans. The optics were awful.
Soon after, Real Madrid coughed up their lead in La Liga. By season's end, their manager, the popular Carlo Ancelotti, got the sack. Pique saw a gaping wound and tossed some salt on it.
Pique had form. During the incendiary years of Jose Mourinho's tenure as Real manager, Barcelona and Madrid played several nasty Clasico matches.
Mourinho stoked up the animosity in the press and in team meetings. It affected relations between both sets of players. Pique and Sergio Ramos fell out.
Then-Spain coach Vicente del Bosque admitted on the eve of the 2012 Euro finals, that the tetchiness between the pair of central defenders threatened to scupper the team's chances of success, alluding to "episodes in the past," adding euphemistically "they are young and they have their differences," per Yahoo Sports (in Spanish).
Pique and Ramos patched up their grievances and Spain triumphed, dispatching Italy 4-0 in that summer's final, but the tension lingered.
Ramos was miffed by Pique's Roldan jibe and his triumphalist comment caught on a TV camera after Barcelona's 5-4 extra-time win over Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup final in August 2015. "Come on guys, let's celebrate. Screw those at Madrid. Let them see us make the lap of honour!" Pique said, according to a report by El Mundo.
Ramos confirmed Xavi's reading of the situation. Real fans were annoyed by Pique's showboating. “It's true that due to the rivalry that exists between Barcelona and Madrid, the latest actions don't help with respect to the treatment he had," Ramos said, per El Mundo (in Spanish).
Pique's repeated support for Catalonia's push for a referendum on independence gave Spain's nationalists further ire. For the last several years, every September 11—on La Diada, Catalonia's national holiday—there have been protest marches through the streets of Barcelona by separatists.
In 2012, Barcelona icon Pep Guardiola posted a video message while on sabbatical in New York, urging on his fellow Catalan separatists during their march, per Marca (in Spanish): "Here's one more vote for independence."
In 2014, Pique lent his support by posting a message on Twitter alongside a picture of himself with his son, Milan. The child was wearing Barcelona's away strip, which is modelled on the Catalan flag. Among the 1.8 million people who took to the streets that day, there were lots of dogs, too, draped in Catalan flags.
Pique took the photo crouched on Diagonal, the avenue that cuts across Barcelona. It's the same street that General Franco's victorious nationalist troops—among them Santiago Bernabeu whose name adorns Real's stadium—used to march into the city towards the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.
In Pique's tweet, which he wrote in Catalan, a language that is more like French than Spanish, he wished his 9.4 million followers a "happy Catalonia Day everyone!" He was criticised in the Spanish media for making the gesture. He defended his right, and the right of Catalonia's citizens, to vote on independence.
He stressed his dual identity doesn't dilute his passion when playing football for Spain. "I feel Catalan and I'm in favour of the referendum, which is a democratic process, but that has nothing to do with the national team," he said, per El Pais (in Spanish).
Interestingly, Pique has never said publicly whether he'd vote for independence or not if a referendum came to pass. He might be swayed by pragmatism, as he hinted at in a 2012 radio interview with RAC1. "I sincerely believe that, to begin with, it would make Catalonia and Spain weaker. Separation would weaken the two territories," per La Voz Libre (in Spanish).
What is curious about Pique's predicament is that he is the only Barca player who plays for Spain who attracts sustained abuse by the country's football fans. Other Barcelona international players, such as former captain Carles Puyol, who was vocal in his support for Catalan independence, and current stars Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets don't ship the abuse Pique does.
The thing with Pique is that he's mouthy. He's got attitude and can't help himself. It's his nature to provoke. In Spain, they say he's "cachondo," a kidder. He's always up to pranks. In Barcelona's dressing room, he once took the battery out of Lionel Messi's mobile phone. The unsuspecting Argentinian couldn't fathom why his phone wouldn't function.
Pique's jokes don't go down as well outside the walls of Catalonia. In December 2015, Real Madrid fielded a player, Denis Cheryshev, who was ineligible to play in a Copa del Rey match.
The hapless Cheryshev scored in the match but was hauled ashore at half-time. It was too late. Real Madrid got dumped out of the cup competition for their mistake.
Pique thought the cock-up was hilarious, tweeting nine emojis crying with laughter.
Ramos was incensed by the tweet, saying it was "stupid" and did nothing for harmony among his international team-mates: "The lack of respect adversely affects the atmosphere [with Spain's players in camp]," per El Pais (in Spanish).
Pique will only partake in a few more Spanish national team camps. In a fit of pique, he announced his decision to retire from the La Roja at the end of Spain's World Cup campaign, following a bizarre "sleevegate" episode in October 2016.
Before an away qualifying game against Albania, Pique cut off the sleeves off his long-sleeved Spain jersey—rather than wear Spain's short-sleeved kit—because the sleeves were "bothering" him. Some paranoid Spain fans cooked up a conspiracy, screaming online that he had "cut off the Spain flag" in protest.
Some Spanish media outlets followed suit, including the Madrid-based sports paper AS, which temporarily posted a story online regurgitating the barney, for which it later apologised. It was absurd. Pique called them out, handing over his cut-off sleeves to Canal+ television reporter, Ricardo Sierra, after the match.
He was at his wit's end. "I've tried everything, but I can't take it anymore. The thing with the sleeve is the straw that broke the camel's back,” he said, admitting he was exasperated, per EcoDiario.es (in Spanish). "Yes, I'm tired of it and the World Cup in Russia is going to be my last commitment with the Spain team and I hope I can be left in peace."
It remains to be seen whether he will generate some love from Spain's Real Madrid cohort of fans and go out on a high, aged 31, with national team at the tournament finals. No doubt, there'll be a prank or two from him in the meantime, though.