The Spain national team has been ropey in defence since it crashed out of last summer's FIFA World Cup finals on penalties to Russia. In seven games, it has conceded nine goals. The team's coach, Luis Enrique, has tried a parade of players—including Nacho, Inigo Martinez, Raul Albiol, Diego Llorente, Marc Bartra and Mario Hermoso—to partner Sergio Ramos in central defence, but none of them have convinced.
What Enrique would do to have Gerard Pique, who retired after Spain's debacle in Russia, back in the team. There has been a clamour in the press for his return.
Pique, who has been imperious in defence this season for Barcelona as they hunt down another treble, kept himself busy during the international break by playing for Catalonia against Venezuela at Girona's ground in the north of the region. The Catalan national team, although it is not recognised by FIFA or UEFA, has been playing international fixtures for over a century. In fact, its football federation is a dozen years older than the Royal Spanish Football Federation.
It was a gala night for Pique. In the 36th minute, he crashed a free-kick off Venezuela's crossbar. A couple of minutes later, he received the captain's armband from Sergio Garcia, who had been substituted. And when Pique departed himself about six minutes into the second half, having kept Venezuela's attackers scoreless, he was acclaimed by the 12,671 crowd inside the Montilivi Stadium. He was among his own.
The warm reception marked a change from the berating he took from his own fans while on duty for the Spanish national team over the last few years because of his support for a referendum on Catalan independence.
"Pique has been key in the last few days' buildup to the match because he has renounced his position on the Spain national team," says Aitor Lagunas, editor of Panenka, the highly regarded literary football magazine. "Nobody knows exactly why, but we can figure it out. Right now, with him accepting to play in Girona, perhaps it's even more clear the reasons why Pique doesn't play anymore with Spain.
"Jordi Alba said last week Pique has his reasons not to play anymore with Spain and on the other hand to play this game with Catalonia. Obviously Pique would say he doesn't want to play six or eight more games every year with the Spanish national team; with Catalonia, it's only about one game. But one cannot avoid thinking about when Pique went out crying [to the press] after that Barca game against Las Palmas being played behind closed doors at the Camp Nou the very same day the referendum was being held [against a backdrop of violent police suppression in October 2017]. One cannot avoid thinking about the words of Pique saying the trial against Catalan political prisoners in Madrid was not fair.
"Pique looks happy playing with Catalonia. I'm not saying Pique did not have enjoyable times playing with Spain, but a moment came when he was not happy anymore and he decided to [retire] because every single match Pique was playing with La Roja (the Spanish national team), he was being booed by a lot of Spain fans—at matches in Leon, Alicante, Madrid and at training sessions as well. It's another spicy ingredient in the recipe."
When Pique was substituted on Monday night against Venezuela in a match that Catalonia won 2-1, he took his place on the bench alongside the team's assistant coach, Damia. He was coming full circle. Pique made his debut for the Catalan national team 15 years ago as a 17-year-old substitute in a tie against Argentina at the Camp Nou. Damia, who finished up his career playing with Middlesbrough, also made his Catalan national team debut that night. At the time, Damia was playing for Barca. The visitors won 3-0, with Argentina's current coach, Lionel Scaloni, scoring the opening goal. Despite the result, it was a special occasion for Damia.
"It was a beautiful feeling," he says. "It was not the start of the Catalan national team, but during that period, it probably played its most important games. Imagine a couple of years earlier they played against Brazil at the Camp Nou as well [before the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals]. The stadium was full [96,700]. Nowadays Catalan people are used to those kind of games; the crowds are smaller so the Catalan national team plays in smaller stadiums to make the atmosphere better.
"Every player has their own reasons for playing. To be chosen, for example, as one of the best from his area, which is amazing. It can mean a lot to some players for political reasons. For some players, it's about taking the next step for their career. For me to be chosen from my own area—which has clubs like Barcelona, Espanyol, Girona, with its academies working so well, making it difficult to get into the squad—was amazing.
"You're just so proud to play for the team. It's an event, a party, just once a year. You're not obliged to go if you're selected. You're there because you really want to play. Also, in Catalonia we have our own culture, our own language. It's a huge thing to be part of it—to play for the Catalan national crest is something beautiful. It was probably one of the greatest days of the early part of my career."
Catalonia's win against Venezuela, a team that defeated Leo Messi's Argentina 3-1 a few days earlier in Madrid, was notable because it was the first time Catalonia played during an international break. Normally, Spain's regional teams—such as Catalonia, Andalusia or the Basque Country—play in holiday periods like Christmas and summertime. It was the first match Catalonia played since December 2016, however.
Previously, the team played at least once a season for 20 years and were managed from 2009-13 by Johan Cruyff, but today it is struggling to attract fixtures against top-ranking nations. Its last few matches have been against Tunisia, the Basque Country and Cape Verde. The team provokes mixed reactions among Spain's football fans outside of Catalonia.
"It's more than a thing to make jokes about," says Lagunas. "The situation of the Catalan and Basque teams right now is that they cannot play official games, which is not helping to bring people to the stadium, which would be the same for the Spanish national team if it was not recognised. The fact it doesn't play against strong teams doesn't help either. At the end of the day what you have is 'partit de costellada,' an expression in Catalan. It's like 'a barbecue team'—the kind of game friends play before having a barbecue on the weekend or a holiday.
"Perhaps this was the attitude to the team from non-Catalans in Spain before the whole independence movement in Catalonia began to grow. Right now, [the football team] is not like a threat, but it's something that bothers a lot of people in Spain—this change in Catalan society with demonstrations, two referendums that were not allowed by the central government and right now with some political figures under trial in Madrid is of course something that a lot of Spanish people don't like, but with the majority of people, I'd say they're making jokes about it."
The Catalan national team is no laughing matter for former Barcelona president Joan Laporta, who oversaw two UEFA Champions League triumphs at the club during his tenure from 2003-2010. On stepping down as club president, he briefly entered the Catalan parliament as leader of the Catalan Solidarity for Independence party.
Laporta says that when it comes to issues of football and national identity, it's "easier being Spanish": "They are condescending. Spaniards feel comfortable because they have a state. It is a different level. We are working for our independence, for our freedom, to become a state of the European Union. In my case, I'm from Barca. I express my ideas. There are some of them that are respectful, and there are a few people that I met who are disrespectful to our ideas.
"It is easy to say, 'Well, football is not politics.' That's not true. When a Spanish person tells you, 'Sport is not politics,' don't believe them. Only people who have a state feel comfortable with their structures, with their national teams. In that case, there is no politics. But in our case, I couldn't support my national team—the Catalan national team—playing in the World Cup. Then football is politics. Of course it is. I've been involved in using football and sport in politics."
With a full-strength team, Catalonia would test any national side in the world. Monday night's squad included Marc Bartra from Real Betis beside Pique in defence. Watford's Gerard Deulofeu wasn't released by his club. Alba, Sergi Roberto and Sergio Busquets were on duty with Spain's national team squad. Xavi Hernandez had to pull out at the eleventh hour, owing to commitments with his Qatari club, Al Sadd.
Seven of the 14 players who featured in Spain's victorious FIFA World Cup final team against the Netherlands in 2010 were capped by the Catalan national team—Pique, Busquets, Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevila, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and, although he's not Catalan, Andres Iniesta, because he grew up in Barcelona's academy, which is part of the Catalan football federation. Messi also represented Catalonia at youth level.
If Catalonia was officially recognised, it would create a difficult decision for Catalan-born players in Spain. Damia grew up in Olot, a town close to Girona, but his mother is from Extremadura in the southwest corner of Spain, the opposite end of the country. He ponders the choice a player with a dual identity like himself would have to make.
"It's a very difficult question to answer," Damia says. "It could be interpreted in the wrong way. For example, if I said I would play for Catalonia, people would say, 'That guy wants independence and he's against dah-dah-dah.' It would be the wrong message to send.
"At the same time, if I said I would play for Spain, I would not have the depth of feeling of playing for my own area I probably should have. I think in Catalan. It's my main language. It's how I express myself. Catalan is very deep in me, but I really love Spain as well because I played for many clubs around the country. My family has roots in Extremadura, in Andalusia. As Catalan as I am, it's an impossible question to answer."
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