A storm is brewing in Spain around FC Barcelona player and national soccer team member Gerard Piqué, after he openly defended the independence referendum that was held on Sunday in Catalonia.
Now, a day after angry fans booed Piqué at a Spain training session in Las Rozas (Madrid), government spokesman and Sports Minister Íñigo Méndez de Vigo has decided to join the fray with public statements of his own.
Speaking on the private TV network Telecinco on Tuesday, Méndez de Vigo defended the player’s right to express his political opinions.
You have to go and give it all you’ve got, which is what I do
“He can have whatever opinion he wants. It’s another story whether I think he is wrong,” said Méndez de Vigo.
The minister also underscored Piqué’s personal commitment to the Spanish side, at a time when critics are questioning whether he should leave the team.
“Piqué is a great player who always gives it his all when he plays with the Spanish team,” he said.
But there has been a rising tide of negative feelings regarding Piqué’s presence on the team ever since September 28, when he made a public statement in favor of the outlawed referendum – in which he voted on Sunday.
Hours after playing in the Barça-Las Palmas game to a deserted Camp Nou – fans had been banned from the stadium as a safety measure on a day when emotions were running high – a tearful Piqué appeared before the cameras and expressed dismay at the scenes of riot police confronting crowds on the streets of Catalonia.
“If anybody thinks I am a problem or a nuisance, I have no problem stepping aside and leaving the squad before 2018,” said the center-back then.
On Monday, a group of around 10 ultras led the verbal abuse aimed at Piqué by a crowd of fans who had come out to watch Spain train in Las Rozas. Around 200 people – out of a total of 1,000 fans in the stands – dressed in Real Madrid shirts and waving Spanish flags began chanting slogans such as “¡Piqué, cabrón, fuera de la selección!” (Piqué, asshole, out of the national team) and “¡Piqué, llorón, España es tu nación...!” (Piqué, crybaby, Spain is your nation).
The booing crowd illustrated how a section of Spanish society takes Piqué to be a secessionist, even though the 30-year-old player has never openly manifested his political tendencies, beyond asking for a negotiated referendum to resolve the Catalan conflict.
Through his regular use of Twitter, Piqué has become something of a political activist. His tweet last Thursday encouraging Catalans to go vote on Sunday triggered a cascade of reactions – both positive and negative. And his 16 million followers guarantee that anything he says will have an impact. No Catalan institution has that kind of online following.
Asked if his political beliefs are compatible with his spot on the Spain squad, Piqué has replied that playing for Spain is not about patriotism. “You have to go and give it all you’ve got, which is what I do. There have been players who were nationalized Spanish. It’s about going out there and doing everything possible to win. That’s the way I see it.”
English version by Susana Urra.