Spain’s national soccer team cut its practice short on Monday after fans targeted one of its top players for his perceived pro-Catalan views.
Barcelona native Gerard Pique, who plays for the city’s namesake team, has been the target of some Spanish fans’ jeers before, but Monday’s harassment, which came in the wake of a controversial referendum on Catalan independence in the region, was particularly aggressive, according to Reuters.
Fans who attended the training session in Madrid showed up with banners, including one that referred to Pique as “sickening,” and chanted vulgar phrases at Pique demanding the defender be ousted from the team. The chants continued for the entire 23 minutes the team trained before security ushered them off the field as fans hurled garbage and other objects toward Pique.
Before the practice, Pique, who voted in the referendum and criticized Spain’s government for trying to shut it down, anticipated there might be some unrest among the country’s fan base should he remain on the team, which is on track to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
“If the coach or another executive in the Federation thinks I’m a problem or a disturbance in the national team,” Pique said Sunday (via Goal.com), following Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Las Palmas that was played in an empty stadium amid the unrest in the city, “I can step aside before the World Cup.”
Pique, however, added that he doesn’t see an issue with his continued participation on the Spanish national squad, noting, “being called up to the national team isn’t a competition of who’s more patriotic.”
“There have been many players who have been naturalized from other countries and weren’t Spaniards,” continued the 30-year-old, who shares two children with Colombian chanteuse Shakira. “Being called up to the national team is about going with them, playing the best you possibly can and trying to win. That’s how I understand it.”
Pique has not commented on the barrage of insults he received from fans on Monday, but according to teammate Thiago Alcantara, Pique remained mostly unaffected by the boos.
“Pique’s already played at the Santiago Bernabeu [Barcelona rival Real Madrid’s stadium] many times. He’s used to hostile environments,” Alcantara said (via the Daily Mail). “He has the same attitude as always.”
He added: “[This situation] saddens us because we come here to talk about football, I’m not here to talk about the life of anybody. It saddens me not to be able to be comfortable and talk about Albania [whom Spain plays on Friday].”
Catalonia’s independence referendum, which the Spanish government deemed illegal, made international headlines after Spain’s government turned to violence to stop it. As polls opened on Sunday, Spanish riot police raided voting centers, where police were caught on camera “whipping ordinary citizens with rubber truncheons and dragging them away by their hair,” The Post’s William Booth reported.
The referendum passed with roughly 90 percent of voters choosing independence, although many potential “no” voters in the region did not vote because they saw the referendum as a sham.
While the future of Catalonia remains unclear, Spain’s soccer team is still set to face Albania on Friday in Alicante, where if they can win more dominantly than Italy, which will face Macedonia that same day, the team will officially qualify for next summer’s World Cup.