Barcelona defender has gone from being a hero to La Roja's least appreciated star player
Published 09/11/2015 | 02:30
England's footballers travel this week to a corner of Iberia where the British have long settled in numbers. They should not be too surprised if at moments during their friendly against Spain in Alicante they feel like the home team. The soundtrack to internationals involving the reigning European champions has become confusing over recent months, especially if you are Gerard Pique.
Pique is the centre-half who emerged from Spain's victorious 2010 World Cup to wide recognition that he might well be the best in his position anywhere on earth. He went to South Africa a 23-year-old tournament novice, came back with the nickname 'Piquenbauer' - a nod to Kaiser Franz, the most elegant of defenders - and in a relationship with the pop star Shakira, with whom he would start a family.
Two summers later, Pique formed one half of the finest central defensive partnership at the European Championship, where Spain defended their title.
He is now 28, at his peak, and you could make a compelling argument he is the player Spain would miss most were anything to threaten his participation at France 2016. Spain do not have deep cover in central defence, where Pique and Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos have established an authority.
But to listen to Spain play home matches is to hear, via shrill whistling, that Pique is La Roja's least appreciated star. In the last three of his 72 caps in front of Spanish supporters, a regular chorus of jeers has accompanied his touches of the ball. Pique, being the Franz Beckenbauer de nos jours, touches the ball frequently: many of Spain's passing moves begin with him. The whistles and pantomime-villainy that has developed around his appearances are hard to avoid.
Some Spain supporters, during last month's comfortable win over Luxembourg in the provincial city of Logrono, tried to drown out the derision with extra loud applause for the player. The effect was to turn the game into a form of Pique plebiscite: To jeer him or to cheer him? Alicante votes on Friday, and Spain's head coach, Vicente del Bosque, has already taken the precaution of urging locals to remember the long-term commitment of the Barcelona player to Spain's era of unprecedented successes.
"I remember him being an important part of Spain U-16 or U-17 teams who did well in Alicante," pleaded Del Bosque. "You cannot tell people what to do as spectators, but Pique has been a perfect professional for Spain."
Why the antagonism? A combination of reasons, or what the newspaper 'El Pais' put it, trying to squeeze an awful lot into one adjective, called the "socio-political-sporting whistlathon" that trails the defender when he represents his country. Partly, it is that age-old schism in Spanish football.
Pique, the grandson of a former Barcelona director, has more than once made provocative anti-Real Madrid comments or gestures. Madridistas, Real fans, who are strongly represented among followers of the national team, remember that.
Pique has also been the most forthcoming of the native Catalans in the national squad in backing movements in favour of greater sovereignty from the rest of Spain for their region, of which Barcelona is the capital, or at least in promoting the right of Catalans to have their voices heard in an ever louder political debate over Catalonia's future.
Pique insisted, after an episode of booing in September, he thought his treatment while playing for Spain, had "nothing to do with the relationship between Spain and Catalonia, but because I am seen as anti-madridista." He had, he stressed, "given my all for the national team." His good fortune, and Spain's, for most of his career was that he formed part of a gifted group of Barcelona players, many of them from the region, who between 2009 and 2012 made up the majority of the Spain first XI. But Spain, the national team, and Barcelona, the dazzling club side, are far more distinct than they used to be. Where, 14 months after winning the 2009 European Cup, seven Barcelona players were winning the World Cup, and, in 2012, seven Barca men followed up the 2011 Champions League triumph with victory in the final of the Euros, the club side no longer maps so neatly onto the national team. Barcelona's starting line-up when they won the 2015 Champions League included only four Spain internationals. Del Bosque's last starting XI, against Ukraine, had no Barca players in it.
Spain have lost confidence in the last 18 months. Del Bosque talks of 'a generational change,' following a disastrous 2014 World Cup. Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso, exemplars of how Barcelona and Madrid players could operate on the same wavelength and both figureheads of La Roja's best pass-and-move era, have retired from international football.
Many thought captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas would do the same. Casillas, like Pique, knows what it is to be jeered by a home crowd. The sound helped persuade him to leave Real Madrid, to join Porto, in the summer. Casillas's position as Spain's senior keeper remains vulnerable, because of the form of Manchester United's David de Gea. Who should lead the forward line is another question. Diego Costa is under scrutiny because of his form for Chelsea and for Spain and the more so since Del Bosque reprimanded the striker for the incidents during the Chelsea-Arsenal game that led to his three-match domestic ban.
Costa, like Pique and Casillas, has some popularity issues to resolve. (© Daily Telegraph, London)