MADRID — Spain coach Julen Lopetegui praised Gerard Pique’s commitment to the national team and called on the squad to be focused only on soccer despite the crisis involving Catalonia’s push for independence.
A day after Pique was harassed by fans, Lopetegui’s first action before practice on Tuesday was to get all the players together for a chat and make sure everyone was on the same page.
He wants to send a clear message to everyone: Players and fans must unite to help the team despite the political crisis that has engulfed the country.
"We are focused on the important game against Albania," Lopetegui said Tuesday on Twitter. "We will need the support of Alicante and its great fans in order to take a big step toward making it to the World Cup."
Spain hosts Albania in the southern city on Friday and plays at Israel on Monday in its final qualifier. A victory in one of the matches should be enough to qualify "La Roja" for the World Cup in Russia next year.
Pique, the outspoken Barcelona defender highly supportive of Catalans, was jeered by fans Monday when he reported to the national team’s training camp in Madrid ahead of upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Lopetegui said in a radio interview with local radio station COPE on Monday night that the central defender remained "motivated" despite the abuse from fans. He said he talked to Pique and didn’t think he was affected by it.
He said Pique’s "behaviour with the national team has always been very good" and there was no reason not to have him on the team. He said the player was well liked by his teammates.
"We don’t analyze the player’s political opinion," Lopetegui said. "Gerard is an extraordinary central defender and he has been playing with the national team since he was 16. His commitment is tremendous. I don’t see why I shouldn’t bring him to the team. He is available and he wants to play. I know it’s not an easy situation, but I am a soccer coach and I have to prioritize."
The coach said players have the right to express their opinions privately, but have to try to avoid adding to the "unpleasant situation" generated by Catalonia’s bid for independence.
"We all have the obligation to create the best atmosphere possible ahead of this game against Albania," Lopetegui said. "And I mean all of us. We are playing to make it to the World Cup. After a year and a half we have the chance to finish the job and we obviously need to focus on this game, which is the only important thing for us this week. We all have to contribute to create this good atmosphere, there is no doubt."
Pique was in tears on Sunday as he criticized the Spanish police after violent clashes erupted during the independence referendum that the Spanish government said was unconstitutional. Officials said more than 890 civilians and about 430 members of the police force were injured across the northeastern region.
"I see Pique with the same enthusiasm as before," Spain midfielder Thiago Alcantara said. "He is as happy as he has always been inside our locker room."
Pique continued to criticize authorities on social media on Monday, including just before reporting to the national team.
Fans in Madrid chanted and held cards against Pique, including some that said "Spain is your nation" and "Out Pique."
The national team’s practice on Tuesday was closed to the fans.
"We are soccer players and coaches, we have to be focused on our main goal, which is to qualify for the World Cup," Lopetegui said. "We can’t get distracted by anything. I know that this is an unpleasant situation, but I ask for some reasoning and tranquility so we can all play a great match against Albania."
Spain is three points ahead of Italy in Group G. It has a much better goal difference than the Italians, so it can close in a World Cup spot with a victory from its final two games.
Only the group winner automatically qualifies for next year’s tournament in Russia.
On Tuesday, Barcelona and the two other Catalan clubs in the Spanish league — Girona and Espanyol — joined a strike to protest the Spanish government’s actions in Catalonia. Barcelona said none of its professional or youth teams practiced and its headquarters was closed. The club played in an empty Camp Nou on Sunday to show its discontentment with the government’s actions during the referendum.