MADRID: The divisive dispute over Catalonia's push for independence has spilled into Spain's national team.
"La Roja" has been unable to sidestep the nation's most serious crisis in decades. The team now faces two decisive World Cup qualifiers while engulfed by unwanted talks about politics.
At the center of it all is veteran defender Gerard Pique, the outspoken Barcelona player who has strongly defended the Catalans.
His harsh criticism of Spanish authorities following the region's disputed independence referendum on Sunday polarized fans and attracted some unwanted attention to the national team.
He was harassed by fans at Spain's training camp in Madrid on Monday, disrupting the national team's first practice session ahead of the match against Albania on Friday. The incident made front-page headlines in nearly all sports dailies, along with headlines such as "Unbearable Situation."
No matter how much Spain coach Julen Lopetegui and the other players try to avoid the subject, it kept coming back.
"It's a pity because we came here to play football, and we haven't been able to talk about Albania or Israel," Spain midfielder Thiago Alcantara said. "We have to dedicate ourselves only to playing football. We are not here to give our personal opinion on political debates. We are here to talk about the national team and to do our best to help the national team make it to the World Cup, which is something very important to us."
Spain can close in a World Cup berth with a victory against Albania in the southeastern city of Alicante, where Pique will certainly be loudly jeered by the Spanish fans. He is often booed by crowds when Spain plays outside of Catalonia, and this time it should happen even more intensely because of the recent incidents.
Lopetegui made a plea to the "great fans" of Alicante, asking them to focus on supporting the team and not on jeering Pique.
"To me, there is nothing more important this week than this game against Albania," Lopetegui told local radio stadium COPE. "I don't agree with those who use soccer to protest because the sport is meant to unify. I hope that we find a good atmosphere in Alicante. We all have an obligation to generate a good atmosphere."
Pique, who was in tears when he criticized police brutally against Catalans trying to vote on Sunday, said he would have no problem stepping aside from the national team if the coach or the Spanish federation saw him as a nuisance.
Lopetegui had praised Pique's commitment, saying his "behaviour with the national team has always been very good" and there was no reason not to have him on the squad. But he also sent a clear message that the entire team had to be focused only on soccer despite the crisis involving Catalonia's disputed bid for independence.
"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 tranquillity so we can all play a great match against Albania."
Authorities said more than 890 civilians and about 430 members of the police force were injured across the autonomous northeastern region during Sunday's referendum, which the Spanish government said was unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, Lopetegui had a long chat with all the players before the team's practice, which was closed to the fans. Wednesday's session was also closed.
It remains largely unclear what would happen to Pique's future if Catalonia went ahead with its intention to declare independence unilaterally. A Catalonia national team has played in occasional friendly matches, including against powerhouses Argentina and Brazil. At one point it was coached by the late Dutch great Johan Cruyff.
Other Catalans in the national team include Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
"It's been a difficult week in every way," Busquets told the local Cadena SER radio station. "We try to do everything as normally as possible, but it's obvious that we are aware of what has been happening around us. It's obvious that it gets to us."