Spain coach Julen Lopetegui has defended Gerard Pique from critics who question his loyalty to the national team because of his support for a disputed referendum on Catalan independence.
“Gerard gives it his all each and every time he plays with us,” Lopetegui said Friday. “I judge players’ commitment to the national team by their behavior. That is where I put my focus and in that sense I have no doubts about Pique.”
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Pique posted a message on social media on Thursday calling for people in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia to participate peacefully in Sunday’s vote that police have been ordered by courts to stop.
“From today until Sunday we will express ourselves pacifically,” Pique tweeted. “Don’t give them any excuse (for a crackdown). That’s what they want. And sing loud and clear.”
Pique has been jeered by Spain fans during home matches in recent years both for his jibes at Barcelona club rival Real Madrid and his support of the push for a secession referendum in Catalonia.
Spain captain Sergio Ramos, a Real Madrid defender, said Thursday that “Pique’s tweet isn’t the best thing to do if he doesn’t want people to jeer him.”
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The 30-year-old Pique has made 91 appearances for Spain, helping it win the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship. He and Ramos form its pair of central defenders.
As expected on Friday, Lopetegui included Pique in Spain’s squad for its final two qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. Spain hosts Albania on Oct. 6 in the southern city of Alicante. It then visits Israel three days later.
Barcelona is the capital of prosperous Catalonia, where a separatist-led regional government vows to hold the vote on independence from the rest of Spain despite its suspension by the Constitutional Court.
Spain’s constitution says that only the nation’s government can call a referendum on sovereignty. Police forces acting on judges’ orders have seized ballots and arrested regional officials, sparking protests in the streets and universities.