Pique voting in Catalan election leaves Spain in awkward spot ahead of World Cup qualifying
How long ago it must seem to Julen Lopetegui since his Spain side tore Italy to shreds and left themselves not only on the threshold of World Cup qualification, but in a tight group of two or three teams capable of winning in Russia next summer.
Lopetegui, whose own playing career was packed full of thorny and damaging experiences, is not a frivolous man. The Spain coach will unquestionably already have been viewing La Roja's impending home match with Albania and then the testing trip to Israel next week as red-alert games, matches that the complacent will believe are "already won."
Yet they could very easily become desperate, embarrassing accidents for the unwary or unprepared. However, no matter how prepared he was for this to be a tough few days -- things started to go badly off script.
In effect, the events of the past few days aren't simply sudden obstacles to the 2010 champions reaching Russia without needing a playoff. They're also a dramatic litmus test as to whether Spain have the guts, talent, unity, savvy and special magic that might propel them towards the final in Moscow next July. If they come through this vicious little squall, bonds will be forged that might be crucial on the march through Russia in 2018.
Gerard Pique is, I'm sure, the name that immediately flits into your head. This has been a high-profile couple of days, even for him with the political turmoil surrounding his club. But at least the Barcelona centre-back is present. More debilitating, though, are the absentees. It's a nailed-on certainty that if Dani Carvajal, Alvaro Morata and Andres Iniesta weren't all sick or injured, all of them would have started both matches. More than that, they'd have been three of the first names on the team sheet.
Morata is a Lopetegui protege: together they won the 2013 U-21 Championship and the striker was top scorer. Now not only is he Spain's first-choice striker by a distance, but he's been on perhaps the form of his entire career at Chelsea. But he's out. Low blow No. 1.
Iniesta is a man renewed under Lopetegui. Spain have played eight times since the former Porto manager took over and Iniesta has started every game. Partly because he played so rarely under Luis Enrique at club level, and partly because Lopetegui demands a style of midfield play to which Iniesta and Sergio Busquets take like ducks to water, this has been a happy year for Iniesta with the Spain team since the former Barca and Madrid keeper took over.
Until a virus attacked the membrane walls around his heart, Carvajal was having the time of his life. He's got three Champions League medals already (he's played in as many UCL finals as Lionel Messi and is just 25 years old), only one fewer Spanish title than Cristiano Ronaldo, a lush new contract at the club he loves and, according to him, the achievable objective of becoming Real Madrid captain one day.
Two more low blows for Lopetegui are that Iniesta and Carvajal are also absent. Add Diego Costa, who would probably have played instead of Morata, and it all adds up to an unwanted and debilitating run of misfortune.
Then came the weekend's events in Barcelona.
It's a matter of fact that many have been stunned by the scenes of state police-inflicted violence in schools, in community centres and on the streets of Catalonia on Sunday. Perhaps this football column isn't the place to go into the social or political aspects of what happened as Catalans who were seeking freedom of expression were subjected to violence from the police.
Suffice to say, the events of Sunday were so shocking, so undermining and so emotionally damaging to Pique that he broke down in tears in the Camp Nou mixed zone a couple of hours after Iniesta had broken down on the pitch and asked to be substituted off, having only been subbed-on at half-time.
Pique voted in what the Spanish state deemed an illegal Catalan independence referendum. Pique was fiercely critical of how the Spanish government and their security forces reacted in Catalunya at the weekend. It's also a fact that Pique has repeatedly said or done things that anger certain sectors of the football public around Spain. All of these elements ensured that his arrival to train with Lopetegui's squad ahead of the two games that can seal World Cup qualification would bring some verbal hostility and opprobrium from fans and media. And it duly did.
But what really put the febrile world of Spanish football into a spin was what Pique said about La Roja and his international future, which is where I think it's vital to make a specific point and clarify what actually happened in the Camp Nou mixed zone. Partly because accuracy is vital, and partly because the way in which Pique expressed himself will go a long way to ensuring the key people around him over the next nine days either accept or "live with" the phrases he used.
My point is that as the story of Pique being "willing to step aside from being selected for Spain" whizzed around the world, it was only his phrases that were reported. What I've not seen reported anywhere was that Pique certainly did not unilaterally volunteer that he was of a mood to retire from Spain duty early; after all, he's already announced that after the World Cup in Russia, he'll retire from international football.
Pique was responding to one of those "what do you say to people who --" questions that some reporters use because they aren't brave enough to ask, "I think this about you and I want an answer from you on that subject."
At any rate, while he was in midflow about the events of Sunday, why Barcelona chose to play their match against Las Palmas and why they opted to make it "closed door," Pique was asked the question that has led to a vastly more difficult and controversial situation this week than anyone around La Roja wanted.
Pique was asked by a national radio station: "What message do you have for people who see it as incompatible to vote in this referendum and then continue playing for Spain?"
He pointed out that "when one votes one can vote yes, no or destroy the ballot paper." He talked about feeling more Catalan than ever, about his pride in the Catalan people who acted peacefully and without retaliating... and then he was overcome with emotion. But Pique ends his reply by stating that he's absolutely sure that there will be people all over Spain who understand his ideology, and that only if the coach or someone in the FA management think he's a problem would he step aside.
Not that he wants to. Not that his commitment has diminished. Not that the scenes we witnessed on the streets of Barcelona mean that he's now "anti-Spain." No; Pique simply took responsibility for the fact that there might be footballing repercussions for his words and deeds. That if he'd offended someone in the Spain hierarchy so badly that they wanted him out, then that was the price he'd willingly pay for freedom of speech and in order to not hinder La Roja's progress.
If only everyone understood the quid-pro-quo of freedom of speech. It comes with consequences.
With a view to La Roja's ability to avoid traps over the next few days, I think it's crucial to understand that Pique remains totally committed and that he's sure about his stance. It think it'll be crucial for whichever Spain teammate is most critical of Pique's stance to know that it wasn't him suggesting that his dream of winning a second world cup title had suddenly been overwhelmed by Catalan sentiment.
Finally, it surprises me not one jot to hear Lopetegui speak with total conviction about his centre-back. In light of fans turning up at Las Rozas' training on Monday night to boo, abuse and jeer the defender, the Spain coach didn't mince his words.
"Pique's commitment to this team is ferocious," Lopetegui said. "Also he's held in great regard and affection by the rest of the squad. If I thought the atmosphere was bad, I'd be worried and I'd do something about it. But that's not how I see it.
"There's a lot of boiling temperatures around this subject that people should try to cool down, but I don't believe the media will be helping us much in that theme over the next few days. Positions are becoming entrenched."
Overall, with feisty rivals who'd love nothing more than to embarrass the mighty Spain, these will be a testing few days for Lopetegui, whom you could forgive if he'd already been taking Russian language lessons. But if Lopetegui has a fully committed -- and fully "forgiven" -- Gerard Pique at his command, then Spain are one significant step closer to reaching the World Cup.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.