Football is a game of the senses: from the rustling of the ball hitting the back of the net to the ping of leather grazing an upright, from the ironic Olé‘s of a snore-fest to the groans that greet the reading of Wayne Rooney’s name on a team sheet, football fans have an innate understanding and reaction to the sounds of the sport. In Spain, for example, the two syllable word Pique can result in an inexhaustible supply of swear words.
Never the most popular player in some quarters, his decision to retire after the 2018 World Cup will annoy his critics further. His successful career in the world game being somewhat coloured by his vocal support for his corner of that world: Cataluña. His apparent preference for the red and yellow of the Catalans has brought negative attention, as has the defender’s decision to bow out from the international stage in two years’ time.
Castilian Spain’s reaction to this stance has been intensified by the player’s alleged cutting of his jersey sleeves in the World Cup qualifier against Albania. Viewers at home perceived it as a way to avoid wearing the Spanish flag on his arm, though a statement from the Spanish federation debunked that by stating that the long-sleeved version of the jersey comes sans flag.
The No. 3 has courted controversy before, but never in a serious way. Pique seemingly lives a stable and happy home life despite the showbiz nature of his relationship, Graham Hunter’s excellent Barca reveals a man humbled by homesickness in Manchester and driven by a will to succeed and improve when back at his boyhood club.
But Gerard Pique needs to go. Not after Russia. Now. This is not a commentary on the validity of his belief that Cataluna is another nation. Each person must decide for themselves what defines them.
It’s a complicated situation, especially in a country that hasn’t fully healed from the Civil War or the dictatorship. Some stereotype Barcelona as the democratic club fighting the empire of Franco’s white army in the Bernabeu but that’s far too simplistic. It ignores the fact that the capital was the last city to fall to General Franco, and flies in the face of personal testimonies given to this author that speak of emaciated grandfathers in prison camps and families bankrupted by the new regime’s economic policies.
However, living in this city for over four years has shown me that the slave labour forced upon Republican prisoners is more than evident, and flag wearing, pin wearing Fascists are in every level of society, inside and outside Madrid.
The official politicisation of Barcelona is only a recent development, and Pique’s return to the Camp Nou coincided with Pep, Messi, tiki-taka, and the Catalan nationalism of President Juan Laporta. It wasn’t always like this. The stewardship of previous presidents never proved particularly vocal. Laporta, nevertheless, bought into the maxim: mes que un club. Despite the scandal of having a brother-in-law as a card carrying Francisco Franco Foundation member, he envisaged the club as being the sporting arm of the Catalan separatist movement. In this, he was supported by Pep and Carlos Puyol, men who quoted Catalan poets and waved Catalan flags respectively. Judging from the turnout at the recent Catalan National Day, support for independence may be on the wane, but the club will continue as the title winning behemoth that doubles as a symbol for a lost nation.
Though UEFA and other institutions wish to separate sport and politics, it’s not always possible. Attempts to ban the Catalan flag for last year’s Copa del Rey final in Madrid were abandoned. The fans make every club, and it is the fans that make Barcelona into a political institution. They were the ones who smuggled the Estrelada into stadiums during the dictatorships, and they were the ones that treated every El Clasico win as a boon for Catalan independence. This is the club that annoyed Franco so much he made snide remarks to the Blaugraua captain when forced to hand over a trophy.
Which brings us back to Pique. Footballer. Winner. Defender. Separatist. Why should he retire?
He should retire because something worth more than medals is at stake. It’s called sacrifice and, as the bumper sticker reads, freedom isn’t free. Aside from the wishful thinking of having a separate country but continued participation in the Spanish La Liga, not playing for the Spanish national team is a more worthwhile and realistic aim. Despite waving Catalan colours after the success with the Spanish, kitting out for one of the world’s best sides is a cop-out. So is promising to retire after Russia. Do it now, forgo the potential silverware, and play for the Catalan national team.
Doing this takes guts because it’s the kind of move that will annoy a lot of people. But actually doing it makes those beliefs stronger. Ali sacrificed his best years in prison because he didn’t want to fight the Vietnam War. In the year where we have lost Johan Cruyff, football needs a maverick that sticks to ideals and sticks two fingers up to the naysayers and the doubters. And to be honest, can winning a title for a team that represents another country be as satisfying as wearing the colours of your people?
To paraphrase Mike from Breaking Bad: no more half measures. We live in a world where football is a corrupt sport.
We can’t stop FIFA’s Department of Hare-Brained Ideas from expanding the World Cup or Europe’s most powerful clubs from fiddling with the Champions League. But surely there is one footballer who sees Russia and Qatar hosting World Cups as an insult to human rights and decency. Are we so cynical as a society that we can’t imagine entire national teams refusing to compete in a supposedly prestigious tournament? Isn’t it time we recalibrate what we set as the norm?
Hidetoshi Nakata was one player who took a stand. The Japanese David Beckham had the kind of fame and football skill that made him a bonafide icon and coveted player in Serie A. He graced Roma and Parma but retired young after falling out of love with the game. He turned his back on an easy pay cheque for something deeper – he wanted to learn more about the world.
When Louis van Gaal dropped his trousers and displayed his balls to an astonished dressing room in Munich he was doing more than just offering a visual reminder of what the beautiful game was played with, he was making a point. To play football, you need balls. Those twin, (metaphorically) beautiful spheres of intent and courage, if we are to view them as such, are clearly missing from those that abuse players like Pique on social media. They have been evident on the pitch since football was adopted as the game of the masses, from Roy Keane’s scything down of Marc Overmars on a grey day at Lansdowne Road to Diego Maradona’s darting and dizzying trajectory toward the England goalmouth in Mexico during the 1986 World Cup.
We need more bravery off the pitch. Far be it from me to tell Pique how to express his nationalism and his identity, but we need a leader to come from somewhere and to stand for something. The sport is at a crossroads and the leaders of governing bodies – though elected on an ethical ticket – will not save it. We need something more than a disrobed Dutchman offering a dramatic gesture to his charges. Pique has a chance to make a statement and, whether we agree with it or not, a football star having the courage of his convictions would act as a mark of integrity that is sorely lacking from world football.