I promise, scout’s honour, that this will be one of the very few occasions when the dirty word “politics” scars the sports pages of the Evening Express.
But your letter from Spain this week can’t really ignore the fact that the central state sent national police into the semi-autonomous city where I live or that their actions against peaceful Catalan citizens qualify as one of the top two or three news items in the world this last week. This year in my view.
That a couple of Aberdonians saw the Camp Nou match they’d saved up to fly over and attend played behind closed doors, or the fact that they queued up outside the locked doors of Barcelona’s stadium until about 30 minutes before kick-off without knowing what was going on or whether they’d be allowed in, is, I’m sad to admit, something of a side issue.
Very frustrating and expensive – but submerged in the import of what’s actually going on here.
One of the catalysts to the enormity of the news coverage, although not close to the hard fact that some of the national police behaved like they were the baton-wielding thugs portrayed in a Clockwork Orange, were Gerard Piqué’s actions on Sunday.
Not only did he take part in the “illegal” Catalan independence referendum, he used Twitter (social media) to show a picture of him voting with the words: “I’ve voted. Together we are unstoppable in defending democracy.”
Ja he votat. Junts som imparables defensant la democràcia. pic.twitter.com/mGXf7Qj1TM
— Gerard Piqué (@3gerardpique) October 1, 2017
Later that day, after the drama of what was or wasn’t happening at the Camp Nou (no fans were allowed in and Barça, having failed to convince the national football authorities to postpone the match, beat Las Palmas 3-0), Piqué made news again.
He’s not to everyone’s taste. I know him well and can’t help but admit while I like him and respect him his ferocity of self-certainty can be too much for some who either hold moderate views or those who completely oppose the kind of beliefs Piqué espouses generally.
However, I can also testify that he’s flinty tough. Hard of mind, tough psychologically, robust generally.
I’ve seen him in tears once before but that was when he’d helped Spain win the World Cup final and was able to seek out his parents in the Soccer City crowd.
Emotion overtook him and he bawled.
In his office there’s a picture on the wall which captured the moment and his face is contorted, his eyes are a fountain and he’s unselfconsciously howling.
Notwithstanding that, it caught me out that his voice caught with emotion when someone asked him in the media mixed zone backstage in the Camp Nou what message he had for those who now think he can’t play on for Spain
It was while noting that he considers that asking for freedom of speech and asking for the right to vote, rather than outright demanding independence which he’s never done, was something which many people in communities around Spain would be able to understand that his voice wavered and he cried.
He pointed out that there would be people around the wider nation who’d condemn the actions of the police and he was immensely critical of not only President Rajoy but his right-wing government, too.
“If I’m getting to be too big a problem for the national team I’ll step aside,” he concluded. A man accepting that with freedom of speech comes responsibility and consequences. Bravo.
The result, in sporting terms, was partially inevitable – but eventually admirable.
Because Piqué is portrayed (accurately I happen to know) as someone who espouses the independence cause in Catalunya, because he will consistently speak out against what he considers Madrid-generated bias (by which he means both the city’s media and Real Madrid), the result is that for the last couple of years he’s usually been booed and jeered by “fans” (there’s another word for them in my dictionary but given that freedom of speech is what’s at issue here let’s leave that for the moment) around the country when he plays home matches for Spain.
Funnily enough his intense dedication to the Spain cause, the quality of his play, the fact that he’s never once snapped, never once retaliated in word or gesture, led to a significant change of temperature last month.
Spain whipped their big rivals Italy 3-0 at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium and when small sections of the crowd jeered or whistled Piqué, other, larger sections either shushed them or chanted the Catalan’s name.
It was, in Spanish sporting and societal terms, quite a remarkable moment.
Piqué hadn’t altered one jot in comportment, beliefs, willingness to speak out about issues – but via his actions he’d demonstrated that he merited respect and, from some, he received it.
Back to the present. On Monday there were a lot of attention seeking blowhards who turned up at Spain training (please note that the Spanish FA decided to keep the session open to the public and hallelujah for that. FA’s in the UK please note).
They abused Piqué and he got on with his work.
In the subsequent three or four press conferences or radio interviews the coach, Julen Lopetegui, the head of the FA, and several players either said: “Piqué shouldn’t leave” or “we need him here” or “We’re bored with this, leave him alone”.
So, on Wednesday, Piqué arranged that he would front the national team press conference on his own. “If it takes two hours I’ll sit here and answer all your questions,” he said.
His goal was to lance the boil, to show that he was articulate and reasonable, not belligerent and ultra-hardline.
Unanimously the Spain media subsequently reported that the tension had decreased, that the defender had a clean bill of health as far as they were concerned – a dialogue and openness and mutual understanding emerged even if base positions didn’t move a milimetre.
It seems to me, this brutal week, that Gerard Piqué, footballer, has taught Mariano Rajoy, “President”, a damn useful and vitally important lesson.