After a turbulent week in Spanish politics and society, national team manager Julen Lopetegui did his damnedest to keep his team focused on sporting matters ahead of their final World Cup qualifiers against Albania and Israel.
That was in spite of the best efforts of the press, who repeatedly questioned him on the presence of Gerard Piqué in the team, after the Barcelona defender’s support for the Catalan referendum was construed as support for independence. Lopetegui played with a straight bat, and insisted that Piqué’s commitment to la selección could not be called into question.
All eyes were on Piqué during Friday’s match with Albania in Alicante, after he had been taunted and whistled in an open training session earlier in the week. He was predictably subjected to whistles from the crowd every time he touched the ball, but put in a comfortable performance just as he had throughout his distinguished career with La Roja.
Spain cantered to a 3-0 win, which confirmed their attendance at the World Cup in Russia next summer. After the match, Lopetegui called for the fans to get behind Piqué and the whole team, and was keen to show that the success of his side should be held up as an example of unity and positivity to a divided nation.
“Now is the time to focus on positive things, in football and in the country on the whole,” he said. “Sport can lead the way in how we should be as a country, and you have to celebrate the good things.”
As a Basque manager of a squad made up of players from the Canaries to Catalonia, from Seville to San Sebastián, he had a point. A successful, united squad from Spain’s diverse and numerous regions would be a great paradigm for how the country can focus on what unites them rather than what divides them.
Obviously the rifts in Spanish society go far too deep to be bridged by something as facile as football, but it is fair to say that this fragile country has never been so united as it was for a spell in the summer of 2010, when Spain won the World Cup for the first time in their history.
People took to the streets of Barcelona and Bilbao in their thousands, flying Spanish flags and wearing the red shirts of the national side, something that was previously unheard of in these fractious regions.
The support for the national team in Barcelona was no doubt helped by the presence of several Barcelona players in the victorious side, most of them Catalan, but nevertheless there was a rare feeling of unity behind a common cause across the nation.
That’s not to say that Catalan nationalism was put entirely to one side, but there was a sense that Catalonia had contributed to the wider success of Spain. Some independentist hardliners co-opted the influence of the Catalan players on the success of the national side for their cause, treating it as a victory for Catalonia and using it as further evidence of the region giving more to Spain than it gets back. But the general feeling was one of support for the successful Spanish side, and its Catalan contingent.
Now, in the wake of the controversial referendum, Spain is more divided than at any point since the turbulent transition from dictatorship to democracy. There is a distinct lack of middle ground between both sides of the dispute.
While neither side will ever agree on the divisive issue of Catalan separatism, if Lopetegui’s team can achieve success with his squad containing both proud Catalans and staunch Castilians, it will hopefully at least bring back the feel-good factor that briefly swept over Spain seven years ago.
Having taken over following the disappointment of Euro 2016, Lopetegui has instilled in his side a winning mentality, and led them through an almost flawless qualification campaign. The marriage of solidity and style, and the blend of youth and experience, gives this Spain side an excellent chance of regaining the World Cup in Moscow next summer.
If Lopetegui can lead Spain to international football’s biggest prize, then what better advert could there be for sport’s power to break down barriers than for Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué to lift the World Cup together?