Athletes in any major sport are paid millions of dollars that the media can justify makes them fit for criticism. The media help the athletes reach their great fame and the athletes do their job and give the media something to cover. While athletes should be criticized for their work as professionals, the line gets blurrier when athletes are criticized for their beliefs or opinions off the field.
Amidst another tumultuous week for Gerard Pique while playing for the Spanish national team, the Barcelona defender announced that he would retire from international duty after the 2018 World Cup.
The latest controversy began when the 29-year-old was accused of cutting his national team jersey to rid it of the Spanish flag during their World Cup qualifying match against Albania. His longtime support of independence for his native Catalonia has been a contentious subject, particularly when he plays with his Spanish countrymen from Real Madrid.
While being accused of altering his jersey as a political statement, when it is known that Pique prefers the long-sleeved shirt, which he wore alongside Sergio Ramos, the defender was very honest as to why he is leaving the international stage sooner rather than later.
“Today’s issue of the sleeves is the straw that breaks the camel,” Pique said. “They’ve managed to make me lose the excitement of coming here and although after Russia I’ll only be 31, I’ll leave.”
The ‘they’ that he is referring to is the media, officials and fans that are disappointed with his displays of affection towards Catalonia. For years, Pique has endured jeers from Spanish fans who question his loyalty as he won them trophy after trophy with the Spanish coat of arms near his heart.
Gerard Pique is one of the most famous athletes in the world. His relationship with well-known singer and songwriter Shakira further pushed the Barcelona man into the spotlight. As a public figure, his political views are heard by tons of people in many countries, and unfortunately, he has spoken out about one of the oldest debates in Spain.
If one were to ask the Basques, their definition of a nation-state is driven much more by cultural boundaries than by territorial lines drawn from hundreds of years of wars and diplomatic negotiations, and many in Catalonia share that sentiment. Through a few centuries of differing opinion and hundreds of other reasons for both sides on the independence argument, the issue still remains as hot-blooded a topic as any other.
Like he has done since the defender returned to the Camp Nou in 2008, Xavi Hernandez is again coming to the defense of his friend and supporting his decision to retire early. Xavi indicated that Pique is not alone in his treatment. “Carles Puyol and I have suffered it too for years,” the current Al-Saad midfielder said, “I think that he’s sick of it. It’s hopeless because you don’t feel valued or loved and they tell you that you are committed.”
The two Barcelona greats gradually stepped away from the national team as they dealt with the animosity, so it is unknown if any other Catalan players will follow Gerard Pique’s lead. Pique has been the lightning rod of controversy, due in large part to his infectious personality, and he clearly gets more abuse than the soft-spoken Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta.
If Xavi’s plan to have Pique serve as FC Barcelona president with Puyol, Xavi and Busquets serving alongside him as sporting director, first-team manager and assistant manager does come to fruition, it seems that Pique will not fade out of the public eye once he also hangs up his boots for his club.
Pique’s retirement from the national team may be a shame because not only did he do it earlier than he should have, but it also represents a lack of unity that once flowed through the national team.
For decades Spain toiled away at tournaments with talented squads that always seemed to be missing the extra bit of cohesion needed to dominate the world’s game. Nevertheless, the recent class of players that conquered two World Cups and the European Championship had the necessary unity and cooperation to do just that.
There were certainly times when it looked like the cracks were showing and the differences between teammates would never allow them to reach their potential, but with the help of Xavi, Iker Casillas, as well as Pique and Ramos, Spain made history.
Those glory days seem like a distant memory now and while there are plenty of young defenders capable of getting a starting spot alongside Sergio Ramos, the road may be bumpier than expected.
National teams work best when the transition between generations is done with care and time, and fortunately for the Spanish FA, Pique has let them know that they have less than two years to replace one of the greatest defenders that the national team has ever seen.