ALICANTE, Spain (AFP) - In the midst of Catalonia's drive for independence, Gerard Pique was again centre of attention as he was met with a mixture of jeers and applause in Spain's politicised World Cup qualifier against Albania on Friday (Oct 6).
Pique made his 92nd appearance at international level just days after voting in a referendum on Catalan independence deemed illegal by the Spanish government and marred by a police crackdown that left hundreds needing medical attention.
However, the Barcelona defender has been received in similar fashion for over two years when representing La Roja for his outspoken jibes at Real Madrid even before his political stance took centre stage this week.
Along with captain Sergio Ramos and Barca teammate Andres Iniesta, Pique has called for politicians on both sides of the political divide to negotiate in order to avoid the shocking scenes of violence that reverberated around the world last weekend.
However, he angered many by continuing to criticise the heavy-handed policing after joining up with the Spain squad this week on social media.
"In Las Rozas (Spain's training ground) you no longer wear the Barca shirt, but that of the national team, of the country you belong to and you retweet things against that country," said Nacho Ortiz, 23, draped in a Spanish flag and who admitted he would jeer Pique.
"It is a painful subject," said Ortiz's friend Adrian Pena.
Pique has campaigned for Catalonia's right to self-determination but has never publicly backed independence for the wealthy northeastern region of Spain.
"My personal opinion is that Pique hasn't said he is in favour of independence. He has asked for dialogue, that there is a binding referendum," said Sofia Duperiel, an Alicante native who came to watch the game with her six-year-old son.
Spain could book their place in next year's World Cup with a win should Italy drop points at home to Macedonia.
"For sure it spoils the party," added Duperiel. "It is a shame to mix politics and sport."
Pique is just one of a number of Catalans who have played a huge part in Spain's most successful ever era at international level as La Roja won the 2010 World Cup and 2008 and 2012 European Championships.
And most fans can't envisage what the Spanish national team or La Liga, one of Europe's top divisions, would look like without Catalan players or teams.
"It would be incredible, I cannot imagine it," continued Duperiel.
On the field, Spain seemed to suffer little from a week of upheaval off the pitch as they raced into a 3-0 lead much to the delight of the crowd as they responded with chants of "I am Spanish" and "Viva Espana" (long live Spain).