BARCELONA • Barcelona defender Gerard Pique says he is ready to stand down from Spain duty if he is deemed a "problem" by the national team coach Julen Lopetegui or the Spanish Football Federation as a result of his support for Catalan independence.
The Barcelona-born player broke down in tears describing his club's 3-0 LaLiga win over Las Palmas in an empty Camp Nou as the "worst professional experience" of his life on a chaotic Sunday in Catalonia.
According to Catalan health officials, more than 750 people were injured as riot police fired rubber bullets and forced their way into polling stations over an independence referendum for the north-eastern region, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish government.
After Barcelona's attempt to have their game abandoned was dismissed by Spanish league authorities based in Madrid, the club decided to play behind closed doors in protest at the violent scenes.
"The board tried to postpone the game at all costs. We debated it between the players and the club, and chose to play," said Pique. "It was difficult without the supporters. There were many arguments in favour and against, but we were playing for the points and Las Palmas wanted to play.
"It was very difficult to play the game. It was the worst professional experience I have had in my life."
Pique has been an outspoken supporter of Catalonia's right to self-determination .
DYED IN THE WOOL
I am, and I feel Catalan... If anyone in the federation thinks I am a problem, I don't have a problem... retiring from international football before 2018.''
GERARD PIQUE, Barcelona centre-back, is adamant he would rather quit international duty than back down from his stance in support of a free Catalonia.
He posted a picture on his Twitter account as he voted before the game on Sunday. And he believes the shocking scenes have only served to rupture the fractious relations between Catalonia and Madrid even further.
Pique said: "You vote yes, no, or leave it blank, but you vote. In the (General Francisco) Franco era, we couldn't defend our ideas. I am, and I feel Catalan, and I am very proud of the people, of their behaviour.
"I couldn't believe it. I thought they would try to block the vote but they would try to do it in a peaceful manner. It wasn't like that, but at least the whole world has seen it.
"This decision has made things a lot worse. It is one of the worst decisions made by this country in 40 or 50 years. It has only served to separate Catalonia and Spain more and it will have consequences."
Pique's political stance has seen him targeted by Spain fans when playing for the national team, despite his role in winning the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 with the national team.
The 30-year-old has already announced his decision to retire from international football after next year's World Cup.
He is now due to link up with La Roja for their forthcoming World Cup qualifiers against Albania and Israel - but says he is willing to step aside before Russia 2018 if his involvement is an issue.
"I think I can continue going with the national team because I believe there are many people in Spain totally against the events that took place today in Catalonia and that believe in democracy," said Pique.
"If not, I will not go. If anyone in the federation thinks I am a problem, I don't have a problem in stepping aside and retiring from international football before 2018."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS