In Good Conscience

Pique and Kaepernick display the courage of their convictions

Gerard Pique is not in his wildest dreams seeking to provoke a rebellion like the Colin Kaepernick protest that has swept the National Football League (NFL) in the United States.

But there are comparisons.

By kneeling during the US national anthem, and inspiring dozens of players to do the same, Kaepernick exercised the right of the sportsman to engage brain as well as brawn, but he has remained unemployed for months. The President of the United States would prefer the quarterback and all who think like him banished from the national game.

Without going back over the same ground, I would definitely trust Colin Kaepernick over President Donald Trump as a guest in my house any day of the week.

And Pique? Yes, without the slightest hesitation.

The Spaniard (a Catalan is still a Spaniard, as Pique is the first to point out) is charming, erudite, considerate and among the best conversationalists in the global game of football.

Why then do the fans jeer and whistle him when he touches the ball, playing for the country he has represented since he was 15?

It is because he exercised the right, some might say the duty, of a citizen born and raised in Catalonia to vote in last weekend's independence referendum.

Catalonia is bigger than Singapore. It has more than seven million people, and is an economic engine that is envied by other Spanish regions.

Spain is a country divided. It is no use saying sport and politics should not mix because the very motto of FC Barcelona "Mes que un club" (more than a club) is a political statement.

At a training session for the Spain side on Oct 5, a fan waves the national flag and a heart-shaped Barcelona jersey of Gerard Pique, whose unequivocal support for the Catalan cause has been a source of angst in Spain. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Barca was established in 1899 to be an expression of Catalan nationalism. It was targeted by General Franco, just as Real Madrid had the general's (and the king's) support.

Madrid, indeed, includes the word Real (meaning royal) in its title.

So in Spain, sport is politics. Pique is a Catalan first, a Spaniard second. Last week, he witnessed armed Spanish police vandalising polling stations and beating unarmed Catalans, the women and elderly included, to deter them from voting.

The Spaniard (a Catalan is still a Spaniard, as Pique is the first to point out) is charming, erudite, considerate and among the best conversationalists in the global game of football.

What was he to do? Shut up and play the "national" game against Albania a few days later, or speak up against police brutality against innocent people?

In that regard, Pique and Kaepernick have similar instincts.

Their physical prowess puts them into the national spotlight. In President Trump's world, and possibly in the eyes of the Spanish overlords, sporting heroes should be seen and not heard.

Pique is torn by his conscience. All that he has become is thanks to Barcelona. His father is a businessman there, his mother runs a spinal injuries hospital. And her father, Amador Bernabeu, was once a vice-president of FC Barca.

Yes, Bernabeu. The same surname as Santiago Bernabeu, the man who made Real Madrid great in the 1950s.

Gerard Pique Bernabeu, as his birth certificate lists him, was enrolled at the Barcelona club academy when he was 10. He grew up alongside Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets... Lionel Messi too.

Come that fateful period when Spain dominated world football, Barca and Madrid fused their talents beautifully together.

To hear Pique howled at during the game in Alicante that secured Spain's qualification for the 2018 World Cup suggests that, in some minds, Catalan and Madridista serving shoulder to shoulder has become intolerable.

The abuse began during an open training session and, again, those who turned up to boo possibly regard that as their right.

Yet Pique has been one of theirs, through every age group since 2002. The whole point of this most successful Spanish achievement in their history was forged on gathering together fledgling talents (be they Catalan, Castillan or Basque), teaching them to share the ball, and show the world the joy of tiki-taka passing and movement.

Pique's contribution did not start with his 92 full caps. He came through all levels representing Spain at Under-16, Under-17, Under-19, Under-20 and Under-21 levels.

"I came here 15 years ago and it's been like a family to me," he said this week. "We are footballers, but above all, we are people.

"I believe an independentista can play for the national team. The whistling is difficult to stop, but what I'm expressing is very rational."

The rationale is shared by his club which on Wednesday allied itself to the call within Catalonia to go through the route of dialogue and conciliation, not confrontation with Madrid.

"In the sporting sense, we will aspire, as ever, to win every title," said the Barca president Josep Bartomeu. "This shall be our way of showing the world the reality of what is happening in Catalonia and reassuring our commitment to our society and to freedom, the same commitment to which Barca has always been loyal throughout its 118 years of history."

When Pique, now one of the most senior and decorated players of Spain, lined up in Alicante, he respected the flag of the national team. He did not sing because the Spanish anthem is one of just four in the world that has no words.

Personally, I wish there was another way of prefacing international play. Without flags, without anthems, without nationalism.

As Spain were qualifying for the World Cup Finals, so too were Panama. A "minnow" of the Central American region, with a population of just four million, Panama qualified at the expense of the US, population 323 million at last count.

The Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela did a Donald Trump. He used Twitter to declare: "The voice of the people has been heard. Celebrate this historic day for Panama. Tomorrow is a national holiday."

Historic, yes.

A celebration, why not?

But sport is sport. Eleven players winning against the odds is cause for celebration, but no panacea for the divisions and inequality within a nation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2017, with the headline 'Pique and Kaepernick display the courage of their convictions'. Print Edition | Subscribe