World Cup 2018 qualifiers

Spain put football over politics ahead of final World Cup qualifier against Israel

Julen Lopetegui sought to downplay the potential impact of the Catalan independence bid on his team.

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui sought on Sunday to downplay the potential impact of the Catalan independence bid on his team, ahead of the final game of their successful World Cup qualification campaign.

Lopetegui spoke in Jerusalem ahead of Spain’s match against Israel on Monday, while in Barcelona hundreds of thousands of demonstrators rallied against plans by separatist leaders to declare Catalonia independent following a banned secession referendum.

Gerard Pique, the Catalan centre back, has faced criticism and even booing from Spanish fans after backing the referendum.

Spain, who qualified on Friday after beating Albania, play their final qualifier Monday night against already eliminated Israel and are one of the favourites for next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

Asked about the potential impact of the political turmoil on the squad, Lopetegui repeated earlier comments downplaying the issue.

“We are trying to prioritise the collective feeling of the team,” he told a press conference ahead of the game.

“We are putting at the service of the team the individual quality of all that they have. It is obvious that we are a heterogeneous group of players and what we want is to create a homogenous group.”

Arsenal right-back Nacho Monreal also said the players were focussed on the pitch.

“For us it was clear from the very first day that we focussed on playing. Politics are not our concern so we are giving priority to tomorrow’s match and playing football.”

Sergio Busquets is expected to earn his 100th cap Monday, and Lopetegui hailed the Barcelona midfielder.

“Bussi is a player at the highest level, with maximum professionalism, but he is a player who respects his position and he is a very important player.”

Busquets, who like Pique is Catalan, has said very little about the potential independence. Pique will miss Monday’s match as he is suspended.

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