Lopetegui defends latest Spain call-ups amid Catalan independence protests

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REUTERS/Paul Hanna Picture Supplied by Action Images

Spain national team manager Julen Lopetegui named his latest team for a pair of upcoming World Cup qualifying fixtures against Albania and Israel, and included among the 25-man squad, as usual, is centre-back Gerard Pique.

With 91 appearances for Spain, Pique isn't exactly a shock inclusion, but his selection was still met with questions. People in Catalonia are protesting for a secession referendum to be held, but the Spanish court has ordered the vote must not happen. In this heated climate, Barcelona stalwart Pique posted on social media Thursday calling for continued peaceful protests

"From today until Sunday we will express ourselves pacifically," Pique tweeted in Catalan, as quoted by the Associated Press. "Don't give them any excuse (for a crackdown). That's what they want. And sing loud and clear."

(Photo courtesy: Action Images)

The 30-year-old has been jeered by Spain fans during home matches as a result of his views on Catalan independence as well as his comments toward Real Madrid in the buildup to El Clasico bouts. To that end, his Spain teammate and Madrid opposite Sergio Ramos suggested Pique's latest tweet "isn't the best thing to do" if he doesn't want people to jeer him.

For Lopetegui, the backdrop of political unrest won't serve to alter - or weaken - his squad.

"I want to focus on the game," he explained, as quoted by Marca. "Several sportsmen have talked about (the vote), but (Pique) will train with us as usual.

"Gerard is part of the soul of the Spanish team, there is no room for doubt with him. We will not allow anything or anyone to divert us because clearly the objective of the external noise is antagonistic and has nothing to do with us."

The rest of Spain's squad remains relatively unchanged, besides the exclusion of New York City FC striker David Villa, out due to a lack of adequate fitness, while Asier Illarramendi steps into midfield in the place of Cesc Fabregas.

Spain hosts Albania on Oct. 6 before travelling to Israel three days later in the last match of the World Cup qualifying group stage. The team sits first in Group G and is assured to finish at least second, with Italy behind by three points. The full squad, below:

Goalkeepers: David De Gea (Manchester United), Pepe Reina (Napoli), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao)

Defenders: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Marc Bartra (Borussia Dortmund), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Nacho (Real Madrid), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)

Midfielders: Isco (Real Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Asier Illarramendi (Real Sociedad), David Silva (Manchester City), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid)

Forwards: Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Jose Callejon (Napoli), Rodrigo (Valencia), Alvaro Morata (Chelsea), Pedro (Chelsea)