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FOOTBALL

Catalonia cloud lingers as Spain shine on road to Russia

Often overshadowed by off-field distractions, Spain's thrilling World Cup qualifying campaign has shown a side laced with rising stars and proven winners can rule the world again in Russia next year.

Catalonia cloud lingers as Spain shine on road to Russia
The Spanish team celebrates victory over Albania on Friday night. Photo: Jose Jordan/AFP

After a week in which players and coach Julien Lopetegui were grilled at every opportunity on the rising political tension sweeping across Spain caused by Catalonia's drive for independence, Lopetegui's men did their talking on the field by sweeping aside Albania on Friday night to guarantee their place at the World Cup.

A three-goal spurt in 11 first-half minutes took La Roja's tally in nine qualifying games to a mightily impressive 35 goals as a new generation of talent has injected the fresh blood needed after embarrassing early exits as defending champions at World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016.

The biggest cloud hanging over Spain's World Cup candidacy remains how destabilising the political process could be to the harmony of the group.

Gerard Pique was jeered in Alicante on Friday, as he routinely is on Spain duty, for his outspoken defence of Catalonia's right to self-determination, although he has never publicly backed independence.

Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are the other Catalan players who are key parts of Lopetegui's strongest side, but both avoid the political spotlight.

“Many things have happened since our arrival, but we have always tried to take the best decisions thinking about what is best for the team and our common objective,” said Lopetegui, who is now unbeaten in 13 games since replacing Vicente del Bosque after Euro 2016.

“I think it is time to start focusing on positive news in football and in the country because there are very good things.

“It is like when you see a very good painting with a speck of dust and you focus on the speck of dust rather than the painting.

“I think sport and the behaviour of the boys this week leads the way to show what we are and what we can be as a team. Sport is a good example.”

'Catalan Victimisation'

Pique has long since announced his intention to retire from international football after the World Cup and looks set to continue despite calls from some disgruntled fans and media members for him to step aside after voting in a referendum on independence, deemed illegal by Madrid, and marred by violent clashes last weekend.

“Pique's future with the Spanish flag is unacceptable,” centre-right newspaper El Mundo complained on Saturday.

“He has laughed at Spain and won't go until the throw him out in a strategy of Catalan victimisation.”

Winning his 92nd cap, Pique and Spain captain Sergio Ramos were the only two players Spain players to start on Friday who also won the World Cup final seven years ago.

Bitter rivals at club level with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Pique and Ramos have largely put their regular verbal jibes aside when forming an intimidating partnership as two of the world's best centre-backs for a decade.

Yet, both are now over 30 and with central defence the one area where Spain aren't blessed with strength in depth, keeping Pique and Ramos on good terms is vital to any chance of World Cup glory.

Elsewhere, Lopetegui is spoilt for choice as many of the under-21 team he led to win the European Championships in 2013 have made the step up.

The likes of David de Gea, Koke, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Alvaro Morata have filled gaps left by the departed Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Xabi Alonso.

Yet a core from Spain's heyday of three consecutive major tournament wins between 2008 and 2012 is maintained not just by Pique and Ramos, but also David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Busquets.

“We have a very good mix of veterans and youngsters,” said Thiago.   

“Spain have licence to dream again,” said Madrid-based sports daily Marca, who also declared the side “The czars of Russia.”

By Kieran Canning

FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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