October 12th 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Gerard Pique has announced that he will retire from international football after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

It was a decision made in the heat of a particularly heated moment, with the latest media and fan criticism of the Barcelona defender proving to be the straw that broke the camel's back. And with the World Cup still the best part of two years away -- much like former team-mate Carles Puyol in 2010 and current colleague Lionel Messi this summer -- Pique could yet decide to reverse his decision to quit playing for his country.

But if he does not -- if Pique's announcement proves to be more promise than threat -- it will be Spain's great loss.

In one of the most remarkable acts of self-sabotage in football, large sections of the Spanish media and fans have pushed their best defender to the point where he is no longer willing to represent La Roja.

As a proud Catalan, and one who has made no attempt to disguise his disdain for Real Madrid over the years, Pique has become a scapegoat for the Madrid-based press. The former Manchester United defender is often made to carry the can for Spain's failings and was recently the subject of boos from the stands.

The latest personal slight was levied against Pique by newspapers AS and Marca, who believed that the 29-year-old centre-back had deliberately cut the Spanish flag from the sleeve of his jersey ahead of the 2-0 victory over Albania on Sunday.

This was perceived as a disrespectful act, supposedly evidence of the player's pro-Catalan, anti-Spain stance, and Pique was lambasted.

It was later discovered that he had cut the sleeves off the long-sleeve version of the Spain shirt, which does not have the Spanish flag on the arm at all, as the short-sleeve top does.

Conclusions had been jumped to and headlines were written with little care to find out what had really happened. Pique was again the villain.

The Barcelona defender is Catalan and proud of it, of that there can be no doubt. But there can also be no doubt over his commitment to the Spain national side. As a World Cup winner in 2010 and European Champion in 2012, Pique formed a vital part of arguably the greatest national team in the history of the game.

A world class defender whose technical ability is matched only by his pride and passion. Whether at club or international level, Pique is a committed leader whose errors can be counted on one hand.

That's more than can be said of his current central defensive partner Sergio Ramos. The Real Madrid man's qualities are obvious and manifold, but so too are his deficiencies. Prone to lapses in concentration, rushes of blood to the head and owner of a disciplinary record that would make Vinny Jones wince, Ramos has more than his share of flaws.

Just last week, he was guilty of conceding a penalty which allowed Italy to rescue a point from a game which Spain had dominated.

But Ramos is the captain, the unquestionable leader; Spain to the core; an emblem of La Roja and Real Madrid. Pique is an easy target.

Once it was revealed that Pique hadn't in fact cut the Spain flag from his shirt that the whole thing was a misunderstanding AS and Marca began to backtrack.

AS director Alberto Relano wrote an open letter of apology to Pique, while Marca reacted with the headline "Everyone is Pique" above an article in which Xavier Garcia Albiol, leader of the Catalan PP political party, said: "Pique can have his ideology but he has done everything for Spain."

Manolo Lama of ABC spoke out against the criticism of Pique. "It seems incredible to me that there are people who dedicate themselves to analysing the gestures of Gerard Pique and what he does on the pitch," he said.

"Accusing him of cutting the sleeves off his shirt to get rid of the national team colours is one of a large series of inventions," Lama continued. "Like them saying he raised his middle finger during the national anthem and so many other campaigns they have mounted in recent times. What more can he do to the national team?"

Spain manager Julen Lopetegui, who, just two-and-a-half months into his tenure is having to deal with one of his best players being driven to international retirement, is hopeful that cooler heads will prevail.

"We should be calm about Pique," Lopetegui said after his team's 2-0 win over Albania. "We'll let the dust settle and avoid drawing too many conclusions."

But Pique is sticking by his decision, insisting that it is something that has been troubling him for some time, rather than a reaction to a single incident.

"It's not a heat of the moment decision, I've given a lot of thought to this," Pique said. "It's not because of what happened today, it's because I always give my best on the field and although there are some people who have thanked me, some don't think it's OK for me to be here."

Pique has amassed 84 caps for Spain and, not yet 30, is showing no signs of decline. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that, considering his consistent performances at the highest level of the game, the Barça star is the best centre-back on the planet. At the very least, he's in the discussion with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci, Jerome Boateng and Diego Godin.

And it's not like Lopetegui has a wealth of top-level central defenders to call upon, after Pique and Ramos, there is a vast quality drop off with Borussia Dortmund's Marc Bartra next in line a man who was sold by Barcelona this summer as he was unable to challenge Pique and Javier Mascherano for a regular starting berth at the Camp Nou.

It's a shame that it has taken the threat of retirement for Pique's value to La Roja to be truly appreciated; it may prove to be a case of not knowing what you had until it'd gone. Spain have two years to convince Pique to reconsider.