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Plenty of politics at play in Venezuela-Catalonia friendly

TALES AZZONI
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Venezuela's national soccer team coach Rafael Dudamel attends a press conference in Madrid, Spain, Thursday, March 21, 2019. Venezuela will play a friendly soccer match against Argentina on Friday. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

MADRID (AP) — There will be lots of politics to talk about when Venezuela takes on a Catalonia squad in a friendly soccer game in Spain on Monday.

Venezuela has a coach who offered his resignation over the alleged political use of his national team, while Catalonia — the region in the middle of an independence dispute with Spain — will be missing players because some non-Catalan teams didn't release them.

Venezuela is coming off a convincing 3-1 win over Lionel Messi's Argentina on Friday, but what attracted most of the attention after the friendly was an announcement by Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel. He offered his resignation because he was not happy with the politicization of a pre-game visit by a representative of Juan Guaido, the man challenging Nicolas Maduro's claim to the presidency in Venezuela.

Dudamel and the rest of the squad had welcomed the visit but the coach apparently did not like that images were later released to the public.

"Regrettably, they politicized the visit," Dudamel said. "The agreement was that if there was any image or video, it would have been used internally only. But they politicized the visit, and we can't allow that to happen. It was regrettable how they used it."

Venezuela is in the middle of a power struggle since Maduro's re-election last year was deemed illegitimate by several governments.

Dudamel said he will remain in charge of the squad on Monday, but his future will depend on talks with Venezuelan soccer federation officials in the coming days.

Catalonia has also undergone political turmoil, peaking recently in 2017 with an independence referendum not recognized by Madrid. The issue divided Spain at the time and remains a hot topic politically.

Although the region is not independent, Catalonia has often put together squads to play in friendly matches against other nations.

Among the Catalan players expected to play on Monday are veterans Gerard Pique and Xavi Hernandez. Both have retired from the Spanish national team and are off-duty with their clubs because of the international break.

Hernandez, a 39-year-old midfielder, currently plays in Qatar. The 32-year-old Pique, still a starter with Barcelona, decided to stop playing with Spain's national team after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

But other players initially selected for the squad were not released by their clubs, who said their decisions were not related to politics.

Valladolid, which is fighting relegation from the top tier of the Spanish league, was the first team to keep its players from taking part in Monday's match, and Rayo Vallecano and Huesca — also threatened by relegation — later followed suit.

"We understand the reasons why these clubs are not going to let their players play," Catalonia coach Gerard Lopez said.

The match will be played in Girona, a Catalan city about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Barcelona.

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