Tuesday, 20 September 2011

In bed with Bilbao – a brief history of football in Euskadi

Didier Deschamps. Bixente Lizarazu. Ivan Campo. Xabi Alonso.  These four footballers boast a combined trophy cabinet full of: three World Cups; three European Championships; six Champions Leagues; twelve European league titles and eighteen major domestic cup competitions. Yet barely a handful of international caps? Well, Euskadi Selekzioa, or the Basque XI to you and me, only tends to get together once a year. For any country, be they established, emerging, or, like Euskadi, a nation trapped within another nation state, a presence on the international football stage is a vitally important thing. 

"I felt so lucky to be able to play for my own country at last," said former-Sudanese striker James Joseph after making his debut for his newly-founded nation, South Sudan, last month. Whether you are recognised by UEFA, FIFA or not at all, an international football team one of the defining features of a country to so many people. It is more than simply the right to compete at a World Cup (a right Euskadi do not enjoy), it is a means of expressing your distinct identity in a form the masses can enjoy. The significance of exercising this simple sovereignty is ten-fold to those groups who have traditionally felt persecuted, marginalised or who have struggled to preserve their cultural heritage.

Euskadi’s exclusivist, cultural nationalism and the conflict with Madrid are as ancient as the Basque people themselves, who are said to be the oldest indigenous group in Europe. In Franco’s Spain, the Basques suffered the most concerted attacks on their fragile culture. Both the Basque flag or ikurriña, and Basque names were outlawed and the regime made a concerted attempt to destroy Euskera, the Basque language. As a result Euskera is now spoken or understood by less than 40% of the population.

Football has been one of many ways in which the Basques have tried to preserve a culture so desperately in need of protection.

The initial incarnation of the Basque selección started in 1915 and played only friendlies versus a Catalan XI until a hiatus imposed in 1936 due to the start of the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, war still raging, the team now under the name Euskal Selekzioa resumed activity and embarked on a tour of Europe and Latin America. Games against France, Poland, the Soviet Union, Denmark and Cuba had a dual-objective: propaganda and fund-raising for the cause of Basque independence (ETA had not yet conceived the masterplan of blackmailing Bixente Lizarazu). However, the tour also created the convenient bi-product of a good team who played the game in a manner befitting the Basque national character: tough, spirited and direct. With this new persona growing in confidence, in the 1938-39 season Euskadi entered the Mexican League and achieved the unthinkable, emerging as champions.

Glory was short-lived as in 1939 the team was again forced to disband, this time under the orders of General Franco, and did not play as a nation again until 1979. However, for those forty years football, like nationalism, did not stagnate but flourished in the Basque Country. While the Basque club sides enjoyed significant on-the-field success, some of the greatest strides were perhaps made off the pitch.

According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, "The Real [Sociedad] and Athletic [Bilbao] players have done as much as political parties have towards the recovery of the ikurriña.”

In the Scociedad-Bilbao derbies of the 70s the respective club captains would take to the field each carrying an ikurriña¸ an illegal act at the time and in 1977, while Athletic’s Jose Angel Iribar held the ikurriña aloft, adopted Catalunyan Johan Cruyff joined him with his region’s flag, the senyera. These actions made Iribar one of the most respected Basque footballers ever, and furthered Cruyff’s reputation in Catalunya. The Dutchman had previously endeared himself to the region by claiming he could never play for Madrid because of their association with Franco and by calling his son ‘Jordi’, a Catalunyan name. Today, he manages the Selecció Catalana.

In 1979, four years after the death of Franco, the Euskadi Selekzioa re-established itself with the primary objective of supporting the cause of the endangered Basque language. Their first international in forty years would come against Ireland, though it was not without controversy. Club Atlético Osasuna refused to allow prolific striker Iriguíbel to play in the game, in a bizarre attempt to avoid acting in a way that could be interpreted as political. However, it seems the game itself, a 4-1 Euskadi victory, was a success. Newspaper reports the following day indicate a good-natured, enthusiastic fiesta, “in which politics remained on the margins”. A party in the San Mamés is indeed quite unlike any other in the world, but the press downplayed the political implication of the spectacle in an effort to trivialise the significance of what was undeniably an historic occasion.

Over the next three decades the Euskadi Selekzioa played a selection of friendlies, traditionally one Christmas-time fixture a year. These have included historic victories over Uruguay (2-1 and 5-1), Yugoslavia (3-1) and Tottenham Hostpur (4-0) and as well as those superstars mentioned at the beginning of the piece, players including Gaizka Mendieta, Fernando Llorente, Mikel Arteta, Asier del Horno, Francisco Yeste, Joseba Etxeberría and Manuel Almunia have all turned out for Euskadi at one stage or another. Furthermore, the current squad includes three starlets from the much-lauded Spanish U21 European Championship winning side: Mikel San Jose; Iker Munain and the captain, Javi Martinez.

On the political side of things, under PSOE president José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero concessions to the Basque cause seem further away than ever. Far from being the soft-touch the right feared, Zapatero has on the whole continued the policies pursued by the previous regime. It seems that Basque autonomy is a dream that will never be realised. However, in a world where the very concept of ‘the nation’ is as fluid as football itself, the minor victories –a goalkeeper who is prepared to risk life and limb to parade your flag or World Cup-winning superstars  who turn up for games that FIFA do not acknowledge – really do matter.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Continuing our successful Quarterfinal predicitons

With the first two quarterfinals done and dusted, and after the resounding, undeniable success of yesterday’s predictions, enjoy Man On!'s foray into the next two games the Copa has to offer...

First up, Brazil. Like Argentina, guilty of some well-publicised underwhelming performances before springing to life in their final group game. Against Ecuador, Pato and Neymar opened their accounts with two goals each, but the concerns remain that Brazil would benefit from a true centre-forward. Despite goals for the two strikers, the change in Brazil’s fortunes didn’t come from up front, but at right back. Maicon came in for the underperforming Dani Alves and made a real difference to the balance of the side, contributing an assist. His performance certainly warrants another start on Sunday.

In Brazil’s quarterfinal the opponents come in the familiar shape of Paraguay. When the two sides met in the group stage, only Fred’s last minute goal denied Paraguay what would have been a famous victory, and they will be full of confidence that they can repeat the heroics of one week ago, especially as Brazil are unlikely to add a focal-point to their attack in the shape of a true number 9. This game sees the tournament’s two top-scoring sides face-off, but don’t necessarily expect goals galore. With the caution that comes with a previous encounter under their belts and on a poor pitch in La Plata, both teams will also be desperate to avoid adding to their ample ‘goals conceded’ column as well.

Quarterfinal prediction Brazil 1-1 Paraguay, Brazil to win on penalties.

After the underperformance of all the seeds in this competition, many people would point to Chile as a team with the potential to go all the way. Talismanic striker Humberto Suazo is yet to find the net and despite scoring the equaliser against Uruguay Alexis Sanchez has not played as well as he is capable of. All the same, Chile put in some good performances so far and are perhaps the most well-balanced side in the entire competition. The attractive football that many of you will remember from the World Cup is continuing into the Copa, but as always the Chileans don’t throw caution to the wind and tend not to push on until mid-way through the second half.

The last side to make up the quarterfinals are the unbeaten Vinotinto, Venezuela. Definitely the opponents that the Chileans would have chosen themselves but underestimate them at your peril. On paper, more of a force going forward than reliable at the back, but something of an anomaly in the game against Paraguay might be skewing that figure. In reality, the Venezuelans certainly know how to defend, as they showed against Brazil and Ecuador. Cesar Farias’ side can be astoundingly resilient and might spring a surprise here.

Quarterfinal prediction Chile 1-0 Venezuela

Man On! are fortunate enough to be heading to La Plata this afternoon, and will be no doubt spanking all our hard earned cash on Quilmes, Choris and betting against Brazil. Don’t follow our lead, you saw how yesterday’s predictions went!

Friday, 15 July 2011

La Copa begins in earnest

The results are in. With the group stage over, you have had a day to catch your breath, sip your mate and take in the best Argentina has to offer. For Man On! it was more a case of having a night off,  picking our brains for something to write and sorting out our ticket to the final. I’m sure you will be relieved to hear that, after some gruelling hard work, all three of these goals have been achieved. 

The first week of the Copa was hardly rollercoaster stuff. You don’t need your finger particularly firmly on the pulse to have noticed that favourites have underperformed, centre-forwards and their goals have gone AWOL and that the most over-quoted stat of the last fortnight involves Venezuela, Copa America wins and Miss Universe competitions. In fact, the lack of action was so stark that we bet that not all of you were still paying attention when late flurry of goals, slightly more befitting of South America’s football showpiece, finally arrived. With this in mind, Man On! is proud to bring you up to speed on what’s happened so far and what to expect in the coming weeks. First, to Saturday’s quarterfinals…

Some reports would have you believe that Colombia topped Group A purely because of some terrible performances from Argentina. Although based in fact, this fails to tell the entire story. Of course, victories against perennial minnows Bolivia and a ten-man, predominantly under-23 Costa Rica do not justify hyperbolic praise. However, against the tournament hosts Colombia posed a real and dangerous threat and only failed to win for the grace of a man of the match performance from goalkeeper Sergio Romero. With Radamel Falcao leading the line after a prolific season at Porto (39 goals in 42 games), Colombia should be seen as a side capable of taking advantage if the favourites continue to slip up.

In Cordoba, their opponents will be Peru, who qualified for the quarterfinals as the best third-placed side from the group stages. Under Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarián they play an expansive, attacking brand of football. However, they are certainly over-reliant on Hamburg’s Paolo Guerrero, scorer of both their goals in the Copa thus far. La Rojiblanca are certainly capable of springing a surprise, but also of a late defensive lapse and of poor marking from set-pieces, as seen against Chile in Mendoza. 

Quarterfinal prediction: Colombia 3-1 Peru

Saturday’s other game sees the return to action of the hosts, Argentina. After well-publicised no shows against Bolivia and Colombia their array of attacking talent rediscovered their touch versus Costa Rica. Batista changed his formation to what was effectively a 4-2-3-1, and we finally got a glimpse of the Lionel Messi that we all know and love. Equally significant was the introduction of Gonzalo Higuain to the starting line-up. Despite missing most of the chances that Messi laid on a plate for him, he successfully dragged defenders out of position and open up plenty of space for the three behind him to play into. Presuming that the much-maligned Batista sticks with his new improved game-plan, you can expect to see Argentina firing on all cylinders again on Saturday.

Just over the Rio de la Plata await Argentina’s fierce rivals Uruguay. Man On! was lucky enough to be in La Plata for their nervier-than-necessary win over Mexico and can confirm that La Celeste are indeed yet to find the form that saw them reach the World Cup semifinals last summer. Diego Forlan seems to be carrying an indifferent season with Atletico over into this tournament, and Luis Suarez continues to perform better at club level than on the international stage. However, even without their attacking powerhouses playing as they can, organised at the back they certainly are. If, as rumoured, Cavani is out for el clásico rioplatense then chances might be at a premium, but Uruguay can normally rely on a stable defensive unit. Versus Mexico, Egidio Arévalo looked particularly controlled sweeping up in front of the back four.

Quarterfinal prediction: Argentina 1-0 Uruguay, and expect fireworks.