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.

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