Football: The Basque way
Kick off is 9pm. It is the continent after all. Athletic Bilbao are playing Recreativo de Huelva, who have made the 800km trip north from Andalusia. Hardly a blockbuster? Try telling that to 40,000 delirious Basques inside San Mames Stadium on this crisp November night.
The players emerge from the tunnel and the din, unbelievably, lifts another notch. An enormous Basque or Euskadi National flag is unfurled at the southern end. Smaller versions are also being waved frantically. Only two colours exist in the rainbow tonight – red and white. The Basque anthem is surely moments away.
I was expecting a Manly and Parra type atmosphere. Turns out it’s more Australia and Uruguay. If I could have heard myself think, I would have thought, “C’mon people, it’s Recreativa de Huelva!”
I have little choice but to put aside my bag of sunflower seeds and cheer with the rest of them.
The pre-match rituals out of the way, the referee’s opening shrill induces another (by now highly predictable) thunderous roar. The game plays out with a smattering of incidents, a few textbook Iberian back heels, more thunderous roars, a theatrical dive or two and an excitable Athletic manager who ages before my eyes.
Sitting in the third row I swerve at one point to let the ball miss my head. It is caught by a balding man behind me. He duly bends down, unzips his bag, pops the ball in, zips it up and resumes cheering. His cheeky smile and innocent shrug when he catches my eye are priceless.
The Basque people are fiercely independent. They have a distinct language, a distinct culture and a distinct non-Spanish way of doing things. A sometimes violent campaign for full independence has been waged for over 40 years.
In football terms, this is expressed via the enormous Basque flag at the southern end, the feverish crowd and the player recruitment policy.
Until recently Athletic Bilbao and their Basque cousins, Real Sociedad, had a strict Basque-only player policy. Real Sociedad did away with this 20 years ago, allowing foreigners to play but still no non-Basque Spaniards. Athletic have stayed solid albeit with some limited flexibility.
And while the rivalry between the two is always intense, both teams have been known to throw a local derby to ensure the other Basque team avoids relegation.
And you thought the Irish were patriotic?
So after 90 minutes of rapturous cheering and celebratory hugs and kisses, the crowd disappears into the night without incident.
I cannot help but feel that the match itself, together with the balding man, helped further the Basque cause that little bit more.
Athletic Bilbao 2 (Etxeberria 51, Etxeberria 61), Recreativo de Huelva 0.