Football: The Basque way

Junior Roar Rookie

By Junior, Junior is a Roar Rookie

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    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.

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    The Crowd Says (7)

    • November 27th 2009 @ 8:49am
      Vicentin said | November 27th 2009 @ 8:49am | ! Report

      Junior, nice read. My wife was recently in the region for a few weeks as she was involved with a international choral festival – she had a fantastic time, thought the people were fantastically warm and welcoming, food was great etc. Can’t really add much more except that its on my list of places to go next time I’m overseas. Cheers

    • Roar Guru

      November 27th 2009 @ 9:00am
      Pippinu said | November 27th 2009 @ 9:00am | ! Report

      The Basque country is a very nice part of Spain.

      My favourite little spot are the green hills arond Fuenterrabia (or Hondarribia in Basque), just over the French border, not too far from Biarritz.

    • November 28th 2009 @ 6:36pm
      bever fever said | November 28th 2009 @ 6:36pm | ! Report

      Wonder if the Basques have their own indigenous sport ?.

      • November 28th 2009 @ 6:42pm
        Midfielder said | November 28th 2009 @ 6:42pm | ! Report

        No they prefer global games where they can test themselves without fear against the world…

        • November 28th 2009 @ 6:47pm
          bever fever said | November 28th 2009 @ 6:47pm | ! Report

          Please explain ?.

          Source ?.

      • Roar Guru

        November 28th 2009 @ 6:59pm
        Pippinu said | November 28th 2009 @ 6:59pm | ! Report

        There are stacks of Basque sports, one of the better known ones is the Basque version of pelota:

    • December 2nd 2009 @ 1:50pm
      Football Mad said | December 2nd 2009 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

      ‘I was expecting a Manly and Parra type atmosphere.’

      You’re kidding, aren’t you??!!?

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