Behind the closed doors of Basque Country

Football sometimes becomes more than a game. Sometimes, it is the only chance to express your identity. This article narrates one such story of identity crisis from Spain where the pride, politics, nationalism and fan culture reached a culmination. This article was first published in ‘Tiro: A football odyssey from Amazon to Alps’ , Rattis Books, UK, June 2016.

When Pablo Picasso completed one of his greatest creations in 1937, it took the world by storm. Guernica is a mural-sized oil painting created by the genius, symbolising the universal fate of humanity against the anguishes and miseries of war. This is a masterpiece that speaks to civilisation about destruction and guides them towards the path of hope. It was believed that this painting which became a timeless cultural icon, was a direct response from the artist to the Luftwaffe aerial bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937. The Nazi Germany air force executed the operation upon the instructions of General Franco, leader of the Spanish nationalist government during the Spanish Civil war.

Guernica, a small quiet town in the province of Biscay (Bizkaia) in Basque Country, was regarded as the centre of Basque culture and tradition. The town, the most ancient in the Basque region, was a strong foothold of the Republican forces. It stood between the Nationalist forces and their desire to conquer the city of Bilbao. It was a bright sunny afternoon on a market-day at Guernica when the German air-force started carpet bombing the town, and that forever changed the history and dynamics of Spanish politics. Guernica became the symbol of resistance and Basque pride against Spanish central­ised forces.

Despite the tumultuous backdrop, football had always been an integral part of the great culture of the Basque region and the indigenous football clubs like Deportivo Alaves, SD Eibar, CA Osasuna, Real Unión and Real Sociedad became significantly important in preserving and celebrating the tradition, culture and sentiment. However, none of them has achieved the feat that Athletic Bilbao has. The club not only carried the heritage of the region, but also became a tool to convey their political sentiment against the Spanish government and their urge for an independent nation. Gernikako Arbola is an oak tree that symbolises traditional freedom for the Basque peo­ple and can also be seen on the crest of Athletic Bilbao football club – it is the pride of Basque country.

The day Guernica was bombed, a group of footballers from Basque were in Paris playing for the Basque national team known as Euzkadiko Selekzioa. The team comprised a bunch of footballers who had a strong inclination to­wards the Republican force and Basque government. They started playing un­official football games to raise funds for the ongoing civil war and spread the propaganda against General Franco’s allies – notably Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The team was led by two brothers from Real Madrid – Pedro and Luis Regueiro. Born in Barakaldo, a city in Basque country, the Regueiro brothers were Republicans who participated in the propaganda in favour of the Republic and the Basque (Euskadi) government. At that time, General Franco supposedly backed Real Madrid and that evoked nationalist senti­ments for the government. It was surprising and rebellious of the Regueiro brothers to play beneficial matches for orphans, war victims and hospitals as part of the Republican force, compromising their lucrative career with Real Madrid. Emilio Alonso Larrazabal, better known as Emilín, who at the age of just twenty-one was already being considered as one of the best forwards of Spanish football and Real Madrid, joined their team too.

The Regueiro brothers, together with Emilín, being Basque by birth, were chosen by the government of Euskadi in 1937 to take part in a tour of matches throughout Europe and the Soviet Union to raise some funds for hospitals, get some resources for the on-going civil war and attract the world’s attention towards the situation in Spain. Franco did whatever he could to bring down the morale of the team. A rumour was quickly spread that Luis Regueiro had died at war of a bullet wound. However, the team reached Paris to play their first friendly game against Racing Paris which they won 3–0 on the fateful day of April 26. The very next morning they heard the news of the bombing of Guernica. The team went into distress and trauma. Luis Regueiro himself took the responsibility to motivate the team and continued the journey in France and other European countries and finally reached the Soviet Union. The team was in Moscow when they got the news that Bilbao had fallen, and since then most of the players lived their lives in exile and never could return home.

The struggle against fascism was started by the beautiful game in Basque Country and Athletic de Bilbao has carried the solemn fire to destiny.

Arriba!! Arriba!! … que en euskadi se prepara … la revolucion …

The terraces of San Mames were trembling with the uproar from Bilbao fans. The chant, which literally meant ‘Up! Up! The Euskadi prepares for the revo­lution’, echoed through the corridors, the giant tunnel and each corner of the historic field. They called it a cathedral, a place like no other and an architec­ture built upon loyalty. The breathless, quixotic anthem of ‘Athle-tic, Athle­tic’ rang along the Sabino Arana Avenue outside the San Mames creating a sense of solidarity among the Basque inhabitants.

‘What makes a historic stadium is not architecture, but what happened there’, Marcelo Bielsa rightly said at a press conference back in 2013, ‘San Mames has a way to communicate with the players.’1

San Mames is to the Bilbao fans what Camp Nou is to the Catalans, if not more. However, there are uncanny similarities between these two regions and, more precisely, these two clubs. Basque Country or Euskadi, similar to Catalonia, was oppressed during Franco’s regime and is till date seeking in­dependence from the Spanish government. Furthermore, both the regions are carrying their struggle of independence symbolically through the most important football clubs of the region – FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao.

Most of the Basque residents of modern times grew up seeing the replica of Picasso’s famous painting Guernica in their houses and unconsciously grew pseudo-hatred against Madrid and Spain. The pride of Athletic Bilbao, also known as Los Leones, rose on the ashes of the civil war since the day of the bombing of Guernica. Football, as always being a weapon of mass sentiment, played a giant role in channelising the Basque emotions. One could easily remember the 2015 Copa del Rey final where Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao clashed in Camp Nou, and a certain Lionel Messi dazzled the world with his mercurial solo goal. However, the game was not only between Catalan artistry and Basque spirit, it was much bigger. What could be a better place to dem­onstrate nationalism than a Copa del Rey final. Both the Catalan and Basque fans united to disrupt the Spanish national anthem, played before the game by waving pro-independence flags and whistling, while King Juan Carlos was present in the stands.

It was predictable. Just like the Catalans, the strong anti-Spanish senti­ment was too obvious to hide in the Basque regions. If you travel around the cities of Basque, you will often encounter wall graffiti saying ‘Guernica is not Spain’. Radicalism is actually a minority in Basque nation and therefore, in the football fan culture. The fans create an eclectic atmosphere inside the stadium demonstrating their Basque glory and pro-independence emotion. However, often Athletic was rumoured to be indirectly linked with the activi­ties of the radical organisation ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) which the former President Jose Maria Arrate refuted strongly.

‘We see ourselves as unique in world football and this defines our iden­tity. We do not say that we are either better or worse than others, merely different.’ said Arrate.2

Perhaps, that’s how the Basque people want to show their club to the world – a noble and larger-than-life establishment that stands as the last Mohican against modern football. Bilbao has been graced by the eminent art­istry of Rafael Moreno Aranzadi aka Pichichi and Telmo Zarra, but the club has never opened its gate to footballers of non-Basque origin. Telmo Zarra has, in fact, carved a niche for himself as the epitome of Basque culture. The renowned anthropologist Joseba Zulaika in an interview to famous Basque po­litical journalist Imanol Murua Uria, gave an interesting analogy while defin­ing Basque culture.3 It is well-known that the best goal scored by Telmo Zarra is the goal that he never scored. In a game against Valencia, Zarra tricked the on-rushing goal-keeper in front of the goal only to find him lying injured on the ground. The empty net was waiting for the greatest ever Spanish forward to shoot and celebrate. To everyone’s disbelief, the legend refused to score and kicked the ball outside the field amidst huge applauds. A culture of sacri­fice, generosity and a sense of self-delimitation – that is what Basque culture is made of.

AUGUST 30, 2009 - Football : Athletic fans waves during the La Liga match between Athletic Club and RCD Espanyol at the San Mames on August 30, 2009 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Tsutomu Takasu)
AUGUST 30, 2009 – Football : Athletic fans waves during the La Liga match between Athletic Club and RCD Espanyol at the San Mames on August 30, 2009 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Tsutomu Takasu)

Basque nationalism has a lot to do with the philosophy of sacrifice. Athletic was one of the founding members of the La Liga in 1928, and along with Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona remains the only club that has never been relegated. The 1930s, 1940s and 1950s saw an inspiring display from Athletic who established themselves as one of the most successful clubs in Spain. A century-old club, they had won the league eight times and had been crowned the champion of Copa del Rey twenty-four times, second only to FC Barcelona. This is an ironic statistics considering the political intentions of people from these two regions and the fact that the name Copa del Rey represents the imperial nature of nationalist Spain. Unfortunately, their last league crown came in 1984 and since then they hardly appeared as a title-chasing force. Bilbao is known for their unique Cantera policy of signing players native to or trained in the greater Basque Country, including Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Álava and Navarre (in Spain), and Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre (in France). It means they are forced to compete with the likes of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid only with the set of home-grown players to be found from a population of two million people. And, I assure you, it is a Herculean task to survive with such an ideology in the money and wealth of modern football. Real Sociedad, the other prominent club of the Basque re­gion and an arch-rival of Athletic Bilbao, had to drop their Basque-only policy in 1989 to survive in the competition when they signed on Irish international, John Aldridge from Liverpool.

However, Athletic valued their tradition more than success. In the age of mercenaries, they chose to cheer for their local lads. When Spanish newspa­per El Mundo conducted a survey among the fans in the late 1990s, more than three-quarters of Athletic’s supporters affirmed that they would rather watch Athletic get relegated, than see the club give up their famous La Cantera policy.

Vicente is a Spanish name meaning conquering. Its French equivalent is Vincent, whereas Bixente is the equivalent in Basque language. When Bixente Lizarazu was born, a town hall employee refused to register his Basque name given by his parents and used the French equivalent Vincent instead. It was not until 1996, that Lizarazu was authorised to use his original Basque name. 1996 was also the year when FC Girondins de Bordeaux made it to the fi­nal of the UEFA Cup to face the mighty Bayern Munich. Bixente captained the side in what would be his last game for Bordeaux that night. Rising star, Christophe Dugarry and a certain Zinedine Zidane played under his cap­taincy. While Bayern thrashed Bordeaux 1–3 convincingly, the Parc Lescure applauded their charismatic left-back when he left the field on a stretcher following a horrid contact. Little did he know at that time, that the upcoming years would be so eventful for him.

Lizarazu spent all his life at the East of Bay of Biscay, growing up amidst rich French-Basque culture and surfing on the scenic beaches of South-Western France. After his bright Bordeaux career, he had a few enticing options to choose from. PSG were after him and Arsenal too made him a lucrative offer. However, the man who was rooted in Basque culture, was not keen to move to cities like Paris or London.

‘I think I would suffocate, I would miss something, like a shepherd always needs his mountain,’ he said in an interview.4

Finally, he took the most rational option – Athletic Bilbao – only an hour’s drive from his home town Hendaye, on the other side of the beautiful river Bidasoa. This was a historic transfer as well, Lizarazu being the first foreign player to sign for Bilbao.

‘This is a club that has always kept a Basque identity, which has always been only Basque players, although I willl be the first Basque North to play.’ Bixente was hopeful, ‘but I know I will not be regarded as a foreigner.’5

The journey started on a positive note. Bixente was happy, and so were the fans. He even came up to sing in Euskara in a Christmas special organised by Euskal Telebista. Things started turning from good to bad and from bad to worse as Lizarazu got entangled in conflicts with the new manager, Luis Fernandez from PSG. He was one of the jewels of carre magique (French for ‘magic square’), the midfield that dominated the European scene in the 1980s and hence had considerable clout. This, coupled with a persistent groin in­jury, forced him to miss all but 16 games over the season. He then decided to move on to the Bavarian giant, Bayern Munich.

Basques love their favourite sons, but hate a traitor vocally. His desire to move to Bayern provoked their strong sense of nationality. Very soon, he was portrayed as a mercenary who did not respect the Basque identity.

Happier days: Bixente Lizarazu waving the Ikurrina during his Bilbao days.
Happier days: Bixente Lizarazu waving the Ikurrina during his Bilbao days.

Lizarazu was bewildered. He had grown up in a Basque family, and seeped in Basque heritage and culture. He gave his son a Basque name – Tximista, which in Basque means lightning. He was as Basque as anybody else around him, but did not want to be a political tool to showcase pride and nationality. In return, he was labelled a traitor.

The real shock was yet to unfold. On 12 December 2000, an envelope arrived at Hendaye. Bixente was in Paris that week with his girlfriend to cel­ebrate his birthday. His parents received the letter. It was not signed but had an emblem marked on it – a snake wrapping an axe. The mark immediately sent chills down his spine. He knew exactly where it came from. The letter was from ETA – the notorious Basque terrorist organisation. It was a letter that changed his life, forever.

Many years later, Bixente revealed the details of the letter in his autobiography.

“We are alarmed and angry because you have defended the colours of an enemy state… You have been paid lump sum to wear the shirt of an op­pressive state with money stolen from the Basques people. ETA is writing to you as it needs support to continue the fight with state considering you have received the enemy money. Failure to respond to this could result in a response against you and your property.” 6

On 12 December 2000, an envelope arrived at Hendaye. Bixente was in Paris that week with his girlfriend to cel­ebrate his birthday. His parents received the letter. It was not signed but had an emblem marked on it – a snake wrapping an axe.

Lizarazu reached the pinnacle of his career when he won the 1998 FIFA World Cup wearing French national colour. His participation and success for France, being referred to as the oppressive state, made him a high-profile extortion target of ETA. Once the investigation started, he was provided with high profile security both in France and Germany.

‘In Germany, I went to Bayern’s training in an armoured sedan camou­flaged with hand guns.’ Bixente recalled, ‘In the Basque Country, every morn­ing they inspected my car, they looked below. In airports, I took the secret entrances, reserved for heads of state.’7 This is why his stint in Bilbao will never be considered a good example for Basque football tradition.

History repeated itself 15 years later.

Casco Viejo is the old medieval neighbourhood of Bilbao famous for col­ourful shops and taverns. The calm and modest old town witnessed unusual proceedings on a Sunday night after Real Betis mauled Athletic 5–3 at the San Mames. It was 19 August 2012. One of the official merchandise stores of Athletic Bilbao was vandalised and someone painted on the glass window ‘Llorente muérete español’ (‘Llorente, you Spanish, die!’) and ‘Llorente bas­tardo muérete’ (‘Llorente, you bastard, die!’).

This is something that was not predicted just a few months back. Fernando Llorente, adorably known as ‘El Rey Leon’ (The Lion King), was born in the region of Navarre adjacent to Basque region. Athletic Bilbao, who are fondly known as Los Leones or The Lions, quite naturally had given the nickname Lion King to their most precious asset. He joined the Athletic academy in 1996 when he was only eleven and since then became a patron of the club and their culture. The previous season he had netted a staggering 29 times for the club and played a pivotal role behind Bilbao’s re-emergence in the elite mod­ern football scene when they defeated the English giant, Manchester United 5–3 on aggregate in the Round of sixteen of the Europa League. The team was managed by Marcelo Bielsa, who during a short tenure between 2011 and 2013, had imposed a flamboyant team game and reached the final of the Copa del Rey (losing to Barcelona) and the Europa League (losing to Atletico Madrid). That young side not only defeated United but ran them rugged in Old Trafford forcing David de Gea to make save after save in front of a helpless Sir Alex Ferguson. In the return leg, Llorente scored through a thunderous right-footed volley in the 23rd minute to open the scoring in front of a filled San Mames crowd. Llorente stretched his long arms and ran towards the gallery. The crowd went hysterical with joy and embraced their favourite son. Within a few months however, the world turned upside down for the ‘Lion King’.

In Basque country, ambition has to take a backseat in the face of na­tionalist emotion. The blue-eyed-boy of Bilbao was trapped in a conundrum between the deep-rooted culture of loyalty and his ambition to play for a bigger club. After the end of 2011–2012 season, Llorente refused to renew his contract which was about to expire the following season. The fans wanted to see the sense of sacrifice from the 6’5’ striker which is an integral part of the great Basque independence movement. However, when he did not show any signs of sacrifice, they immediately turned him into a villain. His compatriot Javi Martínez, another fabulous performer from the previous season, was also vilified because of his proposed move to Bayern Munich.

The day before the game against Betis, when Llorente was practicing in the Lezama facility, hundreds of fans started screaming insults at him inces­santly while showing a giant white banner that read in bright red – ‘mercenar­ios kanpora’ which means ‘Mercenaries Out’. The boy who was the adorable hero of San Mames a few months ago was branded a mercenary. As his re­lationship with the Bilbao supporters and even President, Josu Urrutia was deteriorating, Fernando finally moved out of the club to join the Old Lady of Turin in the summer of 2013.

Athletic’s stubborn refusal to sign non-Basques, the backdrop of ETA in Basque country, and their rabble-rousing ways when it came to censuring lo­cal heroes like Llorente or Lizarazu can all be perceived as uber patriotism – slightly xenophobic and even ominous, than a simple long term La Cantera policy. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing that comes before Basque tradition and pride.

The 'mercenar­ios kanpora' banner shown to Llorente
The ‘mercenar­ios kanpora’ banner shown to Llorente

When Spain was crowned the champion of the world in 2010, it was not grace­fully welcomed by all Basque inhabitants. The World Cup victory for Spain came at a very crucial juncture when Spain was heading towards a financial crisis. It was able to unite the divided nation to a certain extent, but not com­pletely. We saw celebrations all over Spain – in Barcelona, in Galicia and even in the Basque country but the celebrations were limited to eulogising the Spanish football team only. Furthermore, the nucleus of the La Roja team was rooted in Catalonia, which has traditionally confronted General Franco’s philosophy.

Majority of the people in Bilbao and its surroundings do not actually hate Spain but their loyalty to the Basque principle is of biblical proportion. After the World Cup win, there was a parade of around 2000 people waving Spanish flags. However, the general perspective regarding Spain did not change much. Before the final night, a certain local bar in Bilbao decorated a banner that read, ‘Here we support only Holland. Spaniards no thanks!’ One section of the fans was particularly unhappy seeing the Spanish flag waving on the streets of Basque region. Some did not even approve of the Basque players donning the national team shirt and wanted them to decline the opportunity to play for the Spanish team. Euskal Selekzioa (The Basque Country national football team), though not affiliated to FIFA or UEFA, still continues to play friendly matches against FIFA-affiliated teams.

It’s been 41 years since Franco’s demise, but the sentiment is still deep-rooted inside the Basque culture. During Franco’s regime – from 1939 until his death in 1975 – all the other regional languages were banned. The city and adjacent towns were covered with posters and paints where one could read messages like ‘If you are Spanish, speak Spanish’, ‘If you are Spanish, speak the language of the Empire’. People were killed, tortured and impris­oned for their political beliefs. The Basque national flag known as ‘Ikurrina’, was banned from public display. In an effort to ‘Castilianise’ the football cul­ture in Spain, the government forced the club to change its Basque name to ’Atletico de Bilbao’. Thousands of Basques went into exile in France and Latin America. On match days San Mames became the only place where people could talk in the native language. Gradually, football became a catalyst of the nationalist movement.

It’s the game of football that again legalised the display of ‘Ikurrina’ after Franco’s death. The transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy hap­pened really slowly. Even a year after the general’s death, they had not lifted the ban on the public display of ‘Ikurrina’. It was at a game between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao on 5 December 1976, in the now defunct stadium of Atocha in San Sebastian that changed the history. The Sunday derby be­tween the two most prominent football clubs of the Basque region witnessed a rebellion, hitherto unseen since the time when the civil war was raging.

The stadium saw the Bilbao captain, Jose Angel Iribar and the Sociedad captain, Inaxio Kortabarria coming out of the tunnel leading their respective teams with a piece of red, green and white cloth. The cloth was nothing but the prohibited Basque national flag. The flag was carried to the centre of the field ceremonially by the two captains and players of both teams gathered around it. That was much more than just a simple gesture. It was a statement of intent for Basque nationalism against fascist Spain. It was also the first public exhibit of the ‘Ikurrina’ since the dictatorship, without any consequence. Shortly after this incident the ‘Ikurrina’ was legalised in Spain from January 1977.

Bilbao captain, Jose Angel Iribar and the Sociedad captain, Inaxio Kortabarria carrying Basque national flag.
Bilbao captain, Jose Angel Iribar and the Sociedad captain, Inaxio Kortabarria carrying Basque national flag.

‘The fact is that it was that derby between our two teams that had en­dured as my best football memory – and that is despite the fact that we lost 5-0’, Iribar told El Pais 35 years later.8 Iribar, widely known as ‘El Chopo’ (The Popular), is an eminent figure of Basque football and one of the best goal­keepers Spain has ever produced. Iribar later became involved in Basque lo­cal politics and formed the independentist coalition, ‘Herri Batasuna’.

Nationalism and politics are so heavily intertwined with Basque football that they do not shy away from displaying it openly. The street walls and shops in the province of Biscay are often found painted with vertical stripes of red and white to represent their pride in their football club. Often one would notice three styles of banners or flags hanging from house windows – ‘Ikurrina’ or the Basque national flag, the Athletic Bilbao flag and an ETA prisoner protest flag demanding Basque prisoners and refugees to be sent home. ETA extremism has dominated the Basque political state for the last 40 odd years and has a love-hate relationship with football. They are often called ‘Enemy of Euskadi’ but a pseudo emotion of ETA sympathy runs through a minority of the faction. In San Mames, there’s hardly any pro-ETA chant or banner. The ETA prisoner banner has more an angle of fighting human-rights violation than supporting the act of ETA. However, this notion has often been challenged. When Athletic authority refused to observe a minute of silence upon the murder of i1 councillor, Alberto Jimenez Becerril and his wife by ETA in 1998, it raised a lot of questions. Rival fans have repeatedly voiced their displeasure linking the club fans to ETA sentiment.

It was last in 1983–1984 that Athletic reached the pinnacle of success hav­ing won the Cup and League double. It was also the season that took the Barcelona-Bilbao rivalry to a boiling point.

During the league clash in September, Camp Nou saw an aggressive Bilbao stopper brutally tackle their talisman Diego Maradona from behind, leaving him severely injured. The stopper was Andoni Goikoetxea Olaskoaga, famously known as ‘The butcher of Bilbao’, for his horrific tackle on Diego. This was the era when Bilbao gained some unpopularity due to their violent style of play under their young Basque manager, Javier Clemente. Goiko was also responsible for a career threatening tackle on the Barcelona midfielder, Bernd Schuster two years before the Maradona incident. It ruptured Bernd’s medial and cruciate ligaments in the right knee, an injury the German never fully recovered from. The tackle on Maradona reinforced his aggressiveness and earned him the moniker.

Next morning El Mundo released a cover story titled ‘El Crimen’ which meant ‘The Crime’. The other national and international media unanimously condemned and portrayed the act as an evidence of Basque terrorism in foot­ball. The subplot, however, was twisted. It was the year when ETA terrorism had risen to its peak. The separatist movement had taken 43 lives already that year throughout the country. The media helped fuel the idea in the subcon­sciousness of people outside the Basque region, that separatist terrorism and the horrid foul on Diego were interrelated.

‘I am proud of my players’, Athletic coach Javier Clemente said after los­ing to Barcelona 4–0 that night.9 Perhaps what he told echoes the sentiment of any Basque individual. At their next home game at the San Mames, the crowd cheered for Goiko and condemned his ten-match ban by the Spanish federa­tion. The ‘Butcher from Bilbao’ got a grand reception from the avid fans.

Andoni Goicoechea, Spain
Andoni Goicoechea, Spain

When reporters spotted Diego limping on crutches outside a treatment clinic the following month, he said, ‘I do not understand a public that ap­plauds violence.’10

Indeed, Diego uttered profound words. The sentiment of Basque nation is and always has been beyond interpretation for the outer world. Goiko re­called during an interview with El Periodico, ‘What I remember is the love of my people in Bilbao in the next match against Lech Poznan’.11 Goiko scored a goal in that match against Poznan in the European Cup and was given a heroic homage by the fans and teammates.

Athletic won the Cup Final at the end of the season in Madrid to com­plete the circle. A few weeks earlier, they had won the league as well. An ugly fight broke out after the final, involving Diego and other Bilbao players and eventually marked the exit of Maradona and his legendary manager, Cesar Luis Menotti from Spain. Clemente got elevated to a hero’s status and the fans celebrated fanatically. Eleven Basque men knocking out the Catalan giants at the heart of Madrid in front King Juan Carlos – is a statement of pride and a strong response back to the world against them.


However, they know they are not the most perfect of all clubs, or are they very politically correct. However, their political struggle continues through their most beloved institution of football. They know they are not among the most rational fans either but they are definitely the most passionate ones. Heroes like Bixente Lizarazu, Fernando Llorente or Xavi Martinez have been insulted. San Mames is the only stadium in Spain where the midfield maes­tro, Andres Iniesta has been booed repeatedly. The Los Leones crowd be­lieved that Iniesta had exaggerated the reactions of a hard tackle by Fernando Amorebieta, which resulted in the defender being red carded. The anecdotes of irrational emotion are countless yet they are a respected club and fan base because of their true passion for the club, their very own ‘La Cantera’ policy and pride for the independent country they dream about. Athletic is probably among those rare clubs, where their long-serving forward, Joseba Etxeberria played his last season (2009–2010) free. The generous act speaks a lot about the very nature of this unique club.

‘Athletic Bilbao is more than a football club, it is a feeling and as such its ways of operating often escape rational analysis’, José María Arrate, former President of Athletic Bilbao, aptly explained.’2

There is a tradition in the Basque country to dedicate any trophy to the Virgin of Begona, patron saint of Bilbao. The Basilica of Begona, built on the site where the Virgin appeared in a vision in the early sixteenth century, is the daily destination of the devotees who offer their homage to the Virgin, locally as the ‘Amatxu’ (mother). Since 1984, the downfall of Athletic started and they did not win any silverware until 2015 when they defeated Barcelona 5-1 on ag­gregate to win the Spanish Super Cup. They know they are not in a very good state, often they are found to be fighting a relegation battle and their Basque-only ‘La Cantera’ policy has been under constant scrutiny and challenge lately. A victory in the Super Cup at this point was just what they needed. Los Leones were hailed by an unbelievably huge red and white gathering in the city, the likes of which were last seen 31 years ago in front of Basilica.

As soon as the offering of the Super Cup to the Virgin of Begona got un­derway, the bells of the Basilica began playing the Athletic hymn. The hymn is a reminder of their Basque pride and nationalism. General Francisco Franco died long ago, but he still lives in their memory. The fight must go on.

‘Athle-tic Athle-tic’.

1. Marca, 2013, ‘Bielsa: “Lo que hace histórico un estadio no es la arquitectura, sino lo que pasó allí”’.
2. Schulman, 2004, pp. 69-70.
3. Uria, 2006, ‘Zarra, espultsatua’.
4. Fiere, 1996, ‘Lizarazu, who wants to play the Basque country. The back of Bordeaux left for Bilbao Blues “in my head, not abroad”.
5. Ibid.
6. Lizarazu et al, 2007, p. 324.
7. Ibid, p. 556.
8. Wilson, 2012, p. 285.
9. Domenech & Sanchis, 2008, ‘¡Me rompió, me rompió!’.
10. Darnton, 1983, ‘Violent Play by Spaniards’.
11. Santamaria, 2015, ‘Goikoetxea: “Maradona no se murió enaquella entrada”’.
12. Ball, 2003, p. 61.

About Srinwantu Dey

Srinwantu Dey lives in Chicago who takes football journalism seriously under the huge influence of Eduardo Galeano. He is keenly interested in various creative ways of story-telling on the beautiful game, its diverse socio-cultural and humanitarian appeal. Srinwantu habitually travels, documents and visually captures how football explains different societies and ethnicities. He can be reached at @SrinwantuDey.