Groundhopper: Basque identity against Spanish identity

By Gethin Boore

The Basque Country, famous for its politics, pinchos and football. Four teams represent the Basque Country in La Liga, Athletic Club Bilbao, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alaves. All four of these clubs have supporters who want to be an independent Basque nation as there is various Basque flags proudly flown around stadiums. I went to Euskadi, as it is known in the Basque language, to see two matches and to discover how big football is in this region.

The first match I went to was at the famous San Mamés for Athletic Club Bilbao against the Swedish miracle men Östersunds FK. Athletic Club is undoubtedly the most political club in the Basque Country. They have a famous policy of only allowing players from the French and Spanish Basque and Navarre to play for the club, and football fans around Spain embrace this. Some players such as Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera have all departed from Athletic to join clubs in other countries, leaving fans frustrated as one supporter referred to Athletic Club ‘as the biggest club in the world’ and doesn’t understand why they would leave a club like this.

The admired rule resulted in success for Lehoiak (the Lions) as they are one of three clubs to have never been relegated from the Primera Division, alongside Barça and Real Madrid. They are one of the most successful clubs in Spanish football with several La Liga titles and Copa Del Rey cups to their name.

They usually appear in the UEFA Europa League, which is the competition I got to to see this glamorous club play in for the first time. Their opponents were Östersunds FK from Sweden. Located in the Northern part of the country and founded in 1996, the last few years have been incredible for them. In 2016 they were promoted to the Allsevenskan for the first time, and now, after a year in Sweden’s top division, they’re the only team from Sweden to be playing in a European competition this season.

We arrived in Bilbao on match-day and the second I arrived, I sensed that Athletic were playing at home. I wandered around the city looking for the Spanish football newspaper “Marca” and in every bar and shop there was an Athletic flag in the windows. It was clear that Bilbao is a football-mad city. As it was time to head towards the stadium you would pass the odd Athletic shirt and an Östersunds shirt in the city centre, and the atmosphere was building more every yard.

We finally arrived at the San Mamés. This was not the first time I have laid eyes on this incredible stadium, as me and my Dad wandered around the ground last year when we visited Bilbao for the first time, but Athletic were not playing at home, but even then, you could still clearly sense that the people of Bilbao live for the beautiful game.

When Athletic are at home, it’s ten times better. As kick off was getting nearer, more and more supporters would come out on to the streets. A huge street leads up to the stadium that is full of bars with Athletic flags, scarfs and memorabilia, which might be familiar for Wales fans who attended the game against the Basque Country in 2006 at the old San Mamés, which was located in the same site as where the new stadium is now.

Amongst the Athletic supporters were Östersunds fans. Throughout conversations we had with Östersunds fans, they were saying how proud they are of their team and their incredible story, which is similar to Eibar’s amazing story in La Liga.

With around half an hour to go till kick-off, it was time to head to the ground. In the vicinity of the old stadium, it was full and it was a big game, as Athletic were yet to get a victory in Group J. The other game in the group was in the German capital, as Hertha Berlin hosted Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk. The last time Athletic Club and Östersunds met it ended in a 2-2 draw in Sweden. Athletic had also drawn 0-0 away to Hertha and lost at home against Zorya, so the only option was a win for Athletic if they wanted to keep their European hopes alive.

Inside the stadium, it’s even better, with the pitch as green as ever.

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San Mamés stadium.

In the first half, both sides came very close, and it was an even game. Athletic came the closest following Raul Garcia’s powerful that was brilliantly saved by the keeper. In the second half, Athletic Club took the lead thanks to veteran forward Artiz Aduriz’s header. The Swedes rarely attacked in the second half, and it was fair to say that Athletic deserved the victory.

Personally, I thought it was a great game, as there were many chances created, which added an extra excitement to the game, but what was really significant was the atmosphere. As soon as the club anthem was blasted out, there was non-stop singing, and the roar when the ball hit the back of the net was incredible. In the other game, Hertha won 2-0 meaning Athletic were third in the group and Östersunds sat first in the table.

As the city of Bilbao fell quiet, it was another brilliant Spanish football day out. It’s becoming a bit more than a hobby now.

On the Friday, we left Bilbao to head to San Sebastian, the home of Real Sociedad. Last year, I went to the Anoeta (Sociedad’s stadium) to watch them play against Basque rivals Alaves. The home side won 3-0 but the most standout thing that day was the Alaves support.

In Spain, not many away fans travel to watch their team play away from home, but Alaves brought at least 2000 supporters to the 2016 European capital of culture. It may be local for them, but the support throughout the day was incredible, both in the stadium and around the city centre.

It was also in 2016 I went to watch Osasuna face Real Betis. Osasuna is located in Pampalona, which is in the Navarre region. The debate about whether Navarre is in the Basque Country has been going for decades, but in the El Sadar (Osasuna’s stadium) there were numerous Basque flags proudly shown. The away side won 2-1 with a last minute goal.

Back to this year, and when me and my family were on the way to San Sebastian, we stopped at the town of Eibar. This is a very small town located right in the middle of the Basque mountains, but what’s so significant about this place is the football. Incredibly, Eibar has a team in the Primera Division, and has been on an incredible rise through the Spanish pyramid. Their promotion from the Segunda division in 2014 was the start of something special. They’ve been in La Liga for a few years now and have established themselves as a top-tier side.

Eibar is a club that’s linked with Scottish football. Their ultras group is called “Eskozia La Brava” which translates to Scotland the brave in Basque. They admire the passionate support the Scots have, and have a mosaic located in the town about the connection between the two sets of supporters.

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Ipurua Municipal Stadium

The ground is tiny for a club in such a huge league, but the club itself is very friendly. We asked the front desk in the stadium if we could go inside the Estadio Irpura. They politely said no, but did give us a free pin badge and a poster of the 2017-18 squad. In the town, there were many, many Eibar flags in windows, which shows the support this incredible club has. It was very clear what the team’s incredible journey meant to the town.

As we arrived in San Sebastian, we passed the Anoeta on the motorway going into the city centre, and there was work going on there. Ever since Sociedad moved from their old stadium (Atocha) the fans have complained about how far the pitch is from the stands. The club has taken notice of the situation and have a plan to move the stands closer to the pitch, which will complete in 2019.

In the town centre, it is clear that the people of Bilbao has more passion for their club than the people of San Sebastian have for theirs, but you would spot shirts and flags in bars and fake merchandises in tourists stores alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys.

After a walk around the city and stuffing ourselves with Pinchos, it was time to watch my favourite Spanish team play; Real Betis. Me and my Dad watched the game against Getafe in an Eibar fan bar in the middle of the old town in San Sebastian. Betis thankfully came from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 to continue their strong start to the season. Another day in the Basque country, no game, but plenty of football involved.

On the Saturday, we departed from San Sebastian with a copy of “Marca” to recap the Betis game and to see what they had to say of it, and headed to the Basque capital, Vitoria.

The team located in Vitoria is Deportivo Alaves, and Liverpool fans might be familiar with this club, as they faced each other in the 2001 Uefa Cup final which ended in a 5-4 victory to the Merseyside club. Since that final, Alaves have been stuck in the Segunda Division and Segunda B.

However, in 2016, they were finally back in La Liga, and reached the Copa Del Rey final, only to lose to Barcelona in the last official game at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid’s old ground. Like Eibar, they’ve had a fairly slow start to the season, and are clearly missing their manager that was with them last season, Mauricio Pellegrino, who left for English side, Southampton.

My second and final game of the trip was at the Estadio Mendizorrota between Alaves and Espanyol. My first impression of the city of Vitoria is that it’s again, like Bilbao, football mad. It’s not a city that attracts many tourists, and there was a better vibe and atmosphere.

In the old town, many civilians were out enjoying pinchos, with most of them wearing Alaves tops. Every Saturday, it’s market day in the old town in Vitoria, and it was really busy. As it was match day, maybe a few more people came out than usual. After a few hours enjoying the pinchos in the Basque capital and a walk around the city, it was time to head towards the direction of the ground.

For this game, I went with my Dad, as usual, my sister, who went to the Sociedad-Alaves game last year, my cousin, Tom, and my uncle, Rhys, who went to the Athletic game as well. For a year, I’ve been non-stop chatting about the Spanish football results with Tom, and it’s clear that maybe he wasn’t very interested, so it was good to bring him to his first taste of Spanish Football and to realise why I love it so much

On the way to the ground, we stopped in a bar to watch the first half of the game between Deportivo La Coruna and Atletico Madrid, which was the 16:15 game. The Alaves game kicked off at 18:30 local time, but there wasn’t exactly many people in the bar we were in.

As we headed closer towards the Mendizorrota, the atmosphere was building. In the distance, we could hear drums and people singing, and as we got closer, it was getting louder. Suddenly, as the Alaves team bus came through, something incredible happened. An incredible flow of pyros appeared out of nowhere, and all you could see was a wave of red and orange. The singing was loud as well, and it was something to inspire the team following their bad start.

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Alaves fans on the day.

A couple of weeks before this match, Alaves hooligans were caught in the spotlight. On a day when they were at home to Real Sociedad, Racing Santader ultras travelled from the Cantabria part of Northern Spain, to fight Alaves fans. Many videos went viral in the and the footage was brutal.

On match day in San Sebastian, me and my Dad spoke to some Alaves ultras and they kindly gave me a scarf. After the pyro show, we wanted to see if we could see them again, and within five seconds, we bumped into an individual that we met. He remembered us straight away, and he looked delighted to see us. He was with another person that either I don’t remember or wasn’t at the game against Sociedad. They took us to a bar in the middle of numerous apartments and introduced us to new people and people that were there last year. The group in fact have been banned from following Alaves away.

In the bar, there were loads of Alaves memorabilia on the walls, and chants were sung. After a good hour, it was time to head to the match. On the way, we were discussing how much we hate Real Madrid. I refer to Madrid as General Franco’s team, and so do they. We hate Madrid with a passion, and we forever will. As a Welshman, I should have a “soft-spot” for them because of Gareth Bale, but I don’t think there’s nothing that can change my opinion. As we said our goodbyes, we met up with Rhys and Tom and headed straight to the turnstiles.

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Gethin with Alaves ultras.

There’s something about the stairs that leads to the stands in some Spanish grounds. The concourse are quite low so you face up when you’re walking, and then just face the pitch, which is something special. I remember it at Levante, and the same here. In some concourse’s, you walk through the turnstile and you face the pitch straight away, such as Betis and Athletic.

Enough about concourse’s, we had a decent view from where we sat. It was an old-school ground, which might be reason for the incredible atmosphere. It was much better than Athletic’s, which was pretty special as well. As the players came on, there was a “tifo” in the Ultras with a picture of a young boy wearing an Alaves shirt with the numbers 1921, which was the year when the club was founded. It was brilliant, almost every person in the ground was chanting, and it was something else.

To make it all better, Alaves scored an absolute screamer to make it 1-0 within four minutes, and the roar then was something I’ll never experience again.

In the first half, Espanyol was by far the most attacking team, but they were reduced to ten men towards the end of the half. Still, Alaves had a few chances, and in the second half, both sides had good chances. Even though both sides attacked frequently, Espanyol definitely deserved to win and it was fair to say that Alaves were pretty rubbish and need to start performing better. Espanyol had a glorious chance to equalise right at the death, but the keeper’s heroics ensured Alaves secured the three points.

When the full time whistle went, there was a huge sigh of relief and the singing again couldn’t be stopped. It was a huge victory for Alaves, their second of the season.

This was sadly the end of another incredible Spanish football trip in the Basque Country. Football is a huge thing in this country and many people think that La Liga is rather dismal. Fair enough, that’s your opinion, but if you go to watch clubs like Alaves, Athletic, Betis and too many more to name, you soon realise that La Liga is much more than Barça and Real. In the Segunda Division, it’s so tight it’s actually astonishing. The Mendizorrota was my eleventh Spanish ground in total and my tenth in just over a year.

Once again, another top class Spanish Football weekend.

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