October 12th: The old town was heaving, full of people, mostly but not all on the younger end of the adult spectrum, standing, sitting, mostly in groups, talking, laughing, drinking, eating …. Some kind of festival? Not really …. a football match. Ah, that explains the shirts in football team colours. There’s the red stripes on white colours of Athletic Bilbao (and this isn’t Bilbao, not even Biskaia province), there’s the blue-on-white Real Sociedad colours (and this isn’t Donosti/ San Sebastian, or even the Guipuzkoa province). But wait a minute – there’s a lot of Deportivo Alaves shirts too (also blue-and-white) …. well, this is Vitoria/ Gastheiz, capital city of the the Alava province.
But there’s some red shirts too – CA Osasuna, from Naffaroa, the fourth province of the Southern (i.e within the Spanish state) Basque Country1. Over there’s a few CD (Club Deportivo) Vitoria, and a couple of women (not surprisingly — it’s an all-female team playing in the women’s league) wearing SD (Sociedad Deportiva) Lagunak yellow shirts. They can’t all be playing today, can they?
In a way, they are.
This occasion is a friendly match between Venezuela and the Basque Country (i.e not part of any official competition as otherwise it would be forbidden by FIFA, the international regulatory body for soccer)y and it is promoted by Euskadiko Futbol Federarkundea, the Basque Football Federation. FIFA, although it recognises Scotland, Wales and ‘Northern Ireland’ as having ‘national teams’, does not recognise either the Basque Country or Catalonia as having them. Where is the logic in that? Well, since FIFA only recognised Palestine with the creation of the Palestine Authority controlled by Israel and agreed by the Western powers2, one can hardly avoid coming to the conclusion that FIFA decides its policies on what area or nation can have their own selection and participate in FIFA championships in accordance with the relevant occupying state – no matter how right or wrong that decision might be.
Many shirts being worn here are green and bear the words Euskal Selekzioa (Basque Selection), the campaign for which in football is the cutting edge of the broader campaign for Basque national teams in many other sports, including surfing. It is of course not just about sport but is also political.
The Basque-Venezuelan game was to be played in Alaves’ Mendizorrotza stadium in Vitoria-Gasteiz and my friends talked casually about attending, though no hard arrangements seemed to have been made. I didn’t press the matter.
Venezuela is rated 32nd in world soccer by FIFA, which is actually quite high and only two points behind the Ireland team, currently at 30th. So the opposing team is a big deal. The whole of the Basque Country, including Nafarroa and the parts held by the French State, is only around three million and they will play only players born in the Basque Country, unlike Ireland which features players from its diaspora. Ireland has had high emigration but so has the Basque Country, particularly to Latin America, the USA and Canada. Venezuela, by the way, has a population of nearly 32 million.
In 2016, their last international, the Basque country beat Tunisia 3-1 in Bilbao and before that have beaten Peru 6-0 and Bolivia 6-1. They lost 1-0 to Wales in 2006 but beat Uruguay 2-1 in 2003.
The main square of the lower old town, the Casco Viejo3, was full of people, some chanting and red flares burning with an occasional firework going off. The ikurrina, the Basque flag, waving in many places, draped over balconies etc. The square is called alternatively Plaza de la Virgen Blanca or simply La Plaza Vieja. We met up with an ex-prisoner (political) who was complaining about the impressive monument in the main square which commemorates the Battle of Vitoria, fought on June 21, 1813, between the retreating French forces of Jose Bonaparte and the English forces under the Duke of Wellington. The English won the battle. I gathered the ex-prisoner’s objection was not so much that it commemorated the defeat of the French but rather that it celebrated the ‘independence’ of the Spanish monarchy, which had done the Basques no favours since the battle and much to the contrary. We drank lager here in plastic containers and street cleaners were already out sweeping up discarded and cracked containers.
The captain of the Basque team, Aritz Aduriz, is the Spainish team’s oldest goalscorer, which might seem an irony but if he wants to play international world football, he has to play for a team recognised by FIFA. His home team is Athletic Bilbao, and his team-mates Inaki Williams and Inigo Martinez were also lined up to play, as was Real Sociedad’s Asier Illarramendi. And all of those have in the past played for the Spanish ‘national’ team.
Walking through the upper old town, we mingled and stopped here and there for a small serving of lager serving (zurito) or wine (txupito). The ex-prisoner got talking about language, philosophy, politics, religion, ancient civilization. I lasted longer than the others in discussion and debate with him4 but his intensity was wearing me down a little in the end. He apologised for that but then had another appointment and took off. By this time we had eaten and were relaxing in the high part of the Casco, on a slope down from the level of the fortress. Attending the game seemed somehow to have disappeared off the agenda and a little later we headed down through areas mostly quiet now to the parked car and drove off.
A crowd of 53,000 however attended the stadium to watch the game and who knows how many others saw it televised. It had been a friendly match in official status and in fact, with one yellow card earned, no reds and no injuries. The goals scored by the Venezuelans might have been the most elegant but Euskal Herria, the Basque Country, were the victors, the score of 4-2 in their favour, with Aduriz having been one of the scorers.
List extant Basque soccer clubs (each one also a link to its own history): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Football_clubs_in_the_Basque_Country
Ditto list of defunct Basque soccer clubs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Defunct_football_clubs_in_the_Basque_Country
CA Osasuna, not listed in Wikipedia as a Basque club, presumably due to divisions fostered between Nafarroa and the other three southern Basque Country provinces: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CA_Osasuna
Basque selection information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_Country_national_football_team
Article about Basque and Catalan national selections:
Match highlights (commentary in Euskera; Basque Country in green shirts, Venezuela in maroon) https://www.ngolos.com/videos/2018-10-12-basquecountry-venezuela
Background on Basque soccer in an international context, including some of them playing for “la Roja”, the Spanish State’s “national” team: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/45834955
1There are divisions fostered between Nafarroa (Navarra/ Navarre) and the other three southern Basque provinces of Bizkaia, Guipuzkoa and Alava. Nafarroa has its own ‘autonomous’ regional government in the post-Franco arrangement, while the other three are jointly in the other ‘autonomous’ region of Euskadi. Iruña/ Pamplona, capital city of Naffaroa, was the seat of the medieval kingdom of Nafarroa (Navarra), the royal family of which once laid claim to the monarchies of both the French and Spanish kingdoms (the latter being a source of three wars, the Carlist Wars). During the emergency caused by the military coup-insurrection of Generals Franco, Mola and others against the democratically-elected Republican Government of the Spanish state, the Catholic ultra-conservative Carlists seceded Nafarroa and massacred three thousand dissidents (Republicans, Basque Nationalists, Leftists) and fought on the fascist side.
After the “Civil War”, the Partido Popular (extremely right-wing main Spanish party) controlled Nafarroa but was recently ousted by Nafarroa Bai, a coalition of pro-independence Basque parties. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) has been the main power in the other three southern Basque provinces.
At one time Euskera was the main language of the whole of the current Basque Country (southern and northern, i.e in the French state), was banned under Franco and is now the majority first and second-level educational medium in Euskadi, where it is given at least nominal equal status in civic administration with Castillian/ Spanish. This is not the case in Nafarroa, which has three different linguistic-rights zones: Castillian, Castillian-Euskera and Euskera. ñ
2Palestine has yet to qualify for the World Cup in soccer. With Israeli restrictions on travel in and out of the territory for Palestinians, along with internal restrictions and repression, the odds are stacked against them ever qualifying, unless they field a team raised exclusively from their huge diaspora, including the refugee population.
3All the southern Basque main cities and many towns have these and their name is always the same, even though it is in Castillian. Typically they have narrow streets winding through four-to-eight-storey houses in which shop windows mix with bars and apartment entrances, often with balconies overhead. They are usually the most lively areas of the city with many places serving coffee, beer, wine and pintxos (good Basque ready-prepared food) and sometimes restaurants, often in the rear or upstairs room of a tavern.
4In Castillian, which I sometimes feel guilty about – I only know a few words in Euskera. Sometimes I encourage the company to speak “euskeraz”, i.e in Basque, leaving me out for a while.