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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In the Basque Country, muted cheers for Spain’s soccer team

A soccer game plays on the television at a bar in Bilbao, in the Basque region of Spain, June 29, 2024. (Rory Smith/The New York Times)

By Rory Smith

Miguel Martínez was not entirely sure how to react. On a recent Monday evening, he found himself standing outside a bar in Bilbao, tuning in and out of his colleagues’ conversation, his eyes fixed on a television screen inside. He has been avidly tracking Spain’s progress in the European soccer championship, he said, and a work trip was not going to get in the way.

He had watched the country’s first two games with his 13-year-old son, back home in Seville. The city, he said, has caught a severe dose of major tournament fever, a condition that reliably sweeps across Europe on a biennial basis. Balconies are decorated with Spanish flags. The streets are alive with Spanish jerseys. Spain’s wins have prompted wild celebrations.

As far as Martínez could tell, though, Bilbao was somehow immune. There were plenty of flags draped from balconies, but they stood for Palestine, or Pride, or, most commonly, the Basque Country itself, in the form of the region’s traditional Ikurriña. The Spanish flag flew only from a handful of official buildings.

Martínez was well aware of why that is. The Basque Country, a mountainous region that presses up against the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees in the north of Spain, has long regarded itself as distinct from the rest of the nation. It has its own language, culture and identity. The Basque struggle for autonomy, even independence, has long and bloody roots.

He was keen, then, to be respectful of his hosts, and not cause any offense. When Spain scored early in its third group game, a meeting with Albania, he and his colleagues responded with a brief, muted cheer — little more than an exhalation, rather than the joyous abandon they might have displayed in Seville.

“It’s probably better to be a little discreet,” he said. “I don’t know how people here feel about the national team.”

For years, his anxiety would have been well placed. Though Spain played its first-ever home game at San Mames, the home stadium of Athletic Club, Bilbao’s fervently supported local team, in 1921, the men’s national team has not visited the city since 1967, seemingly an admission that it was not safe ground during the years when ETA, the Basque separatist group, was active.

In 2014, when it was announced that Bilbao would be a candidate to host several games at the 2020 European Championship — including three demarcated as Spain’s “home” games — one leading Basque politician suggested such an idea would inevitably conclude with “tanks on the streets.”

In the end, the coronavirus pandemic meant that Bilbao was removed from hosting duties — it was replaced by Seville — when the delayed tournament eventually took place.

The suspicion lingered that switching the location for more amenable territory was a relief for authorities: Athletic’s fans habitually jeer the Spanish national anthem, after all. And Andoni Ortuzar, the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party, said during the tournament that he wanted England, rather than Spain, to win.

On the surface, little has changed this year. This month, Aitor Esteban, one of Ortuzar’s colleagues, admitted he would not support Spain during Euro 2024. “My team is the Basque one, not the Spanish one,” he said. “If I am a supporter, it will be for someone else.”

The absence of Spanish flags and jerseys on the streets of Bilbao would seem to suggest that plenty of others are of the same view. “For the majority of the Basque media, what happens to the Spanish national team is news, but they don’t follow it with any particular enthusiasm,” said Joseba Agirreazkuenaga, a professor in the history of the Basque Country.

(A glimpse at the newsstands the day after Spain’s defeat of Albania bore out this assessment: Spain’s national newspapers had the victory front and center. Most of their Basque counterparts mentioned it only in passing.)

To Iñaki Álvarez, though, playing soccer with his nephews on the Plaza Nueva in the heart of Bilbao’s cobbled old town, things are different. “It was more complicated 20 years ago,” he said. “There are people who support them. There are people who don’t. And there are people who don’t care. But before you wouldn’t see anyone in a Spain jersey in Bilbao. Now, there are not many, but if you do, it’s fine. It’s much calmer than it used to be.”

The fact that Martínez, for example, easily found a bar showing the Spain game was proof of that.

In 2008, the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, only one bar in Bilbao had a big screen showing Spain’s meeting with Germany in the final of that year’s European Championship: Ein Prosit, a German-themed cafe a few paces from Plaza Moyua. It was allowed to show the game, the story goes, on the tacit understanding that everyone involved wanted Germany to win.

Now, Martínez and his colleagues had a choice of half a dozen locales on Licenciado de Pozo, a street running from the city center to San Mames, along with many more in the old town.

Dani Álvarez — no relation to Iñaki — works as the head of the news service at Radio Euskadi, the Basque public broadcaster. He said that change was largely testament to a series of slow-moving, tectonic shifts in Basque culture.

“There is a legacy of the years of horror we endured that has made the Basque Country very welcoming, very tolerant,” he said. “At the same time, there is a digital generation that has grown up without ETA being active, who do not understand why their parents or grandparents want Spain to lose. They now live quite naturally with a dual identity: It is perfectly easy for them to think of being both Basque and Spanish.”

But it might also, he admitted, be related to the distinctly Basque feel to the current iteration of the Spanish team. The region’s two major clubs, Athletic and Real Sociedad, based in San Sebastián, have always supplied a considerable number of players for the national side, but this year’s crop is especially rich.

Eight of the 26 players representing Spain in the tournament have roots either in Euskadi — the administrative conception of the Basque Country — or Euskal Herria, the slightly larger Basque spiritual homeland. (A ninth, Robin Le Normand, was born in France, but plays for Real Sociedad.)

The coach, Luis de la Fuente, is from the neighboring province of La Rioja, but is Basque in a soccer sense: He spent 11 years of his playing career at Athletic, a club that even now still fields only Basque players. That connection, Álvarez said, has made it harder for fans not to want at least some parts of the Spanish side to fare well this summer.

“Players like Unai Simon and Nico Williams are not just part of the team, they are the leaders of it,” he said, referencing two Athletic stars. “They are references for Basque soccer. Their success helps bring international renown to Athletic, to Bilbao. So why would you be against a team that is full of players you love?”

Quite how far that sentiment goes, though, is not clear. Martínez and his colleagues did not face any opprobrium for their tactful celebration of Spain’s goal, but nor was there any raucous jubilation at the outcome of the game. “There are people who want Spain to win, of course,” Álvarez said. “But maybe it is a more private thing.”

A few minutes after the Spain-Albania game finished, sending Spain through to a round of 16 match Sunday -- in which they would defeat Georgia 4-1, setting up a Friday quarterfinal match with Germany (noon EST, streaming on Fubo, Sling TV) -- a genuinely raucous cheer rang around the old town: the sort of unrestrained delight that tends to indicate someone, somewhere, has come down with major tournament fever.

The outbreak was quickly sourced to a bar with a screen tuned to the evening’s other game, Italy’s meeting with Croatia. Italy had scored a last-minute equalizer, securing its place in the next round. The group of Italians who had crowded around the screens to watch did not have any hesitation letting everyone know how happy they were.



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