Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 September 2019

Not just Athletic Bilbao anymore: Basque Country clubs are boldly buoyant in Spain

Ian Hawkey details how little Eibar and the rest of La Liga's Basque Country clubs are punching above their weight in Spain.
Fans display the Basque flag during a derby match between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad in 2011. Alvaro Barrientos / AP Photo
Fans display the Basque flag during a derby match between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad in 2011. Alvaro Barrientos / AP Photo

For motorists, days like Sunday in the town of Eibar, northern Spain, are a long grumble.

Getting in and out of town when there’s a big game means traffic gridlocks way beyond the municipal borders. For the local minority not in proud wonder at the fact that little Eibar are playing in the top flight of Spanish football, there have been mutterings that drivers would be better off if the club got relegated.

Eibar nearly did go straight back down after their against-the-odds rise to the Primera Division in 2013, spared because of a punitive demotion imposed on financially-strapped Elche. They survived the next year by skill not luck. So it is that a club from a town of just over 25,000 people and with a home that is a hillside stadium of fewer than 7,000 seats are now beginning to believe they are among the elite not as a brief novelty, but by right. They sat eighth in the table going into this weekend, ahead of Saturday’s visit by Alaves.

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There will be traffic jams. Alaves are from Vitoria, just 50km away, and it’s a historic first meeting in the top flight between the clubs, Alaves having come up from the second tier in the summer, after lingering there – and even lower – for a decade. A special derby, for sure, but one of many these days in one of Europe’s most fertile football territories.

If Eibar are the most conspicuous punch-over-their-weight team in Spain, they make a good symbol of the whole Basque Country, the fiercely proud region tucked up against the French border and the Bay of Biscay.

For the first time since La Liga became a professional structure, more than 80 years ago, there are four Basque clubs in the top flight. As the table stands, with Alaves in 12th and the heavyweights Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad above Eibar, that situation will endure.

Some context here: that means 20 per cent of the Spanish top division is made up of clubs from a region of around three million people. And Spain has a population of around 47m. Factor in the tendency, even commitment of each of those clubs to build teams around a core of local players, and the point is made forcefully – nowhere more famously than at Athletic Bilbao, who remain faithful to a dogma of selecting only players with a Basque heritage or those who have grown up in the region.

For Athletic, the concentration of other top-flight clubs in the neighbourhood is a double-edged sword. Six sapping local derbies, for a start, but also heavier competition in the recruitment of local starlets.

For the Spain national team, a strong Basque club-base is a boon, even if the current national coach Julen Lopetegui – a Basque, incidentally – looks further afield for many of the best who came through the Basque nurseries, like Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich), and Ander Herrera (Manchester United), both formerly at Athletic.

As Bayern’s Martinez remarked to me: “People talk a lot about Barcelona’s youth system. I’d say ours is as good.”

Martinez and Herrera were part of the Athletic who reached the 2012 Europa League final and that club will be in the draw for that competition’s next knockout phase on Monday.

Alaves were Uefa Cup finalists in 2001, while Real Sociedad, of San Sebastian, aspire to returning to a Champions League they qualified for in 2013/14. They sit sixth, just behind Athletic in the current table, having lost the most intense of the Basque derbies – at Athletic – 3-2 in October.

That rivalry has a fierce roar, but beneath it is a common cause.

The Basque Country has a powerful sense of its own sovereignty, and this week, its older football figures have been remembering the significant events of 40 years ago, when, in a Real Sociedad versus Athletic match, the players took to the field bearing, proudly, the Basque flag, the ikurrina.

It was 1976, and Spain was in a tense political transition after the death, a year earlier, of the dictator General Francisco Franco. Public display of the flag, associated with separatism, was officially outlawed.

What the players did that day took some courage. But the applause was such that no action was taken against them. Basque pride has been expressed more freely in the four decades of Spanish democracy since, and, right now, it speaks out boldly in the theatres of la Liga.

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Updated: December 9, 2016 04:00 AM

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