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Una Gran Familia Rojiblanca: Football, Athletic Club and Basque Nationalism

Written by: Jake Dickson/Edited by: Ewa Bialoglowska

Jake is a third year War Studies and History student, from London. His academic interests are American social and cultural history, the development of European nationalisms in the long 19th century, and the interrelationship between culture, politics and sport.

The Basques are one of Europe’s most distinct stateless nations. The Basque population – around 3 million, primarily concentrated along the western fringe of the Pyrenees in Spain’s north-east, considers itself a distinct nation, part of the Spanish state through voluntary association. They consider themselves ethnically and culturally distinct from the Castilian majority, experiencing the highest level of sub-national consciousness in Spain. They have a distinct language, Euskara, a distinctly-bounded territory, the etxea, or ‘home’, and a wide corpus of cultural traditions. One such tradition has proved a consistent source of renewal of Basque identity for over a century: the football club of Athletic Bilbao.

Sport routinely provides options for expressions of nationalism when other avenues have been closed. For the Basques, and Athletic Bilbao, this is particularly true. Since its founding 112 years ago, the club has been a rallying point for the Basque people. It represents a social, cultural, and perhaps most importantly, a physical space in which an alternative to Castilian national identity could be expressed. Throughout its history, and successive efforts by Madrid administrations to corral the Basque country into the Spanish main, the club has existed as a bastion of Basque identity, giving generations both a place of political refuge, and a source of national pride. Few, if any, football clubs in Europe operate with such a close connection to a distinct national identity. As such, analysis of the history and politics of Athletic Club gives us a unique insight into the establishment of the Basque national identity, as well as its relation to Spain and Spanish national identity.

Athletic Club as a National Space

For the Basques, in a constant struggle for autonomy and statehood, alternative sources of identity production have been sought, particularly when facing restrictions from Madrid. Football has been one of these sources; a cultural space in which Basque identity can be freely expressed. More importantly, the high-profile status of Athletic, in both Spain and Europe, represents the Basque people in terms that rest of the continent can understand: goals and trophies are far easier to comprehend than the complicated syntax of Euskara. As such, Athletic’s success has been critical in bringing attention to the Basque cause.

Szlapek-Sewilo explains how through their success, the club was elevated to become shorthand for the Basque people, a highly visible cultural leitmotif of the region. Moreover, he examines the role of the football match as a ‘quotidian ritual’; a repeated ritual in which the stadium, San Mamés (known as ‘La Catedral’), becomes a sacred space for the constant rejuvenation of Basque national identity. In Bilbao, they joke, ‘we have two cathedrals in the city, Santiago Cathedral and San Mamés’.

The ritual can be seen in both celebratory terms – celebrating the successes of Athletic – or more oppositional terms. Matches against teams from Castilian Spain, particularly Real Madrid –closely associated with Franco and Castilian oppression of Spain’s sub-national regions – can take on more hostile feelings, as Basques seek to remind the Castilians of the strength of their distinct identity. The club, more than a vehicle for sporting endeavours, becomes an organisation capable of nurturing and cultivating this national identity, perhaps more effectively than any other, thanks to the unique popularity of football as a cultural institution. The interrelation between politics, sport and nationalism is clear at Athletic: current president Aitor Elizegi is – indeed all former presidents have been – a member of the PNV, the Basque Nationalist Party, lobbying for Basque independence from Spain and the protection of the unique Basque identity.

Athletic is perhaps like a miniature nation in itself. It has a distinctly bounded territory in Nuevo San Mamés, distinct and unique cultural symbols: the red-and-white kit and recognisable crest. Alejandro Quiroga identifies the presence of the distinctive sound of the txistu, a Basque flute, in the stands during matches. But most importantly – and the reason for analysis of Bilbao as opposed to the more illustrious FC Barcelona, who perform a similar function for Catalan identity – is their unique, nationally-bounded recruitment policy. This policy, based around a cantera (literally, ‘quarry’ in Spanish, in English, a youth recruitment system composed of academies), means that Athletic can only recruit players who are born in the Basque country.

In this way, Athletic becomes the ultimate symbol of Basque identity, a realised conception of the Basque nation on the football pitch. Their victories become the victories of the Basque nation, precisely because their teams are made up of those considered to be ‘Basque’. In the increasingly transnational world of football this is astonishing. The cantera policy echoes the essentialism of Basque identity; strictly tied to the etxea, it demonstrates the role of birth-right in conceptions of Basque-ness. To be born in the Basque Country is to be Basque; to be born elsewhere is to be an outsider, an‘other’.

However, the cantera policy has evolved over the course of Athletic’s history, which reflects changing attitudes of Basques towards their identity. Traditionally, recruitment was limited to ethnic Basques, but the pressures of modern competition have forced a rethink. Now, players can play as long as they are born in the Basque Country; Jon Agiriano examines how the policy has enough loop-holes to keep Athletic competitive. Though more loosely bounded ethnically – one of Athletic’s stars, Inaki Williams, is Ghanaian, the son of migrants who settled in Bilbao – it still confirms the strength of birth-culture in relation to Basque identity.

Birth in the Basque country, if only in footballing terms, gives you access to special rights, and the ability and expectation to participate in nationalising rituals that come with playing for Athletic. To be born in the Basque country is to be Basque, and to play for Athletic is to be Basque. Crucially, Athletic as an institution is responsible for this acculturation process when it comes to players like Williams, a process not limited to recruitment. Players are expected to participate in sacred traditions which venerate the club and the Basque nation. Jeremy MacClancy explores these rituals in great detail: at the beginning of each season, the team holds a special mass, giving offerings to Amatxu, the Virgin Mary, in Bilbao. In all aspects, Athletic is a realisation of the national aspirations of the Basque people, a central strut of modern notions of whom the Basques are.

Competing Nationalisms: Bilbao under Franco

A particularly noteworthy era in the nationalist history of Athletic was during the rule of General Franco, between 1937-1977. During this period, Franco undertook a concerted effort to centralise Spain around a universal Castilian identity. Sub-national identities, like those of the Basques, were forbidden or legally decimated.

Part of the process was an effort to blunt the influence of prominent organisations like Athletic (regarded as arguably the strongest Basque symbol in the world), and emplace an overarching dedication to a singular Spanish identity. Franco’s image of Spanish identity was synonymous with the Spanish state, and ‘others’, like the Basques, corrupted this image. Quiroga reminds us that this process was not as clear-cut as Franco seeking to obliterate all sub-national identities, but instead, he sought to harness the identities into a symbiotic hierarchy in which local identities reinforced and promoted the centralised Castilian identity. We can see this in his treatment of Athletic and other ‘separatist’ clubs. They weren’t abolished, but rather repurposed. In 1941, The DNPP, the propaganda arm of Falange Espanola de las JONS, ordered the Hispanicisation of all regional football clubs, transforming Athletic de Bilbao into Atletico Bilbao. Players were impelled to give the fascist salute, sing the fascist anthem Cara al Sol and cheer ‘Arriba Espana, Viva Franco!’ in testimony to the Caudillo’s nation-building plan.

However, contemporary literature on the Basque nationalist project confirms that Franco’s attempts to harness the power of football had the inverse effect. Stadiums became ‘unpoliceable spaces’, and clubs became rallying points for nationalist expression, the product of which we see today in the form of Athletic and its proud Basque heritage. Counterintuitively, authoritarian attempts to detach Basque identity from local institutions and reattach it to the Castilian main were destined to fail. Whilst other means of representation and identification were eliminated, the banning of education in Euskara, or the shuttering of the local parliament, cortes, the football club became ever more prominent as a standard for Basque identity.

Football provided a popular tool-of-the-masses for Franco to carry out his Castilian nationalisation project. However, fatally for the dictator, it also provided critical breathing room for alternative sub-national identities. As his regime faltered in the 1970s, the Basque identity which had been preserved and reproduced within the bounds of Athletic Club, was once again permitted to flourish. Clubs like Athletic, with all they represented for their attendant nationality, became unique markers of identity, allowing forms of nationalist expression in ways that were otherwise unavailable.

Bibliography

Kassimeris, Christian, Franco, The Popular Game and Ethnocentric Conduct in Modern Spanish Football, Soccer and Society, Vol. 13, No. 4, July 2012, pp. 1-15

Koller, Christian & Brandle, Fabian, GOAL!: A Cultural and Social History of Modern Football,Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C, 2015

MacClancy, Jeremy, Nationalism At Play: The Basques of Vizcaya and Athletic Club de Bilbao, in Sport, Identity, and Ethnicity, 1996, Berg, Oxford

Mitten, Andy Basque to the Bone: Why Athletic Bilbao vs Real Sociedad is more than a game | FourFourTwo, 2006, [available online at: https://www.fourfourtwo.com/features/basque-bone-why-athletic-bilbao-vs-real-sociedad-more-game]

Muro, Diego & Quiroga, Alejandro, Building the Spanish Nation: The Core-Periphery Dialectic, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, Vol. 4, No. 2, September 2004, pp. 18-37

Our Philosophy | Athletic Club’s Official Club Website | Athletic Club Official Website, available online at: [https://www.athletic-club.eus/en/philosophy/what-is-it]

Quiroga, Alejandro, Spanish Fury: Football and National Identities Under Franco, European History Quarterly, 2015, Vol. 45, No. 3, June 2015, pp. 506-529

Quiroga, Alejandro, Football and Nation: FC Barcelona and Athletic de Bilbao during the Franco dictatorship (1937-1977), Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies, 2020, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 65-82

Shulman, Jonathan, The Last Genuine Local Team: Athletic Bilbao Surviving in the Spanish League, Dialogues@RU, No. 3, 2012, 57-71

Tunon, Jorge & Brey, Elisa, Sports and Politics in Spain – Football and Nationalist Attitudes within the Basque Country and Catalonia, 2012, European Journal for Sport and Society, Vol. 9, pp. 1-2, 7-32

Szlapek-Sewillo, Mateo, National Metaphor and the 2010 World Cup in Identity: Beyond Tradition and McWorld Neoliberalism, Gross, Brian Michael, & Chavez, Christopher (ed.), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, 2013, pp. 85-111

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