Basque World Cup

Madrid, Spain — It’s just after ten p.m., and three men are standing in front of me, wearing red thongs on their heads. They have been wearing them in complete earnestness for over an hour. The woman on my left just took out her breast; she has been cradling an infant in her arms, and I guess she has interpreted his cries as hunger, rather than fear of the crowd of 150,000 around us. We are in the Plaza Mayor, and in one hour, Spain will win the World Cup. For the first time in history, Madrid will celebrate being at the center of the soccer universe, winning on its biggest stage.

But only a few hundred miles away, in the Basque region, Spain’s first ever World Cup title will go almost uncelebrated. Many of the people in the Basque region simply don’t consider themselves Spaniards. Given the choice, a majority of Basques would likely declare independence.

Desire for independence in the Basque region has led some to adopt an anti-Spain mentality, one that extends even to the hallowed turf of soccer. Though not officially independent, the region has functioned with some level of autonomy since the Middle Ages, switching at times between French and Spanish rule. At the end of the 19th century, attempts to quell the region’s push for independence led to the founding of Basque Nationalism, and its corresponding political party, the Basque Nationalist Party. Under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, the authoritarian government attempted to extinguish all distinct cultures in a move towards Spanish unity. This period saw the birth of a more passionate nationalist movement, including the formation of the terrorist group, Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA). After the demise of Franco’s regime in 1975, the new Republican national government granted the Basque region substantial autonomy.

Fortunately for those Basque nationalists who actively root against Spain in various arenas of life and culture, the national team has a history of World Cup disappointments. Since it first competed in 1950, the team has frequently failed to meet expectations. Even with its powerhouse FC Barcelona and Real Madrid clubs, Spain has never reached the World Cup final. Some say the Spanish just can’t handle pressure; others stoop to faulting the referees (a valid explanation for one or two mishaps, but not 60 years of disappointment). Some have even gone as far as blaming the separatist movements for dividing players’ allegiances.

Spain was not lacking commitment this time around as they rolled through the early rounds of the knockout stage. In Bilbao, the capital of the Basque Country where I spent most of the summer studying Spanish, people reacted with a mix of measured indifference, concern, and of course, excitement. Many were balancing a desire to come out and root for the team with their fear and discomfort of doing so. For the early games, almost every bar was empty. When I went out with my American classmates to watch a game, we usually outnumbered Spaniards.

By the semifinal match, crowds finally began to crop up around the televisions in bars. I watched the game with a newly made friend, a local 22-year-old university student named Fita who described himself definitively as “Basque, not Spanish.” He was supporting Germany, but noted that if Spain won, it would not bother him. He seemed to suggest that Spain was just like any other team in this tournament, and though he saw no reason to support his country, he did not specifically oppose it. But late in the game, when Carlos Puyol’s header found the back of the net, giving Spain a promising lead, Fita released a stream of profanity that conveyed his real feelings.

On this night, though, Fita was in the minority. The goal brought more cheers than heckles: on the walk home, drivers raced across streets, shouting, honking their horns, and waving red flags out their windows. The city had turned a corner, and it seemed as if it now wanted to be a part of what was occurring throughout the country.

Or at least some of the city wanted to take part. Even though the sport carries an audience across the ages, only a small group was willing to take the streets and demonstrate their pride. Most of the celebrants that night were under 25. One of the Basques with whom I was staying later commented that he hoped it would not spark any new conflict. The older generation might have been too weathered by 50 years of ETA attacks to emerge from their quiet support.

Fita noted that the excitement was unfair, that Spain was winning with borrowed players. In a sense, he was right: seven of Spain’s 11 starters in that game were from Catalonia’s Barcelona squad (including Carlos Puyol, the only scorer of the night), and most of them play in friendly matches for which Catalonia organizes its own “national” team to play against other national teams. Only lack of recognition from soccer’s international governing bodies prevents the Catalan squad from competing in the World Cup or in other international tournaments.

Their soccer team is emblematic of what has been a larger movement towards autonomy in Catalonia, with origins similar to those in the Basque region, but with seemingly more success today. The region has had a system of self-governance in modern Spain since 1979, when the population originally ratified a Statute of Autonomy by referendum. In 2006, the document was substantially amended to extend the region’s powers. Two weeks before the final, the Spanish supreme court ruled on the constitutionality of these amendments, only enhancing tensions around the World Cup. 14 of the more than 200 amendments were struck down, limiting the powers of Catalonia’s courts and their ability to tax. The judges also noted that even though they took no exception with the phrase, “the parliament of Catalonia has defined Catalonia as a nation by ample majority, ” the word “nation” carries no legal meaning. In essence, the court told Catalonia that while it can think of itself as it likes, it is still just an autonomous community of Spain.

As American students seeking diversion and not division, there was only one appropriate place to watch the final — Madrid, where Spaniards actually wanted to be Spanish, where people cared without qualification. A four-hour bus and short subway ride later, my classmates and I were stuck amid huge crowds of people staking out their territory near each of the four JumboTrons set up in the plaza. We scrambled to find a place where we could see one of the screens, squeezing in between the men with the thongs and the woman with the small child.

Tonight, the crowd was not exclusively young and drunk, as much of the later news coverage — with footage of people climbing on statues, throwing bottles, and generally rioting in the streets — would have you believe. Instead, the crowd included people of all ages: an older crowd surprised to have lived long enough to see Spain in a World Cup final, and their grandchildren, who didn’t know how exceptional it was to be there. The mixed partygoers stood in stark contrast to the exclusively young crowd of Bilbao — in Madrid, it was a celebration, but in Bilbao, it was as much a rebellion.

Any time the ball got near an 18-yard-box, we collectively drew our breath. Each of the 14 yellow cards brought screams: calls that went against Spain were plain wrong, and every time a Dutchman brushed a red jersey should have been a yellow card. Replays of a Dutch player’s kick to Spanish midfielder Alonso’s chest brought pained cries.

As regulation ticked away and all decent attempts were parried by the keepers, overtime loomed. Finally, in the 116th minute, with the Netherlands playing one man down, a series of passes led to a bouncing shot across the box by Andres Iniesta, and suddenly, Spain was almost certain to win.

The crowd erupted. A few premature fireworks were set off as the team celebrated. We hardly quieted as play resumed. The remaining minutes disappeared without much of a threat, and the game ended. We ran from the plaza with a few thousand of our neighbors in celebration. Surprisingly, among the thousands of faces we saw leaving the scene, there were only a few which still showed the emotion of the match. Most had already calmed; for many of them, the celebrations were unnecessary — the win was really the point.

We were back in Bilbao by early morning. The city we returned to showed no signs of overnight celebrations: no broken bottles scattered through the streets, no Spanish flags hanging in the windows of shops, no passed-out teenagers sleeping in the plazas. Instead, we found a sleeping city.

This phenomenon was reported widely in the media, but inconsistently so. Time published the headline: “With Win, Spain Takes on the Meaning of Nation,” whereas a Reuters report claimed “Spanish Success Raises Nationalist Hackles.” Who got it right?

They both did, though each report told only a piece of the whole story. There was in fact substantial backing of Spain even in Bilbao, the capital of the Basque region. The woman with whom I was staying commented that she wished people would put aside their Basque identities for a moment and embrace their Spanish sides. However, she was nodding towards a duality that many still do not feel; those who consider themselves only Basque would not celebrate.

For the Basques, and for much of Spain right now, a win for Spain is not just a win.

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