‘I speak Basque, my wife, my children and my parents speak Basque, it is our language’. – José Angel Iríbar Athletic Bilbao and Spain Goalkeeper 1971
In the parallel streets of Guernica the posters fluttered on every wall, to the naked eye it read: ‘Aberri Eguna De La Union Vasca – Todos Gernika’.
A call to the people that Easter Sunday March 30th, 1975, to come and celebrate ‘Day of the Basque Homeland’ in the Historic Town.
Influenced by the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland which saw Irish revolutionaries proclaim a ‘Republic’ on the steps of the GPO, the ‘Aberri Eguna’ had been celebrated since 1932.
However, forty-three years on this was a Basque Country where culture, language and identity was banned and even symbols such as the ‘Ikurrina’ (Basque Flag) were prohibited under the dictatorship of General Franco.
That day 15,000 souls made the pilgrimage and most were blocked by the Guardia Civil who patrolled the main roads into the town, however, five hundred managed to escape their clutches breaching the cordon by hiking through the surrounding mountains.
The ‘Ikurrina’ was unfurled in the town as the celebration went ahead leading to a fierce reaction from police with up to one hundred people arrested.
By November of that year, the Dictator was no more, however, this all came after a state of emergency had been inflicted on the Basque people from April 25th with three thousand arrested and tortured in police stations.
This included the torture of Fr. Eustakio Erquicia who with ruptured kidneys, spent three months in hospital fighting for his life.
Nearly one year after General Franco’s death the Basque football derby between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao took place, locally known as the bertso derbi.
On that winter’s day, Josena de la Hoz Uranga made his way through the neighbourhood of Egia in the old town of San Sebastian with kit bag in hand, entering the players entrance at the Atotxa stadium.
In his kit bag sat the outlawed ‘Ikurrina’.
For many weeks Uranga, a passionate Basque, had been hounding his teammates about the idea of carrying the flag onto the hallowed turf in a show of unity and strength, an act outlawed and punishable by prison sentence.
Uranga who would go on to plot the kidnapping of businessman Andrés Gutiérrez Blanco a decade later as a member of the outlawed ETA, demanding a ransom of 1.4million pesetas for his release, had managed to get the sister of team captain Inaxio Kortabarria to sew the flag.
Not since the end of the Spanish Civil War had the flag been seen in a football stadium, but in the dressing room that day Kortabarria outlined Uranga’s plan to his teammates.
During the war from 1936 to 1939, the first Basque autonomy was established with a national team led by Isidro Langara touring Eastern Europe playing exhibition matches and promoting the Republican cause. As Bilbao fell in 1938 the team left for South America playing matches in Cuba, Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay.
Most of the players never returned with the team spending one season playing in the Mexican league under the guise of Club Euzkadi with Langara finishing top scorer, he would be the only man ever to be top scorer in the top leagues on three different continents.
On the 5th Dec 1976, the teams emerged from the tunnel for the playing of the 67th Basque derby, in a show of defiance captains Kortabarria and Iribar of Athletic carried with them Uranga’s sewn flag, the symbol of the homeland, the flag of the people.
A year before Iríbar a proud Basque had organised the wearing of black armbands by the Athletic Bilbao team following the execution of two ETA members by a rigged court, in 1965 he had played in goal for Spain against Ireland at Dalymount Park in an infamous World Cup qualifier.
The police on duty on the day of the derby turned a blind eye, as the ‘Ikurrina’ took centre stage, change was in the air as Sociedad thrashed Athletic five to nil.
Ten days later a referendum on political reform took place in Spain, the Spanish nation were asked ‘Do you approve of the political reform bill?’, over 97% of the population said ‘Yes’.
In effect, it meant all Francoist institutions such as the Cortes established by the 1942 law, the Francoist movement itself and the Council of the Realm and of the Regency set up in 1967 would be abolished, while approving a law to allow the existence of political parties and democracy with elections arriving in July 1977.
Before those elections on the 19th January 1977 the flag that Uranga had nervously carried in his kit bag was legalised, by the first government after Franco led by Adolfo Suárez, free to be flown by the Basque people.
In this new environment the two men who had initiated the flag gesture took different paths, Real Sociedad would thrive under the leadership of Kortabarria winning back to back La Liga’s in the early eighties, while Uranga would become a so called ‘freedom fighter’, fighting for Basque Independence.
That same year Kortabarria would refuse to play for the Spanish National team, to date, he is the only Basque to ever take such a stance due to ideological reasons.
His vision was to be part of the revival of the Basque national team who had not played officially since their tour of the Americas. The team had played their first match against Racing Club of Paris on the 26th of April in 1937, the same day the German Condor Legion flew over the town of Guernica, over 1,600 people perished.
A Basque XI had only ever played twice during the reign of Franco, the first time for the fiftieth anniversary of Real Union one of the founding members of La Liga, a Basque selection played Real Madrid at the Gal Stadium in Irun in 1965, with Santiago Bernabéu tipping off formalities.
In the Summer of 1979, an invitation was sent to the Football Association of Ireland to arrange a friendly game between a League of Ireland select and the Basque National Team.
After nearly forty years in the wilderness the Euskadi were reborn captained by Iribar the Athletic goalkeeper who had carried the ‘Ikurrina’ nearly three years earlier.
In the ‘Great Week of Bilbao’ August 16th ‘Green’ played ‘Shamrock Blue’ in the Cathedral of football the San Memás. Langara the man who had been captain the last time the Basques played threw the ball in, to the backdrop of a carnival atmosphere.
The full-timers from the homeland were too powerful for their part-time opponents which included a young Ronnie Whelan soon set for stardom at Anfield.
However, on the night controversy reigned, as the Spanish government outlawed the playing of the Basque Anthem ‘Gernikako Abola’ before the game.
This led to representatives of the newly formed Basque regional parliament refusing to sit in the Presidential box, as the Spanish National Anthem was struck up ‘boos’ rang around the stadium.
On the pitch the Basques ran out four-one winners with Athletic’s Dani scoring a brace, he would go on to be part of the clubs back to back titles in 1983 and ’84, Whelan netted for the Ireland Select.
However, afterwards the Irish were treated like royalty, each presented with plaques at a gala dinner hosted by the leader of the regional government Carlos Garaikoetxea Urriza, who oversaw the re-establishment of the Basque language through the education system in the region.
That night the team managed by Billy Young of Bohemians, Dublin were presented with special plaques marking the occasion. Forward Terry Eviston’s plaque is in his Mother’s house in Dublin, while Pat Nolan then of Limerick City has his at home in the Treaty county.
Through their history the teams of Sociedad and Athletic have been well known for their refusal to look outside the region for playing talent.
However, in the late 1980s as Real struggled to keep up with their rivals they reluctantly decided to break with tradition and look abroad.
In 1989 they splashed out £1.5 million for Irish International John Aldridge, the initial welcome was not the friendliest, sprayed on the walls around the Zubieta training ground was ‘Ez da atzerritar ongietorria’ – No foreigners welcome.
With the promise of a T-bone steak for every goal he scored from the local butcher, Aldridge netted forty times in 75 appearances which included a first victory over FC Barcelona at Camp Nou, in essence, Aldridge broke the mould with others following.
Like Ireland the history of the Basque Homeland has been a tale of oppression and a culture of resistance, football has played a part in that resistance.