In the Basque Country, low applause for the Spanish national football team

Miguel Martínez wasn't quite sure how to react. On 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 following Spain's progress in the European soccer championship, he said, and a business trip would certainly not stand in his way.

He had watched the country's first two matches with his 13-year-old son, at home in Seville. The city, he said, is hit by a strong dose of major tournament fever, a condition that consistently affects all of Europe on a biannual basis. The balconies are decorated with Spanish flags. The streets are full of Spanish shirts. Spain's victories sparked wild celebrations.

As far as Mr. Martínez could tell, however, Bilbao was somewhat immune to it. There were many flags flying from balconies, but they represented Palestine, or Pride, or, more commonly, the Basque Country itself, in the form of the region’s traditional Ikurriña. The Spanish flag flew only on a handful of official buildings.

Mr. Martínez was well aware of why. The Basque Country, a mountainous region pressing against the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees in northern Spain, has long considered itself distinct from the rest of the nation. They have their own language, culture and identity. The Basque struggle for autonomy, even independence, has long and bloody roots.

He therefore wanted to be respectful towards his guests and not cause any offence. When Spain scored early in their third group match, a meeting with Albania, he and his colleagues responded with brief, quiet applause – little more than an exhalation, rather than the joyful abandon they might have shown in Seville.

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

For years, his anxiety would be well placed. Although Spain played its first home match at San Mames, the home stadium of Athletic Club, the local team that fervently supported Bilbao, in 1921, the men's national team had not visited the city since 1967, apparently a admission that it was not safe ground. in the years in which ETA, the Basque separatist group, was active.

In 2014, when it was announced that Bilbao would be a candidate to host several matches at Euro 2020 – including three that were billed as Spain’s “home” games – a prominent Basque politician suggested that such an idea would inevitably end with “tanks in the streets”.

Ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic meant that Bilbao was removed from hosting duties, replaced by Sevilla when the postponed tournament took place.

There was a suspicion that moving the venue to more accessible territory would be a relief for the authorities: after all, Athletic fans are used to mocking the Spanish national anthem. And Andoni Ortuzar, the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party, said during the tournament that he wanted England to win, rather than Spain.

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

The absence of Spanish flags and shirts on the streets of Bilbao would seem to suggest that many others are of the same opinion. “For most of the Basque media, what happens to the Spanish national team is news, but they don't follow it with particular enthusiasm,” said Joseba Agirreazkuenaga, a professor of history of the Basque Country.

(A look at the newsstands the day after Spain's defeat of Albania confirmed this assessment: Spain's national dailies had the victory front and center. Most of their Basque counterparts mentioned it only in passing.)

For Iñaki Álvarez, however, who plays football with his grandchildren in 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 that you wouldn't see anyone in a Spain shirt in Bilbao. Now, there aren't many, but if you do, that's fine. He's much calmer than before.”

The fact that Mr. Martínez, for example, easily found a bar showing the Spain match is proof of this.

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

Now, Mr. Martínez and his colleagues had the choice of half a dozen establishments on Licenciado de Pozo, a street that runs from the city center to San Mames, as well as several others in the historic center.

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

“There is a legacy of the years of horror that we endured that has made the Basque Country very welcoming and tolerant,” he said. “At the same time, there is a digital generation that grew up without ETA's activity, who does not understand why their parents or grandparents want Spain to lose. Now they live in a completely natural way with a double identity: it is very easy for them to think of being both Basque and Spanish.”

But it could also, he admitted, be related to the distinctly Basque character of the current iteration of the Spanish team. The region's two main clubs, Athletic and Real Sociedad, based in San Sebástian, have always provided a considerable number of players for the national team, but this year's crop is particularly rich.

Eight of the 26 players representing Spain in the tournament have roots 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 originally from the neighboring province of La Rioja, but he is Basque in the footballing sense: he spent 11 years of his playing career at Athletic, a club that still features only Basque players. That connection, Mr. Álvarez said, has made it harder for fans not to want at least some parts of the Spanish team to do well this summer.

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

How far this sentiment goes, however, is unclear. Mr. Martínez and his colleagues did not face any disapproval for discreetly celebrating Spain’s goal, but there was no raucous jubilation over the match’s result either. “There are people who want Spain to win, of course,” Mr. Álvarez said. “But maybe it’s more private.”

A few minutes after the end of the Spain-Albania match, which gave Spain qualification to the round of 16 on Sunday, truly raucous applause rang through the old city: the kind of unbridled joy that tends to indicate that someone, somewhere , fell with fever of the most important tournaments.

The epidemic arrived immediately in a bar with a screen tuned to the other game of the evening, Italy's meeting with Croatia. Italy had scored a last-minute equalizer, securing their place in the next round. The group of Italians who had crowded in front of the screens to watch did not hesitate to let everyone know how happy they were.

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