Last weekend it was my privilege (and I do mean privilege) to attend the “Basque Derby”, the La Liga clash between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociadad at Bilbao’s impressively space age San Memes Stadium.
As a football watcher for over half a century, I can with all honesty attest that I have never witnessed an atmosphere or environment quite like it.
The Basques are a proud and noble people; a country within a country (two countries to be precise as three of its seven provinces are in France). They survived the Spanish Inquisition; occupation by Romans, Gauls, Visigoths and others; as well as being bullied by Franco; and have emerged with their culture, language and traditions intact.
Traditions which have bound together supporters of those two major Basque football teams and which surpass club rivalries and establish a kind of unity of purpose.
A striking visual representation of that unity could be found in the many bars around the stadium as supporters of both teams drank together and mingled freely as they thronged the streets for several hours before the curiously late kick off time of ten pm.
There was no escort for visiting Sociadad supporters, no lines of police or stewards – indeed hardly any police presence; and no corralling into one fortified area of the stadium. There was a defined visitors’ section, but there were just as many Sociadad fans dotted liberally around all other parts of the stadium.
There were recitations of Basque poetry; a fan of each team faced each other from opposing penalty areas and sang acapella versions of traditional songs; then as the Athletic players appeared, the whole stadium joined in a rousing version of the Basque “National Anthem”.
Watching with my eldest son (a Bilbao resident) as detached observers, it struck me that this is how top level football matches should be played; with rivalry manifesting itself not with vitriol but with nobility; a greater emphasis on that which unites than that which divides.
As a Burnley supporter, I have become accustomed to my fellow fans and those of Blackburn Rovers hurling threats and insults at each other over the eleven miles which separates the two clubs.
In common with Athletic and Sociadad; Burnley and Blackburn have a shared heritage; we are essentially the same folk; so why has a petty rivalry being allowed to develop to such a point over the years that a meeting of the two clubs requires a massive security operation to keep the two sets of fans apart?
The supporter behaviour I witnessed at San Memes last Friday night would be unthinkable at a Burnley v Blackburn Rovers match, and that is not just sad but tragic.
Why does British football have to be this way? Why can’t fans of Burnley and Blackburn, Liverpool and Manchester United, Newcastle and Sunderland or Arsenal and Tottenham, Celtic and Rangers behave in a civilised and respectful manner to each other, whilst still preserving a passionate loyalty to their own club?
So I for one am taking a stand, I will desist from goading fans of Blackburn Rovers; I will refrain from aiming spite and vitriol in their direction and I will tone down the sarcasm. I vow to become more Basque. Who cares to join me?
A Spanish perspective from the travelling Dave Thornley, a uber Claret on vacation. (TEC).