An evening of Basque bonding
I've been waiting three years for the Basque derby between Real Sociedad and Athletic de Bilbao to be played again. The last time was in Anoeta in San Sebastian, and Athletic won 2-0 with a brace by Andoni Iraola, a player who should really have ended up at Real Sociedad but who decided as a young man to travel west, to the bright lights of Bilbao.
Back then, on the January 28, 2007, it was difficult to believe that for the next three seasons there would be no meetings, but Sociedad went down four months later and Athletic escaped by the skin of their proverbials, on the last game of the season against Levante. It wasn't a great year for Basque football
However, this season's experience has also been a torrid one. My wife decided to surprise us and buy the family flights to visit Rome for the long weekend of December 4 to 9, due to Spain's Constitution Day on the 6th and another fiesta on the 8th. This sounded fine until I realised that it clashed with the visit of Athletic.
Culture or football? The question shall remain unanswered, but in a gesture of kindness that should ensure me a smooth passage through the Pearly Gates, I handed over my two season tickets to Maria from Bilbao, the lady who warranted a mention back in one of September's articles when she kindly invited me over to San Mames for the Barcelona game. She'd even prepared a half-time sandwich for me. Give and thou shall receive, indeed.
However, on Friday last, Spain's Air Traffic Controllers decided to stage a lightning walk-out, something to do with their terrible work conditions and the 300 grand that they earn, on average, the poor souls.
The result was the cancellation of my flight, and no chance of any alternative route to Rome. I was also planning to watch Lazio v Inter, in order to display to the ESPN readership my total ignorance of Italian football, but all were spared the embarrassment by the bringing forward of the game to Friday, December 3, for reasons unknown. So I would have missed that too.
Which is a long-winded way of explaining why I didn't go to Anoeta on Sunday evening, because I had promised Maria, and I am a man of my word. So my son went with her, but I stayed in the hood and watched it in the local bar.
When I explained to my friend the barman that I was not at the stadium because I had given my season ticket to a Bilbao supporter, he laughed briefly, as if I were telling him a joke. When I assured him that it was the truth, he looked at me with an expression somewhere between pain and sorrow. Anyway, it was too late to get a press pass, and in the press area you have to behave yourself, as if you're a neutral. In the bar I could shout and swear like everyone else.
The game was Canal Plus' late 9 o'clock game, proof of the national interest in this colourful fixture. Both sides wear their stripes in the derby, something one sees very rarely these days, particularly when the game is televised for national consumption.
The wonderful thing about this game, and there are few examples of it in world football, is the co-fraternization of the two sets of supporters, despite the differences that exist between the two regions that they represent - Athletic from Vizcaya (Biscay), originally the industrial heart of the Basque lands, and Sociedad from Gipuzcoa, the more service-oriented region with its beaches and its chic.
The two regions make traditional jokes about each other - the Vizcayans are painted (affectionately) as loudmouthed and self-deceiving, and the Gipuzcoans are portrayed as urbanised yokels, with too much money under their mattresses.
There is some truth in the stereotypes, but in the context of football the differences rarely spill over into violence. It's an unspoken law, and despite Real's resentment at Athletic's often overweening sense of their own importance, and their quaint but absurd pretension to be the sole 'flagship' of Basque football - suffer all Basque children to go unto them - the supporters always put on a show of basic affection which is hard to find elsewhere.
Canal Plus has a weekly wandering camera that zooms in on scenes that it feels are resonant of the particular fixture they are covering, and on Sunday night in Anoeta the camera continually picked out rows of seats where the two sets of supporters were mingling side-by-side, each dressed in their respective colours.
One couple, an Athletic supporting youth and his Sociedad girlfriend, were caught snogging on various occasions through the match, and at one point my son Harry appeared in shot, nodding in serious conversation to Maria as if consoling her at the 2-0 scoreline.
Another interesting point to note is that Athletic had more Gipuzcoans playing for them than Vizcayans, interesting proof that their 'Basque only' policy is less romantic than it might appear from the outside. It's all very well to maintain the policy, but at the expense of robbing your neighbours? As you might have gathered, I was rather pleased at the 2-0 scoreline.
The game was also replete with political connotations. At the beginning, the two sides posed around the Ikurriña, the Basque flag. The occasion celebrated the event, 34 years to the day, when the captains of Real and Athletic walked out onto Real's old stadium (Atocha) with the banned flag in hand, two months after Franco's death. It remains a moment of enormous symbolic importance in the Basque Country. In the Madrid-based tabloid Marca's two-page report on Monday morning of the derby, the incident is not even mentioned. Oh well - at least they're consistent.
The game itself was relatively poor in footballing terms, but these games often are. Sociedad won by virtue of a penalty (twice taken) by the excellent Xabi Prieto and an own goal by the young Mikel San Jose. If Prieto continues to play in this vein, it is not inconceivable that he might earn a call-up to the national side. His stop-start style, very much from the Luis Figo textbook, makes him almost impossible to dispossess, and his crossing is better and more consistent that that of Jesus Navas, who up until his injury was looking like the first-choice for Spain's right flank.
Elsewhere, Barcelona stayed on top of the pile, virtue of a 3-0 win away at Osasuna on Saturday night. They turned up late for the kick-off however, due to Pep Guardiola's insistence the day before that the team would only travel by plane to Pamplona, despite the Air Traffic problems already mentioned.
In the end, they travelled by train to Zaragoza and then by coach to Pamplona, in a desperate attempt to avoid having six points docked by the RFEF. This could have happened had the authorities at Osasuna withdrawn their compliance for the game to go ahead - a game that the league authorities had already suggested could be played the next day.
This provoked the ire of the Real Madrid press lobby, whose current thesis is that the league authorities are so in thrall to Barcelona that they grant them anything, whereas poor Real Madrid are never given concessions, and are shunned by their own when FIFA decides to punish them for Amsterdamgate. Poor Madrid eh? Always hard done by.
Talking of injustice, the decision not to pick Spain and Portugal for the 2018 World Cup has, of course, gone down here like a lead balloon. The press, as in England, has called for a reform of FIFA and of the process of picking the hosts. One almost forgets, in all the hullabaloo, that the most important thing is to win the World Cup, not host it, but money speaks as loud as trophies these days.
The decisions to elect Russia and Qatar have their virtues, but they seem outweighed by the dysfunction of the whole messy process. It's hardly rocket science to realise that if you adopt a system of individual, non-accountable secret voting, the process will be susceptible to corruption. And why elect the hosts of 2018 and 2022 at the same time? It seems obvious that decisions made towards the one will condition those made for the other. And so both Spain and England have called for 'reform', without specifying exactly what they mean by that word.
Well for starters, Sepp Blatter said that the world was changing. Ok - sure. But how about changing the world instead? I don't wish to come over like Mother Teresa here, but why not hold the World Cup in Haiti, for example, so that football could actually begin to do some good?
Instead of looking around for rich and powerful countries, and then rewarding them by giving them even more money and power, why not direct the private investment that surrounds a World Cup into a poor country, so that it can begin the process of recovery? Give a country the infrastructure that it needs for the World Cup, but that it needs much more for its own survival. Haiti is just an example. There are plenty of other candidates.
And if we want 'reform', then the only way to bring it about is to elect a much wider judgement platform, in the shape of a multi-lobby committee drawn from all sections of society and chosen from a greater range of countries. This committee would then be charged with seeking consensus on about six criteria - six boxes that the candidate countries for a World Cup would have to tick. The committee's job would be to decide on these criteria, arrive at a consensus, and then invite the candidates to apply. Nobody needs to vote. The whole process would be entirely transparent.
And the criteria? Well - as you know, most of them were ignored anyway by the present committee, since both Russia and Qatar ticked fewer boxes than most of the countries snubbed. But say, for example, that you insisted on some political criteria. Why not? The decisions for hosting have often been politically motivated, but not explicitly.
So why not insist, for example, that the host country have a decent record on human rights, a balanced distribution of wealth, a free press and some sort of political democracy or franchise? Because obviously, given such entirely reasonable criteria, Brazil, Russia and Qatar would have struggled to tick all the boxes. It wouldn't necessarily exclude them from the prize, but they could then be encouraged to fulfil the criteria, although obviously I'm not suggesting (in the case of Qatar) that an Emirate become a western-style democracy overnight.
But the granting of the right to host a World Cup should always be provisional, and subject to conditions. If you grant a country the right to a bonanza in 12 years' time, then you have the right to check, every couple of years, that the qualification criteria are being respected, even initiated.
In short, you use football to change things for the better, and exploit its enormous media power to generate wealth and democracy in poorer countries, instead of patting rich governments on the head for consistently interpreting human rights as if they belonged at the bottom of the page, as an optional clause.