Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Tue 20 March 2007

The Basque Country: A Short History Lesson

The Basque Country is a paradox whichever way you look at it. It's landscape so plain yet somehow beautifully inspiring, it's people so warm and friendly yet fiercely determined in their struggle for independence. A country that doesn't exist in the eyes of the international community yet populated by people from two countries that do.

The Basque Country is indeed an enigma, but not by choice. Covering an area of approximately 42,000 square kilometres of southern France and northern Spain, its identity and culture have been suppressed by years of ignorance on the part of the French and Spanish governments. Their refusal to grant the Basques full independence shows a lack of understanding of who they are and where they've come from.

The history books show that Basque tribes came to prominence long before Roman times and as their settlements converged, they formed a community which today numbers over three million people.

But any ambitions they may have held to fly the red, white and green flag over their land were soon extinguished. The marauding armies of the French Revolution in the north and a series of civil wars in the south left the Basque Country in disarray.

The Ikurriña (Basque flag)

It meant that towns like Biarritz and Bayonne were swallowed up into the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of France and Bilbao and San Sebastian were consumed by the Biscay region of Spain.

The identity, language and spirit of the Basque people were stifled into a shadow of their former selves. Their future, you might think, looked bleak. Their history and development may have appeared to be all but over, yet the Basque Country is still very much alive and kicking to this day.

The Basques are more determined than ever to hold onto their heritage and their place in modern society is certainly assured thanks to their people who have excelled in art, culture and sports - none more so than in the game of football.

So many recognisable names from today's game come from the Basque Country. Xabi Alonso (Liverpool), Ivan Campo (Bolton), Asier del Horno (Valencia) and Mikel Arteta (Everton) are all Basques. Look further into the past and more great names come to light: Luis Arconada, Joseba Etxeberría, Bixente Lizarazu, Gaizka Mendieta, Andoni Zubizarreta... the list goes on.

Some of the world's best-known clubs are also from the Basque Country. Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Osasuna and Alavés are all regular participants in La Liga with Atheletic Bilbao employing a Basque-only player selection process out of choice.

And the Basque Country isn't without its own national team either. The Euskadi XI has played matches since 1915 and even played in the Mexican League (which they won in 1939) but it's only been since 1979 that they've had more regular outings against opposition from around the world. In their last game back in May 2006, the Basques played hosts to John Toshack's Wales team, losing in the end to a solitary Ryan Giggs goal despite being technically the superior side.

It's therefore such a shame that we fail to see the Basque Country playing in the European Championships or the World Cup alongside the other great teams we've come to admire. They deserve the chance to show us who they are as one people, not as a nation split forcibly into two. By being strong and staying true to their cause, the Basques have shown they have the character needed to thrive in the game of football and beyond.

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