2018 sees the 80th anniversary of the Basque national team who became a Mexican club side on a tour of Europe and Latin America during the Spanish Civil War, as FERGUS DOWD explains.
‘Aldi luzeak, guztia ahaztu’ is a Basque saying meaning ‘With time, all things are forgotten’.
During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 league football was cancelled in the Basque country. Although, in April 1937, a Basque selection was setup known as Euzkadiko selekzioa with the dual goals of raising monies and awareness of the Republican plight during the conflict.
This was a team of Basque ambassadors on foreign lands.
A tour of Europe was organised with games to be played in France, Poland, Russia, Norway and Denmark.
The side included Isidro Langara – probably one of Spain’s greatest strikers and winner of multiple Pichichi awards for top goalscorer and the greatest Basque player of all time.
In the same month, as the Nazi Luftwaffe flew over Guernica causing untold destruction, Euzkadi faced French champions Racing Paris winning 3-0 in the Parc des Princes.
Matches followed throughout May ’37 against Olympique Marseille and Séte and two more games against Racing Paris which saw a draw and a loss for the Basques.
FIFA had banned all their affiliated countries and clubs from playing any Spanish teams during the Civil War. Euzkadi had their first run in with world football’s governing body when the Dutch Federation banned them from playing in Rotterdam following discussions with FIFA.
They did, however, get to play their first national team outside of Spain; Czechoslovakia – runners up in the 1934 World Cup – who beat the Basques 3-2.
On June 19th, as Franco’s forces captured Bilbao, the Basque selection landed in Moscow, Russia; despatching all they came up against. The team lost just one game as they defeated local club sides Lokomotiv Moscow (1–5), Dynamo Moscow twice (1–2) and (4–7), Dinamo Leningrad (2–2), Spartak Moscow (6–2), Dynamo Kiev (1–3), Dinamo Tbilisi (0–2), the Georgian football team (1–3), and finally Dinamo Minsk (1–6).
The Soviet football federation were so desperate to win the final game of the Basques’ tour they invited the best players from different parts of the state to play for Spartak.
By August 1937 the team found themselves in Scandinavia playing Norway and Denmark defeating the Danes 11-1 – the biggest victory on the tour.
Due to the games played, monies had been raised to help fund a hospital in La Rosarie, France which housed Spanish refugees.
Funds raised were also provided towards the plight of the Basque children who were placed on ships bound for the UK and South America – they were known as ‘War Orphans’ and some never saw their parents or homeland again.
Some of the children found refuge at St. Vincent’s Roman Catholic Orphanage in Brunel Terrace in Elswick, Newcastle and were looked after by the nuns of St Vincent’s Convent. Others – like Sabino Barinaga Alberdi, a talented fifteen-year-old player – would land in Southampton on a refugee ship developing his football skills on the south coast of England. Barinaga would return to Spain becoming the first man to score a goal at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for Real Madrid in December 1947.
As the European tour came to an end, the Basque selection were faced with a dilemma as their home country had been captured by Franco and it seemed they could not return.
Euzkadi were given permission by FIFA to play in Mexico and sailed across the Atlantic to Veracruz where they played nine games in total throughout the country.
Mexico was then ruled by President Cardenaz, a pro-Republican, and the country as a whole was supportive of the Republican cause. Today, there is a statue to those Spanish refugees who landed at Veracruz port during the Civil War.
Further games followed in Cuba and one match in Chile as they made their way across the Andes to Argentina. FIFA decided enough was enough and banned Euzkadi from playing any more matches.
Only through the goodwill of the Argentinian people did the team survive.
Euzkadi returned to play in Mexico and Cuba later on in the tour but the team was eventually wound up due to the ongoing tensions with FIFA.
One year on from the original tour and prior to the start of the new Mexican league season, the Basques contacted the Mexican football authorities to see if they could enter a team into the competition. Perhaps surprisingly they agreed and so Club Deportivo Euzkadi was born in 1938.
Whilst in the Mexican league they played twelve games, gained fifteen points and finished second in the standings. They disbanded soon after – a final friendly against Paraguyan side Atletico Corrales their swansong.
Euzkadi never played again until August 16th, 1979 when once more they assumed the name ‘Euskadiko selekzioa’ defeating a League of Ireland team 4-1 in the San Mames stadium during the Great Week of Bilbao.
Isidro Langara was invited as a special guest to kick the friendly game off; as he strolled into the centre of the pitch the hordes of Basques present rose to their feet in honour of the great man.
A fresh-faced teenager named Ronnie Whelan scored the sole goal for the Irish; an up and coming star who was soon to become famous in the red of Liverpool. The Irish team were presented with plaques in honour of the significance of the game by the Basque officials at the post-match dinner, where the wine flowed from the cellars of Los Calaos de Briones.
It’s been a long road and the officialisation of the Basque national football team is sure to see more twists and turns yet.