Welcome to a continuation on the regular series on The 94th Minute, called “Starting XI”. This is where I ask various people, who are fans of football, a number of questions to get to know them better! The first few questions will differ for each person, but the final question will always be:
“Who would be in your all-time, favourite starting XI?”
This is a question where anyone can be put into their starting eleven, whether they are famous footballers, football legends, past or unknown players who had an impact on their childhood, or even players they have played with or coached. Anyone is acceptable in their XI providing they give a reason for their inclusion!
The nineteenth instalment of the series is with the excellent new podcast, The Txoko Pod (pronounced “The Choko Pod“). It is hosted by Dan Parry and Tony Gilfoyle, two football fans who reside in the city of Bilbao, and produce a podcast that focuses on, and talks about, football goings on within the Basque Country or Euskadi (in the Basque language). In our interview, I wanted to know more about football in the Basque country, which has been historically dominated by the duo of Athletic Club (my favourite La Liga club) and Real Sociedad. In addition, which are the best places or grounds to visit in the autonomous region, who are the next players to come from the prosperous Basque cantera, and (of course) the favourite eleven players of the pod.
The latest podcast of The Txoko Podcast can be found below, where they look at match-day 10 in La Liga for the Basque teams, and they do a club profile on Barakaldo CF:
Q. Thanks very much for being involved in Starting XI! Firstly, could you give some details on why you started The Txoko Pod? What are the origins for creating it?
The Txoko Podcast is a joint venture between myself and co-host Tony Gilfoyle. I’ve lived in Bilbao for nearly five years now and I’m a season-ticket holder at Athletic Club. For a while now, I’ve been writing and tweeting about football in the region through my blog: www.thelinesman.org and my Twitter ‘@danparry_’.
Tony got in contact with me through Twitter as he had recently moved to Bilbao and wanted to attend a game at San Mamés with other English-speaking football fans in the city. We began to talk about how there wasn’t an English podcast that looked at Basque football in general. Tony suggested that as he already had some experience producing podcasts (he hosts ‘History Bhoys Abroad‘, a podcast about the history of Celtic) and I had knowledge of football in the area we should do it together. It was an idea that had been at the back of my mind for a while, so I accepted the offer.
Q. What are the main differences between Basque games and Spanish games? Are the atmospheres at games different at all?
The major difference between the Basque Country and most of the rest of Spain is the climate; the Basque Country is incredibly rainy. The average yearly rainfall in Spain is around 650mm, whereas in the Basque Country it’s much higher. In San Sebastián, for example, it can be around 1,500mm per year. As a reference, the average yearly rainfall in Manchester is 929mm.
First of all, this makes the style of football slightly different. Although players are still technically gifted, the weather and an undeniably British influence over the game in the region mean games here can be quite direct. Clubs like SD Eibar and Athletic Club are quite famous for pressing high, playing on the counter and looking to put in crosses for big burly target-men.
The stadiums are also different. You won’t find many of the open coliseum type grounds that are typical in the south of the country. The exception in the top division being Anoeta, but even the stadium’s design has been altered recently. Due to the cold and the rain, grounds tend to have a more British style, they’re closer to the pitch and the stands tend to be covered. They say that this stops sound from escaping and improves the atmosphere.
Q. Where would you say are the best places or grounds to watch football within the Basque Country?
You can’t go wrong at any of the top grounds. San Mamés, Ipurua, Mendizorroza, El Sadar and Anoeta are all special stadiums with unique atmospheres and histories. I’m an Athletic fan and San Mamés played a massive part in endearing me to the club. The pre-match walk up the tight, narrow and bustling Pozas towards the ground, the ‘Athleeeetic’ chants before the anthem, and the way the fans genuinely watch the matches and support the players, all make for a great experience.
Ipurua is also great fun! I went for the first time last season and absolutely loved it. It was mid-winter, cold and wet. I couldn’t feel my fingers! It reminded me of watching football back home. I loved it! The crowd were great too. It said the attendance was around 4,500, but they made an awful lot of noise. If someone had told me 10,000, I would have believed them.
In terms of the lower leagues, I’ve been to pretty much every ground in Bizkaia but I would have to say my two favourites are Urbieta of Gernika Club and Etxezuri of SD Deusto. From the stand in Urbieta you can see out into the national park known as Urdaibai. I was quite struck by having this view of forest-covered and snow topped Basque hills in front of me as I watched a Segunda División B game.
My feelings about Etxezuri are somewhat biased as I’m a season-ticket holder. I live in the neighbourhood and try to attend every game. Objectively, it’s a great local stadium and it also has some stunning views of the hills that surround Bilbao, and of course San Mamés is on view too.
Q. Are there any Basque grounds or places you would love to visit in the near future?
The two notable grounds in Bizkaia I still haven’t been two are: Club Bermeo’s Itxas Gane and Cultural Durango’s Estadio Tabira. So, I’d like to attend them at some point if possible. I’m also keen to see more games in Gipuzkoa. I’ve been told that the grounds of Lagun Onak and SD Beasain are incredible for lower league sides. Unfortunately, as of yet, I haven’t had the chance to go to either as they’re not easy to get to without private transport.
Q. What has been the best game you have watched involving Basque teams or a performance from a Basque player that was memorable for you?
The first game that springs to mind is one I didn’t even attend myself. It was when Athletic Club played Barça in the final of the 2015 Copa del Rey. I’ll never forget the incredible atmosphere in Bilbao that day. I’d only lived here for a few months at that point and I’d been to a couple of games, but that day made me fully realise and appreciate how important football was to this place.
Without exaggeration, every single person I saw that day wore something red and white. Every single balcony had an Athletic Club flag, people walked past strangers and instead of saying ‘Aupa’ (The typical greeting in these parts), they said ‘Aupa Athletic’. It was just mind blowing, the city was so alive. I really hope I get to experience it again. Anyways, I went to the Old Town with a friend to watch the final. The plan was to head to the main square, where there was a giant screen.
It was so crazy and so busy we couldn’t even find a spot with a decent view of this humongous screen! It was like being at a music festival. Me and my friend missed the first 10 minutes looking for a bar where we could actually watch the game because everywhere was packed out. The atmosphere in the city after the game was also amazing, despite the fact we lost. People were out drinking, dancing and having fun.
I asked someone, “Why are you so happy? Athletic lost!” He said finals like that had become generational and deserved to be celebrated, even if Athletic weren’t the winners. That was the day I truly drank the Kool Aid and became an Athletic Club fan. I’d never seen a city live football like that before. It left its mark.
Q. Are there any Basque players who the readers should keep an eye out for this season? Any exciting young players coming through?
Mikel Oyarzabal has been making waves at Real Sociedad for two or three seasons now. He’s developing into a real leader in a talented side; he’s big, strong and technically astute. I wouldn’t be surprised if a bigger club makes La Real a ridiculous offer for him soon. I’ve heard that he’s a highly intelligent person of the pitch too. If I’m not mistaken, he has a degree in Business.
Real Sociedad have an extremely proficient youth system and are always bringing through new players, so no doubt they’ll have someone ready to replace him if he does go. I noticed that Ander Barrenetxea, only 17 years old, has been on the bench for the last couple of games. I haven’t seen him play, but he wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t a bit special, so keep an eye out for him.
At Athletic Club, the young player to look out for is Oihan Sancet. I saw him training with the first team at the beginning of last season and his quality was instantly noticeable. He got injured not long afterwards whilst playing for the reserve side, but he’s come back this season and is on the fringes of the first team; he came on as a sub against Barça. He’s scoring a lot of goals for the B side at the moment and there’s a lot of fans calling for him to be included more often. He’s still only 19 so it will take time, but he looks to be a great prospect.
Q. What would equate a good season for the Basque clubs in La Liga this season?
For SD Eibar, every season they remain in the Primera División is a success. It would be great for the club if they could sneak their way into the Europa League. It’s a long shot but possible.
Alavés are a bigger club, but in a similar position to SD Eibar, the first priority is safety. They tend to do well at home, so how far they go depends on how many points they can pick up on the road, based on current evidence it doesn’t look like it will be many. Hopefully, they’ll maintain their home form and stay up.
There’s a lot of debate as to whether Osasuna should be considered a Basque team due to the legal status of Navarre. Constitutionally, Navarre is a separate Autonomous Community and many fans don’t like being lumped in with the Basque teams. However, the region and the city also has a large population of people who consider themselves Basque and a lot of them support Osasuna. Anyways, in terms of football, they’re newly re-promoted back to La Liga, but they’re unbeaten at home since April 2018 -at the time of writing. They’re in great form at the moment and although safety comes first, they’ll be looking to make a push for top half of the table.
When it comes to Athletic Club and Real Sociedad, the goal is always European qualification. Europa League minimum, if not Champions League. Both clubs have had reasonable starts to the season and look well placed to compete for those sorts of spots. Neither have managed to win a trophy since the early 80’s, despite being two of the historically strongest and most successful clubs in Spain. So, expect them to make a go of it in the Copa del Rey, too.
Q. Would you love to see the Basque national team become a separate team within FIFA? Do you think it will happen one day?
Personally, I think it would be fantastic. The players voted in favour of it in December 2018 and the Basque Football Federation (Euskadiko Futbol Federakundea) are presenting their case to FIFA and UEFA based off the back of said vote. So far, there hasn’t been too much news but no doubt it will be a long process.
However, with the current political climate in Spain, it’s quite a controversial issue and any Spanish government would do their utmost to prevent it from happening.
There might also be some legal issues due to the status of Navarre and the French Basque Country. A great deal of people from those particular areas consider themselves Basque, but they’re not legally part of the Basque Country, in France the Basque Country isn’t even a constitutional entity like in Spain. Would players from those places they be allowed to play for an official national team? What would be the parameters in terms of selection? It’s a tricky situation. If an official side came to be that would be amazing, but I’m not betting on it.
Q. Finally, who would be in your all-time favourite eleven players, and the reasons for your choices?
I’ve set myself some limitations. I’m going to keep it all Basque and I’ll also include at least one player from every club. Basque sides love a 4-4-2, so I’ll stick with that in terms of formation.
Goalkeeper: Raimundo Lezama, Athletic Club
If the Basque football can do anything well, it’s producing goalkeepers. The truth is Raimundo Lezama Pérez in terms of quality or prestige is probably nowhere near the level of some of the other Basque keepers that could go here: Andoni Zubizarreta, José Angel Iribar, Luis Arkonada, to name just a few. But Lezama’s story and influence on the game moved me. That’s why I’ve chosen him above others.
Lezama was a ‘child of war’, a refugee sent to live in Southampton during the Spanish Civil War. He even managed to play some unofficial matches for the South Coast club. When he came back, he was completely different to what Spanish goalkeepers were supposed to be. He would run out with the ball, come out of his box to tackle strikers and launch long throws. He was a sweeper-keeper before people even knew what it was. He was an integral part of a highly successful post-war Athletic Club side. There’s so much more to his amazing story, I would urge readers to look it up.
Left-back: Bixente Lizarazu, Bordeaux, Athletic Club, Bayern Munich
Arguably, he might be the most successful Basque footballer of all time. Certainly, the only one in this side that’s won a World Cup. Although most of his success came outside of the Basque Country, the left-back from the French side of the Basque Country has always demonstrated great pride in his Basque heritage. As a left-back, he is amongst the greatest of all time, he was a remarkable player and definitely belongs in this side.
Centre-back: Inaxio Kortabarria, Real Sociedad
Kortabarria was Real Sociedad’s ‘Captain Fantastic‘ during their time at the top of the domestic game in the early 80’s. A tough, uncompromising central defender who set an example for the players around him. He will also be remembered by some for walking out onto the pitch holding the Basque national flag (The Ikurrina) along with José Angel Iribar in 1976, at a time when public displays of the flag were still illegal.
Centre-back: Antonio Karmona, Alavés, SD Eibar
I’ve been a bit cheeky as Karmona played for Deportivo Alavés and SD Eibar. The centre-back was captain at Alavés when they went on that magnificent UEFA Cup run in 2001. He is still one of the most capped players in the history of Alavés with 260 games.
Right-back: Oscar De Marcos, Alavés, Athletic Club
I wanted to make sure I include someone I’ve seen play! The right-back from Laguardia, Alavá has been a faithful and reliable player at Athletic Club since they signed him from Alavés back in 2009. Playing at both right-back and centre-mid, he had big shoes to fill in the form of Andoni Iraola, but he’s been a vitally important cog in a successful Athletic side over the past decade.
Outside of the pitch, he’s a top human being. For years he was secretly attending hospitals and giving gifts to sick children. He also wrote a book recently about his life as a footballer called ‘Togo’. I’ve heard it’s incredible.
Right midfield: Xabi Prieto, Real Sociedad
This was a difficult one. It was a toss up between Prieto and Athletic Club legend Joseba Etxeberria, but Xabi has just pipped it as he coincided more with my time here. Basque footballers are defined by their loyalty, something which both players showed in buckets (although La Real fans might disagree about Etxeberria when it comes to loyalty).
The dream for most young players is to turn out for their side and none other. It’s all about being a ‘one-club man’. Xabi Prieto epitomises this sense of servitude. When he announced his retirement, he said that he never really wanted to be a footballer, he just wanted to play for Real Sociedad. He was not a bad player either. In his 2nd ever start for the club he came off the bench against Real Madrid and scored a panenka penalty. In spite of all the offers that came his way, and all the hardships he suffered at La Real, Xabi stuck by his hometown club. He made 527 appearances for the Txuriurdin over 15 seasons.
Central midfield: Roberto Torres, Osasuna
In a similar vein to Xabi Prieto, Roberto Torres’ most outstanding quality has been his sense of loyalty. He is already a modern great at Osasuna and it looks like he too will become a ‘one-club man’. For the past decade he’s been a fairly constant figure at the Pamplona-based club. The Rojillos have been going from strength to strength since their promotion back to La Liga and so far Torres has played in a central role in their re-emergence as a force on a national scale.
Central midfield: Jesús María Zamora, Real Sociedad
‘El Gol de Zamora’, the goal that kicked it all off for Basque football in the early 80’s. Zamora was a pivotal figure in the Real Sociedad side that rose to the top of the domestic game in 1980 and ushered in a new period of Basque dominance. From his debut in 1974 till retirement in 1989, he was the man who would pull the strings from the heart of the midfield, the creative force behind a side known for their doggedness and work ethic. Another ‘one-club man’, he turned out for La Real 485 times.
Left midfield: Iker Muniain, Athletic Club
As with all mavericks, Iker has the ability to inspire and frustrate in equal measure. Perhaps, it’s an indication of his phenomenal talent that when he doesn’t show up it can be quite disheartening. But when he does turn it on, oh boy! There probably aren’t many players in the world who can match him in terms of pure talent. At his best he plays in a different stratosphere compared to most of his teammates. But this also comes with a lot of pressure. The high expectations, some behavioural issues and devastating injuries have prevented Iker becoming the great white light many had hoped he would be.
However, in the last couple of seasons, he has matured (even being named as Markel Susaeta’s replacement as captain) and his performances have become more consistent as a result. In this current campaign, Athletic are starved for natural attacking talents and are almost completely reliant upon his mercurial ability. With Aduriz’s powers waning, Muniain is more important to the club than ever. He seems to be one of the only players that is capable of creating something from nothing.
At only 26 years of age, it is sometimes easy to forget that he has at least another 8/9 years at the top, injuries allowing. If Athletic do manage to achieve something magical, no doubt he’ll be at the heart of it.
Forward: Telmo Zarra, Athletic Club
Until Messi and Ronaldo came along, Telmo Zarra was the undisputed king of the Trofeo Pichichi. Zarra was part of a generation of local youngster drafted into an Athletic Club squad decimated by the Civil War. He was the main striker in a golden generation, one of the most successful sides in the club’s history. Over the course of 15 seasons with Los Leones, Zarra scored a whopping 251 goals in 278 games. He won the Pichichi trophy for top scorer in 6 of those campaigns, along with 1 La Liga title and 5 Copas del Rey. Nowadays, the top Spanish scorer in the league is given the Zarra trophy in his honour.
Forward: Aritz Aduriz, Athletic Club
‘The Prince of Bilbao‘, who comes from San Sebastián. When Aduriz came back to Athletic Club in 2012 at the age of 32, many thought that he would walk gently into the night, it was to be one last hurrah before he called it a day. Instead, Aduriz lit a bonfire and told the night to do one. It wasn’t even a one-off, he just seemed to get better and better every season, culminating in the 2015/16 season. A total of 35 goals across all competitions that season saw the 36 year-old called up for the Spanish UEFA Euro 2016 squad. It was absolutely remarkable. There seemed to be a time when he would score every time I went to San Mamés. As a football fan, I’ve been privileged to see him in his prime. There are more memorable moments that I can recount: In my first ever match at San Mamés he scored a last minute header equaliser against Valencia; I witnessed his chipped goal against Real Sociedad and I was there for his volley against Barça.
Time has finally caught up with him and he’ll be retiring and the end of this campaign. But he leaves an Athletic legend, easily the most important player in the club’s modern history. As Marcelo Bielsa (former Athletic Club head coach) is alleged to have said: “Aduriz at his best was better than Batistuta at his best”.
A massive thank you to Dan from The Txoko Pod, for answering my questions on Basque football and being a superb guest on the Starting XI series! I certainly have learnt a lot more information on football within the Basque country from Dan’s answers. I also absolutely loved the all-Basque XI that was chosen, and the reasons behind the picks. I am certainly looking forward to learning more about football in Euskadi from their podcasts in the near future!
To find out more about The Txoko Pod, the links to their excellent podcast and social media accounts can be found below:
To read or catch up on the previous Starting XI episodes, they can all be found at the following link HERE.
If there you have any feedback, comments or suggestions who I should interview next in the series, let me know either below in the comments box, tweet me @The94thMin or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! It would be good to hear what you think about the series, and what have been your favourite episodes so far!