Basque sport – exploring the region’s identity through its rich sporting heritage

The Basque Country, a fascinating Northern region of Spain, offers a gateway into its rich, proud culture through its participation in numerous sports.

All over the world, sport has a unique ability to bring people together, give them an identity and an avenue for self-expression. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Spain’s Basque region, where sport provides a perfect outlet for locals to reinforce the importance of their Basque identity.

Whether you’re a sports fanatic or culture lover, exploring the Basque Country through its deep connection with sport is an intriguing insight into this Northern Spanish region.

Cover image credit: Josu.Orbe/Creative Commons License

Football: A Basque religion

La Liga stalwarts Athletic Bilbao are the region’s biggest football club. They play at the recently constructed San Mames, a 53,000 capacity stadium located in the heart of the city. Completed in 2013, the impressive modern arena overlooks the Ria del Nervion (Nervion River) and replaced the club’s former home of the same name, in virtually the same location.

Image: San Memes stadium, Bilbao Credit: Ibrahim Mustapha

The original ground, affectionately nicknamed La Catedral, stood proudly for 100 years. Thanks to the raucous atmosphere generated by the passionate, die-hard locals, La Catedral gained a reputation as one of Europe’s most intimidating football grounds. Win, lose or draw, they were known for relentlessly chanting their Basque anthems.

The club’s commitment to maintaining its local identity is highlighted by its long-standing policy of signing only Basque players, players of Basque ancestry or those simply born in the region

Despite not being recognised by FIFA or UEFA, there is also a Basque National team who play their home matches at San Mames, competing solely in friendly matches.

100 kilometres east of Bilbao, an hour’s drive along the Autopista AP-8, is the picturesque coastal city of San Sebastián. Overlooking the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastian is home to the region’s second biggest football club – Real Sociedad. The club recently became more relaxed about welcoming non-Basque players compared with their rivals, mainly due to San Sebastian’s location and emerging reputation as a thriving hub for beach-loving tourists. Real Sociedad’s home matches are played at the Anoeta Stadium, a smaller stadium when compared to La Catedral but with just as lively an atmosphere.

Image: San Sebastián Credit: Botond Horvath

Other prominent clubs include Eibar, who play at the Ipurua Municipal based approximately halfway along the drive between their two more high profile rivals, and Deportivo Alaves, whose Mendizorrotza Stadium is about 45 minutes south of Bilbao in the Basque Country’s own capital Vitoria-Gastiez.

Rugby: The Gentleman’s Game

Biarritz, the most well-known Basque rugby team, is actually based in the French Basque region; meaning the 50km drive from San Sebastian involves crossing the Spain-France border to reach the famous Parc des Sports Aguilera Stadium.

Rugby fans also descended on Bilbao in the Spring of 2018 as San Mames hosted the European Challenge Cup and Champions Cup finals respectively.

Basque Basketball

During basketball season, visitors have the option to watch three top-flight Basque Basketball teams. Bilbao Basket play at the 10,000 seater Bilbao Arena in the easily accessibleMiribilla area of the city. Saski Baskona are based 70km south at the Fernando Buesa Arena in Vitoria-Gastiez, while Gipuzkoa BC play at the Illumbe Arena in San Sebastian.

Cycling Aficionados

Cycling is another popular sport enjoyed in Basque country, with the 6-stage Tour of the Basque Country cycling race held annually in April. The steep climbs along the mountainous route make the event a challenging test of endurance for competitors and a thrilling watch for the audience.

Image: The Tour of the Basque Country Credit: Nuestro Ciclismo

Rural Sports

Rural sports like log-chopping and stone lifting are also popular across the region. The Basques have even managed to export one of their own signature sports to the rest of the world – Basque Pelota.

Similar to squash, Basque Pelota is played in singles or doubles with players hitting a ball against a wall with different types of equipment such as a racquet, a bat or even one’s hand.

The game is popular in Europe and South America and was previously featured in the Olympics. If you fancy seeing it up close, the fast-paced ‘basket’ variation is played at the Fronton Galaretta, just 10km south of San Sebastian in Hernani.

Image: Basque Pelota Credit: Wikipedia

The Basque Country gives travelling sports fans a variety of opportunities to get their sporting fix. But beyond the actual games, attending these events provides a great understanding of how the locals express their passion for their Basque identity through sport.