Satisfied with the few photos I had taken, I awkwardly scrambled back down the muddy ground and continued my walk. More media vehicles had parked up at the front side of El Sadar since I had began my tour of one of Spain’s classic grounds, and the queue of expectant fans outside a closed ticket window had grown. Realising I was short of funds, I turned to go find a cash point and walked into the path of an older gentleman.
“Who we playing today?” Alavés I said. “Oh, should be a good one then”.
Club Atlético Osasuna’s sporting achievements are modest. Founded in 1920, Osasuna certainly belongs in La Liga, having spent more seasons in Spain’s top flight (39) than in any other domestic league. However, their distinct lack of silverware is conspicuous when compared to its frequent competitors. Valencia, Sevilla, Deportivo, Espanyol, Athletic, Real Mallorca and Real Sociedad all boast league and cup triumphs that the Navarrese club does not. Infrequent UEFA Champions League outings suggest “big club” status, but Spanish clubs don’t exactly struggle in European competition. The 18,375 capacity El Sadar is tiny compared to La Mestalla, el Benito Villamarin and the Rosaleda, but CA Osasuna is undoubtedly one of the most curious clubs in Spanish Football.
It is one of only 4 professional outfits permitted by the Real Federación Española de Fútbol to operate as public entity owned by members (alongisde Real Madrid CF, FC Barcelona and Athletic Club Bilbao) compared to the private ownership model otherwise mandated in Spanish professional Football. Its inclusion in this select group was based on the club’s “special cultural and nationalistic significance for the ethnic groups from whom they primarily draw support”.
With a few more notes in my pocket, I returned to the ground and joined the festivities. The northern corner of El Sadar has a bar serving drinks to punters on the street. I sipped on a lager and attempted casual conversation with a middle aged visiting Alavés fan wearing a flag across her a back. Noticing food on sale inside the bar and struggling with her dialect, I finished my bev and made my way inside in search of pork sandwiches and another drink. Amid the frayed scarves, signed shirts, aging photos and coloured pendants that are typical of a Football clubhouse were white A4 pages advertising something I had never heard of before. I purchased a glass of it and approached a small group of friends that had caught my attention outside in the sun. I drunkenly raised my glass of syrupy booze and asked “what is this?”
Father and son Jesus and Jesus were extremely receptive to my innocent questions and curiosity. “Patxaran is our national drink! From the Navarre countryside , the sloe berries grow very well there and we make this with it”. This semi-autonomous community of northern Spain stretches from the banks of the Ebro river in the south to the wild lands of the Pyrenees on the French border to the north. Its quaint, medieval capital Pamplona famed for its annual bull-run is located on the sloping hills in the centre of the region, and its townspeople have developed a taste for the rich aperitif from the farmlands to the north. “We sometimes mix it with orange juice. Do you like it?” I returned with a fresh round of my new favourite drink for my new friends and requested Jesus and Jesus’ permission to photograph their traditional berets – a ubiquitous fashion accessory in the Spanish Basqueland.
The Basques are one of Europe’s oldest and most enigmatic peoples, happily speaking a language unrelated to any other in their verdant but steep valleys battered by wind and rain. The pragmatic, opportunistic but proud Basques were historically known for being savvy of a good deal. The Basques usually cooperated with powerful neighbours throughout history, securing self-governance in exchange for accommodation of the political, economic and military interests of the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Bourbons. Thus these lands were often left alone until the 19th century when their rich iron deposits grew in value during the Industrial Revolution. The Basque identity certainly suffered in the age of ideology and under the Franco regime (Picasso’s iconic “Guernica” painting has immortalised the massacre of the Basque spiritual capital at the hands of Nazism), and what we call the “Basque Country” is now torn in two by the French-Spanish border that cuts through it.
Basque culture is now experiencing a renaissance in spite of the international frontier that opposes its existence. The famous Basque-nationalist slogan “4 + 3 + 1” indicates the commitment these people have to their heritage; 3 Basque provinces are located in France, 4 in Spain. Thus, 4 plus 3 makes 1 Basque Land. Of those 4, 3 are located in the administrative region known today as the “Basque Land”. But the final Basque province is the Kingdom of Navarre; a place that is culturally Basque but administratively Basque.
Jesus, Jesus and their family bid me farewell and joined the queue to enter the stadium. “You’ll love it. There is a good atmosphere here, and you’re sitting with Indar Gorri!”. With a full beer still to dispose of, I waited outside a short while longer and people watched. 4 men sharing a cigarette caught my attention. Sorry gents, do you mind me taking a photograph of the scarf?
While not being the largest in terms of membership, the Indar Gorri are one of the more disliked Ultra groups by the Spanish press. Far-left in their orientation, the mainstream media has often claimed their connections to the Basque nationalist terrorist organisation ETA, something I can neither confirm or deny. The group is certainly very active in the scene and its members sympathise with left-wing Basque nationalism – “Indar Gorri” is the Euskera (Basque) term for “Red Force”. These gentlemen were understandably skeptical of me and my camera, but still allowed me to take a few snaps and ask a few questions. “That’s right. Our friendship with Iraultza (Ultra faction of the Deportivo Alavés support) is because of our shared ideology and culture. I know it sounds a bit weird to a foreigner, but the people in Pamplona do see themselves as Basque”.
Navarre was the only “community” of Spain to enjoy a degree of autonomy under Franco, and Navarre remained outside of King Ferdinand II’s regal jurisdiction until 1512 when the kingdom finally acknowledged Castillian rule and “Spain” was complete. The small region has long been one of Spain’s anomalies, and the tedious dynastic struggles of competing aristocracies that frequently used Navarre as a chess piece did not concern the provinces of Vizcaya, Alava and Gipuzkoa (the other 3 Basque provinces). But while the region’s history distinguishes it from these provinces, in the post Franco era the Navarrese are exploring their cultural heritage. “Osasuna” is the Euskera / Basque for “health” or “vitality”, and the consumption of Patxaran and the doing of berets are clear manifestations of the Basque cultural awakening in Pamplona.
I climbed the south stand and took up position behind the vociferous Indar Gorri. Their cousins Alavés were already as good as relegated, and therefore more or less enjoying the day out in friendly territory – I had passed a couple bars within walking distances of the ground that were absolutely packed out in blue and white. A strong number of away fans were making their voices heard inside the away end. The tribunes of El Sadar are steep, exaggerating the grounds size in terms of capacity, but the quality of play that day between two friendly sides left a lot to be desired. A 94th minute winner for the home side more or less condemned Alavés to relegation. It was probably the fair result but the home fans clearly felt some empathy for their guests. After the final whistle, both Indar Gorri and Iraultza stayed to chant “Aaaaaalavés” back and forth between each other.
Outside in the glorious sunshine I bumped into the Alavés fan wearing the flag as a cape I had spoken to earlier at the bar. She callously brushed aside my commiserations. “It doesn’t matter that much. We stay loyal” she said, acknowledging the likelihood of relegation. “And besides, coming to Pamplona is always fun for us”.