The French Basque Country: a rugby heartland with world-class footballers

The French Basque Country: a rugby heartland with world-class footballers

As featured on Guardian Sport

The Basque County of Spain is an oft-celebrated component of world football, from Athletic Bilbao and their insistence upon only fielding players from the Basque Country to the sporadic rises of Real Sociedad. Both clubs have won the La Liga title and they were also original members of the inaugural La Liga campaign in 1929, when they were joined by fellow Basque rivals Arenas Club de Getxo and Real Unión as part of a four-strong Basque contingency in what was just a 10-team league.

In Vitoria-Gasteiz there is Alavés, who went from fourth-tier football to Uefa Cup finalists in just over a decade in the 1990s. Heading over to Pamplona, you have another Basque side in the form of Osasuna; despite last season’s relegation to the Segunda División, they have been a regular presence in the Spanish top flight for many years. Finally, SD Eibar are currently enjoying their first ever season in the highest division and are taking this season’s tally of Basque teams in La Liga to three.

Less heralded when it comes to footballing matters is the French Basque country – an area made up of a union of three provinces to the north-east of the traditionally mapped Basque Country. Lower Navarre, Labourd and Soule form a region that is roughly the size of Lancashire, but in footballing terms the French Basque country is nothing like the English county; it is often the epicentre of French player development.

Remarkably, the French Basque country is without a major football club. This is rugby union territory. Biarritz Olympique, as six-time French champions and twice beaten finalists in the Heineken Cup, are one of the country’s leading clubs. Serge Blanco is the club’s president but he has been unable to prevent their steep dip in fortunes. They slipped to relegation from the Top 14 last season just two years after winning the European Challenge Cup, rugby union’s now discontinued equivalent of the Europa League. Biarritz is also home to some world-class surfing tournaments, while the racquet sport of Basque pelota is popular across the entire region.

Just three miles from Biarritz you’ll find Bayonne, where there is a great love of bull-fighting, which plays a large part in the five-day Fêtes de Bayonne festival during early August. Bayonne is also a rugby union town. It is home to Aviron Bayonnais, three-time French champions of the oval ball (although the last of those successes came in 1943).

There is, however, another Aviron Bayonnais, a team that kicks the round ball. They are unremarkable club in so many ways. They have never threatened the upper divisions of the French league system but they have served as a springboard to much bigger things for several players, and for one in particular who went on to the very highest platforms available to a footballer.

Aviron Bayonnais FC play their home games at the 3,500-capacity Stade Didier Deschamps. Deschamps passed through the club’s youth system, spending most of his school years there, before going on to scale all the peaks of club and international football at Marseille and Juventus.

One season at Chelsea brought him an FA Cup winner’s medal, before a final injury-hit campaign spent at Valencia culminated in a fifth Champions League final, where he could only watch on from the bench as an unused substitute as Héctor Cúper’s side lost out in Milan to Bayern Munich in a penalty shoot-out. At international level Deschamps clocked up 103 appearances for Les Bleus and was, of course, the captain when they won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.

Bayonne’s most famous son could do no wrong on the pitch. Many great players, however, fail to take the golden touch they had as a player into their coaching career, but Deschamps has continued to achieve. A French League Cup success in his second season at Monaco was coupled with a title challenge that finished just one point shy of glory. The resultant Champions League campaign in 2003-04 saw Deschamps lead Monaco all the way to the final, the sixth of his career.

Next came a return to Juventus where he dragged the club back from Serie B at the first time of asking after they were demoted from Serie A in 2006 in the wake of Calciopoli. Deschamps then returned to Marseille. In his first season back, he ended the club’s 18-year title drought. He also won a hat-trick of League Cups. Within a week of leaving Marseille he was the new coach of the national side, taking France to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil and earning the chance to lead them to Euro 2016 on home soil.

Bayonne has given football more than just Deschamps. Christian Sarramagna and Félix Lacuesta played their part in AS Saint-Étienne’s domination of French football in the mid-1970s. Sarramagna represented France and played in Saint-Étienne’s defeat to Bayern Munich in the 1976 European Cup final. Lacuesta, often on the fringes at Saint-Étienne, went on to play in the 1978 UEFA Cup final for Bastia and was in the side that won the 1981 French Cup final against his former club. Both players spent time in the Aviron Bayonnais FC youth system, a set-up that is still producing local Basque talent today.

Saint-Étienne have again benefited in the shape of Hugo Lloris’s international understudy Stéphane Ruffier, the goalkeeper arriving from Bayonne via a spell at Monaco. The Agen-born Aymeric Laporte, another player who came through the same youth system and is wanted by several Premier League clubs, has gone on to become only the second French player to appear in the red and white stripes of Athletic Bilbao.

Bixente Lizarazu made history by becoming the first Frenchman to represent Bilbao, spending just one season with the club in 1996-97 before moving on to Bayern Munich. Lizarazu was born in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where the local footballing hero had been the goalkeeper Philippe Bergeroo, who made the squad for France’s successful Euro 84 campaign as host nation, and also went to the World Cup in Mexico in 1986.

Lizarazu was a product of Les Eglantins’ youth set-up and was picked up by Bordeaux, the nearest big club to the French Basque country, a club that Bergeroo also served as a player. Lizarazu’s last act in a Bordeaux shirt was to play in the 1996 UEFA Cup final defeat to Bayern Munich. Within a year Lizarazu was playing for Bayern.

Success after success for both club and country followed his move to Germany. Six Bundesliga titles, five German Cups, one Champions League – which was won in Madrid on the night Deschamps was on the opposing bench for Valencia – and victory at the 2001 World Club Championship made him the first player in history to be a reigning world and European champion at both club and international level, followed on from him playing his part for France in the successes of 1998 and 2000.

Before all of these players were even born, arguably the most gifted French Basque player of all time had played his last game of football. René Petit is regarded by many to have been Real Madrid’s first superstar footballer. Born in Dax in October 1899, to a mother from Madrid and a French father, Petit spent much of his childhood following his father’s work commitments as an engineer, moving back and forth between France and Spain on a regular basis until the family settled on the Spanish side of the Basque border in the town of Irun. From there Petit was sent to Madrid for further schooling and with regular organised football on the curriculum he was soon spotted by the then FC Madrid, the club that, with royal patronage, would later become Real Madrid.

Petit made his first team debut aged just 14 and he is credited with revolutionising the way the game was played in Spain. Prior to the rise of Petit, the Spanish game resembled disorganised chaos, his footballing brain seemingly bringing a new era of calm and beauty to the sport. His ability to interpret what was happening on the pitch from a free role bills him as the country’s first modern footballer. With Madrid, Petit reached the 1916 and 1917 Copa del Rey finals, winning the 1917 final with a virtuoso performance against Arenas Club de Getxo, before walking away from the club to join his hometown side Real Unión in Irun.

A year later Petit was back in the Copa del Rey final, up against Madrid and leading Real Unión to a 2-0 victory. He was young enough to still be playing a decade later when La Liga was launched, claiming two further Copa del Rey winners’ medals during the 1920s. Real Unión were relegated from La Liga in 1932 and have failed to return since. Petit retired from the game a year later. He also played for France at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp.

Aviron Bayonnais FC continue to play in the regionalised amateur levels of the French pyramid. They can be found in the fifth tier of their domestic league but are looking to return to the fourth tier after their most recent relegation in 2012-13. Despite this hope for an upturn in fortunes, they are unlikely to threaten the higher professional divisions, but they can still retain ambitions of unearthing the next French Basque star in the making.

With the dip in fortunes of the region’s rugby teams combined with the looming visage of Euro 2016 on the horizon, the traditionally rugby-centric region might just find its young people leaning a little more towards the round ball rather than the oval one in the coming years. While the French Basque Country has lacked the unity of a collective team, they can call their own at the highest levels of the club game.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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