How a Basque derby brought about the legalisation of the Basque flag

How a Basque derby brought about the legalisation of the Basque flag

The Basque derby held between Real Sociedad and Athletic Club on 5 December 1976 was one of the most memorable in the history of the fixture, but not for the 5-0 drubbing dished out by the side from San Sebastián. No, that Sunday’s derby stays in the memory for the act that took place before kick-off. For that reason, it will always be remembered as ‘The Derby of the Ikurriña’.

It was the brainchild of midfielder Josean de la Hoz Uranga. Uranga was a bit-part player and the Basque derby with rivals Athletic Club de Bilbao should have been of little importance to him given how little he featured in the plans of manager José Antonio Irulegui in that 1976/77 season – he only played three matches during the campaign.

However, Uranga was an ardent Basque nationalist – who would be sentenced to eight years in prison several years later for collaborating with ETA in the kidnapping of a businessman – and with the flag of the Basque Country, the Ikurriña, still banned over a year after dictator Francisco Franco’s death, Uranga was keen to speed up the stagnant process of re-legalising the flag that had been banned since the end of the Spanish Civil War. His team about to play their second home Basque derby since Franco’s death and, in his mind, it was time to act.

His idea was simple. He wanted the players of his beloved Real Sociedad and their rivals Athletic Club to carry an Ikurriña out onto the pitch before kick-off. In theory, at least, it was simple. In practice, it was far more complicated.

The first complication was getting hold of an Ikurriña. With the flag banned, Uranga could hardly waltz into his local shop and purchase one, nor could he request one be specially made for him without drawing unwanted attention. Fortunately, Uranga’s sister Ane Miren was a capable sewist and he asked her to sew him the banned Ikurriña.

Given how high-profile a gesture he was planning with his team captain Inaxio Kortabarria, Uranga could not even tell his sister the intended use of the flag that she was sewing and she would only find out when she listened to the commentary of the derby on the radio several days later. Speaking of the secrecy to Basque TV station Euskal Telebista, she explained: “He asked me to sew an Ikurriña, but nobody would tell me what it was for.” Nevertheless, his sister went to work on manufacturing one of the most famous flags in history.

On the day of the derby, which was being held in Real Sociedad’s old Atocha home in San Sebastián, Uranga hid the flag in his kitbag. His car was even searched by police as he made his way to the stadium, but fortunately for him, and ultimately for the Basque people, they never checked inside his bag.

He was incredibly lucky that the police didn’t discover it since possession of an Ikurriña was even punishable by a prison sentence at the time. Given that Basque terrorists ETA were one of the few groups to defy the law and use the flag, the Ikurriña was seen by the authorities as a de facto symbol of ETA and anyone carrying its red, green and white colours risked being associated with the terrorist group.

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Having successfully made it to the stadium, Uranga handed the contraband over to his captain Kortabarria, the man who would mediate the act of publically displaying the flag before the match.

He sought out the Athletic captain and goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar to ask if the Athletic players would be happy to take part in this gesture. Iribar agreed that the Athletic players would take part, but only if it was a unanimous decision. Iribar would tell Spanish newspaper El País in 2011: “If anyone in the dressing room had said no, for whatever reason, then we would not have done it.” The Real Sociedad captain similarly made sure that all of his teammates were comfortable with what they were about to do.

Not only could players have been frightened by the potential repercussions of such an act, but there may even have been some who disagreed with the principle of the action. As one would expect in two squads of young men, there existed differing political ideologies. Not all were anti-Spain and not all were pro-Spain.

For example, Ángel María Villar, who would go on to serve as the president of the Spanish Football Federation for two decades and oversee Spain’s 2014 World Cup triumph, was a member of the Athletic squad at the time, while the Real captain Kortabarria would go on to renounce his four Spanish national team caps some years later.

Yet the gesture was not intended to be a demonstration of support for Basque nationalism. It was simply going to be a show of support for the legalisation of the Basque Country’s flag, one that had been designed back in 1894 and a symbol that they wanted to reclaim for the Basque people. After a very quick discussion, every single one of the players agreed that they would participate and moments later the two captains led their teams out onto the pitch holding the Ikurriña aloft.

Immediately the crowd knew that something was going on, even before spotting the illegal red, green and white. Although it is now a common pre-game formality and one that is religiously followed to the backing track of dramatic music, back then it was unusual for both teams to march out onto the pitch at the same time.

Then, once the captains placed the Ikurriña in the centre circle for all to see, the atmosphere began to shift even further. Some were confused, some were euphoric and, in some quarters of the stadium, some were anxious at how the authorities might react. Ultimately nothing happened, which actually meant that something seismic had happened.

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That the police in the stadium were tolerating this illegal public brandishing of an Ikurriña was a major step forward for its legalisation. The players had been well aware that their status as footballers, as well as the social and historic status of their respective clubs, would afford them the privileged opportunity to carry out such a gesture. As Real Sociedad’s Roberto López Ufarte would explain in that same 2011 El País interview: “It seemed impossible that they could do something [in response] to two football teams of such renown.”

He was right. The police permitted it.

After the commotion had died down, Uranga – who was not included in the squad for that match but who had helped the two captains carry his sister’s flag onto the pitch – tried to take the flag back to the dressing room. The police finally intervened, but only to quietly confiscate the flag before any trouble could take place. That does not, however, mean that the flag was lost; it can be found today in Real Sociedad’s museum.

The match was then played out and Real Sociedad achieved a historic 5-0 victory, but it was the other piece of history that all in attendance would remember. Even Iribar, the Athletic goalkeeper who had to pick the ball out of the net five times, considers this derby his favourite, precisely because of the Ikurriña gesture carried out before kick-off. Indeed, the reason he remembers the gesture so fondly is because of the chain of events it initiated.

With the Spanish press still under censorship – as it would be until December 1977 – the incident hardly featured in the following morning’s match reports. Mundo Deportivo mentioned the act, but Marca, ABC, La Vanguardia and El País did not mention it in their match reports. Eventually, however, the word spread and the gesture proved to be the catalyst for the eventual legalisation of the Basque flag.

On 16 January 1977, several Basque mayors requested the legalisation of the Ikurriña and, after much lobbying, the central government accepted their request three days later. Then, on the 25th of the month, the flag was raised officially for the first time since wartime at the town hall of Pamplona. Two more years later, the flag was not only permitted, but it became the official flag of the autonomous community of the Basque Country and remains so to this day.

Would all of this have happened had Real Sociedad and Athletic not carried an Ikurriña out before their December 1976 meeting? Probably not, and Iribar agrees. “It was an important step which really helped with the legalisation of the Ikurriña,” he had since said. One can only wonder how long the process would have taken had the players ran out as normal.

By Euan McTear @emctear

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